Will the Real Food Please Stand Up, Part II

Transitioning off of processed food

Posted Jan 24, 2014

Last time we talked about the harmful effects of processed foods. If your diet consists of a lot of processed foods, the thought of having to give them up probably scares you. So how do you make the transition from processed foods to whole foods?

1)      Assess whether you’re ready to give up your favorite processed foods. How do you know? If you avoid talking or thinking about it, you’re probably not ready to change. If you’ve made your list of pros and cons and then stopped there, you may not be ready to change. If you’ve gone so far as to make a plan (see step 2) of action for how you’re going to give up processed foods, then you’re ready for change.

2)      Make a plan – so what should this action plan entail? It still requires a pro and con list because you need to understand your motivation for change, the ease of change (pros), as well as potential stumbling blocks to weaning yourself off of processed foods (cons). This may include the fact that you love the taste, pass by a vending machine every day at work, know that your family won’t be supportive, etc. Figuring out how you’re going to overcome those obstacles upfront will help you later on when you’re faced with your favorite processed food product. While you’re at it, contemplate these questions: What do I need in order to accomplish my goal of giving up processed food? Where can I get what I need or is it something I already have? Where can I get support when I need it?

3)      Start slow – quitting processed food cold turkey and then depriving yourself and labeling it as ‘bad’ can set up you for failure. Try a crowding out approach instead. What’s crowding out? It’s adding in healthy stuff to crowd out the less healthy stuff. For example, if you usually have Fettuccine Alfredo for lunch, add a big salad or a side of steamed broccoli to that. Do this at lunch or dinner during the first week of giving up processed food. The second week, add a plant-based whole food side dish to both lunch and dinner. In week 3, replace one processed-food meal each week with whole food meal. Then two, and so on. You get the idea. If you’re ready to dive in and make the switch to whole foods right now, go for it. But often dietary changes are easier to sustain if you start slow. Think turtle, not hare.

4)      Don’t try to be perfect – I advise my clients to use the 80/20 – or 90/10 – rule. If you need to lose a significant amount of weight, you want to work up to eating whole, unprocessed foods 90% of the time. The other 10%? Have that birthday cake. Or a donut. Or a hamburger. Life is meant to be enjoyed! On maintenance mode, aim to “eat right” 80% of the time. After all, sometimes you just need to eat chocolate!

5)      Go easy on yourself – when setting goals (be it weight loss, eating healthier, drinking more water, or going to the gym), it’s important to continually re-evaluate – not to judge yourself, but to assess what’s going well and what’s not. At the end of each week, evaluate your progress. Were you able to add a side salad to one meal a day? If so, great. If not, evaluate what went wrong on the days you didn’t meet this goal. How can you address these issues in the upcoming week? Do you need more support? To pack a lunch to take to work? To close your eyes when you pass by the vending machine? Add these new strategies in as you move forward.

6)      Never give up – sometimes when we ‘slip’ up, we decide to throw in the towel and give up all together. You know what? Life happens. Get back on that horse the next day and ride it. Remember the 80/20 rule? You’re allowed your 20%. That doesn’t mean you need to give up your 80%.

Moral of the story: Go slow, go easy on yourself, and realize that each day is a new day, a new opportunity for growth and change. You can do this! Your body and your health will thank you for it.

About the Author

Mary E. Pritchard, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Boise State University.

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