Looking for a great New Year’s resolution or wanting to adopt vitality and health-promoting eating habits? Why not adopt a whole foods lifestyle? (Check out my article What are Whole Foods? if you don’t know what whole foods are). Whether you go hardcore and immediately ditch everything from processed foods, sugar and all meats or take a more leisurely approach, the transition from the typical 88% processed foods and meat diet to 70% or more real foods is a process. You have to learn new recipes and habits, rearrange your kitchen and change your mental attitude toward food, among other things.
Switching over to real, wholesome food after a lifetime of poor eating habits centered around wheat flour, sugar and processed foods usually presents a number of surprises and adjustments. Here’s how to make the switch, anticipate and handle common hurdles, develop the skills and techniques to enjoy the process and find delicious whole foods to sate any craving or situation. If you do this, in a year you’ll be a whole foods veteran who never wants to go back to eating the crappy foods that are killing so many people every year with heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, cancer, autoimmune disease, and stroke, alongside many other conditions.
Month 1 – Attitude & Commitment
The first month of going from eating processed and nutritionally devoid foods to whole foods is packed with change. And questions. What’s actually a whole food? Does that count or how much am I supposed to eat? Am I stuck with salad and carrots forever??? (As an FYI- I never ate salads and carrots so they’re not required.) There’s so much going on and changing that it’s difficult to handle. That’s why at the outset, attitude and commitment are everything.
First off, you have to commit to changing your eating habits. None of this “I’ll try it and see how it goes” mentality. That’s the mentality of only going halfway and quitting. If instead you say “I’m going to adopt this eating lifestyle and learn how to enjoy every bite by finding delicious recipes and helpful techniques to help me succeed” you’ll come out a winner and your health will thank you.
Additionally, adopting the right attitude toward food is essential. Start seeing the processed, nutritionally devoid “foods” for what they are – poisons that will destroy your body and mind. Our systems are delicate things and what we consume matters. Most of our modern illnesses and diseases come as a result of what we eat and drink. Even many genetic disorders can be offset or prevented by diet.
Start off the transition by committing to changing your life for the better, including becoming resourceful enough to overcome any hurdles or doubts. Start seeing foods through the correct lens – asking whether any food or drink you pick up will contribute to your health or harm it. If it’s not helping your health, don’t eat it. Do this and you’ll be a true whole foods champ at the end of a year.
Month 1 – Eliminate the Worst Offenders
We have a problem with processed foods. 62% of the modern American diet is processed foods. Over half can be bought at 7-Eleven. That’s not food. That’s junk. We love our refined carbs and turn our noses up at energy and vitality-giving foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes and pulses, tubers, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
In the first month, it’s best to eliminate the worst offenders like sugary sodas, sugary or carb-loaded breakfasts, fast food, junk food and processed snacks and dessert. Think of it as a detox. This doesn’t mean you can’t ever have them again and it doesn’t mean beating yourself up when you cheat or give in. It means recognizing that these foods are killing your health and shouldn’t be the staples in your life that they’ve become.
Months 1 to 3 – Focus on Meals
In the first few months of switching to a whole foods diet, you’ll be replacing your worst offenders with nutritious whole foods. This means learning new recipes and cooking more. That doesn’t mean slaving away in the kitchen. Most of my meals take 30 minutes or less to make or they cook on their own in my all purpose rice cooker. Switching to a whole foods diet also doesn’t mean bland, tasteless food. In the first few months, you’ll want to be finding delicious and filling recipes that will keep you hooked. It’s easier if you focus meal by meal.
For instance, starting with breakfast can yield some of the quickest, most profound changes. A great breakfast does several things:
- Fills you up and prevents cravings and snacking
- Boosts your body and mind with nutrition first thing in the morning
- Provides energy and clarity
This sets you up for success right off. It also begins the process of correcting your hunger and satiety hormones – leptin and grelin – that have gone out of whack and contribute to overeating. A good breakfast will also prevent the insulin spikes associated with most refined carb breakfasts that lead to eating, sugar high, crash, refined carb craving and a repetition of this cycle – along with an increased risk for diabetes and heart disease.
And that’s just the benefits of breakfast changes!
In the early months, start meal by meal changing your foods to real foods and whole foods. Begin with breakfasts and beverages, then move to lunches and dinners. If snacks and desserts are your biggest weaknesses, tackle them after breakfast. A good breakfast might moderate them and make them easier to handle.
Take it issue by issue over the first three months and you’ll transition like a champ.
Months 1 to 6 – Handling Addictions & Withdrawal
Quitting processed foods, fast foods, junk food and all the nutritionally void “foods” lining grocery shelves is a lot to handle. Our bodies and minds are addicted to sugar and refined carbs. We’re also addicted to gluten – which breaks down into morphine like chemicals that bind to our brain’s opiate sensors. When we come off these foods, we literally go into withdrawal.
You may experience headaches, stomach pains, even fatigue, irritability and more. This is not your body being unable to handle fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, tubers, seeds or nuts (though there will be some period of adjustment to them). It’s your body coming off the foods it’s hooked on. You will have withdrawal. Being aware that this will happen and to recognize it for what it is – a sign that your body isn’t healthy after years of previous eating habits. Knowing that will allow you to mitigate the damage and work through the worst of the withdrawal and cravings.
This is arguably one of the toughest parts of switching to a whole foods diet. That’s why attitude and commitment are so key. That early promise to take care of our health no matter what will help us power through setbacks and frustration. With the right attitude and mindset, we’ll see sugar, refined carbs and processed “foods” as poisons sold to hook us and make the manufacturer rich, not make us healthy. We are the only ones that can make us healthy and energetic – and that comes from overcoming our addictions and choosing real food.
Months 1 to 6 – Transition Foods
Coming off pizza, sugary snacks and a plethora of other unhealthy foods means filling voids in our meal rotation but also fighting cravings! This is where transition foods are clutch. Transition foods are slightly better versions of “bad foods” but not inherently healthy. They are helpful though in getting us past the initial hurdles that cravings and addiction put in our way.
What do I mean?
For example, when I craved soda, I would drink orange juice instead. OJ has tons of natural sugar and hits your bloodstream fast. That it contains vitamin C is of little consolation. Many real foods contain large amounts of vitamin C but with fiber and other vitamins and minerals along with it. OJ by itself isn’t all that great for us but it’s arguably better than soda. Plus, it’s hard to knock back 5 glasses of OJ like we do soda or other sugary beverages. So with OJ we sate our craving for sugar while limiting consumption of a highly addicting, sugar-laden processed drink. That’s a win!
It’s sort of like ratcheting down our worst behaviors and training ourselves on better foods. Our taste buds are keyed to high sugar, salt and fat diets. They and our bodies need to retrain. Transition foods make that easier.
Here’s another example. When I would crave sugary snacks, I’d eat a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios instead. Again, maybe not the healthiest snack or replacer ever but it contained oats, not gluten, and was sweet – all of which helped me kick my gluten addiction and cut down on my sugar consumption at the same time.
You can do this with a number of foods and meals, like substituting rice for pasta, corn bread for wheat bread, corn tortillas for flour tortillas. These help cut dependence on overly processed wheat flour and gluten addiction. Similarly, switching to corn chips and deli fresh salsa/guacamole for baked goods or floury snacks will help you transition to healthier ways of eating since you’re cutting the cord on sugar and refined carbs.
From there you go on to replace and transition, replace and transition until your diet is looking more like a whole foods diet than a processed foods diet.
Months 6 to 9 – Review & Revisit
Halfway into a year of eating healthy, you’ll probably need to revisit your food choices. Are you backsliding on some? Completely off track? Way ahead and loving it? No matter where you are, now is a good point to reaffirm your commitment and set the right attitude toward food. Are you living to eat or eating to live? Now with some experience behind our belt, we can more easily choose to eat to live. Which means eating for health.
At this point your taste buds should begin to readjust and cravings to fall off drastically. Pizza cravings might still gnaw at you but in general, you’ve reached a point where eating healthy has become a hobby and interest, if not an obsession and religion.
After 6 months, it’s time to readjust goals and food choices going forward. Where are you weak and where are you strong? Do you have solid recipes for breakfast but not lunch? What are areas that need improvement and what are your win zones? What are you liking and what are you hating? Remember, you committed to problem-solving to stick with this lifestyle change. This is where we problem-solve. A delicious yet healthy answer exists for every palate. It’s just a matter of finding it!
This is where we typically struggle to move forward and not plateau and give up. You can do it. A whole foods lifestyle is a delicious and healthy one.
Months 6 & onward – Finding Recipes That Delight
The big secret to success is enjoying the process. If you hate all the foods you’re eating, it’s hard to succeed in the long-term. As we wean off junk and processed foods, the food horizon may seem barren and unappetizing but that’s just a mirage. A veritable food paradise awaits.
This is where the lifestyle shift really happens. To eat healthy means taking full responsibility for our food choices. This means passing on most heat and serve, box kits, fast food, and dubious restaurant offerings. Because of this, we’re in the grocery store and kitchen far more. We’re reading labels and tossing aside foods that come loaded with sugar, salt, preservatives and other additives. We have walked away from the chemical jungle and back to eating real food.
That means learning how to cook and prepare food since we want to know what’s going into our bodies and our family’s bodies. We want to be in charge and we have gotten hooked on the energy and vitality that real food gives us.
To remain inspired and learn excellent recipes your tongue will now appreciate, browse whole food websites. Look to vegan and vegetarian sites for ideas but be aware that vegetarian and vegan can mean processed foods and lots of sugar so be mindful. In general though they offer a lot of great suggestions for whole food dishes that will make your taste buds swoon.
All Months – Food Is Culture
Another challenge in the whole foods diet shift is living in a culture that enjoys eating poison. Our commercials are nothing but sugar and junk advertisements – and manufacturers start peddling their goods to kids as soon as they can breathe. We love our chips, cookies, donuts, bagels, cakes, cupcakes, fast food, pizza, pasta and on and on. Our culture is predominately one of excess and consumption – but of all the wrong things.
When you adopt a whole foods lifestyle and insist on eating real food for 70% or more of your meals and beverages, you are going against the grain of society. It’s not going to support you. You have to make your own support network and you can’t count on family, friends and colleagues to be there for you. If anything, they’ll try to seduce you back to the dark side. This is emotionally draining and trying.
Food is culture. When we are socializing, the foods around us typically are pretty unhealthy. We can turn them down but it’s unrealistic to expect others to do the same. This is where resilience is key. So is our early commitment and attitude. We want to be healthy and full of energy and vitality. We want to avoid diabetes, heart disease and limit our risk for cancer, stroke and other problems. We want strong immune systems and a clear mind. All these yield precious benefits.
Many of us have broken free of the junk food culture and live happy food lives. Others are not always understanding, though when we point out health problems we are trying to correct, moderate or prevent, people are usually better about not pressuring us. Usually. Be ready to tune out key inducements like “Live a little” or “Everything in moderation” or “Once won’t hurt you”. Personally I save my cheats for certain times and stick to my guns when that time hasn’t arrived. People get over me not having that donut with them. They’ll get over you not having them too.
How we respond and prepare to the outer culture will help determine our success with our whole foods lifestyle. Plan for social situations and cultural celebrations. Have strategies and tactics ready to stay true to your new lifestyle. Many of us have developed ways that work for us just fine. You’ll find yours but it will take some legwork. Rest easy though – once you find and adopt them, they’ll serve you for life!
Choosing Life Over Junk
While you can adopt a whole foods lifestyle overnight, the internal process and true transition usually takes time. In a year, your way of eating can change so fundamentally that you’ll never go back to the way you were. That’s true change and many of us are making that switch.
Real food – like unprocessed fruits, vegetables, legumes and pulses, whole grains, tubers, seeds and nuts – provide life-giving nutrition that builds our bodies strong and healthy. Real food preps our immune system, evens out our moods, and grants energy and vitality. Eating a whole foods diet can reverse or moderate severe illnesses. See my article What Happened When I Gave Up Bread for a first person account.
We are chemical beings and what we eat and drink matters. Look to these suggestions for making the switch to real food and in a year you will be a whole foods champion.
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