The No. 1 Mistake Most People Make When It Comes To Healthy Eating
Maybe you’re eating a pretty healthy diet already; you’re all about that morning smoothie and make sure to get a good dose of leafy greens regularly. Or maybe you’re eating a pretty standard diet and looking for a few new ways to make it healthier. To get an energized and healthy body, you don’t need to restrict; you just need to get more mindful. Making your diet more mindful is all about being aware of what you’re consuming, opting for healthy alternatives where possible, and living a little bit greener.
Practicing a mindful diet is pretty simple once you get savvy about a few areas like additives, whole foods, healthier replacements, and new additions. I’ve put together this guide to making more mindful choices accessible for those looking to make both big and small changes to their routine.
Mindful action step: Ditch food additives.
This is the biggie. One surefire way to get healthier is to avoid food additives that can range from preservatives to unnatural colorings to weird-sounding substances that you definitely wouldn’t see outside of a lab. Processed foods (i.e., most packaged foods) generally have additives and are linked to chronic health conditions like heart disease1 and diabetes. A few additives in particular to avoid, according the Cleveland Clinic, are sodium nitrites, sulfites, trans fats, monosodium glutamate, and FD&C yellow No. 5 and No. 6.
I go by one major rule: Only buy foods with ingredients you know and recognize. The best way to avoid additives and overly processed foods is to buy and eat whole foods (as in foods that don’t come from a factory in a colorfully designed package), like fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains and pseudograins (like quinoa), eggs, organic and antibiotic-free meat, and wild-caught seafood.
Mindful action step: Prepare a minimum of three whole-food-based meals a week.
Preparing your own food requires you to be mindful. Cooking with whole foods can have a big impact on how you think about food and eating. In tandem with shopping for these foods, these two things can have a profound impact on your health. It doesn’t have to be complicated, and you don’t have to be a talented chef—in fact, simple preparations are some of the best.
One of the best ways to get in touch with the food you’re buying and eating is to buy it from the people who grew it. Farmers markets are a great way to learn about what’s in season and even how to prepare it (if you ask the farmer, I bet they’ll give you some pointers!). Another topic to bring up with your farmers is whether the food is organically grown. In addition to being locally grown—which often means more nutrients, as the nutritional integrity dissipates after food has been picked—food at farmers markets is often organically farmed, but the farms themselves aren’t officially organically certified.
Organic food is food that is grown or raised without pesticides or harsh chemicals. While studies on the benefits of organic food haven’t reached definitive status, we do know that eating organic food can provide more nutrients2 to the body.
Organic food is also naturally non-GMO (or genetically modified organisms), meaning its structural DNA that evolved to work with our bodies wasn’t tampered with. GMOs are foods that are altered through science to make them grow more efficiently, but with these modifications, the nutrients may be compromised.
I understand buying organic can sometimes be more expensive than buying conventional, but the good news is, you don’t have to buy everything organic. Look to the Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen lists to determine which foods you can get away with buying conventionally without worrying that you’re taking on too many chemicals.
Cooking and preparing meals with these foods can be as simple as a smoothie or a salad; don’t make it hard on yourself, especially if you’re just starting out.
Mindful action step: Observe your eating habits for how much sugar you're consuming on a daily basis.
We often don’t realize that we’re eating and drinking waaay more sugar than we think. Sugar can be inflammatory in large doses, and while a little bit of sugar daily is natural, it’s a great idea to get most of your sugar from natural (minimally processed) sources. If you’re just looking for a little sweetness in your morning coffee, there are a ton of great alternative ingredients, with sugar-free sweeteners like stevia and monk fruit sugar becoming far easier to find (here's a full guide to sugar-free sweeteners).
Stevia is an herb that’s significantly sweeter than sugar but doesn’t spike blood sugar like sugar and artificial sweeteners do. The issue with stevia is many varieties available are extremely processed, so it’s best to opt for it in plant form, dried, or as a tincture.
Monk fruit sugar, like stevia, comes from a plant and is naturally much sweeter than regular cane sugar without messing with your blood sugar or adding empty calories. Monk fruit sugar is purportedly high in antioxidants and is anti-inflammatory as well.
If you’re looking to use fruit for natural sweetness, dates and bananas are great for sweetening dishes while still providing healthy ingredients that benefit the body. In addition to the natural fiber they bring, sweetening with fruit also provides essential vitamins and minerals like potassium and magnesium.
Mindful action step: Pay attention to how your body feels when you have dairy.
It’s true that many people are dairy intolerant. If you find that your stomach is upset or constipated, or your skin breaks out after having dairy, you might want to explore reducing your intake and see how you feel. It’s easy to find high-quality alternatives to butter, milk, and cream—if you know what to look for.
Unrefined coconut oil is a great alternative to butter for baking. You can also use olive oil, ghee (clarified butter that doesn’t contain lactose or casein), or avocado oil for everyday cooking and sauteing. Try to opt for organic versions where you can. If you’re looking for milk alternatives, consider coconut, hemp, and almond milks—again, being aware of any weird-sounding additives. You can easily make your own plant-based milks, too.
Mindful action step: If you eat a lot of wheat-based foods, try eliminating them or finding alternatives for a couple of weeks and see if you feel a shift.
While there are plenty of gluten-free products on the market, many aren’t automatically healthy, so as usual, ingredients are something to be conscious of. Or better yet, opt for great healthier replacements to gluten-free foods like oats, buckwheat, quinoa, sweet potatoes, and brown or black rice to get your carb fix.
Other options that aren’t necessarily gluten-free but are much less processed and easier to digest are real (as in naturally fermented) sourdough or sprouted bread.
Mindful action step: Eat a super green food with every meal for a week and see how you feel.
While you can elevate your normal greens consumption with concentrated green superfood powders like spirulina and chlorella, don’t forget the original super green foods that are affordable and easily accessible like:
- Brussels sprouts
- Mustard greens
- Collard greens
- Swiss chard
There are tons of ways to incorporate these veggies into every meal—here are a few easy ideas.
Mindful action step: Get intuitive about eating.
The practice of listening to your body and eating intuitively, is possibly the most important piece of this mindful diet equation. It’s about listening to your body’s hunger cues—so eating when you’re actually hungry and stopping when you’re full. This sounds simple but can actually be quite challenging when you’ve become disconnected from your body. Becoming more aware of how your body feels before, during, and after mealtimes can reinforce this important connection. Get more mindful at breakfast, lunch, and dinner by:
- Removing any screens from the table (hard, I know)
- Eating without any other distractions
- Focusing on chewing your food
- Putting your fork down in between bites
- Taking a deep breath in between bites
- Reminding yourself there will be more food later if you’re hungry
Mindful action step: Look to live green outside of the kitchen.
Once you start eating in a more mindful way, you’ll find it sneaking into other areas of your life. You might want to explore more organic and nontoxic cleaning products, cooking tools, and beauty brands. Things like parabens, BPA plastic, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) found in aluminum and Teflon cooking pans, phthalates, petrochemicals, and many more are found in so many everyday products, but being aware of the dangers and actively avoiding them where you can is a great way to get mindful.
But this can also be overwhelming, especially if you realize the majority of products you’ve been using contain chemicals you’re looking to avoid. To make things easier, here are a few tips:
- Pick two or three things you use the most and find a replacement you like for those.
- Don’t stress about replacing everything at once. When a product runs out, get a new nontoxic version.
- Find a trusted resource. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is an independent party that reviews products and rates them on their safety levels for you and the environment.
- Seek advice on brands by doing a little research from other consumers before you buy. While nontoxic products are better for you, some might not work as well, so see what others have to say before you spend the money. Amazon is great for this.
Mindful action step: Find a simple meditation or mindfulness practice that works for you.
Meditation is great, but simply taking a walk without any distractions, stretching for five minutes, or turning on some music and dancing are all great ways to bring your mind back to your body—which can do wonders for cultivating a more mindful lifestyle. It might seem counterintuitive that getting out of your head can make you more focused and mindful, but it works.
The idea of having a mindful diet is a holistic experience, but luckily it has a snowball effect in that once you make one change, the rest follows. Pick one change or action step that jumps out at you the most and start there. It’s important to not get overwhelmed—think of it as an ongoing process that will ultimately pay you back with improved health and a stronger mind-body connection.
Leah Vanderveldt is an author living in Brooklyn, New York. She received her bachelor’s in communications and media from Fordham University, and is certified in culinary nutrition from the Natural Gourmet Institute. She is the author of two cookbooks: The New Nourishing and The New Porridge.
Vanderveldt is a former food editor at mindbodygreen and has previously worked for Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Australian Home Beautiful.