How to Quit Dieting and Live Your Healthiest Life
Updated: Jun 2, 2020
This is not an article about how to lose weight. I’m not going to tell you the secret fad diet that will change your life or debate the benefits of HIIT workouts or encourage you to join Peloton.
My primary goal isn’t getting you bikini-ready for summer or teaching you how to highlight your assets and downplay your “flaws.”
In fact, I’m not even a doctor, or a health guru, or a fit-fluencer, so you can take this with a grain of salt. But in this past year, I decided to focus on long-term healthy living and it has yielded better results than any diet.
While my fitness journey used to focus on how I looked on the outside, personal health challenges forced me to focus on how my body was functioning on the inside. So, like it does for so many people, my personal health journey actually arose out of necessity.
Over the past year, I have developed some personal behaviors that have helped me live my healthiest life. I’m hoping some of these actionable goals might help you do the same.
Living a healthy lifestyle to combat chronic illness
If you follow me on Instagram, you may know a few things about me—I love to travel, I work at Disney, I’m currently pregnant, and I’m “into” “fitness.”
I always considered myself a “healthy” person because I worked out a lot and was privileged to be traditionally “thin.” But it wasn’t until I sat doubled over in pain in a small village in Morocco that I realized something was not right—and no number of burpees was going to make me better.
According to the National Health Council, almost half of American adults live with a chronic illness. Most chronic illnesses are attributed to unhealthy behaviors and sedentary lifestyle and they are far more prevalent in developed nations, where we rely on convenient packaged foods and spend most of our time sitting at desks.
In mid-2019, I finally decided to go through a series of medical procedures to determine what was causing my bouts of debilitating pain, persistent nausea, and fatigue. I was losing weight, but I felt far from healthy. The doctor confirmed what I had already deduced—I had early stage Chrohn’s Disease.
(This may be a photo of me at my thinnest--I had lost almost 15 pounds since my constant nausea robbed me of any desire to eat.)
Chrohn’s is a chronic inflammatory disease that causes inflammation of the entire intestinal tract. My symptoms comprise the mild end of the spectrum—on the severe end, it can cause ulcers, require removal of damaged parts of the intestines, and lead to cancer. Less than one million Americans suffer from this illness, which means research on treatment is still limited and the drugs available for treatment are still untested for long-term side effects.
I was distraught with my diagnosis. I did not want to have a chronic disease and I certainly didn’t want it to progress to a moderate or severe case. But I also didn’t want to resort to injectable drugs for the rest of my life.
So I decided it was time to make additional lifestyle changes to achieve remission on my own. When I thought about my health over the course of my entire life, my objective became focused on reducing inflammation, eliminating chronic illness, and providing my body the best chance to prevent disease from advancing. I want to continue to comfortably travel the world for the rest of my life.
(Traveling in Turkey at the end of 2019, after achieving temporary remission through dietary and behavioral changes.)
While I won’t propose all disease can be prevented by healthy living, I do think we have the ability to provide our bodies the best advantage possible to stave off disease or avoid it all together.
I can honestly say that following these steps have helped me feel the best I have ever felt in my life—even with a chronic disease. My husband joined in and claims he feels more energized, focused, and that he has reduced pain and inflammation around an old sports injury in his back.
(This was the day we found out I was pregnant--5 weeks along. I had had to achieve remission prior to getting pregnant to avoid complications. Though pregnancy did incite a flare up during my first trimester--which was the WORST.)
Whether you are battling a chronic illness, pain in your body, trying to lose weight (which is a worthy goal if that is the journey you are on), or just want to live a healthier life, below are some practical tips on how I started my fitness journey. I hope it may inspire you to do the same!
(*Self-management of certain diseases isn’t for everyone. I am not a doctor and this is not medical advice. The drugs for those with advanced Crohn’s Disease have greatly improved many people’s quality of life. However, in my case, the side effects seemed worse than my symptoms, so I chose to decline my doctor’s recommendation to medicate. It should also be noted that my doctor never provided any advice for self-management or lifestyle changes.)
HOW TO LIVE YOUR HEALTHIEST LIFE--Get your head in the game
Focus on your long-term goal—not your six-pack
Have you ever felt “guilty” for eating a carb? One misstep and you feel like you’ve failed your whole diet. I’ve heard people lament over their sad lunch as they eat a piece of chicken on a bed of lettuce. How many people torture themselves by going to the gym just to berate themselves when the numbers don’t change on the scale?
Living a healthy life isn’t about reward and punishment while trying to reach a (fairly subjective) standard of outward physical fitness. People are burdened with guilt when it comes to food and exercise, which I can understand--I still find myself falling into the same trap.
The first step towards an overall healthy lifestyle is getting your mind into a healthy space. Your goal is about living a long, healthy life. Healthy living isn’t about feelings of guilt or virtue. Its measure of success is not six packs or biceps. It’s about living your healthy life for your personal motivations. This long-term focus is what keeps me motivated. Not the baseless struggle to lose a few pounds.
The first step: Determine your long-term goal. And I don’t mean an outwardly focused motivation. Who are you staying healthy for? Do you want to be able to play with your grandkids into your old age? Or do you want to stay healthy for your family? Do you want fewer medical expenses as you age? Do you want to travel or cross a finish line as a septuagenarian? Placing less focus on societal pressures or expectations of “looking fit” will make a healthy lifestyle more meaningful.
While hiking in Cape Town, South Africa, we were greeted by a 70+ year old man as he came forging around the corner. He told us that he laces up his sneakers every weekend and hikes up and down the mountain to stay healthy and active. In that moment, I realized that I want to be healthy and fit enough to travel and conquer mountains decades from now.
When I think about my heart getting stronger as I lift weights or about nutrients rushing to my joints when I have a bowl of fruit, I feel in control of my future. That makes all of this more rewarding to me because I don’t feel like I’m depriving myself of carbs, I feel like I’m giving myself the benefit of feeling great.
Getting started—go cold turkey
This may sound drastic, but I decided to commit to one month of radical change as a way to jump start our new healthy lifestyle. That means I implemented all of the following suggestions immediately and said I would try it out for a month (during weekdays, but I gave myself a break on weekends).
Commit to a plan that is realistic for you—try selecting one of the behaviors below to implement for the entire month, or do what I did and implement all of them, but only during the week.
Prepare—schedule meal preps, join a bunch of gyms on a trial basis, whatever you need to do to make sure you set yourself up for success.
Find an accountability partner—it’s way more fun to work towards total health with a friend! Andrew and I are both into living a healthy lifestyle, which makes it WAY more achievable.
Starting cold turkey helped us set attainable goals, establish good habits, and solidify a routine that we ended up carrying for the entire year.
DON'T DIET--EAT CLEAN: Healthy living starts from the inside, out
Ok, let’s talk about the hardest (but probably most important) category—clean eating.
Fad diets may be ok for a short stint, but most aren’t sustainable for the long-term health goals I envision for my life. This is a lifestyle—so think of the way you eat as a marathon, not a sprint. (Aka, I can’t fathom eating zero carbs, but all the bacon I can handle as a healthy long-term diet.)
First, let’s shift our focus again in relation to how we think about food. Food is not something to deprive yourself of or punish yourself for enjoying. Food is fuel. And we can choose to fill our tanks with poison or nutrients. That’s why I focus on eating clean. Eating clean requires avoiding processed food (most packaged food items) and avoiding added chemicals and preservatives.
Eating clean decreases inflammation—so I’m hoping my future knees, back, and gut thank me later.
It’s not easy—our fast-paced culture and the food available to us makes it almost impossible to eat completely clean unless you are very diligent (and are privileged enough to have the moohlah to do so). But here are some switches to make it more manageable:
Stick to the outside. Avoid most things that are packaged, frozen, or generally anything that resides in the middle aisles at the grocery store. This also means you may have to run to the store more often than every week.
Read ingredients, not nutrition labels. When determining how “healthy” something is, don’t rely on the calorie count as your measurement. Most low-cal “diet foods” are probably the most detrimental to your health long term. Check the fake sugar, sodium, and preservatives in the ingredients list and select foods that have the fewest ingredients (and are pronounceable and recognizable).
Hummus is something I eat almost every day, but if you take the time to peruse the 40+ brands of hummus, you’ll see that only a couple have ingredients that are free of preservatives and additives (my favorite brand is Hope). (And yes, while this is technically a packaged food, it is minimally processed. However, if you want to go fully clean, you can easily make your own hummus!) –photo from FoodBabe.com
Don’t buy “snack food,” buy whole foods.
Besides my husband’s penchant for KIND bars (which, if you read the ingredients, are actually pretty good—they just have more sugar than I care for), we have very few snacks in our pantry. No crackers, cookies, pretzels, etc. Instead I snack on what are called whole foods—foods that don’t really have a list of ingredients because they are just that food. That includes fruit, nuts, hard boiled eggs, avocado, veggies (with hummus), and my little bit of a cheat—cheese (but not that processed singles junk).
Avoid most bread (and it’s not because of gluten or carbs).
Probably the hardest processed food of all to avoid is bread. Y’all, our bread is TERRIBLE—it is over-processed, devoid of any nutritional value, and full of SUGAR. Take a look at the ingredients in bread (and don’t let “whole wheat bread” fool you, if the first ingredient is “enriched flour,” run away!). If we eat bread, we get sprouted grain bread (like Ezekiel brand) from the frozen section. I have no problem with gluten (or carbs!), but most bread products are devoid of any nutritional value AND contain tons of junk you don’t want to eat (a double whammy). Instead of bread products, we eat quinoa, couscous, and rice.
Cut out added sugars
Added sugars are in about everything we eat—especially if it’s packaged and/or processed. And it is generally known that “added sugar is the single worst ingredient in the modern diet.”
The suggested daily amount of sugar varies, but is typically less than 50mg or the less, the better.