Welcome to Part Two of the Cutting the Crap series. We’ve covered what processed food means, and why it’s worthwhile to kick the habit. I touched on setting your own personal boundaries as to what’s too processed for you. Today we’ll look into just how to go about this big (or small) shift in habits. The important thing is to take it at your own pace, to choose what’s important to you, and to define your own limits and goals. Ready to end your unhealthy relationship with “edible food-like substances”? Put on your tough pants and take a stand.
When you take a look at what you really eat on a daily basis, it might be overwhelming to think about cutting out all the processed food and making massive lifestyle changes. Don’t be intimidated – like anything, take it one step at a time and go at your own pace. To give you an example, my own eating habits have changed very dramatically – but very slowly – over the last ten years. I first started thinking hard about my food choices as a teenager, and became a vegetarian at 15 (motivated strictly by animal welfare). Later I tried veganism for about a year and a half, and spent several years bouncing back and forth between being a vegetarian, a pescatarian and an omnivore. In college I gained – and then lost – about 15 or 20 pounds. When I lost that weight I started to focus a lot more on health and eating a balanced diet. Throughout my early twenties I’ve learned a lot about nutrition, sustainability, and where our food actually comes from. I started cooking a lot more and leading a healthier lifestyle. These days, I’ve focused a lot more attention on avoiding processed foods, minimizing (not eliminating) my meat consumption, and trying to cut out refined white flours and sugars.
It’s a journey – and it’s funny to think back on eating Spaghettios when I was a 16 year old vegetarian. If I could meet my teenage self, she’d be dismayed that I eat meat now – while 25 year old me would be disgusted at the ramen noodles and teddy grahams she called lunch. Perspective, folks.
Making a drastic change overnight is not only unpleasant, it’s unsustainable. The evolution of what I eat has taken years to reach this point. Taking it all on at once would be ridiculous and nearly guaranteed to fail. In my work in social services, we talk about “meeting people where they are”. I recommend you do the same with your self and your habits. Start where you are now, and set your own pace. Nobody can make these choices or changes for you.
- Prioritize. What do you most want to change: giving up fast food, cooking more often, packing your lunch, eating less sodium, eating more fruits and veggies, ending your sweet tooth? One thing at a time; choose what matters.
- Take it slow. I used to have an epic sweet tooth. I’d put a good 2 tablespoons of sugar in my coffee every morning. When I decided this had to change, I switched to “raw” sugar. Then I reduced how much I used. Then I tried alternatives like maple syrup and stevia. Now, I don’t sweeten my coffee at all. I would have considered this unthinkable 6 months ago, but it only took a couple of weeks to kick the habit. I don’t miss it one bit, but I also doubt cold-turkey would have worked.
- Read the label. Yes, I already said this. I will say it until you hear me. It’s the simplest thing, but it makes all the difference. If you can’t identify it, why would you put it in your mouth?! Do we really need high fructose corn syrup in tomato soup?! If you’re the all-or-nothing type, go through your cabinets and fridge and ditch everything with a scary ingredient list. If that feels too wasteful or extreme, gradually transition and replace those products next time you shop.
- Cook. The best way to understand where your food comes from is to make it yourself. No, you don’t have to milk the cow or pick the apples (though it’s fun!), but if you start with simple, whole foods and a cookbook, you can make anything – and I promise it’s a million times better than any frozen meal or drive through window.
- Replace. You don’t have to give up sweets (or whatever your vice is). I still love chocolate chip cookies. But I bake them from scratch. I use honey instead of sugar in my muffins. Switch from white pasta to whole wheat. Use more herbs and spices instead of over-salting your food. Make your own sweet potato fries. You get the idea.
- DIY. This is a big step, so wait until you’ve tackled your first few priorities. But when you’re ready, there are so many wonderful things you buy off a shelf that you could make yourself. Start with salad dressing. Most bottled varieties are high in sodium, sugar, artificial ingredients and preservatives. Fresh vinaigrette is an easy technique to master and far more delicious, too. When you’re feeling bold, start making vegetable/chicken stock, mayonnaise or even ketchup! Yes, ketchup - once I made my own, I never looked back.
- Skip the Shortcut. It’s a sign of the times: “recipes” everywhere on the internet for shortcut solutions like combining pudding mix and cake mix to make… god knows what sugar bomb… I’ve even seen recipes for using a can of Diet Coke to replace the liquids in a boxed cake mix. I’m sorry y’all: that’s just nasty (yeah, my Southern voice came out for that one). Just stop. Baking is one of life’s simple pleasures. It is just as easy, much more fun, and a whole lot tastier if you do it from scratch. Cake is just flour, sugar, eggs, and butter. Why do you need a box of artificial flavors and creepy stuff like powdered eggs? You don’t. When you make these things from scratch, you save money, learn a new skill, and can take pride in your work. (Plus you can be creative, ie: cinnamon and orange zest brownies!) Best of all: you know exactly what’s in it and where it came from.
I hope one thing is getting through to you from all of this: your eating habits are personal; they are yours and no one else’s. You are the only person who can decide what’s right for you. If you’re not ready to give up processed foods, don’t sweat it: the option will always be there. If it takes you 5 years to gradually transition your diet, know that it will be worth it and you are making a change for the better. If your style is cold-turkey, be bold and go for it! The point is: you are in charge of your life and your health. You make the decisions every day about how you treat your body. You get to choose what, how, and when.
Still stuck? Reluctant? Comment on this post and tell us what’s holding you back. What kind of support do you need? Where could you use some advice? Have a success story? Share it to encourage others.