Finding balance in each aspect of life is a constant work in progress. Don’t expect to one day wake up and have an effortlessly balanced life from that moment on. Why not? With every day, week, month and year, new challenges, goals, events, knowledge and circumstances require us to adjust our routines, habits and lifestyles which throws our current balance off, requiring minor or major adjustments. So why even strive for balance if it can never be fully achieved? Well, because striving for balance creates structure, purpose, awareness, engagement & intention, which in my opinion are all keys to feeling energized, nourished, well-rounded and fulfilled.
If I had to guess, I’d say that the diet and eating arena is where people most commonly struggle to find the right balance. Between the pressure to look a certain way, a new diet fad popping up every minute and the love of eating pizza and burritos, finding a balance when it comes to your diet can be frustrating, to say the least. I’ve been there. In fact, for most of my life I was feeling this struggle on a regular basis. I was either eating crap constantly or I wasn’t letting myself indulge at all. These extremes led to depression and unhealthy weight fluctuations. Not anymore. I’ve reached a place in my life where I’m able to enjoy eating, cooking and socializing over food without guilt or much thought at all. I’m able to feel healthy and strong without feeling deprived. My methods? Keep reading.
1) Any Dietary Model Should Include Lots of Fresh Produce
Everyone seems to have a different idea of what the perfect diet should be. Paleo, vegan, gluten-free, keto, vegetarian, dairy-free, pescatarian, organic, raw. I’ve read the articles, I’ve watched the Netflix documentaries, I’ve listened to the podcasts and I’ve changed my own way of eating countless times over the years. Through it all, the conclusion I’ve come to is simple. Eat more produce. Just do it. Eat vegetables and fruits more often than you do anything else. From meals to snacks, make produce the star of the show as much as possible. Produce nourishes by providing vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, enzymes and water while remaining, for the most part, low in calories and fat.
2) Keep Meat, Dairy & Sugar Consumption in Check
I eat dairy and sugar in moderation. I personally don’t like eating meat, but if I did, I’d be keeping that in check too. These foods are accessories, not necessities. Full days go by where I don’t have any added sugar or animal products, and many other days, I have very scant amounts. What does that mean? It means that my fajitas have lots of seasoned vegetables, not steak or chicken. It means that cashew “cream” adds richness to many of my meals, not real cream or cheese. It means that I drink my morning coffee with coconut milk and no sugar, and means that fresh fruit is always on hand for a quick snack. But because these are my norms, it also means that when I do eat sugar and animal products, I can fully enjoy them without thinking twice, knowing that my plant-forward norms balance out any indulgences.
3) Artificial Colors, Preservatives and Flavors Are Not Food
I’m a clean eater which means that I appreciate real food that’s as minimally processed as possible. Even when indulging, I’m not eating anything with artificial ingredients that I wouldn’t find in my kitchen. My more indulgent eats still fall in the “real food” category, even though they’re carb- and dairy-heavy. That means real dairy, real sugar and real meat, and no artificial ingredients, hydrogenated oils (aka transfats), or whatever it is that fast food restaurants are putting in their chicken nuggets. Even my heavier, less nutritious meals are real food. Examples? A cupcake (or 2) from a local bakery, made from scratch pizza, 3-ingredient potato chips, homemade mac & cheese with lots of cheesy goodness, ice cream made from simple and pronounceable ingredients. If you simply can’t live without Pillsbury refrigerated biscuits, McDonald’s nuggets or Cheetos, that’s OK. No food should be forever off limits. Every now and again I drink a coke because I love a good fountain soda. But overall I like the way plant-centric, real food makes me feel. Point is, even my most indulgent meals still fall in the high-quality and real food category, making them easy to balance out with nutrient-dense, plant-based meals. And those fountain sodas that I crave every once in awhile? They’re too few and far between to make any sort of difference when it comes to my health so I just enjoy them without the slightest bit of guilt.
4) Eat Intentionally & Mindfully
Why eat when you’re not hungry? Why have three meals a day or six smaller meals a day if it doesn’t fit into your schedule? If I like to eat bigger meals, then why not just have two meals a day? Or if I like snacking, why can’t I just graze all day. The answer here is that there isn’t an answer. I don’t listen to rules about when and how often I should eat. I eat when I’m hungry. If I know I’ll be indulging at dinner, I might not eat much all day. Or I might eat consistently all day. My point here is to simply eat intentionally. Mindlessly eating low-quality, unsatisfying food does nothing for you. Save eating for either foods you really enjoy or for foods that provide real nourishment.
5) Variety is the Spice of Life
I eat wheat, dairy and tofu regularly, but if I did that every day, I simply wouldn’t feel good. Switching up your sources of protein, carbs and fiber while focusing on plant-foods over animal products provides a wider range of nutrients and therefore makes me feel energized and strong! Bread, quinoa, brown rice, pasta, farro, barely, corn, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, seitan, tofu, edamame, cheese, yogurt. I love all of these foods, but there isn’t one single food I eat every day, except produce (and coconut milk coffee). Varying the foods I eat day-to-day or week-to-week ensures that I’m not eating too much wheat, soy or animal products, so when I do indulge in a whole pizza all to myself in one sitting, a few too many cocktails on Friday night, a burrito as big as my head or that bagel with cream cheese, it’s not overloading my body and I can simply enjoy every last bite (or sip).
6) Becoming Off Balance Isn’t a Bad Thing!
So these above points are all second nature now. Very minimal mindless eating, lots of produce and plant-foods, always clean ingredients and varied sources of protein, carbs and fiber. I feel great, my skin is clear, my weight doesn’t fluctuate much and I enjoy all my favorite foods regularly. Yes, regularly. Just ask anyone I know, I love to eat and I eat a lot. When I go to a restaurant, I can order the handmade pasta with pesto cream sauce and eat the whole thing. When Matt makes his infamous homemade pizza every Sunday, well, it’s my favorite meal of the week and I’m not holding back. But every so often, I start to feel off – sluggish and blah. When I hit this point, it’s a sign that I’ve been indulging a bit too much without enough balance. Too much wheat, animal products and added sugar have found their way into my day-to-day. Maybe it’s been a couple weeks, or maybe I’ve let it go on for a couple months. But it’s ok! I don’t stress over it, I don’t feel guilty about. It’s simply time for a reset. Which takes us back to my original thought at the beginning of this post. Finding balance is a never ending journey. If you get off balance, recognize it and adjust your habits back to baseline. Easy enough, right?