Clean-Eating Do's and Don'ts for 2016

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Happy New Year! If you want to make 2016 your best year yet, feed your body well to fuel all that ass-kicking you’re going to be doing. Pursuing your passions works up quite an appetite, after all. Once upon a time, January 1st found a lot of folks resolving to lose weight and eat better, but in recent years, “eat clean” has joined the ranks with those NYR classics. I’m going to get this part out of the way early: As a registered dietitian, I hate the term, “clean eating.” I think that, as a diet description, it’s vague and dangerous because it sets up a “clean food vs dirty food” mindset that can pave the road to overly restrictive habits.

That said, I fully support the concept behind it of prioritizing minimally processed, nutrient-dense whole foods that nourish the body. When most of your diet is comprised of foods that do you favors in an amount that meets your basic needs without exceeding them, it leaves a little room for an indulgence now and then. For example, a guilt-free slice of cake on your birthday or a glass of wine on a Friday night dinner with your girls.

Here are some dos and don’ts to help you clean up your diet without succumbing to the Clean-Eating Overthink Monster (*not an actual creature, but a nasty beast, nonetheless).

Do: Set clear goals and guidelines. Ask yourself what you’re hoping to accomplish. Set tangible, measureable markers of what success looks like to you. For example, if you’re looking to eat more vegetables, aim to make them part of your lunch and dinner. Know what your personal barriers are. Maybe you want to integrate more meatless meals, but you’ll hang on to Greek yogurt and cheese. When you look at cutting back on sugar, are you talking about pastries, candy, and sweet coffee drinks, or are you including foods like flavored yogurt, honey, maple syrup, and fruit preserves on that list? Where does dark chocolate fall on your scale of Yes, Please to Heck, No? Or maybe you want to decide on a set number of treats to enjoy per week so you have something to look forward to when scrambling for reasons to bypass stale cookies in the break room.

Don’t: Be unrealistic. Your clean-eating cubicle mate might be kicking coffee and alcohol to the curb, but if the idea of starting your morning with green tea and sticking to club soda at the club sounds miserable, don’t set yourself up for failure by setting a goal that doesn’t resonate with you.

Do: Focus on foods that do you favors. Have an all-star list of go-to foods. Fill your shopping cart with your favorite fruits, veggies, nuts, legumes, and whole grains. Depending on your preference and budget, add some organic dairy products, eggs, fish, and meat. Save the processed snacks and sweet treats for special occasions.

Don’t: Demonize specific foods or fixate on what you can’t eat. Beating yourself up because you ate—OMG—a white potato (!) is not going to do you much good in the long run, especially if food-shame spirals lead to binge-like behavior. Just because you had French toast and bacon at brunch does not mean you have to resign yourself to donuts for dinner because you have FAILED. Your next eating opportunity is a chance to eat something healthy and delicious—how about your fave fish and some roasted veggies or a post-workout green smoothie?

Do: Clean out your kitchen. As you go through the items in your fridge and your cabinets, throw out expired items and any foods you’d rather not eat. For example, if you know ice cream is hard for you to enjoy in moderation, don’t keep it in the house. Having to leave the house for once-in-a-while treats will make them part of a nice experience rather than a nagging temptation.

 Don’t: Forget to restock. Filling your kitchen with delicious, healthy staples from your “foods to encourage” list makes healthy eating so much easier. It also saves you time and money. Adding fresh ingredients to shelf-stable items like oats, beans, and whole grains helps you make a balanced meal in a snap.

Do: Try new things. Look to food blogs, Instagram, and Pinterest for inspiration and have fun experimenting in the kitchen. This is a great way to find new favorites and learn what you like and don’t like.

Don’t: Get caught up in the social media compare-a-thon. Remember: Everybody curates. We all want to present a specific version of ourselves for the world to see, so keep that in mind if a seemingly-perfect post gets your down. If you need a reality-check, consult your crew. Chances are, they struggle with similar Insta-insecurities.

Do: Make a plan for travel and other tricky situations. Stash some nuts and fruit in your carry-on or keep a bar you like in your purse for those times when your stomach’s growling but your options are basically fries or fried chicken. Before you go, you can also scope out grocery stores and restaurants along your way where you find what you need.

Don’t: Freak out if you need to climb off the horse for a few days. If you’re traveling and the nearest juice bar is fifty miles away, make the choices that feel like the best fit for you in that moment. Rather than obsess about “breaking” a diet, enjoy the “once in a while” occasion and know that you can get right back into your usual habits when you return. Part of an overall healthy lifestyle is being able to roll with challenges as they come up. You’ve got this.

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Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN is a Registered Dietitian and writer in New York City. She blogs at Keeping It Real Food.