Having worked as a private practice dietitian for nearly a decade while also being heavily involved in social media and online content, I see a lot of things out there that concern me.
This concern stems from the fact that there are a huge number of well-meaning people out there putting an honest effort into bettering their nutrition but that, through no fault of their own, fall into pitfalls that can delay or even delay their journeys.
Today’s article is a culmination of my professional observations of the current nutrition landscape combined with the onboarding of thoughts, feedback and experiences of thousands of unique clients.
The goal is simple.
To share with you where I feel most people go wrong with their approach to food and nutrition while they are on a quest for healthy nutrition.
The consequences of “going wrong” might impact your mental health, physical health or both – and you’ll have a better appreciation for that I mean by that once we get started.
Mistake #1 – Not Looking At The Big Picture
I use this terminology a lot with my clients, because I’ve seen first hand how easily people can be discouraged by what should amount to nothing but small blips on their nutrition radar.
Your personal nutrition goals will never be decided by a single meal, day or even week of nutrition.
In a given year, your health is in many ways determined by the sum of your choices over a 365 day period.
I appreciate that it is an overwhelming way for most people to look at things, which is why I usually encourage my clients to look at nutrition as a 7-day rolling process.
Whether you are trying to hit a protein or calorie target, trying to incorporate more specific food groups or simply find that balance between fun and functionality in your food choices – looking at things over a slightly more extended period will help.
It’s very common for people to over- estimate the importance of doing things 100% perfectly at all times.
If this sounds like you, take a step back and start to look at a slightly bigger time frame.
You probably aren’t thinking about the broccoli you ate Tuesday, so you don’t need to spend too much time thinking about the piece of cake you had Wednesday either.
This also means remembering that if the first six months of the year generally went well, but the seventh didn't, that you still have five more ahead of you and power to end the year on a very strong note fully in your hands.
Mistake #2 – Buying Into The Nutrition Noise
Minimize nutrition noise.
Nutrition noise is a term I use with my clients to refer to all of the competing inputs in your life (or online) trying to offer you unsolicited advice on your food intake.
Nutrition noise is a problem for a few reasons.
#1 Many people offering advice don’t have your best interests in mind
The obvious exceptions to this are your very close friends/loved ones and health professionals like myself who you may be working with in a one-on-one capacity.
The vast majority of other people you encounter who provide nutrition advice are not likely to have your best interests in mind.
Online personalities often prioritize their own popularity and platform growth over their audiences well-being and you might also encounter otherwise friendly people who are passionate about nutrition but can’t possibly be able to parse your unique journey and needs.
Which brings me to the next point.
#2 Even those who do probably don’t have the knowledge to help
This is where the popularized “almond mom” concept really comes into play.
The term “almond mom” generally refers to that mother figure who, despite coming from a place of care and concern, actually has a damaging effect on a child’s nutrition ( youth or adult!) through overly critical comments on their diet.
This phenomenon speaks to a bigger issue which is the overwhelming likelihood that even those who care about you most simply don’t have the tact and scientific nutrition knowledge required to deliver meaningful and beneficial messages to you.
There are some exceptions to this rule, and there is no easy fix beyond finding a trusted source of nutrition information that resonates with you.
For those who are able, working with a dietitian who covers their area of concern/interest is the best bet, but finding one via social media or other online channels could be a reasonable alternative.
Finally, I try to teach my clients to minimize their nutrition noise by confiding in my guidance and discussing any conflicting outside inputs they are exposed to with me.
Mistake #3 – Expecting Perfection
Perfection in health or nutrition for many of us refers to getting closer to the level of some reference individual or past version of ourselves.
Pursuing perfect nutrition is a very nuanced area, and I’m going through the layers involved.
Let’s start with the fact that I always want people to aim high when it comes to their nutrition and health goals.
There’s a fine line to consider here.
That line is the point of diminishing or even detrimental returns where the additional effort required is either simply not worth the outcome or may even be damaging to your health.
Perhaps the most common example of this phenomenon is trying to lose “those last few pounds”.
Inevitably a point arises where the calorie restriction or energy output (working out) to lose additional weight simply does not add to your life in the same way that allowing yourself a bit more flexibility would.
The same could be said for always trying to eat perfectly all the time.
To look at it abstractly, it would be hard to convince me that the vast majority of people would benefit more from eating well 100% of the time than let’s say doing so 90% of the time and enjoying the social and dietary liberty associated with that bit of freedom.
It’s also important to be able to acknowledge when you are doing “the best you can with what you’ve got”, which is to say being content with the level of effort you are able to put forward even if its not what you wish it was.
Suffice to say, the 20-year-old free-living version of you and an older version of you with more work and life responsibilities would define that differently.
This leads to another common concern though, which is one’s ability to identify and act on their points of both best effort and that of diminishing returns.
In my observations, many people lack that capacity because of this next big nutrition mistake – a lack of self reflection.
Mistake #4– Lacking Self-Reflection
Self-reflection looks differently for different people in different situations, but I consider it an absolutely fundamental component of sustainable, successful dietary changes.
I think that the best way to bring to life the importance of self-reflection is to offer several examples.
Reflection could mean….
Reflecting … back to earlier stages of your life to better understand how your current view of health is shaped.
Reflecting … on why previous attempts to change your health or habits have worked or not worked in order to take those lessons forward.
Reflecting … on the situations you do well in food-wise vs the ones you don’t in your daily or weekly life and strategizing accordingly.
There are infinite examples that I could use and various forms that reflection could take including journalizing, food diarizing, working with a professional or even simply taking quiet time to yourself to think.
I can’t tell you what form of self-reflection is best for you at this moment but what I can tell you is that reflection in some capacity is, in my experience, an inevitable component of successfully implementing nutrition changes over time.
Every little bit counts, which is why my sixth and final nutrition mistake in today’s piece is underestimating small changes.
Mistake #5 – Underestimating Small Changes
I was debating whether or not to include this section because it wades into commenting on specific food choices, but ultimately, it’s important to comment on so I’m going to do so briefly.
Too many people get caught up in an all or nothing approach to nutrition, which could actually manifest itself in any of the other common nutrition mistakes discussed today.
All else equal, however, there is no denying that small and consistent changes to your diet could significantly improve your long-term health.
Let’s use fish as an example.
Many people don’t eat fish, but the reality is that it is pretty much the only food that naturally contains large amounts of Vitamin D3 and the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA & DHA.
Case in point, the act of eating a can of mackerel a day could give someone a full day supply of both of these essential nutrients that many people don’t get enough of and often supplement.
Pretty fascinating right?
I’m not saying eating canned mackerel is everyone’s cup of tea, but this is only one of the endless examples of how relatively small dietary changes can have a big impact on your health.
Try your very best not to lose sight of that fact.
Andy De Santis RD MPH
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