No Rules: My 10 Guidelines for Healthy and Happy Eating
I’ve gotten a lot of requests to write a post on how to lose weight.
I don’t recommend weight loss diets at all. What I do help people with is changing their relationship with food, then establishing some guidelines for healthy eating.
Remember that it can take a long time to make changes to your eating habits and the way you think about food. Many of us are trying to undo decades upon decades of negative core beliefs around our bodies and around food, and this takes time, patience, and work.
Health is a long game. Let’s play it.
There’s no such thing as ‘failure’ in this process. Every path leads to learning, and setbacks can also teach us to slow down, to change course, and to be kinder to ourselves. There’s nothing worse than pushing yourself to adopt new habits because you’re anxious for ‘results.’
Through the years, I’ve changed my entire relationship with food, and with that, have developed these guidelines for myself and for the hundreds of people I’ve counselled (I don’t have a counselling practice anymore, sorry!).
People like me – and I know a lot of you are out there – are especially vulnerable to any sort of rule. We like to do things as outlined, or it’s a fail. With nutrition, that way of thinking never has a happy ending. That’s why I prefer guidelines for eating, not rules.
Guidelines are adjustable. They’re forgiving. They’re meant to GUIDE you, not to ORDER you. You’re looking for balance, and being able to eat in a way that fits your lifestyle and preferences is the most important thing. Without that, the likelihood of sticking with healthy habits for the long term, is very low.
Incorporating these guidelines into your eating habits can help you get the nourishment you need, in the way that works for you. Nourishing body and mind is my focus; not helping you drop the most weight in the shortest amount of time.
That’s not something I’m ever going to offer.
You don’t need to count or track anything.
I know that some of you like to count and track, so do what works for you. But for many people, those things are more triggering than they are helpful.
Calories, servings, carbs, macros, individual almonds…get away from all of that. As soon as you count something, it can easily become a rule.
Some days you’ll eat more food, some days you’ll eat less. That’s normal! Your body doesn’t need the same amount of calories/same macros every day. That’s one of the flaws of those metrics. Beside that, tracking can be crazy-making.
Some days, you’ll eat mostly carbs. Others will be more balanced, with vegetables, proteins, and fats. That’s also normal! It all evens out in the end, and if you get hung up on the fact that you’ve eaten a bagel for breakfast and a sandwich for lunch, you’re devoting energy to something that in the whole scheme of things, doesn’t matter all that much.
Eat at least two large handfuls of vegetables a day.
I honestly try to stuff my diet with plants. We all need as much fibre as possible, not just for regularity, but for gut health and cholesterol, too.
Most days, I’ll have a massive salad for lunch not only because I love it, but also to knock out most of my vegetable servings so I know I’ve gotten them. I enjoy arugula, kale, and romaine, but choose the vegetables you like the best. Frozen ones are fine, so are canned if that’s what you can afford. Plants for everyone! All of the plants!!
At most meals, I choose my vegetables and protein first, then fill my plate around those. But let’s be honest, some days I have a bagel and some cheese and I’m good. I just try to eat vegetables at my next meal, no big deal. I try to be consistent with my diet.
And as far as organic, I never buy it. There is no convincing evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious or safer, and I don’t think they’re worth the money.
Don’t be afraid of fruit.
It really upsets me to see diet doctors and self-proclaimed nutrition ‘experts’ saying that fruit is ‘toxic candy’ or ‘full of sugar.’
Yes, fruit has sugar. But with that natural sweetness comes fibre and antioxidants and enjoyment. Yes, you’re supposed to feel enjoyment with food.
I’ve seen a lot of people recommending that we eat only green apples and berries because they’re the lowest in sugar. That’s a total red flag for me – if you’re that concerned with each gram of sugar in your diet, you should probably readjust your expectations (and unfollow the person who told you to do this).
Eat the fruit you love: bananas (which, by the way, aren’t ‘fattening’ or ‘bad for you,’ grapes, watermelon, all of it. I try to have fruit a couple of times a day. Some days I have more, some days I have less.
Try for 20-25 grams of protein at each meal.
Protein helps us feel full. When we eat protein, the intestines release GLP-1 and CCK, hormones that increase satiety. At the same time, eating protein helps to decrease our levels of neuropeptide Y, which stimulates hunger. It’s like a triple whammy.
It’s not all about satiety, though. Protein is also used by the body for the production of antibodies and enzymes, and as the building block of almost all of our bodily structures.
Make sure that you have a high-quality source of protein at each meal: these include meat, fish, tofu, eggs, and beans.
You have permission to eat anything.
When you tell yourself that you can’t eat X, it creates a scarcity mindset. When you finally allow the forbidden food, you’re more likely to overeat it. Plus, it’s just sh*tty to avoid foods you like.
Once you give yourself permission to eat whatever you want, it takes that scarcity mindset away.
I used to eat what I thought I SHOULD be eating. I’d automatically default to the ‘healthiest’ food in the fridge, even if I wanted something else. and I’d always end up feeling cheated. Having a salad when I really wanted a burger, or pasta, or a pizza, was sad. It was also distracting, and I wasn’t able to enjoy meals with friends the way I should have.
Eventually, this behaviour made me question my motives and how I wanted to live my life. Did I want to spend the rest of my days forcing myself to eat what I didn’t want, and for what outcome? Was it really going to make that much of a difference in my health? Was it worth it?
Spoiler: nope and nope.
Cut down on the booze. Really.
If you’re using alcohol to unwind or to cope with stress (women are more likely to use alcohol as a coping mechanism), please try to find a different outlet.
Alcohol use in women has been steadily increasing, along with alcohol-related illness and deaths. It may also be linked to cancer and heart disease, liver disease and a weakened immune system.
Although it’s nice to have a few drinks, there’s nothing really good physically that comes from it. That’s why I’ve always recommended to drink as little as possible.
And about the polyphenols in red wine being healthy: Sure, but you can get those from grapes, blueberries, and purple cabbage. Don’t drink wine for the antioxidants.
Eat when you’re hungry.
This one can be trickier than it sounds.
We all sometimes eat when we aren’t hungry, and that’s okay! It’s normal to do it, but when it gets to the point where you’re using food as a substitute for something else that you need, then it’s a problem.
If you’re often eating out of habit or emotion, it’s time to ask yourself what you really need. If food is the only tool in your coping toolbox, you’ll need some new, healthier coping mechanisms.
If you’ve been dieting for a long time, you may not be able to tell when you’re hungry. This is normal when you have been following external cues like meal plans and bad advice for years.
It can also be tough to discern hunger from boredom, habit, and emotion.
Using a hunger and fullness scale can help you determine your hunger levels. Even just asking yourself what you really want when you think you might be eating when you aren’t hungry, can be also be helpful.
Understand the difference between full and satisfied.
I used to want to fill my stomach so I wouldn’t feel hungry. I didn’t really care what I had to eat to achieve this – whether it was bowls of raw vegetables or fat-free yogurt, or whatever.
The sensation I had after I ate all of those vegetables? Full.
The sensation I didn’t have? Satisfied.
The difference between full and satisfied is physical versus emotional, and you want to be both after meals. This can help ensure that you won’t be foraging around for something else to eat, and you won’t be continually thinking about food between meals.
It’s also your right to enjoy what you eat…diet culture tells us we shouldn’t, but that’s harmful and wrong.
Will you always be full and satisfied after you eat? No! But it’s helpful to understand that guideline so that the meals you choose will not only be satiating, they’ll also be delicious and emotionally nourishing.
Make the majority of your food.
Like everyone else, we ordered a lot more takeout during the past two years. But in general, I try to make most of my meals. It’s not only less expensive, it also helps me give my body exactly what it needs to feel good. Restaurant food tends to be super salty, and I like more vegetables than what I usually get.
I realize my privilege in this guideline, since many people can’t afford to shop often or take the time to make a lot of their meals themselves. Others aren’t comfortable in the kitchen. Remember that this is a guideline and not a rule, so do your best.
Eat dessert. And enjoy it.
I eat sweets every single day. Why not? My guideline for this is once a day, I’ll choose something sweet, and enjoy the heck out of it.
Sometimes I eat something sweet after lunch, sometimes it’s after dinner. And hey – sometimes, it’s twice a day, but not that often. The point is, that I don’t demonize sugary foods or stop myself from eating them. As you’ve seen from this post, I eat everything. My diet is varied, which I believe most peoples’ diets should be.
This is a good time to mention a very controversial subject: sugar addiction. A lot of people will gravitate to sugary foods when they’re not hungry, so I want to address that here.
While I’m sure that some people do have physiological reactions to sugar, it’s not technically addictive.
I believe that many people who believe they’re addicted to sugar are restricting it, then overeating it as a result. Another possibility is that they are actually just using it as a coping mechanism to get through emotions that they haven’t dealt with.
The consumption of sugar, like any pleasurable experience, releases dopamine in the brain. Dopamine makes us feel great. When we’re depressed, or anxious, or dealing with tough emotions, we naturally look for something quick to make us feel better.
While excessive sugar intake may feel like an addiction, it may actually be a compulsion (read: need versus want) to use sugar for that dopamine hit.
Remember that eating in a way that works for you – that you’re at peace with, that makes you emotionally and physically happy and healthy – is a process.