One of the biggest drawbacks to deciding to eat healthier or try a new diet is that somehow, it always feels like you have to sacrifice your social life. “No, I can’t go try the new Italian restaurant,” or “No, sorry I can’t make happy hour today.” We dread telling our friends and co-workers just to avoid the temptation of falling off the wagon.
But deep down, we’re smarter than this. We know it doesn’t have to be like that. Our relationship with the wagon is all wrong. We’re trying to fit into two extremes: either going all in with a new diet or cursing diets before we throw down on a burger and fries.
Holistic chef and cookbook author Laura Lea can relate. She tells me, “When I was living in New York, I had a very restrictive diet. It had nothing to do with the food. The food was a byproduct of wanting to control something in my life because I was really unhappy.” She adds, “I think that’s very common [for women].”
After she began studying holistic health, she hit a fork in the road, and that meant ditching her calories-in-calories-out mentality. “At the end of the day, our best tool is really our own bodies,” she says. “[We need to] focus more on what our body is telling us through actual symptoms.” At the same time, just because you ditch traditional dieting doesn’t mean you can’t strive to eat with a healthy conscience. And just because you eat with a healthy conscience doesn’t mean there’s any shame in indulgence.
Here’s Lea’s advice for striking a balance:
1. Don’t go out feeling starved
These are the moments snacking was made for. If you know you’re going out for drinks and/or dinner with your friends, sneak in a snack beforehand so you don’t arrive ready to devour the entire menu. “One of my favorites is a sliced apple dipped in yogurt,” says Lea. She also suggests a banana with almond butter or carrots with hummus. “You could have a hard boiled egg with salt and pepper if you like things that are a little more savory,” she adds. With a little something in your stomach, you’re less likely overeat and less likely to feel guilty about treating yourself to the flatbread.
2. Look for the trifecta
Fat? Check. Protein? Check. Fiber? Check. If you can find something on the menu with a little bit of all three, you’re feeding your body what it needs to function and function well. Take that as a win, and don’t stress about the side of bread or the sugar in the sauce. “I always tell people to look for the trifecta of fat, fiber and protein in your meals and your snacks to make sure that you stay satiated,” explains Lea.
3. Focus on appetizers
Health benefits aside, this is one of my favorite ways to spend a Friday night: go out, order a few glasses of wine and share several appetizer plates with a group of friends. Sure, there are times when you feel like loading up on plates of Mexican food. But there are also moments when entrées don’t even seem necessary. Bonus: “[Apps] tend to be more vegetable-focused,” says Lea.
4. Indulge mindfully
“[Food] should be our friend and our ally. It’s not something to be afraid of,” says Lea. She also talks about the need to differentiate between guilt and shame. “It’s one thing to be like, ‘Woah, I feel a little guilty because I just ate the burger and fries and I wasn’t even hungry,’ but I think shame is a whole different thing that we really need to get rid of.” She continues, “That’s ‘I’m bad’ as opposed to ‘I did something that wasn’t perfect.'” Forgive yourself for imperfections, enjoy good company and live in the present moment.
5. Ask yourself how you feel
“One of the things I love is the phrase, ‘Every choice is a new chance,’” shares Lea. “It’s so important we recognize that we’re not stuck in the past and we shouldn’t be focusing on the future because we have no control over it. We can just make the next best decision.”
She advises asking yourself how you’re going to feel, which goes back to listening to what your body is telling you. And if you do decide to order the chocolate cake, enjoy it. Don’t use it as an excuse to eat less mindfully for the next three weeks just because you already “slipped.” She says, “It doesn’t make you feel better to keep feeling worse.” Eat cake, enjoy it, and then focus on the next best decision. The reality is, it’s perfectly OK to enjoy a good meal out (dessert and all) and then resume your normal eating habits the next day.
6. Shift your perspective
Lea also tries to stay away from using word likes healthy. Instead, she targets the way people feel. “I would bet most of the questions I get are some variation of ‘is this the right thing to eat?’ And the truth is, I don’t know. ‘Is it working for you?’ is really the question we need to be asking ourselves.” Consider things like your energy levels, your skin and your digestion. What are they telling you?
If you can eat to support those things, say, 80 percent of the time, there’s no reason to start skipping social events because you’re afraid of the food. Show up prepared, make the best decisions you can, and move on the next day.
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