Why is Eating Right so Hard?

Green vegetables

A few weeks ago I sent out a survey, asking you to share your biggest frustrations, fears, and challenges when it comes to being healthy.

Over 1000 people responded, and what came back…

…was shocking. Honestly, it was depressing. For the whole day after setting up camp at a coffee shop and reading every single response, I walked around in a funk that I just couldn’t shake.

So many people think they’re doing it wrong.

They’re eating plant-based, whole foods, maybe 85 or 90 percent of time (some much more than that)… and they can’t get over how much they’re screwing up, what nutrients they’re surely missing out on, and how hard it all is.

They’re beating themselves up, citing self-sabotage, indecision, lack of confidence, lack of commitment, and even FOMO.

I’ve got news for you: when you’re stressed out like this, wound this tightly around the topic of something so fundamental as food… the healthiest diet in the world isn’t going to make you healthy (or happy).

So where is it all coming from?

Here’s what I think.

When it comes to eating a healthy diet, there are two things going on:

  1. There’s the “knowing what to eat” part — essentially the focus of every diet book in the world.
  2. Then there’s the “getting yourself to do it” part.

That second one is really important. The entire diet industry revolves around the fact that “getting yourself to do it” is extremely hard. (It’s not supposed to be, but the preponderance of addictive junk food on store shelves and at restaurants, available just about any time you want it, makes it so.)

There are ways to “get yourself to do it,” of course. But they require either a tremendous amount of willpower or a lot of patience, and both are in short supply these days.

So instead, the diet book industry preys on people who aren’t getting the results they want, by suggesting that oh, actually we were wrong all along: it turns out you don’t need to eat those bland, healthy foods. Instead, a revolutionary new (science-backed!) method lets you eat all the foods you’ve always loved — or follow just one hyper-specific rule about the way you eat them — and you’ll be healthy, strong, sexy, and energetic.

In other words, they promise us a shortcut.

And the more we take these shortcuts, the less natural our eating becomes.

We precisely time meals. We obsess over food combinations. We consult GI charts. We measure the pH of our pee. We meticulously count calories.

Eating becomes more stressful, not less.

Worse: when we buy into a new magic bullet diet, we convince ourselves (with the author’s help, of course) that something as simple as “just eat whole foods” must be wrong. That it must certainly deprive us of key nutrients. And each time we do this, attacking the simple, natural diet from a new angle, we stray further from a healthy way of eating, and the more we beat ourselves up and create warped stories about our relationship with food.

Until the whole thing causes so much stress that you give up… or, just as bad, you tough it out, but the stress itself prevents you from experiencing anything resembling health.

So what do we do instead?

First, we’ve got to get over the belief that we don’t know how to eat, or that eating healthily is complicated. It’s not.

Sure, there’s always new research about nutrition we can try to apply to improve our diets. But do we really need that to achieve a basic level of health?

I don’t think so. Look at The Blue Zones, by Dan Buettner, probably my favorite health book of the past decade. It’s about five pockets of people around the globe whose lifestyles produce disproportionally high numbers of people who live to be 100 years old. Certainly genes play a role in longevity, too, but when you look at the lifestyle factors these pockets have in common, the patterns are clear.

  • They eat lots of plants. (Most eat a little meat, but one group, the Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, is a mix of vegetarian and vegan.)
  • They eat mostly whole foods that they grow and prepare themselves.
  • They have strong relationships with family and friends, and a sense of purpose in life.
  • Exercise is built into their lifestyles, through walking, gardening, and other enjoyable everyday activities.

But no, they don’t count calories, follow diets from books, drink protein shakes, pee on litmus paper, avoid gluten at all costs, boil their sprouts to maximize sulphoraphane content, “do keto,” or drink Bulletproof Coffee. (But they do drink coffee, tea, and a little red wine!)

They eat in a way that’s intuitive. Not contrived. Simple, and natural. But without rules they can’t break five or ten percent of the time, during celebrations or otherwise.

But you don’t have to believe in the Blue Zones approach. Or listen to me, for that matter. But you should find someone you trust. Someone whose ideas stand up to scientific scrutiny, and most importantly, someone whose approach is practical and won’t cause you undue stress.

Why find “someone”? Why not just eat the way you feel is right? There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but based on the responses to our survey, it seems even most devout plant-based eaters have a lack of confidence that this diet — one that runs so counter to the advice most of us were raised to believe — provides them all the nutrients they need. It’s hard to overcome our programming, and I tend to think that without someone to look to for guidance and reassurance, it’s too easy to be swayed by skeptical friends, family members, and co-workers who have their own reasons for not wanting to see you eat differently than they eat.

(As for whom I follow? I like Joel Fuhrman and Michael Greger, but tend to blend their advice with the somewhat-more-lenient Blue Zones principles for my own diet and the one I feed my kids. We eat one hundred percent plant-based and mostly whole food, but with some wiggle room once or twice a week for oil, refined flour, and even added sugar now and then.)

The point is that “what to eat” isn’t the hard part. Pick an approach you believe in and stick with it for a while — don’t chase the next shiny object that comes along and drive yourself crazy with conflicting information, the way so many people do.

And then you can focus your energy on getting yourself to do it — hard only until it becomes a habit — without all the waffling and self-doubt that comes in when you’re trying to incorporate advice from 10 different gurus.

How do you get yourself to do it?

As I said above, this is the hard part.

I’ve written extensively about the massive action, all-at-once approach (which requires willpower) as compared to the small-steps alternative (which requires patience).

I don’t know which one is better for you, but I do know that if you try massive action and it fails, then you owe it to yourself to try small steps, rather than just throwing your hands up and telling yourself (again) that you’re not good at making changes.

Truthfully, this is the area that interests me most these days. And I’m glad you’re here and paying attention, because later this week I’m going to send you (for free) the simple system that I personally use for eating healthily.

It’s the process I evolved for myself and my family that keeps things extraordinarily simple, but goes just beyond “eat whole foods and you’ll be fine” to help maximize fitness in the short term, and protect against diseases in the long-term.

I think you’ll find it helpful, so stay tuned.

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Comments

  1. I could not love this more. I didn’t partake in the survey but if I had my responses probably would have been similar to the ones you were reading, Matt. When I read this post (or saw it in my email), I saw the subject and knew it was there for me to read right now, at just the right moment. I’ve been (high) vegan for 2 years now, and I needed a little plant-based pick me up!! Especially post holidays when, you’re right, being surrounded by family and friends and being the different one, can sometimes cause some slight doubt or discontent. Anyways- THANK YOU. Thanks for being just what I needed today.

  2. Michele says:

    Up until very recently I was one of these making it much harder than it had to be. I was eating mostly plant based but was having trouble with not eating junk food. Or just eating too much of healthy foods like nut butter. I listened to the podcasts with Erin and Chef AJ and then got her book and the Starch solution from the library and in just under 3 weeks have completely turned things around. I’m eating as much as I want, veggies for breakfast, and no longer counting calories. Finally starting to lose the weight I gained over the holidays and my running has improved so much. Maybe I just needed a different perspective to do this but I finally feel like this is something I can do long term and it doesn’t seem as hard as it did before.

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