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How I eat (mostly) healthy when I really crave junk food

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BY CHRISTEL OERUM (DIABETES STRONG)

Most of us want to eat healthy to help manage our diabetes, our weight or just for overall wellbeing. But what does “eating healthy” actually mean and why can it sometimes be so difficult?

“Eating healthy” does not mean the same to everyone. For some, it means cutting out whole food groups like carbohydrates or fat. Others go vegetarian, gluten-free, fruitarian, and the list goes on.

The common theme for these examples is that they all eliminate something. I would like to challenge that way of thinking because I don’t think you need to eliminate whole food groups to be eating healthy.

There are other reasons for eliminating certain food groups, such as allergies, intolerances or environmental and animal rights opinions, and I completely respect that! I’m simply speaking from an “eating healthy” perspective.

Christel Oerum of Diabetes Strong eating diabetes-friendly meal

Finding a healthy balance (it doesn’t have to be all or nothing)

For me, “eating healthy” means making sure my body gets plenty of nutrition-rich food with enough vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy fats.

My meals include veggies or fruit, protein (typically fish, poultry, meat or eggs) and most often a carbohydrate such as potatoes, rice or bread.

Yes, you read that right, I eat bread!!

Of course I count my carbohydrates since I live with insulin-dependent diabetes, but that doesn’t mean that bread or carbohydrates are completely off the menu.

I pick my carbohydrates mindfully. I primarily eat low to medium-glycemic carbs (carbs that are slowly digested and don’t spike the blood sugar). I choose whole grain bread (I love Ezekiel bread), brown or wild rice, and potatoes rather than white bread or pasta.

But do I eat like this 24/7 every day of the year? No, absolutely not!

I have tried the “all or nothing” approach and I wasn’t happy or healthy. Trying to follow a very restrictive diet just meant that I went through periods of binging on “unhealthy” foods when I couldn’t stand to follow my diet anymore.

Now I include “less healthy” foods once in a while (I really like anything sweet and baked) and choose to truly enjoy them rather than obsessing about always eating healthy.

Making a healthy balance work by having a plan for what to eat

My approach of occasionally enjoying a less healthy treat only works for me when I have a fairly structured meal plan in place.

A meal plan that works for me outlines the calories and macronutrients I want to eat throughout the week (macronutrients are your proteins, carbohydrates, and fats). I then track what I eat and how well it matches my macronutrient goals in a tracking app (I use MyFitnessPal). If you’re not quite sure how to create a meal plan for yourself, you can find ideas at DiabetesStrong.com.

By having a plan and tracking my food daily, I always have a good idea of how much I am eating, if I am getting enough protein, and if my overall calorie consumption is right for my weight goals. It also lets me build in less nutritious food occasionally while ensuring that I am still getting the nutrition I need for the day.

Tracking also keeps me from going overboard on the less nutritious food, and it makes managing my diabetes so much easier since the app provides fairly accurate carbohydrate counts.

The right amount of calories and macronutrients for me depends on my activity level and what health and fitness goals I might have. This means that the optimal nutrition goal will be different from person to person. You can calculate your estimated daily calorie need at DiabetesStrong.com.

Dealing with food cravings

It is great to have a plan and to track what you eat, but there will be times where you would rather not bother with that, or you just feel like eating a whole birthday cake by yourself. It happens; it is OK. Here is how I deal with days like that.

First, I take a few deep breaths and assess why I am having those food cravings. Is it because I’m sad, tired, bored, looking for a distraction, or maybe just hungry? I have different strategies for each of these situations (and of course there are many more than these examples).

Dealing with emotional eating, like being sad, is tough because eating can dampen those sad feelings for a short while, but most people end up feeling worse afterward. I find that recognizing what’s going on and saying it out loud can be a great way of defusing the situation. “Yes, I’m sad. It’s OK to be sad sometimes, and a pint of ice cream or that cake I keep thinking about won’t change that.”

Same goes for being tired. Our appetite increases when we don’t get enough sleep and it is tempting to overeat. I rely on my meal plan for guidance when I’m tired. I look at my nutrition tracker and assess if I actually need more food or a nap.

The food tracker also comes in handy when hunger hits and I’m ready to devour anything sweet. For me, those cravings most often hit me around 4 PM. For the longest time, I thought it was just me until I started to coach people from all over the world and found that many ended up craving a treat in the afternoon.

However, what I also found was that most of us who have those afternoon cravings tend to under-eat during the day or simply go for too long between meals. That means that by 4 PM, we are hungry and eating a good nutritious snack will solve the issue. Most of us will be at work or on the move at that time so planning ahead and bringing a good snack with you is essential. It’s like the saying “never go grocery shopping when hungry” and it’s true. Try having yogurt with nuts and berries or a piece of fruit, or a protein bar such as a Quest bar and your afternoon cravings will most likely be reduced.

Dealing with the emotions around food

Cravings aside, there are also social settings (like a dinner with friends) that can be very hard to maneuver when it comes to eating healthy.

What I try to do is take a step back and think about what I really enjoy about those gatherings. For me, it is the conversations, the laughter, the love, and the dessert (I told you I love my sweets). So what I do is plan on enjoying just that. I don’t overindulge on everything that is placed in front of me but enjoy the things that matter and leave room for a little dessert.

Sometimes people have a hard time understanding my choices. A friend may not understand why I don’t want seconds or try her gravy, but honestly, that’s her problem. I politely decline and continue to enjoy what is important to me.

These are some of my tricks to eating healthy (my way) and living a life without too many constraints. Of course, I have days where my plans go out the window, but I have more days where it doesn’t, so I know this works for me. I hope some or all of my tips will work for you. If you already have a system that works, share it on the Inspiration Exchange!

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