Eating outside the comfort and control of our own homes can be intimidating, especially if we’ve worked hard to create a supportive environment to help meet our goals. 

Before we get started, take a minute to recognize how far you’ve come. One of the most important skills in creating and maintaining any new behavior is creating a supportive environment, so great job getting here! 

At some point, life happens. Eating out, traveling, eating on the run, and unexpected situations arise that will challenge our mindset, and our new habits. For many of us, it can often feel like we must do the “healthy thing” or do “nothing” at all. 

This “all-or-nothing” mindset is common. It comes from a place of internal conflict. After all, we have so many things we are trying to juggle. Sometimes, it can seem like these things are at odds with each other. For instance, “eat a healthy meal” is at odds with other things we value like “go out with friends to dinner”. 

What about the “middle ground”?

When we start to see progress from our new diet and lifestyle habits, we don’t want to rock the boat. We think to ourselves “I can eat a healthy meal at home” OR “anything goes”. 

The problem with this mindset is that it doesn’t leave any wiggle room or flexibility in our lives. At Metabolic Living, we teach clients about “structured flexibility”. Structure is important. In the beginning stages of behavior change, we need the support, control and certainly – certain “rules” around how to eat, move, and exercise. We also need flexibility to adapt that structure to our own values, goals, and needs. 

Oftentimes, there’s a choice in the middle. It’s not perfect. It’s not “anything goes” either. But it’s good enough! Most importantly, it’s a conscious choice you’ve made – with skills you already possess. You are always in control. 

Let’s consider the big picture when it comes to nutrition. 

You are a metabolic detective – in training, as we all are. Now that making healthy choices has become “easier” at home, there’s no reason that the same skills that you already have can’t be applied outside of the home!

Eventually, eating out will become less intimidating or scary. As Dr. Jade Teta likes to say, “easy is earned”. The uncertainty that comes with this new challenge is part of the process. It will become easier with time and practice. Afterall, this is a new application of your metabolic skills. 

Here’s a few tips, and an easy tool to help you navigate new environments. 

  • Embrace the middle ground. When it comes to healthy choices outside your controlled environment, consider the options in a spectrum from “best” to “worst”. What does the choice in the middle look like? On a scale from 0-10, where zero is the absolute worst choice you can make, and ten is the absolute best choice, what does a five look like? 
  • Establish your own “bright lines”. Bright lines are hard and fast rules. Going back to the idea of “structured flexibility”, this idea leans into the “structure” part by creating clear and distinct boundaries for what is allowed – and what isn’t. For example, a bright line could be “no bread” or “no sugar”. When combined with any known food triggers, this approach does two things. One, it reduces the mental energy drain that comes from navigating an overwhelming array of food options, and two, it puts you in the driver’s seat. 
  • Plan ahead using “If/Then” statements. When we are trying to put our health first, we need to make certain trade-offs. How often you eat out may be one of those trade-offs. But this doesn’t mean that you’ll never eat out again. And sometimes, eating out is the only choice. Traveling, dining out, and eating on the run are situations that may require trade-offs, too. Use “If/Then” to consider potential trade-offs before heading out. For example “If I want to eat pizza, then I’ll eat a salad first and take half the pizza home.” Or, “If I need to eat on the run, then I’ll avoid any meals with bread.” With trade-offs, throw away the idea of perfect. Good enough is your new mantra! What’s the best choice for you, considering the situation? 
  • Want-willing-won’t. Before you head out, get clear on what you are willing – and not willing – to do in these situations by considering what’s most important to you. Is it healthy choices, convenience, enjoyment? There are no right or wrong answers here. At its core, behavior is simply a coping mechanism, a way to solve problems, or a way to express our values and priorities. Does your behavior reflect your core values, needs, identity, and priorities? If not, what needs to change? 
  • Stick to the basics: protein, fiber, and water. Focus on hunger suppressing, nutrient-dense foods first. Protein is the most satiating food and the most hunger suppressing. Carbohydrates that are high in fiber and water (think fruit and vegetables) provide volume in the stomach. As the stomach fills and stretches, signals are sent to the brain that the stomach is full. Due to its bulking effect in the stomach, fiber-rich carbohydrates provide satiety with fewer calories. On the other hand, processed and refined carbohydrates that do not contain much fiber and water (like bread, chips, or pasta) do not have the same impact on hunger. For many people, these foods also trigger cravings, which leads to overeating. And lastly, fat is the least hunger-suppressing food according to research. It’s also the most calorie-dense. 

A tool for reading labels.

Hey, I get it. Eating on the go is part of life. Life is hectic, and we’re all busy juggling different roles and responsibilities. At the same time, we all want more time for ourselves, family, friends, and hobbies. And, we want to be healthy. Wow, that’s A LOT. Understandably, we find ourselves in the grocery store navigating the complex world of convenience and packaged foods. Many of these foods claim to be healthy too! That’s a no-brainer, right? Sometimes, sure. But how do we really know if this “gluten-free, dairy-free, and sugar-free” protein bar is actually healthy? On the one hand, we want quick, easy, tasty, and affordable choices. On the other hand, we want to be healthy too, and some of these claims can be misleading. You’re smart for even considering this! Let’s guide your metabolic detective with a simple tool you can use anywhere. 

When reading labels look for foods that are calorie sparse, but have a strong hunger suppressing effect. This means finding foods that satisfy you but also keep hunger, energy and cravings (HEC) in check. To figure out how hunger suppressing a processed food is, follow this equation: 

  • Step 1: Add the total amount of grams of carbohydrates + the total amount of fat grams together.
  • Step 2: Add the total number of grams of protein + total fiber grams together.
  • Step 3: Subtract the [protein + fiber] total from [carb + fat] total.
  • Tip: Calculate for 1 serving.

In this episode Dr. Jade breaks down some of the science and practical considerations around food labels and convenience foods. 

When it comes to the score, aim for foods with numbers that are less than 10. Negative numbers are better, but we’re not looking for perfection here. This is simply a tool to guide your choices and to help you navigate the plethora of packaged foods (healthy or otherwise). 

Looking for examples? I’ve got you covered. Here are a few packaged snack options that score ten or less (amazon links are for reference only): 

  • Rhythm Superfoods Kale Chips
  • SKINNYDIPPED SuperDark + Sea Salt Chocolate Covered Almonds
  • Go Raw Sprouted Seed Trail Mix Bars Gluten-Free, Paleo, Vegan, Natural, Organic, Nut Free Dark Chocolate Sea Salt
  • 365 Everyday Value, Organic Lightly Salted Pea Crisps
  • Ocean’s Halo Seaweed Snacks
  • Mediterra Savory Nutritional Bars, Kale & Pumpkin Seeds

Recap: How to make choices that are “good enough” vs “perfect” (without derailing your goals)!

  • Embrace the middle ground. What does the choice in the middle look like? 
  • Establish your own hard and fast rules. 
  • Plan ahead using “If/Then” statements. Consider potential trade-offs before heading out. 
  • Want-willing-won’t. Before you head out, get clear on what you are willing – and not willing – to do in these situations by considering what’s most important to you. 
  • Stick to the basics: protein, fiber and water.

One final note. Acknowledge the complexity and reality of these situations with compassion. Be kind to yourself. Give yourself permission to adjust and adapt to changing circumstances. When internal conflict arises, bring awareness and curiosity to it, rather than judgement and criticism. Your thoughts and feelings drive your behavior. When there’s a gap, consider what you truly want and need. Experiment with these strategies to reframe and combine values in a way that suits you.

Photo by gbarkz on Unsplash