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This time, it’ll be different. How many times have you said that to yourself when starting a new diet? If it’s been more than once, then you already know that starting out on the right foot when launching a new diet can help propel you into longer-term improvements in health habits. Cleaning out the kitchen to make space for a new approach to food is a great place to start.
First, it’s important to assess exactly why you’re starting a new diet and whether it’s liable to be sustainable and successful in the long run.
A quick fix will only set you up for disappointment later, says Janette Wong, a registered dietitian with Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, California. “Once you’ve decided that you want to make positive changes to your eating habits, you must take these new changes as your new lifestyle, and not just a fad diet to lose weight or to fit into an outfit for an occasion.”
If you’re serious this time, starting with a clean slate can help, adds Kristine Dilley, a staff dietitian at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center Comprehensive Weight Management Clinic in Columbus. “Anytime you start working on improving your dietary habits, it’s a good idea to start with a clean and organized kitchen. Taking just a little bit of time to clean out and restock the pantry “in a manner that will make meal planning and preparation more efficient” can help you start off on the right foot when shifting your eating habits. “If it’s easier to find things, you’re more likely to stick with your new plan.”
What to Toss
But where should you focus your energy when readying the kitchen for your new lifestyle? “Start by getting rid of anything that is expired, damaged or nearly empty,” Dilley says.
Cesar Sauza, a registered dietitian and nutrition manager with AltaMed Health Services in Los Angeles, says that dumping most highly processed foods, is a good place to start because “the majority have added sugar and/or added fats. Any processed foods or cheat foods should be purchased in small quantities instead of bulk,” and don’t keep them in the house. “Remember, out of sight, out of mind.”
Dr. Andrew Freeman, director of clinical cardiology and director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness with National Jewish Health in Denver, agrees that zeroing in on “garbage carbs,” is a good place to start. By that, he means highly processed, starchy, sugary or salty snack foods. “They really don’t do anything good for you, so when you cut them out, people lose weight.”
But instead of just heaving it all into the garbage, Freeman suggests taking a look at what you’ll be removing from your kitchen and see if it can help someone else. “I usually tell people to consider clearing up their fridge, freezer or pantry and making a donation to a local food bank.”
As you take stock of what’s left after that purge, Dilley recommends asking yourself a few questions:
- Do I enjoy eating this?
- Do I know how to make a meal with this?
- Will this food help me reach my nutrition goals?
“If you can’t answer yes to these questions, that item should probably go into the donation pile. Keeping food items around because you think you should be eating them will just lead to clutter,” Dilley says.
Some foods that might not fit well with your goals if you’re looking to shed some weight include:
- High fat or breaded meats.
- Any kind of fried food.
- High fat dairy foods. Freeman recommends dumping “cheese and cheese products” because these often have high fat and cholesterol levels that could contribute to the development of heart disease.
- Canned fruits in syrups. Canned fruit can work, so long as it’s packaged in water or fruit juice, rather than high-fructose corn syrup, which adds lots of sugar and calories.
- Canned meats in oil. While an item like tuna fish packed in olive oil isn’t necessarily unhealthy, the added oil does increase the fat and calorie content of the fish. So, if you’re watching your weight, look for lean meats packed in water instead.
- Condiments that are high in fat or sugar, such as heavy salad dressings, barbecue sauces or syrups.
- Refined carbohydrate sources such as cookies, snack cakes or cereal or bars that are high in added sugars. “I’d recommend tossing out most candies, cookies and pastries because it’s typically easy to overeat sweets, such as milk chocolates, candy bars and sweet breads,” Wong says. However, “some cookies may be okay to keep, such as oatmeal cookies. If you decide to have a sweet treat, make sure to do it when you are not hungry, and have a small portion (one serving or less).”
- Foods high in sodium and fat. “Examples include popcorn with added salt and butter, potato chips, instant noodles, hot dogs and deli meats, such as ham, salami, bologna and bacon,” Wong says. “Frequently having high-sodium and/or high-fat foods in large quantities can gradually elevate your blood pressure and may lead to hypertension.”
- Sugary beverages. Soda, artificially-flavored drinks and energy drinks are all high in sugar and can be detrimental to your new diet, Wong says, as these sugary beverages can lead to weight gain.
What to Restock
When it comes to restocking after a clean out, Dilley says “the overall goal should be to work toward filling your refrigerator and pantry with as many whole foods as possible and keeping processed items limited.”
To do that, Freeman recommends “shopping predominately in the produce section of the grocery store” and limiting what you purchase in the packaged goods sections of the stores.
But you will want to have some dried goods and faster-prep items on hand when you’re in a pinch, Wong adds. “It’s a good idea to have dry foods and canned foods in your pantry in case you need to prepare something quickly.
- Replace buttered popcorn with plain popcorn.
- Choose wheat pasta or buckwheat noodles instead of instant noodles.
- Swap the deli meat for canned fish or chicken packed in water, not oil.
- When selecting these pantry staples, always opt for those that are lower in sodium and fat.
As you remove the less healthy foods from your kitchen and your diet, Wong recommends gradually adding foods that are high in fiber and low in fat and sodium.
- Whole-wheat products, such as whole wheat bread or whole wheat pasta and whole grains such as brown rice, beans, barley and oats.
- Fruits that are either fresh, dried, frozen without added sugar or canned in their own juice (not in syrup).
- Vegetables that are either fresh, frozen or canned without cream or cheese sauce.
- Skim or low-fat dairy products, such as fat-free milk or low-fat cheese.
When starting a new diet, it’s important to “learn to set goals,” Dilley says. “Goals help you break down what can seem like an overwhelming task.” This is why setting a nebulous goal to “eat healthier” can be hard to define and can lead to frustration.
To make your goals more useful, “focus on small, short-term goals that you can achieve and be specific. Identify one to two areas that you struggle with, and use those to guide your goals,” Dilley says.
Examples of small, specific goals include:
- Don’t eat out more than two times per week.
- Eat at least two vegetables per day.
“Track your progress and note when you’re consistently achieving your goals. This success will help keep you motivated to make more changes.”
Dilley also recommends using online resources from the MyPlate website or downloading the Start Simple with MyPlate tracker app.
“The MyPlate method is a tool that’s based on the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans; it creates a visual picture of how different food portions should look on your plate to balance your meals. The Start Simple tracker also assists you with goal setting and tracking your progress.”
Making long-lasting lifestyle changes isn’t easy, and it’s not always a linear process; you may encounter some setbacks along the way. When this inevitably happens, “be kind to yourself,” Wong says. “It’s okay to indulge (but not overindulge) once in a while with small portions of your favorite foods, but remember not to lose focus of your goal. You’re creating a new eating habit, not a temporary change, and this is a lifelong journey.
Sauza encourages you to “avoid thinking about it as a ‘diet’ but rather think about it as a change in lifestyle. Our diets are simply a combination of habits that have been formed since childhood or for many years. The key to eating healthy is to make changes consistently to form new habits.”
This is important because “over 95% of diets fail. I recommend you stop approaching healthy eating through temporary diets and focus on consistent changes,” Sauza says. And those changes extend to getting plenty of high-quality sleep and drinking plenty of water, as both can influence weight management efforts.