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Can Self-Kindness Boost Your Healthy Eating Habits?

Experts explain why you shouldn't be so hard on yourself.

If you generally eat healthy, but occasionally experience a weekend filled with one too many sugary treats, do you beat yourself up? Perhaps you’re trying to lose weight but had an off day. Do you unleash a slew of unkind thoughts about yourself?

If so, experts have some advice when “I’ll just never be able to eat right” and “I’m a failure” thoughts take over.

“Being a healthy eater isn’t about obsessing about everything you put into your mouth,” says Aniesa Hanson, LMHC, of Aniesa Hanson Counseling in Tampa, Florida. “It’s about having a kind relationship with yourself and with the food you eat.”

Along with other experts, she provides tips to ward off negative self-talk when it comes to healthy eating habits.

7 Tips to Make Self-Kindness a Part of Your Healthy Eating Plan

1. Know the Power of Your Thoughts

Similar to the phrase “you are what you eat,” Hanson says that people should remember that “you are what you think.” In other words, if you believe you’re a bad eater, she says that that is what you’ll likely be. “If you want to be a ‘healthy eater,’ utilize positive thinking by labeling yourself a ‘healthy eater’ today and lasting change will follow,” she says. “Our thoughts have some serious weight on the actions we take.” Identify as someone who eats healthy foods and over time, she explains, you’ll truly become one.

2. Value Your Self-Worth

Lisa Garcia, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Laconia, New Hampshire who specializes in weight issues and gut health, says that healthy eating is in large part about self-kindness, emphasizing that it’s important to remember that you’re much more than a number on a scale or clothing size. “Your self-worth is so much more than what you eat or what you look like,” she says.

3. Be Honest with Your Specific Needs

Garcia says that when it comes to eating, sometimes the lines between the role of a registered dietitian, nutritionist, and a mental health counselor can blur. “So many people eat for emotional reasons and get wrapped up in food,” she says, adding that she often refers a significant amount of people to a therapist or counselor. “There are a lot of self-image issues that come up,” she says, noting that it’s important to seek the help of the appropriate professional. So be sure to engage in some serious self-reflection; it may be that you need to speak with both an RDN and a mental health counselor, or perhaps just one expert instead of the other. It all depends on your relationship with food and specific goals.

4. Embrace Potholes

Wait, potholes?

What do they have to do with being kind to yourself when it comes to healthy eating? Garcia explains that when you’re driving a car and hit a pothole, you know you can’t “unhit” the hole. It’s the same with eating, she says. “When you do eat something you didn’t intend to,” she says to think of the pothole analogy instead of self-judging. You can’t go back and undo what you ate, but like driving, you can do your best to look forward, be mindful of other bumps in the road, and take steps to reduce the impact.

5. Make Indulgences Worthwhile

“Eating well shouldn't require an all-or-nothing mentality,” says Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in the New York City area. “Drop those feelings of guilt about having a brownie or ice cream – just make sure to indulge in a treat that’s really worth it.” Rather than picking up a pint of a common flavor at the local gas station's convenience store, she suggests walking to the neighborhood ice cream place for a delicious treat of homemade goodness.

6. Don’t Feel Like You Have to be a Master Cook

Most of us are far from those television chefs who have nearly every cooking utensil and type of food (not to mention the time to create some tasty meals) close at hand. And that’s absolutely fine, explains Gorin. “Shortcuts are perfectly OK! In fact, one of my favorite quick, healthy meals is a vegetable and rice bowl that involves multiple shortcuts using microwaveable brown rice, canned beans, and frozen vegetables.” She says the recipe doesn’t require superstar-level kitchen skills, yet it’s nutritious and nourishing. So don’t be hard on yourself thinking healthy meals are something you’re not capable of making.

7. Be Realistic

Sometimes, you might want to dive right in to eating well, but before you tell yourself you’re going to completely eliminate your habit of drinking four sodas daily (as one example), Garcia suggests taking a more realistic approach. Easing into your healthier eating habits is essential, she says.

Set realistic goals. If, for example, you rarely eat breakfast every day, it can be challenging to suddenly shift and say you’re now going to do so. Instead, Garcia encourages people to declare goals based on the SMART acronym: Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-based.

Yes, you may state that you’ll never drink soda again or will eat appropriate portions of vegetables all seven days of the week instead of your usual three, but – at least as you initially start improving your eating habits – is that realistic? It’s important to realize that eating habits and any related weight fluctuations have developed over time, Garcia explains. Therefore, changing your patterns in terms of food shopping and eating can take time.

Keep these tips in mind and reach out to the appropriate professional if you’re considering a change in your diet. Be kind to yourself, think positive thoughts, and enjoy the journey.

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