Eating healthy is human: joys, challenges and 3 things you can do

If you ask a group of people what eating healthy means to them, you will probably get a different answer each time.

For some, healthy eating means curbing the habit of fast food or consuming more fruits and vegetables, while for others it may mean occasionally enjoying a piece of cake without feeling guilty.

Still, those with certain medical conditions and even food allergies can conceptualize the concept of healthy eating in their own unique way.

In short, there is no single correct answer to what healthy eating means.

Healthy eating is human, and as human beings we all have different wants and needs, which inevitably affect our food choices.

What’s more, what healthy eating means to you may even change throughout the different stages of your life as you grow and adapt to your changing needs.

This article explores the human side of healthy eating and I provide my own practical tips to make it easier.

What does healthy eating mean to me?
The definition of healthy eating has changed for me a couple of times in the last few years.

When I was in college, healthy eating consisted of following nutritional guidelines and doing everything by the rules. However, that meant that my view of the food on my plate had changed. I went from seeing foods that I enjoyed to seeing only nutrients.

Suddenly, I went from seeing the traditional Costa Rican gallo pinto, or rice and beans, to seeing complex carbohydrates and plant-based proteins.

Then when I first started practicing as a nutritionist, the notion that a dietitian should look a certain way or fit a specific body type led me to believe that healthy eating meant measuring my food to find out exactly what I was consuming. He would eat whatever he wanted, as long as the nutrients he needed were taken into account.

I gave my body everything it needed to be healthy, but healthy eating goes beyond nutrients. It’s also about how it makes you feel, and since food is an essential part of culture and social events, eating should be something we enjoy.

Today I have a different approach to healthy eating. I am much more flexible with my meals and I understand that balance is key to being nourished and happy with food.

Healthy eating now means that most of the time, I make sure to have foods from all the food groups on my plate without measuring anything or thinking of plant-based protein versus animal-based protein or simple versus complex carbohydrates.

It also means that I can enjoy a little of everything, including sweets, fast food, and desserts, in moderation and without the need to measure or count.

As you can see, finding the balance that worked for me didn’t happen overnight. On the contrary, my definition of healthy eating has changed as I have gone through the different stages of my life.

As long as your goal is to nourish your body and listen to what it needs, you can also give healthy eating your own meaning, because healthy eating is for everyone.

Seeing the big picture
As with many things in life, eating healthy doesn’t always end as planned.

You may find yourself stuck at work late at night or too tired to cook a homemade dinner, and that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t order takeout and enjoy it.

If healthy eating means being flexible with what you eat, you will have to learn to adapt to circumstances, which can happen more often.

In cases where I choose food on the spur of the moment, I try to go for the best option from what they give me. Whenever I can, I try to order the closest thing to a home cooked meal or go for a sandwich, a salad or a plate.

However, sometimes I do feel like some pizza, so I eat and enjoy that too!

At times like this, I remember seeing the big picture. In other words, healthy eating is not defined by individual meals but by the choices we make day after day.

A close friend once told me a saying that says, “A bad meal will not make you sick, just as a good meal will not make you healthy.”

Sometimes it can be a challenge
When you are a dietitian, many people think that eating healthy comes naturally to you. However, we are also human beings and we love desserts and crave food like anyone else.

In my case, one of the biggest challenges I had to face was when I had to give up most carbohydrate-containing foods to control recurring infections.

Carbohydrates are present in many food groups, including grains, starchy vegetables, legumes, fruits, and dairy products. They are also present in processed and sweet foods.

Experts often classify them into two groups based on their fiber content (1):

Whole grains: retain their natural fiber
Refined carbohydrates – are processed to remove fiber and contain added sugar
In theory, you were supposed to cut out refined carbohydrates, which some people would say is the healthiest thing to do.

However, in practice, I ended up giving up all kinds of processed carbohydrates, including whole wheat bread and pasta, along with starchy vegetables, grains, and dairy.

Therefore, the list of carbohydrate-rich foods you could eat was limited to fruits, oatmeal, quinoa, and legumes: lentils, beans, chickpeas, and edamame.

Some people told me that this transition would not be that difficult for me as a dietitian. However, it took me a while to adjust to my new eating pattern, especially when planning snacks to go or eating out.

I learned that organization and creativity are key to managing my nutritional needs.

3 things I do that you could do too
As I mentioned earlier, organization and creativity help me choose the best foods every day. This is because, in my view, healthy eating is a choice we make every time we eat.

For this reason, I try to make the decision-making process as easy as possible when choosing a meal or snack. That way, I can continue to choose what is best for me.

Here are three things I do on a daily or weekly basis that make it easier for me to eat healthy.

Meal preparation
While this may seem like a cliché, preparing my food ahead of time for the week really works.

Cooking can be time consuming, but having food that only needs to be heated and served allows me to have a nutritious meal ready in minutes.

One of my meal prep tips is to cook a batch of protein, usually chicken or other lean meat, that you can portion and freeze for over a week and just defrost when you need it.

I also make sure to prepare vegetables for the week. This way, I don’t think twice about eating some salad or cooking a side of vegetables with every meal.I try to prepare them in different ways to avoid getting bored and choosing not to eat them.

For example, when it comes to carrots or zucchini, I will slice, dice, grate or spiral them, all of which will help me easily incorporate them into my meals.

Keep fruit within easy reach
Keeping my fruit visible reminds me to eat fruit during the day.

Research shows that you are more likely to eat more of the foods that are placed near you, regardless of whether they are fruits or sweets (2, 3Reliable source, 4Reliable source).

I implement this principle every day and choose to have my fruit on display on a table and put away my snacks and sweets.

Follow a routine
While I don’t officially plan a weekly menu, I do have a specific set of dishes that I stick with at every meal.For example, my breakfast options generally include:a Costa Rican classic of gallo pinto and eggs
toast with peanut butter and eggs
oatmeal with fruit
oatmeal pancakesThe bottom line
We are all human beings who are constantly growing and adapting to change, just like our concept of healthy eating.

Here’s how the definition of healthy eating has changed for me over the years, the biggest challenge on my healthy eating journey, and my tips and tricks to make healthy eating easier.

However, my way is definitely not the “right way” – or the only way – to eat healthy. It’s just what works for me, and it may or may not work for you.

Healthy eating is human and looks different for each and every one of us. Consider what you could do in your own routine to set yourself up for success with healthy eating.

If you’re not sure where to start, consider working with a registered dietitian, as they can help you conceptualize a sustainable and nutritious eating plan that is tailored to your specific needs and lifestyle.

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