Mindset shifts to make healthy eating easier

Mindset shifts to make healthy eating easier

Your mindset and beliefs are powerful. Your thoughts affect every decision you make and action you take, including those related to your health.

“Our beliefs surrounding food and health can affect how we feel about ourselves and our ability to make healthy behavior changes,” says Jeanice Skousen, MDA, RDN, LD, a dietitian at Piedmont Athens Regional.

The fear of making healthy lifestyle changes

“It can be scary to make changes and easier to stick with current habits,” says Skousen. “Many of us avoid making changes because if we don’t try, we can’t fail.”

This can be compounded by a history of “failed” diets, she says.

“We view not sticking to a diet as a failure, but maybe the diet was too restrictive to sustain,” she says.

Many diets don’t address the important mindset shifts that need to occur for lasting weight loss and health.

“Many trendy diets don’t expect you to think differently,” says Skousen. “They demand radical change in your eating habits without changing how you view your habits. A shift in your mindset can boost your confidence, making healthy lifestyle changes more attainable.”

Common unhelpful mindsets about food

One prevalent unhelpful mindset is viewing food and health as “black and white,” says Skousen. 

“This all-or-nothing thinking leads us to categorize foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’” she explains. “This can affect how we feel about ourselves and our relationship with food. It can also lead to perfectionistic thinking where we get discouraged if we don’t adhere perfectly to lifestyle changes.”

For example, if you eat what you believe to be a “bad” food, you may feel shame, guilt or a sense of failure. This may lead you to overeat since “you ruined your diet anyway.” You may promise that you’ll start again tomorrow. Or you may overexercise or restrict other meals to compensate or punish yourself for eating the “bad” food.

“If we tell ourselves we can’t or shouldn’t have something, it can lead to intense feelings of deprivation that build to intense cravings and then lead to bingeing,” she says. “Give yourself unconditional permission to eat what you enjoy. Eventually, you won’t be tempted to overeat because you know you don’t have to ‘start again tomorrow.’”

Recognize the value in all foods

Instead of categorizing food as “good” or “bad,” Skousen recommends recognizing that all foods have value and a place in your diet (unless, for example, you have a food allergy).

“Vegetables and fruits give us nutrients, whole grains give us fiber, and cookies bring us pleasure and energy,” she says.

Skousen recommends finding a mindset that’s sustainable and practical for you.

“Never eating ice cream again isn’t practical for many of us,” she says.

Give yourself permission to eat what you want

If you’ve had a habit of food deprivation, giving yourself unconditional permission to eat what you want may be hard at first.

“You may experience old thoughts that say, ‘I need to eat these cookies now while I still can,’” says Skousen. “Instead, what if you tell yourself that you can have another cookie later if you want one? Then that urge to overeat may not be as strong.”

Healthy lifestyle changes: Growth mindset vs. a fixed mindset

Long-term healthy changes don’t happen overnight. Having a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset can help you reach your big goals even as you experience obstacles.

“When you have a fixed mindset, you may view your capabilities as fixed traits that can’t change—either you’re good at something or you’re not,” she says. “Instead, we want to foster a growth mindset where we can view setbacks in a nonjudgmental way, not as failures, but as challenges to learn and grow from.”

Approach challenges with curiosity. Ask yourself:

  • Why didn’t this diet or lifestyle change work for me?

  • How can I change my thoughts, attitudes and beliefs to match my body’s needs?

  • How can I focus on the process, not the outcomes?

“Changing your mindset and achieving your health goals takes time and practice,” says Skousen. “Lasting change requires baby steps in the right direction.”

Practical tips for changing your mindset

Here are a few practical ways to begin shifting your mindset:

Set SMART goals. If you have a big end goal, choose mini-goals to help you get there. These goals should be “SMART:” specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. Here are some examples:

  • Eat four servings of vegetables for five days this week.

  • Go to bed an hour earlier each night if sleep deprivation leads to cravings.

  • Walk for 30 minutes during your lunch break five days this week.

  • Cook at home five nights this week.

“When you set and achieve smaller goals, it increases your confidence and helps you see yourself as capable of making changes,” says Skousen.

Give yourself grace if you fall back into old habits. Lifestyle changes are rarely perfect. Leave room for obstacles, like an illness or family emergency.

“I encourage you to view your goals as flexible,” she says. “Your diet and health routines should fit your lifestyle. Reevaluate your goals and change them as needed.”

Give yourself visual reminders. “Place a note on your phone or mirror that reminds you that consistency, self-compassion and flexibility will lead to success faster than demanding perfection,” says Skousen.

Celebrate successes along the way. Recognize your wins along the way, such as having more energy or confidence.

“If you value learning experiences along the way, instead of just focusing on the end result, it can help you stick with your plan,” she says.

Keep a food and feelings journal. Throughout the day, write down what you eat as well as your feelings and emotions surrounding the food. Maybe you find yourself tired or bored at 3 p.m., so you reach for a bag of chips. Or perhaps you want a sweet treat at the end of a long day.

If you notice that you frequently eat when you’re not hungry, look at your underlying emotions.

“Once you identify those feelings, it’s easier to address them and make changes from there,” says Skousen.

Avoid the comparison trap. “I encourage my clients not to compare themselves to others,” she says. “All of our bodies are different. What works for one individual may not work for you.”

Meet with a pro. If you’d like extra support, schedule an appointment with a dietitian or your primary care provider who can connect you with a nutrition expert.

“A registered dietitian can help you make a health plan based on your medical history, lifestyle and relationship with food and health,” says Skousen. “They can help you look at health objectively and find ways to cultivate a healthier growth mindset.”

Check out more nutrition tips from Cancer Wellness experts.


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