7 things I had wrong about nutrition

I’m nearing the end of my diploma in nutrition – several months of study crammed in during toddler nap times, after hours and at weekends. Aside from reflecting on the fact that I am a much more diligent student than I ever was at eighteen (who knew reports and essays were much more easily done a little at a time rather than the night before?!), I wanted to reflect on the changes I have made to my own diet since tooling myself up with some actual (albeit basic) science behind what I eat. Here’s some stuff I was getting wrong:

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Believing carbs make me fatter

(No) thanks to the Atkins-inspired frenzy of the early noughties, and latterly my ill-advised time on a low carb/high fat diet courtesy of one popular but unscrupulous personal trainer; I had it firmly ingrained in my psyche that salmon and eggs with spinach instead of toast for breakfast, and avocado with everything was the only route to leanness (ergo happiness of course!). I’d spend my time eating bolognese without the pasta, then seriously slumping mid-afternoon and reaching for a sugary snack (and feeling guilty for it).

It took a brave step to swap in a portion of whole grains at breakfast and lunch time, and put down the peanut butter spoon – but at 4 kcals per gram of carbohydrate  rather than 9 for fat, it’s a logical move for a hungry girl! I’m still a way off the government guidelines of 50% of your daily energy needs coming from carbohydrates (source), just because that’s my preference; but so far the results on increasing my carbohydrate intake (without increasing my overall calorie intake) seem to be more energy throughout the day,  generally more satisfaction from my meals, and a lower likelihood of hitting the cake and sugary snacks and thus blowing the calories out of the water. Add to that the health benefits I’m supposed to be getting from whole grains  and fibrous veggies and  I feel silly not to have done it before. Am I any fatter? Nope.

Aiming for a ‘perfect’ diet

No matter how ‘good’ my week was it would never be good enough. An all or nothing thinker, one taste of chocolate would ‘ruin’ a day and spiral into a binge. I would promise myself a fresh start every Monday (or Thursday after a rewarding gym session) and my efforts to be on point with my diet (under my calorie limit, right on my macros, nary a sniff of a biscuit) would gently peter out after a day or two into “wah I’m rubbish at this good nutrition thing”. What I’ve learnt is that I was trying to hold myself to some abstract perfect diet standard (thanks, Instagram) that I had no hope of sustaining – and therefore feeling successful at.

I love food and flavour too much, and it’s so much more than fuel – any diet that treats it as just a collection of macro and micronutrients to be chewed through is not going to last in my house. Life’s too short not to occasionally enjoy as much as you fancy of something indulgent with your family with arms flying over the table and a nice glass of wine on the side.

The best diet for me is the healthiest one I can sustain. For me that means not forbidding certain less-nutritious foods (then spending all of my time fantasising about them and occasionally binging on them), but finding ways to incorporate them in my diet without over-indulging, balancing them in a diet mostly comprised of good quality meals prepared from fresh produce that I like. Boring, huh?

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Trying to change everything at once

A lot of aiming for that idea of a ‘perfect’ diet set me up for failure, because it involved making so many big (and vague) changes all at once: “eat less, and healthier”. Making small, specific, incremental changes and setting short-term practical goals that are gradually building up into habits has seen much more success. So, step in targets like “make sure to have a source of protein at breakfast”, “make a meal plan for the week every Sunday evening”, “include a portion of wholegrains at lunch time”. In a matter of weeks it added up to a more sustainable, balanced diet.

Measuring progress subjectively, along one axis

“I’m still not back to my pre-pregnancy/wedding/holiday shape!” (delete whinge as appropriate). Or am I? Well maybe I’m not as slim in the arm but it took the annual work health check to flag that huh, hold on, I may be heavier than before – but lean mass? Up. Body fat? Down. Cholesterol levels? Better than ever. Risk of heart disease and diabetes? The lowest it could be. Did I mention I’m happier, with a great work/life balance and I can deadlift double what I could pre-pregnancy? I’m also 5 years older, which means I need to hold myself to different standards.

Setting specific time-bound health/fitness goal(s) that matter to you tied to something measurable is so important – otherwise progress is an endless game of never hitting a mythical target.

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Rarely eating fruit

See point one. Low-carb zealots might quake at the sight of a banana, but not me! I’ve rediscovered the joys of fruit after finding myself craving something sweet after dinner one day and scrounging in the cupboards for something lowish calorie that would hit the spot, when low and behold – the fruit bowl! Huh! Why am I eating artificially sweetened gloop from a tub when I could be getting in another of my 7+ a day for free? Paired with a few nuts to reduce the glycaemic load – spot hit.

Making food choices out of habit

Sweet food after dinner? Check. Falling back on cereal for breakfast? Check. Having a drink on a Friday evening because… Friday? Nut butter from the jar because of a tough day? Check, check. I’m not going to pretend these are habits I’ve broken, but I’ve certainly become much more aware of the habits I’ve accumulated over the years, and that I eat a lot due to reflex or for emotional reasons rather than hunger. More worryingly I can see myself creating the same habits in my daughter, even as I work to address them in myself! (She can’t understand why there’s no fruit or yogurt after breakfast when there is after the other meals – I don’t have a good answer why not) I do at least make pause now when I head for the fridge for pudding to reflect on whether I’m really hungry, and I’m trying to shake things up a little in our weekly menus too. (See my post on alternative toddler breakfasts).

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Eating chia seeds

I love to mock superfood nutritionista nonsense, but let’s be honest, I’ve fallen for my fair share of it in the past too (see also: coconut oil). Or as I like to put it, I’ll try anything once and take inspiration from anywhere. But chia can do one, I’ve given it enough chances: if it’s not tasting like frogspawn it sticks in my braces and adheres through some kind of unholy magick to my entire kitchen-cleaning apparatus.

“Oh but it’s so good for you!” you say? Well yes, it is a good source of minerals, and omega 3s (link); but not if you can’t stomach enough of the little toads-in-waiting to get the benefit. Not to mention it costs a shed load. Bring on the sesame instead – calcium-packed and I’ll happily have lashings in my hummus. The point? No one ingredient is going to make a diet, and why eat something you find unpalatable when there are plenty of other ways to get the nutrients you need? The biggest outcome of my nutrition studies is that I eat more of what I love, less of what I don’t; know why I’m doing it and feel a whole lot less guilt than I did before – I’d call that a success. Now please keep your fingers crossed I am awarded my qualification!

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