Don’t worry. This isn’t going to be a post extolling the virtues of the Paleo-diet. Nor will it discuss the merits (or lack thereof) of eating for your blood type or to correct your “hormonal imbalances”.
Rather, the topic I wanted to discuss today is the evolution of our individual eating habits. I figured I’d start with a look back into my own history.
When I was a kid health or nutrition wasn’t always of primary importance in our household. It’s not that I’d say my parents didn’t care about the types of food we ate, I just don’t think the nutritional quality of food was always front of mind. I remember my school lunches regularly consisting of a sandwich with some sort of deli meat (bologna and mock chicken loaf with that bright orange “casing” were particular favorites of mine), a fruit roll-up, a chocolate covered granola bar and a juice box. On the weekend I remember enjoying frozen chicken nuggets reheated in the oven with BBQ sauce. Looking back as a dietitian, it’s difficult not to cringe at many of my eating habits at that time.
Fortunately, my mom did get my brother and I involved in the kitchen at an early age. As my regular readers know I strongly believe that developing cooking skills is one of the most important things you can teach your child. When we were younger, I distinctly remember that my mom would often get us to help her with her baking. When we were older we’d also be expected to help prepare dinner before my parents got home from work. I wasn’t a chef by any means, but by the time I left home I knew my way around the kitchen and had several recipes in my repertoire.
I’ll admit that my eating habits didn’t change all that dramatically during my first couple of years at university. Due to budgetary constraints I was forced to cook more on my own, but I still ate quite a bit of processed food. Like many students, Mr Noodles and Kraft Dinner (aka Mac n’ Cheese for Americans) were still staples in my weekly menu.
It was really during the latter years of my undergraduate degree that my eating habits first started to evolve. Given my degree program (Kinesiology), I began to become more conscious of the food I consumed and the health implications of a poor diet. This new knowledge didn’t necessarily prevent me from going out to the pubs on a weekly basis where I indulged in far too much alcohol and bar food than would be considered healthy, but at least I was starting to recognize that doing so probably wasn’t all that good for me.
After graduating, my girlfriend (and now wife) and I moved west to Calgary. In Calgary we got into running and hiking and began to limit our visits to restaurants, particularly fast food joints. For some reason fast food just didn’t seem nearly as appealing as it used to. It was in Calgary that we started to cook from scratch more, relying less and less on processed foods. That said, at this time I would still regularly take frozen entrees to work for lunch (albeit, accompanied by fruit and yogurt now instead of fruit roll-ups and chocolate covered granola bars). We’d also still fall back on the occasional frozen lasagna or pre-made pasta sauces when we were short on time. It was far from perfect, but still a significant step up from my university days.
Our eating habits continued to evolve when we moved to Edmonton so I could return to school to pursue my Registered Dietitian certification. By the end of our time there, we had almost eliminated all processed foods from our diet. The only thing you’d find in our freezer these days was bread, meat and frozen veggies (and maybe ice cream :-)….). We also tried to get more and more of our meat and produce from farmer’s markets. It wasn’t necessarily because it was organic. It was more because we recognized that fruit/veggies/meat that didn’t have to travel hundreds, if not thousands, of miles before you ate it tended to taste better. And if it tasted better, we were more likely to eat more of it. We also experimented with having our own patio garden so we’d have access to our own vegetables and fresh herbs.
And now we’re in Egypt. Here we make almost everything we eat from scratch, including things like sauces, dressings and dips. On most days we get our recommended servings of fruits and vegetables and unhealthier pork products, like bacon, sausage and salami, are out (admittedly, not entirely by choice).
It’s still not perfect. We still probably eat take-out pizza too often. I have a weakness for ice cream (my wife’s is chocolate). And we could both still try to eat more veggies and whole grains. But when you look at the difference between how I eat now and how I ate 15 years ago, it’s night and day.
The funny thing is it’s hard to think of anything I quit eating “cold turkey”. Looking back on it, we simply began to phase out the unhealthier foods because for whatever reason they weren’t as appealing as they used to be. Over time we formed new habits. Those new habits turned into more new habits. And then all of a sudden without really understanding exactly how we got there, we realized we’re doing pretty good when it came to eating healthy. Not perfect by any measure, but on the whole pretty darn good.
I guess at the end of all this, that’s my point to the story. If you’re thinking about starting to eat healthier, it doesn’t have to be all at once. New habits take time to form. You can’t expect to make any real long term sustainable change over night. I kind of like to think of it as working toward some sort of “ideal”. You may never actually reach it. Heck, it may not even really exist. But every step you make along that path is a move in the right direction. And that’s a good thing.