Thursday, 18 December 2014

Eat to a plan

One of my most potent weapons in my fight against refined sugar is to eat to a plan - the same plan every day. The theory is that eating to a plan takes the effort out of sticking to a healthy diet. You don’t have to think about food. You don’t have to decide what to eat next. You don't have to engage at every meal in that exhausting battle between your conscience proposing salad and your desire to ice cream instead.

There are four keys to my eating plan working:

1. Every meal in the plan is delicious

A plan to eat plain lentils with steamed broccoli for dinner would make me vulnerable to temptation. If there is a tasty vegetable curry to look forward to, I’m less susceptible.

Making sure meals are delicious isn’t necessary or desirable for everyone. Some people report being very happy eating plain meals, at least some of the time. Timothy Ferriss’s popular slow-carb diet includes one cheat day a week with as much unhealthy food as you like, but for the rest of the week each meal is a simple combination of eggs or meat with a legume and vegetables. Leo Babauta of Zenhabits has experimented with eating plain food.

2. The plan is easy

If I’m hungry and the alternatives available to me are to spend the next half hour preparing a healthy meal, or to pop a couple of pieces of bread in the toaster and eat peanut butter on toast, then I’m likely to reach for the bread.

To make my plan easy, I prepare a salad for lunch while I eat my breakfast. This means that when I get hungry in the late morning after I’ve been working for a couple of hours, the easiest, quickest way to satisfy my hunger is to eat the salad. I’ve been doing this almost every day for a couple of years now; it’s definitely one of my healthiest habits. If my eating plan goes off the rails after that, at least I’ve had a healthy breakfast and one super-healthy raw-vegetable meal. (Occasionally my plan goes off the rails earlier in the day despite the salad sitting in the fridge.)

Another step I take to make my plan easy is to have pre-made healthy vegetable dinners in the freezer and pantry to fall back on when I don’t have time to cook. My three main fallbacks are:

  1. Vegetable curry or stew, which I cook in large quantities and freeze in single portions.
  2. Chopped vegetables with beans/lentils/chickpeas, brown rice and pesto. If I have the time and energy, I’ll steam-fry fresh vegetables; more often I use frozen vegetables from a packet. The pesto is a vegan pesto that I make with herbs from my garden and freeze in single portions.
  3. Packaged soups. Even selecting only the healthiest I can find at the supermarket, these contain more salt and sugar than I would choose, but they still meet my somewhat arbitrary criteria for a healthy meal eaten once in a while.

3. The plan covers what to do about unhealthy food

Abstain or limit? Limit in what way? What kinds of unhealthy food are a problem? These need to be decided so that having a treat doesn't trigger abandonment of the plan. I haven’t yet worked out the best arrangement for me; I’m still experimenting. I know it suits me best to put off treats till later in the day: the earlier in the day I start eating unhealthy food, the more of it I eat. I don't especially like fast food or takeaways; they aren't a problem for me. I sometimes eat unhealthy quantities of potato chips. My real problem food is refined sugar: ice cream, biscuits, cakes, chocolate, etc.

Gretchen Rubin contends that abstaining is easier than limiting unhealthy food. Some of my happiest and healthiest months in recent years have been (virtually) refined-sugar free, but after a month or so abstaining I start to crave my favourite unhealthy foods.

4. Variety is built into the plan

Like deliciousness, variety isn’t important to everyone. And those of us who like variety seek it in different ways. Leo Babauta describes eating pretty much the same meals almost every day for a period of months, then when he’s had enough he switches to something new and eats that for the next few months.

My dinner meals are all based on vegetables, a legume and a grain, but otherwise they vary: one night might be Mexican-style beans and vegetables on quinoa, another night an Italian-style tomato and vegetable dish with lentils, on brown rice. My plan includes fruit with most meals but I don’t decide in advance what kind of fruit - I eat whatever I feel like at the time.

I don’t like variety in everything. I might as well confess that “raw nuts” in my plan below means precisely one Brazil nut, two almonds, two hazel nuts and four cashews, eaten in that order every time.

My plan

Breakfast Wholegrain rolled oats with soy milk, fruit (boysenberries/kiwifruit/feijoas/strawberries), nuts or seeds (walnuts/almonds/pumpkin seeds), ground linseed, and cinnamon.
Early lunch Salad.
Mid-afternoon tea Raw nuts.
Ryvita crackers topped with hummus, tomato, avocado, cucumber, alfalfa sprouts, and lettuce or spinach.
Dinner Vegetable meal with a legume and grain.
Supper Raw nuts.
Sweet treat if I feel like it.
Slice of toast with hummus/tomato/avocado, or home-made fries baked in a little olive oil.

This is the basic plan. I don’t always need all the meals; often I skip one. Sometimes I swap them around to fit in with outings. Occasionally we eat out. I often drink a smoothie (frozen banana, soy milk, ginger) during my rock climbing workouts. If I go for a run first thing, then I have First Breakfast (tiny serving of porridge with blueberries) before I go, and Second Breakfast when I return (because if I run on an empty stomach I get a stitch).

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