So many of our eating habits are determined during our childhood, and become increasingly more difficult to change the longer we allow them to persist into adulthood. Not all of these nutritional habits are bad, however, some can certainly cause health concerns later in life.
For example, I come from a large Italian family, that greatly associates food with happiness. Still to this day, if my 93 year old Gram thinks I’ve lost too much weight in my face, that means I must not be eating, so therefore I must be unhappy- as opposed to the reality of me tightening up my nutrition. Cleaning your plate and going back for seconds or even thirds had always been the way to make my Gram happiest.
For an old-school Italian family like mine, food is also representative of love as well as happiness. Memories of sitting around a big table, sharing stories over our favorite meals, always puts a smile on my face.
Pasta, to this day, tastes best to me on Sunday’s- with as many people as possible at the table. This is the day of the week we were raised to eat it on, with the sauce and meatballs cooking all day. In addition, Friday night was always pizza night at my Gram’s, where all of my aunts, uncles and cousins would convene to hold court on the past week. The kids would do their homework before the pizza came, then we would all talk about our week at school or work, over dinner.
Pasta and pizza. Two foods that bring back the fondest memories of childhood for me. The problem I faced as I became increasingly aware of my nutrition as an adult, is that neither pizza or pasta would register on any list of healthy meals that a quality nutritional plan should be centered around.
For a few years, I mainly steered clear of both these foods. Which certainly served me well from a physique standpoint, however, what I noticed was that when I did indulge in pizza or pasta, I would eat an exuberant amount- almost to the point of making myself sick. This was the result of a ‘deprivation’ style mindset regarding nutrition.
In this write up, my goal is not to give a hall pass to eat whatever food brings you the most nostalgia or makes you ‘happiest’- because very often, these are not the healthiest choices- however, I hope to offer insight on some strategies to implement that will allow you to guilt-free enjoy meals that mean the most to your soul.
The biggest question is, how can you reconcile healthy nutritional habits, while also feeling the cultural love of the food that resonates the most with you?
Don’t Ignore Your Culture- Learn to Incorporate It in a Healthy Way
Feeling deprived is one of the leading reasons healthy eating habits fail to adhere to most individuals. If you constantly feel like you “can’t” have this or that, then you’re going to sour very quickly on eating healthy. This emotion tends to become even more intense when you are dealing with a food that means more to you than just it’s nutritional components.
For myself, if I continued to deprive myself of some of the foods that I identify as cultural (i.e. any type of pasta, meatballs, Italian sausage) I’d be miserable about it- and when I did submit to my cravings, I would over-indulge. The key is finding the balance of incorporating them into an overall healthy lifestyle.
Employ the 19 out of 21 Rule to Eliminate Deprivation Dieting
This is a topic I’ve written extensively about in the past, however, it bears repeating because it is ultra-important when approaching your nutritional plan as a whole. Cheat meals become the downfall of a lot of healthy eating habits. Because we live in an all or nothing society, it seems most people are either doing Keto or eating Stouffers and take out several nights a week- with no in between. Our nutritional lifestyle DOES NOT have to be perfect in order for it to be effective- it just needs to be consistent. Most diets wind up failing because there is such a rigidity surrounding how strict they need to be- once a cheat meal happens the wheels fall off and we think “F**k it- I might as well eat what I want. The diet’s blown.”
The main adjustment to your nutritional perspective is to look at your meals from a weekly perspective rather than daily. Regardless of the number of meals per day, consider that you roughly have 21 “main meals” per week (breakfast, lunch and dinner). If you make positive food choices for 19 out of those 21, that means 90.4% of your meals were healthy. Physical Therapist and Strength cCoach, Gray Cook, once said: “If you do anything 90% of the time, you’re going to have damn good results.” And he is 100% right. As long as you’re able to throw the brakes on if/when you have those 2 flexible meals (I’d recommend them being non-consecutive for best results), you’re going to be well on track to maintaining a healthy nutritional lifestyle.
Again, the act of deprivation will almost certainly lead to the demise of healthy eating habits. Rather than thinking in the negative, change your mindset to think more in the positive regarding your food choices. For example, rather than saying to yourself, “I can’t have pasta and meatballs.” Instead say to yourself, “I can have pasta and meatballs in moderation.” When you feel like you’re being deprived, it will lead to more often nutritional benders.
If the meal that you identify as part of your culture is not particularly healthy, that doesn’t mean you have to cut it out altogether. It just means you need to be smart with two aspects of the meal:
- Your portion size
- The food/drink surrounding your meal
The first key is managing both the portion you consume, but more importantly, the amount you are preparing as well. Traditional portion control is pretty self-explanatory- eat until you are satisfied as opposed to the feeling of being “stuffed.” A second helping should be focused more on additional vegetables or protein instead of the carbohydrate option(s). The latter aspect of portion control (the actual amount of food being cooked) was a difficult transition for me, because I come from a family that doesn’t cook for just one meal- we cook for leftovers.
This is a great method to employ with healthier food options- being able to stretch a few meals out of one will immensely cut your grocery bill down. Health and physique-wise, the issue arises when you start stretching meals out of questionable food choices (in my case, pasta).
If you are not careful, overcooking could result in you having 2 or 3 additional unhealthy meals. Add to the fact that if you’re like me, and you abhor throwing food away, you’ll most likely finish the leftovers. By overcooking and saving the leftovers of your one special, cheat meal, it will inevitably get extended into several sub-par meals.
Learning not to overcook is an area I had to make a serious adjustment. Instead of making a cauldron-sized pot of sauce and 2 dozen meatballs (for just my wife and I), I’ve scaled back to just enough sauce and meatballs that appropriately correspond with the amount of pasta I’ll be cooking that night. This way I don’t have the extra sauce and meatballs that may turn lunch for the next several days into different pasta variations or homemade meatball hoagies…as much as I would love both of these options, neither qualify as high quality nutritional choices.
The second aspect of containing “the cheat” is paying extremely close attention to the food and drink being ingested outside the main meal. In my case, this would be eliminating (or minimally greatly reducing) the garlic bread, bruschetta, copious amounts of Italian desserts and wine. Each of these options go great with pasta and meatballs, and in the past I have consumed all of them…in the same meal! In order to be conscious of my overall nutrition, I acknowledge that my cheat is the pasta and meatballs and accordingly limit any unhealthy appetizer, dessert and/or drink options.
An inability to limit food surrounding your main meal is an example of how a special, meaningful meal, can be compounded into a bigger nutritional binge. The better you can limit the ‘side’ food choices, the more flexibility you’ll have with the actual meal itself!
Make Small Adjustments to Traditional Dishes
This is a fine line to walk because if your family is like mine, when you repeat a special dish you’re either trying to emulate how someone else made it, or you’re putting your own spin on it. Both of these options are putting a premium on the ‘taste’ of the meal, so any adjustments you make to traditional dishes will most likely need to be small- in order to maintain their status as ‘traditional.’
This could be as simple as using marginally less salt, substituting whole wheat for white (where applicable) or even changing the method in which you cook- such as baking or broiling instead of frying. Examine your recipe closely and over time, experiment with different ways you can make your traditional dish marginally healthier. Every little adjustment helps, and shows simultaneous commitment to your culture as well as maintaining a mostly healthy nutritional lifestyle.
Embrace the Cultural Aspect of Nutrition and Lead a Fuller and Healthier Life
In order to achieve total health, it is imperative to live a full and balanced life. Too often, hard-ass nutritional coaches or fitness personalities label nutrition and food as merely “fuel” to your body. Or they’ll say things like “your body is a temple, think carefully about what you put in it.” While these are very true statements, they simply are not a realistic nutritional mindset for the majority of normal people. It creates a stigma of guilt associated with flexible diet choices.
Many cultures are like the Italians that associate food with family, love and memories. While food should never control you, it is necessary to find the balance of leading a mostly healthy nutritional lifestyle, while still finding time to incorporate meals of substance for your soul. Take the appropriate steps to minimize the negative impact your meal will have on you, and enjoy the memories and love you will feel as you prepare and eat a meal that is special to you!
Yours in Fitness and Health,
Your Final Reward Will Be Heartache and Tears, If You’ve Cheated the Guy in the Glass.