The 6 Pillars of Fitness: Nutrition

Here is where things stand when it comes to nutrition:

  1. Every food causes and prevents cancer (at the same time).
  2. Nutrition research is constantly evolving and yesterday’s recommendations are tomorrow’s sin (but some universal consensus around nutrition has been made).
  3. By the numbers, the weight loss industry has made it no secret that profit margins are priority number one (and we’re finally catching on).
  4. Everyone you know has a little advice for you to start eating better, but haven’t made a single change themselves.

With that being said, I put zero blame on anyone who chooses to close their eyes and hope it all goes away. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, nutrition is hard.

When I began making a more conscious effort in my food decisions, I began consulting my sister (who’s a doctor) and a close friend of mine (who’s a Registered Dietitian).

There is no way I was about to head to the dark depths of the internet and attempt to find the answers on my own. Maybe you have succeeded with such a strategy and to that I say, “want to write for Your Pen Paul?” But seriously, do you?

Anyway, the majority of us who have tried to make changes in our eating habits have all too often been faced with obstacles too difficult to overcome, so we remain where we are. Whether it was battling our picky taste buds or battling our mental health where comfort food is the only thing that brings us happiness, there is always “something” that gets in the way.

As of today, the former is no longer an excuse. Your taste buds can be tuned to a better culinary song and it takes a surprisingly short amount of time. Especially when you consider the decades you have spent developing your current food habits.

When it comes to nutrition, you need to be more patient than ever because I can all but promise you, you will fail.

Now, when it comes to your mental health, I want you to know I’ve been there (and revisit from time to time). I don’t need to conduct research to know every single person is fighting a unique battle. On top of that, you have to face the stigma in this country that makes discussing such things nearly impossible.

So, it is my promise to you that if you commit yourself to the Fitness in Five lifestyle, the positive vibes in the actions you take will guide you toward a calmer, quieter, happier mind.

There are numerous formulas and strategies that can assist you in creating a sustainable lifestyle change in regards to food, but there are some universal habits anyone can integrate into their daily life. The most important thing to remember, especially as you focus on integrating each pillar into your daily routine, is to go slow and steady.

If you try to implement every single strategy today and expect immediate change in your behavior, you are either going to be the one in a million who has incredible resolve, or you will be like me and run straight back to your old, familiar ways.

Remember, Fitness in Five is all about looking back at yourself five years from now and evaluating the positive changes you have made. Yes, you must make an intentional effort every day during this time period, but your efforts must be conscious of and realistic to the challenges ahead.

When it comes to nutrition, you need to be more patient than ever because I can all but promise you, you will fail. Or as the diet world likes to say, you will “cheat.” But through those failures, you will begin to see more and more positive changes in your skills (e.g. cooking) and your decision making (i.e. heading straight for the produce in the grocery store) and your failures will become few and far between.

So, what can you do today to take a positive step forward? Below you will find a list of things that you will need to commit to over time, but today, I only want you to choose one that sounds like something you are willing to try. As you begin integrating each of these habits into your life, you will find things you used to turn your nose up to will look attractive and easy. Find the item that looks easiest today, and commit all of your culinary willpower to that practice.

1. COOK

This will always be at the top of the list based on my own experience. If you make cooking your meals the first option that pops in your head (instead of eating out or opting for something in a box), you will already be on a new level.

Fair warning, cooking and failure are two peas in a pod, so if you choose this option, I want you to go into it knowing some (or a lot) of your food will be heading for the trash.

I wish I could show you the numerous times I have forgotten an ingredient, made chaos from the easiest recipes, burnt a once delicious looking “anything,” or even attempted to cook something after turning the burner off midway through the process (that’s a story for another day).

As I began taste testing foods I once saw as repulsive, I discovered flavors I never knew existed.

With all of these experiences under my belt, I have some advice. Don’t get discouraged. Laugh at your humanness, toss your failure into the garbage (but I do recommend taking a bite just to add a physical reminder to compare your successes to), make a PB&J, and reset your mind before your next meal.

If you are looking for a good place to start greasing your culinary gears, I highly recommend heading over to Damn Delicious. This is where I really honed in on my cooking skills and built up loads of confidence.

In general, I recommend starting with one pan recipes (check here, here, or here) or taking advantage of the 8th Wonder of The World, the crockpot. As time goes by, you’ll notice a nice stock of pantry staples start to pile up in your kitchen and recipes will consist of less and less unfamiliar ingredients.

2. TAKE STOCK

A big part of our poor eating habits stems from a lack of self-assessment. If you don’t ask yourself what you’re eating, you won’t know what needs to change. This task is less daunting than the one above and could trick you into developing better food habits over time.

All you have to do is go into your kitchen and write down every single item in your refrigerator, freezer, pantry, cupboards, Lazy Susan, on your counter…you get the point. Write down every single thing that can be put in your mouth and sent to your stomach (don’t forget the candy dish).

Once your list is complete, I want you to take 10 or 15 minutes to take it all in item by item and get a sense for your food choices. Two things will become immediately clear.

  1. You will become fully aware of your relationship with food. I am willing to bet that 90% of the items you write down have been purchased on more than one occasion. I’m sure you’ve heard of people that promote keeping a food diary. Well, the list in front of you is exactly that, except you didn’t have to spend weeks taking detailed notes just to learn what you mostly already know. What’s in your pantry is what’s in your stomach. Plain and simple. And if your pantry is empty, I highly encourage you to take on the first challenge: cook.
  2. You will become hyperaware of the amount of food in your kitchen. You are either a food hoarder that constantly throws out expired food or you order take out so often that you don’t even have enough food to make a meal in the first place.

Whichever end of the spectrum you live on, just take note of your current habit. There are many things that can be built off this list making practice, but we will leave those alone for now.

I want you to repeat this exercise (from scratch) each time you restock your shelves after making a visit to the grocery store. As each week passes, keep your lists together. After 5 weeks, I want you to review your first list with your most recent list. Do you notice any significant changes? Are their less or more of certain food items?

I am willing to bet that once you start taking stock of the food in your kitchen, you will start developing a guilty conscience when you notice the ratio between healthy and unhealthy food items leans in favor of the latter. Without ever setting out to make a change in your purchasing habits, you might find you have done exactly that (just let it happen).

3. INVESTIGATE (and try It)

When I first began bringing attention to my eating habits, I noticed how much of the produce section at my local grocery store was completely foreign to me. The variety of lettuces alone made my jaw drop.

To encourage picky eaters out there, I can proudly say I was once a member of the club (ask my mother). I say "was" because my membership has expired. As I opened my eyes to all the unique ingredients available to me, I began developing a curiosity I had never had before.

I just wanted to try things. I flipped the switch on my motherboard and took the mentality of “sure, I’ll try that.” That definitely doesn’t mean I like everything I try, but I have taken a liking to many vegetables and fruits I once had on my “no fly” list. I even enjoy tofu now, which is really the only proof I need to give.

The biggest difference between a picky eater and a foodie is the willingness to look at something unfamiliar and see adventure rather than risk. As a picky eater, I tended to ask myself, “why would I put unfamiliar food in my mouth if I already know a grilled cheese sandwich won’t let me down?”

Beyond the fact that a grilled cheese sandwich doesn’t exactly constitute a meal, as I began taste testing foods I once saw as repulsive (for no other reason than my poorly programmed mental faculties), I discovered flavors I never knew existed. My body began firing off messages to my brain saying “please, give me more of that” and my ancient biological habits took the wheel.

With all of the information laid out above, I would be remiss to avoid discussing the reality economic restrictions have on our food budgets.

If this question has been floating around in your head while reading this post, I plan to spend time writing a complementary post on my personal goals in budgeting for food on a monthly basis. I hold rather strong beliefs on this particular topic, so I want to make sure everything is well organized before putting it out there.

In the meantime, there is a short, well thought out piece on Lifehacker in response to a reader inquiry asking for food budgeting advice. So if you’re interested, head on over there and share your thoughts below!

*If there is ever a time where you need to talk to someone, please use the following resources: National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1‑800‑273‑TALK (8255) or check out their live online chat. For general mental health services, contact the SAMHSA Treatment Referral Helpline at 1-877-726-4727. If you aren’t in immediate danger and want to have a casual conversation, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me (paul@yourpenpaul.com). I am not a psychologist nor do I have any other credentials for dealing with mental health problems, but I am a fellow human being with an ear ready to listen.*


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