You have just started your new life. Healthy eating according to a strict schedule, exercise, and no sweets or snacks at the weekend. Instead, you’re sitting on the sofa with your carrots and tea. You’re feeling good about yourself!

The weeks pass by and it’s not feeling so great anymore. You can’t wait for the diet to end so you can eat normally again. You’re looking longingly at the kids’ sweets and dream about stuffing yourself with crisps. In the end you can’t stop yourself, so you grab a handful. ‘Wow, that tastes great,’ you think, and soon the whole bag is empty. Your guilty conscience comes creeping back with thoughts of failure and everything having been ruined. Now you might as well finish off the kids’ sweets. You’re useless anyway.

The example above is very common. We tend to think that a change in lifestyle towards healthy habits has to be a painful process where all the foods we love must be excluded. Food is divided into ‘good and healthy’ and ‘bad and unhealthy’. If you eat the ‘bad’ food, everything is ruined, and you feel like a failure. If you eat the ‘good’ food, you feel good about yourself.

Does that sound sustainable? Not really.

There is no such thing as healthy and unhealthy food. We need both the food that provides nutrition, energy and building material for the cells in our bodies, and the food that provides nutrition for our souls. In the same way, living off only broccoli is no healthier than living off only chocolate. In the end it’s about how often we eat something, and how much of it we eat. One thing doesn’t necessarily exclude the other.

To sustain your new habits, you need to think about the following:

  • Find habits that you can stick to for the long-term, both when things are going well and when they’re not going so well. If you feel like you need a break from your eating regime, it’s too strict. Find a balance that doesn’t create stress and anxiety. Get rid of thoughts that focus on diets and food schedules.
  • Stop categorising food as good and bad. All foods have a place in a healthy diet. If you ban certain food products they become emotionally charged. In the long run, this can lead to binge eating when an opportunity finally presents itself. Instead, learn to fill the majority of the week’s meals with nutritious food that keeps you satisfied, and then include your favourite things once or twice a week. In that way the anxiety surrounding certain types of food is reduced.
  • Set realistic goals and adjust them when your life demands it. You’re not a robot with superpowers, you’re a human being. Strive for ‘good enough’ rather than perfection. Sometimes we need to pause and lower the demands we make of ourselves, and adjust our goals. Sometimes you may be able to raise the bar and your ambition level. Learn to time things right and always keep moving forward!
  • Do it gradually. Establishing new habits takes time. How long have you had your current habits? Maybe all your life! In that case you need to realise that you have to work actively and have patience while you’re implementing your new habits. But having said that, it’s not impossible. Practise makes perfect. The more often you repeat a habit, the more natural it will feel. Add one new habit at a time rather than focusing on changing everything at once. A good habit has the ability to link up with other good habits without you realising. For example – adding more vegetables to your meals makes you feel fuller, and that in turn reduces your sweet cravings. And that results in you eating fewer sweets.
  • Be kind to yourself. If a meal or a day doesn’t turn out as planned, so what? One meal in a week is nothing in the grand scheme of things. Move on and make different choices at your next meal instead. Nothing is ever ruined! See your habits as a life-long project that doesn’t end on a particular date. With that attitude, there is always time to get back on track, and it reduces the pressure you put on yourself.

By Sanna Carballo Engerdahl