Healthy Eating Isn't As Easy As It Sounds (Here's What To Do About It)

Photo: Marko Milovanović

These days, you don’t need to be a doctor or a dietitian to know what you should be eating. Thanks to books, healthy living websites (like this one!), and heck, even Instagram, most Americans are pretty well-informed about how and what we should be eating.

Given that you’re reading this, for example, I bet you made a green smoothie for breakfast—or maybe brown-bagged a grain bowl for lunch. I bet you know that leafy greens are crazy nutritious and fatty fish are a powerhouse of brain and body benefits. You’ve probably even read an article that describes exactly what top nutritionists, doctors, and other wellness experts eat in a typical day! It can’t get more cut-and-dried than that.

So with all of this information at our fingertips, every last one of us should be walking around, glowing like Gisele, happy with our body weight, and at peace with our dietary choices. Right?

Hardly. We’re still a nation that’s nearly 38 percent obese, with a $66 billion diet industry that’s still going strong. Plus, an informal poll found that 99 percent of the women I know (and probably the men, too) wish they could lose at least 5 or 10 pounds. And I constantly hear my friends and family talk about cleaning up their diets the week after a particularly indulgent weekend. The dilemma is clear: We all know what foods we should be eating, but most of us have a much harder time actually choosing to eat them.

Why it's so hard to eat healthy.

As a health writer and certified health coach, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why so many people are facing this conundrum—and why I struggle with it in my own life. I don’t think the answer is as simple as saying eating healthy is "too difficult," or "too expensive," or "too time-consuming." There are endless convenient options for us these days at grocery stores and restaurants. It’s really quite cheap to load up on bulk produce, beans, and brown rice. And we all have 20 to 30 minutes to whip up a salad or even a pot of soup.

So after years of writing about nutrition and weight loss, I’ve come to realize that healthy eating really is quite easy. Until it isn’t. In other words, healthy eating is easy, until…

  • You go on vacation
  • You have business lunches lined up all week
  • Your office has a ton of tempting (and not exactly nutritious) snacks
  • You have a girls’ night out
  • You child gets sick
  • You get sick
  • You go through a breakup
  • You get a new job
  • You lose your job

You name it, any of these factors can totally wreck your best-laid healthy eating intentions.

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Why healthy eating is easy only in theory.

I’m a perfect example. Although I’m still experimenting with what specific eating style works best for me, I have a general sense of what foods work well for me and which ones don't. And honestly, it should be a piece of cake for me: I’m single, have no kids, and have a flexible work schedule. In theory, I should have all the time in the world to meal prep, pack lunches, and follow a healthy diet. And most of the time, I do.

On a good week, for instance, I’ll grocery shop on Sunday, make a big pot of lentil soup, and prep grains and proteins for a week’s worth of dinners. And guess what? It works! On those weeks, I stick to my eating plan, and I always end up feeling much more levelheaded, healthier, and lighter by the end of the week. But then, life happens. Like when I took a five-day trip to California. I had a blast—but I also went a little overboard on the bread baskets and sides of fries and glasses of wine. In my opinion, that’s fine. You only live once, after all. And life really is too short to skip out on a delicious chunk of crusty bread.

The only problem? My adventure off the healthy-eating bandwagon continued. I got home late on a Sunday night and then jumped into a busy week at work, without any time for meal prep. Gone were the pre-packed lunches and preplanned dinner that had kept me on track the previous week. And it showed: My digestive system got off track, I felt more anxious, and my jeans felt a little snug. One weekend in California is the perfect opportunity to throw out the notion of a "healthy eating plan." Two weeks at home, however, is not.

So what I’m saying is that it’s true: Healthy eating is really pretty easy, in theory. But it’s incredibly hard to put into practice.

The good news about healthy eating.

On the bright side, as I’ve discovered through my writing and health coach training, there are always workarounds for those distractions and obligations. As long as you have a few tricks, tips, general knowledge—and yes, a little self-control up your sleeve—it’s easy to get back on track. Even if you have an insane week with zero free time, for example, you can:

  • Pick up healthy grab-and-go meals from the grocery store or a restaurant.
  • Keep a stash of healthy frozen dinners in the freezer.
  • Have a go-to healthy lunch spot for crazy days.
  • Take a quick walk if doughnuts are staring you down at work; maybe even head to a store to stock up on healthy snacks!

But then there are times you just have to loosen up—when you’re sick, you’re going through a major life crisis, you’re on a well-deserved vacation. You might get off track during those times, and that’s OK. Forgive, forget, and move on. A few days off your routine won’t make or break your healthy-eating dreams.

After my few weeks off, I finally settled back into my healthy routine. One Sunday, I stocked up on groceries for the week and made veggie-heavy meals and lots of nutrient-packed smoothies. I was back to feeling like my normal self after just a few days. And I didn’t let myself feel guilty for getting off track—after all, this whole "healthy eating" thing actually is a lot harder than it sounds.

Want more? Here are 6 lessons that might just change your health forever.

And are you ready to learn more about what anxiety, brain health, and your diet all have in common? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Dr. Mark Hyman.

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