Growing up, I was exposed to a lot of different foods, including vegetables.
I certainly didn’t like everything that was put on my plate, but I was never forced or coerced into eating anything.
If I didn’t want it, I just didn’t eat it. But I wasn’t allowed to have anything else, either, and that rule was consistently enforced.
I’m glad that this was my parents’ MO because forcing kids to eat foods they don’t want can pave the way for disordered eating in the future.
I’m convinced that one of the reasons why my brother and I were never forced to eat foods we didn’t like or clean our plates is because of this story:
When my dad was a kid growing up in Switzerland, the headmistress of his school had very strict rules that every child had to finish everything on their plate, no exceptions.
One evening, they were served spinach for dinner and one little girl really didn’t like spinach so she didn’t clean her plate.
The next morning at breakfast, she was served the same spinach from the night before. She was told that she would keep seeing the same spinach show up on her plate until she ate it. All of it.
Eventually, she choked it down…but no sooner had she done so than it came back up in front of the entire cafeteria!
Obviously, this story traumatized my father as a youngster! But thankfully for me, it made it easier for him to take a more laissez-faire attitude towards how his kids ate.
This experience is not the norm, however.
I’ve heard many stories from friends and clients alike who were forced, cajoled, or otherwise bribed into eating their vegetables or whatever else was on their plates. They were taught that cleaning their plates is virtuous and to not do so is wasteful.
But forcing kids to eat foods they don’t want to eat is only good for one thing: contributing to disordered eating patterns as an adult.
Of course, many other factors play a role in establishing disordered eating. For one, we live in a culture that glorifies healthy eating. We put people who promote healthy eating on tv, on the cover of magazines, in commercials, and all over social media. We emulate them; we want to be them because they make it look so effortless.
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to eat a healthier diet. But I do know many people who go about it in the very wrong way!
First of all, we often fall into the trap of thinking that the the only way we’re going to be successful with our efforts to get healthier is to overhaul our entire diet in one fell swoop.
The problem with this approach is that trying to change too many behaviors at once is overwhelming. Studies have shown that the more behaviors or habits we try to change at once, the more likely we are to give up completely.
Despite popular belief, the key to sustainable habit change is not abrupt, but rather gradual change over time. It’s the same principle behind weight loss: the people who take the long view tend to 1) see better results; and 2) be able to sustain them more effortlessly one the long term.
What does it mean to take the long view? Define a larger goal, and then work backwards to figure out what small steps you can take to achieve it. Breaking up large goals into smaller, more digestible steps helps us avoid overwhelm and stay motivated.
For instance, let’s say my goal is to give up my 3x-weekly fast food habit. What I wouldn’t do is swear off all fast food cold turkey, do a huge grocery haul, prep food for the week, and think, “Wow, that was easier than I thought it would be!”
We all know it’s more complicated than that because we’ve all been down that road before!
I would start with a task so simple that I can’t not do it: I would tell myself that I can have fast food twice, but not three times a week.
This is manageable, not drastic.
After doing that successfully for several weeks, I’ll identify another behavior around my fast food habit to break. Perhaps I’m not eating enough protein throughout the day so I leave work famished and fast food is simple and quick.
In that case, I’ll aim to get protein at each meal, and I’ll keep protein bars or other snacks handy for the times when I’m feeling more susceptible.
From there, I might start looking more at my meal frequency (Am I waiting too long to eat between meals?); my route home (Can I take a different route home to avoid the fast food places?); and my food habits at home (If I don’t like to cook, can I buy more pre-fab meals? Use a meal delivery service? Recruit my partner/friends for help in the kitchen?).
This may seem like a super-slow process…and it is. But slow and steady (or gradual and consistent!) wins the race if that race is lasting results!
Another thing that trips us up when it comes to adopting a healthier lifestyle is assuming that all diets/exercise programs work for everyone. After all, if so-and-so got results on the [insert fad diet here] then we will, too.
I get this because I’ve been there. One of my favorite things to do after an indulgent weekend or a binge was to watch infomercials for weight loss products. “If they can do it, why can’t I?” was my mentality, along with “What do they have that I don’t?”
Well, for one, these commercials only show one, tiny aspects of these peoples’ lives post-transformation. We don’t see what–in addition to the exercise or 6-week diet plan, if they actually did it–they did to achieve their results…
We don’t know what their day-to-day lives are like, what kind of sacrifices they’ve made to maintain their physiques…
We don’t know what goes on in their heads, and whether or not they’re food-and-exercise-obsessed, or if they’ve worked through whatever issues contributed to their being overweight in the first place…
And even if we did know those things, and even if their story was just like ours, we still don’t know if the plan would work…
But I’d wager that it wouldn’t, no matter what, and here’s why: a plan is a temporary band-aid, it’s a not a long-term solution.
Fad diets and transformation programs are a kick start for some, but for others, they’re just another program to add to the list of things that don’t work because we’ve yet to have the most important realization of all:
What we want isn’t a band-aid, but a lifestyle.
We will continue to struggle until we accept that no single off-the-shelf plan is the solution.
We will fail until we accept responsibility for our results and stop placing it on others who we think have “all the answers.”
And the best place to start is to give up the need for perfection, and get more consistent. This begins with making micro-changes over time (as I describe above); practicing them over and over and over again until they become habits; and then adding in something new.
Doing this, over and over and over again, unlocks the long-term solution we’re all in search for.
And the best news?! It doesn’t involve any extremes! No deprivation, no obsessive exercise, and–the best news yet!–no foods ever have to be off limits!
And things brings us back around full-circle to where we began: the only foods you should never eat are the foods you don’t like.
One of the ways we continue to commit self-sabotage is by forcing ourselves to eat foods we don’t like just because they’re considered “healthy.”
I don’t like labeling foods good or bad, or even healthy or unhealthy. In a lifestyle (as opposed to a diet!), all foods can have their place.
The only foods that shouldn’t eat are the ones 1) you don’t like; 2) that don’t make you feel good; and 3) the ones that trigger you.
‘Cause here’s the thing: Forcing ourselves to eat “healthy” foods that are not appetizing is only going to reinforce the idea that eating healthy doesn’t taste good (not true) and that eating healthy is a sacrifice and a cross to bear to achieve a particular body.
NO NO NO!
And how many times have you choked down some “healthy” food you didn’t like, only to end up overindulging on something else?!
Forcing ourselves to eat foods that we don’t like or that don’t agree with us in one way or another doesn’t help curb cravings–it exacerbates them because we feel virtuous for eating them, and therefore more easily convince ourselves that we “deserve” a treat.
Take vegetables, for example. Many people think they can’t eat healthy because they don’t like them, so what’s the point?
First of all, this is a defeatist mentality and the opposite of the perspective we must take to achieve our goals; and second of all, it’s not true.
Have you tried every vegetable out there? Every method of preparation? Every mode of delivery?!
Doubt it! For instance, would you eat a Caesar salad? A cobb salad? Yes, with dressing! If so, that’s a way to begin o ease yourself into “I do like veggies” territory.
In other words, get the veggies in now, worry about the delivery method later!
Another way to experiment would be to disguise veggies in smoothies and meat dishes. Blend, chop, dice, and make ’em disappear! You’re still getting the benefits from them, even if you (and others!) forget they’re there!
Don’t force yourself to eat anything, ever, because you’ll end up like my father’s poor friend (who, let’s be honest, probably won’t touch spinach to this day!), or worse: you may end up sacrificing your efforts because you feel deprived, and that’s never a place we want to be, especially when we’re in this for the long haul.