Food is as essential to the environmental movement as it is to life. From genetically modified and organic produce, deforestation and meat consumption, transport and fossil fuels, packaging and paper/plastic...to waste, food cuts across our most basic relationship to the environment. Perhaps no other behavior is as connected with our identity as eating--which is what makes it so hard to change.
The green movement offers a wealth of information on the benefits that eating well brings to oneself and the environment. Consuming home-prepared foods rather than fast food means you can control everything from fat and salt to portion size, excess packaging and waste. Environmentalists are largely silent, however, on just how difficult it is to eat right and lose weight.
While it's important to be informed about the consequences of what you're eating, getting from the knowledge that an unhealthy diet is bad for you and the planet and actually eating better can be challenging. What is most important to keep in mind at all times is compassion--anger and self-judgment are the gateway to unhealthy sources of comfort like overeating. The New York Times' Well column consistently strikes this chord of compassion for people who are trying to keep their humanity while facing health issues. A recent article on frugal dieting gave tips on how to lose weight on the cheap, backed up with statistics on the effectiveness of each method, from DIY to joining a program.
Here are some tips for getting more in tune with your eating habits.
- Find a balanced view of responsibility. Many people carry extra weight that is held in place by health problems, medication side effects, genetics, or other factors that are difficult to control. Nevertheless, the hand that brings the junk food to our mouths is our own. Forgiveness is a powerful weapon against the guilt and passivity that keep bad habits in place.
- Change your schedule. Most of us are creatures of habit. Our path through the grocery store can be mapped pretty accurately, as can the places where we trip up with unhealthy treats. Analyze your day, your shopping habits, and the times and places where you tend to feel deprived. Going a different way to work or avoiding certain aisles while shopping can take you out of temptation's path.
- Add a new habit for every old one you take away. One of the most difficult things about dieting it involves restraint, something that can't be measured immediately. Most of us want to DO something when attacking a problem, which is why expensive diet supplements and exercise equipment are often the first on a new dieter's list. The "weight-loss" industry is only too happy to indulge these impulses, and keep indulging them, since it's in their best interests to keep you buying rather than help you lose weight. Even if it's something very simple, give yourself something active to do when cravings strike: a meditation, a cup of unsweetened herbal tea (not that "diet stuff), a walk, or some non-food-related enjoyable activity. Nutritional supplements like herbs for general cleansing are okay for this purpose, but not those promising weight loss.
- Find safe indulgences.Figure out some foods that are neutral--environmentally and health-wise--and allow yourself to eat as much as you want. Avoiding the feeling of being deprived helps prevent caving in to craving. These "neutral" foods may not be your favorite but you can't hate them either. You can only consume so many baby carrots, rice cakes, or glasses of unsweetened chocolate soy milk, but knowing that there is no limit makes them seem like a treat.
- Be careful at restaurants. All but the healthiest restaurants use more fat, salt, and flavorings than you would at home, making for a rich meal that you feel compelled to finish because you paid for it. Think about why you're there--the food or the friends?--and order conservatively, asking for your companions' support in avoiding the free, often fattening, fillers like bread.
- Find exercise you like doing and make reasonable goals. Starting off slow with walking or gentle yoga is a good way to prevent injury while your body gets back in the swing of things. A general rule: if you hate every second of it, you probably won't stick with it. Instead of buying an expensive new piece of machinery (which may end up on the curb as waste if best intentions falter) or buying pricey new running shoes, look for the many cheap ways to get exercise.
- Try new foods to make up for the ones you're giving up. There is a world full of tasty, healthy recipes that most of us haven't tried because we've been too busy returning to the same unsatisfying processed foods. Make a goal to try one new recipe or food a week.
- Make positive goals. Instead of "eat no chocolate this week," try "have a different fruit for dessert every night this week." Avoiding punitive, negative goals is a way to re-set your internal attitudes from punishment/excess to the enjoyment that is supposed to come with eating.
- Reward yourself the right way. It can mean taking extra time to prepare a favorite but seldom-made healthy dish--or learning a new recipe. Finding non-food sources of reward is also important. Dieting isn't just about what you eat, it's about your entire life as a whole. Some of the energy that used to be caught up in frequent snacking is ready to be directed into other activities. Get in touch with these interests and reward yourself for avoiding a restaurant pitfall or for a mostly successful week.
- Remember, even failure isn't failure. In many cases, getting frustrated acts as a license to give up. If you fall off the wagon, reassure yourself that nobody's perfect...and avoid "rewarding" yourself with the type of bad food you think a "failure" deserves.
- Find the food values that matter to you and hold on to them. It's all too easy to begin thinking, "oh, a little bit won't hurt" and end up with an empty plate full of regret. What are our values for if not for steering us through difficulty? Do some research on the story behind your food, its social, ethical, and environmental impact. Ask your doctor for information on how too much sugar, fat, or salt, or a dearth of fresh foods, affects your current and future health. Think of your eating habits on a social scale. Arming yourself with this information can help "just one" donut look less innocent,.
Any green dieters out there with more advice for attaining a balance with food?