Photo: Marina Litvinova (Shutterstock)
Most of us can stand to eat healthier (myself included, as I tally up how many meals I’ve had this week involving Nutella), but we often go about it the wrong way. If you find yourself hungry and tired or just constantly falling off the wagon, you might want to check whether you’re making these common mistakes.
By the way, I won’t be discussing the biggest mistake, since we’ve already covered it at length: confusing eating healthy with dieting. Whether you gain or lose weight relates to how much food you are eating, but everybody needs and deserves to get plenty of nutrients and variety in their diet no matter which direction the scale is headed. So let’s assume that you’ve digested that message, and now we’ll take a look at the next two biggies:
Not getting enough protein
Eating enough to stay healthy is important, and eating enough protein is a big part of that. A healthy diet will contain enough protein to help you maintain and repair the cells of your body. If you’re exercising—which you should!—protein will help you recover and grow your muscles. To put some numbers on it, a 200-pound person should be eating at least 72 grams of protein per day just to exist, 108 or more if they do a lot of running or endurance sports, and 120 or more if they lift weights. (You can see the calculations, and more examples, here.)
But when we try to eat healthy, protein often falls by the wayside. Vegetables and whole grains have some protein, but often not enough by themselves. If you’re eating plant-based meals and not paying attention to the protein content, you could easily end up without enough protein in your diet. Same if you are eating small portions and cutting out protein sources that you’re used to: Replacing a burger with a salad often means slashing the protein content of that meal to almost nothing.
When you don’t eat enough protein, you can feel weak and fatigued. You may also be hungrier, have problems with your hair and nails, and you may be more susceptible to some health conditions. You can have trouble gaining muscle in the gym, or if you’re sedentary, you might find yourself losing muscle mass. Muscle loss is a health issue for older people especially, so protein isn’t just for meatheads.
Setting strict rules (that you repeatedly break)
Eating healthy often starts with a plan…and then ends when we fail to execute the plan. All the recipe researching and meal prepping in the world can’t change the fact that you are a human being with needs and wants and taste buds.
Maybe you aim to be some kind of perfect god-like creature who is content with chickpeas and quinoa, who would never dream of touching a bottle of beer or a hot fudge sundae. But that is your aspiration, not your reality. If you restrict things for no reason, you’re going to fall off your plan, then beat yourself up and get back on, and repeat the process. In extreme cases, this can exacerbate a tendency toward eating disorders.
The truth is that our results come from the totality of what we eat and do, not solely from what we do right or solely from what we do wrong. The stricter the rules we try to follow, the shorter a time we’ll be able to follow them. You may feel proud of yourself for doing 75Hard or Whole30, but those ultra-restrictive challenges last for a matter of days—hence the numbers in the names. The “basically pretty good next 50 years” is a lot less catchy, but it’s ultimately what eating healthy actually means.