Category Archives: Tips From a Student

Treats and Cheats: Re-Thinking “Forbidden Foods”

This post is part of the Tips From a Student series. The student lifestyle can sometimes be non-conducive to health. In this section I share my own strategies for balancing health, school, and social life.

Fruit Salad

Last week, in my post about orthorexia, I wrote about how important it is to think about food in a healthy way. No matter how healthy the food you’re eating is, mindset is key — especially if you have a history of disordered eating habits like so many of us do. Having a healthy mindset, however, is much more difficult than it sounds: there’s no switch you can flip to suddenly change the way you relate to food on a subconscious, emotional, or psychological level. This week, therefore, I want to share some tips about how to alter your mindset to think about food, especially treats, in a healthy, sustainable way.

In a search for health and/or fat loss, it is inevitable that you will stumble upon a program (or many programs) that advises you to eliminate something, to treat something as “forbidden”. This may be a particular group of foods (meat, grains, dairy, etc.), a particular micronutrient (fat, carbs, or protein), or something else (calories, sodium, cholesterol, etc.). Any program that wants to help you gain health or lose weight will almost certainly eliminate (or dramatically reduce) at least one of these elements. Leaving aside the issue of whether any individual program’s recommendations are in fact conducive to health, we can assume that these recommendations are at least intended to be healthy.

By categorizing any food or food group as “forbidden,” however, these recommendations have the potential to feed into the disordered mental processes of many individuals. An obsession begins over foods that are “allowed” and “not allowed,” and things like self-worth begin to hinge on those choices. On one end of the spectrum, this can lead to orthorexia: obsessive adherence to a way of eating characterized by self-punishment at the prospect of failure. On the other end of the spectrum, it leads to failure to adhere to the program: overwhelming guilt and often resignation from the program after a supposed “cheat”.

A low-carb dieter might sometimes give into the temptation of a bowl of pasta. A low-calorie dieter might binge on chocolate bars and ice cream. These are common experiences, but they create the illusion of a lazy, weak-willed population, unable to resist temptation. I personally, however, find it hard to have so little faith in humanity: I refuse to believe that all of those people out there trying so hard to get healthy are failing just because of a lack of will power. (NOTE: This is a multi-faceted issue that lies at the very heart of my interest in health and nutrition. Today I’m looking at the mental health side of the problem, but in future posts I will address the issue further).

How, then, can we change the way people are thinking about these “forbidden” foods? How can we avoid self-punishment, guilt, and failure? The following are four tips that helped (and continue to help) me immensely in fighting my disordered mindset.

Reframe the Question

One useful way to avoid thinking about “forbidden” foods and therefore opening yourself up to ideas like “failure” is to reframe the project in your mind. Instead of thinking about the foods you can’t eat, think about the ones you can. Instead of thinking about eliminating/reducing carbohydrates, think about adding protein, fat, and non-starchy vegetables. Instead of thinking about avoiding sodium or trans fats, focus on choosing real foods like vegetables and unprocessed meats (they’ll have less sodium and trans fat than low-sodium processed food anyway). By thinking about food with positive statements instead of negative ones, you set yourself up to be more positive about your food choices.

Make Things Clear

If there are specific foods that you have chosen to avoid, make sure you know why you have eliminated them. Decisions really only have power behind them when you make them for you. Just because your doctor (or partner, or friend, or diet guru) tells you something is healthy, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you really believe them or that the choice was really yours. Before deciding to avoid something, make sure you really believe it.

Food intolerances and allergies make this part really easy. If you know that a certain food is going to send you running to the washroom, give you a rash, or put you into anaphylactic shock, it’s a lot easier to avoid it: there is a clear, short-term consequence. Similarly, moral, ethical, or religious food decisions are easy to make because there is strong mental structure behind those choices.

On the other hand, avoiding something just for the heck of it or because someone told you to will be extremely difficult, setting you up for failure. If you’re in this situation, think carefully about why you are really eliminating those foods. Are you reducing your carbohydrate intake to lose fat? Are you avoiding soy and corn products because you oppose genetic modification? Whatever your reasons are, make them clear so that you know why you’re making the decision to avoid that food.

Turn It Into a Lifestyle

We’ve all heard it before: this isn’t a diet, it’s a lifestyle. Often what people mean when they say that is that it’s a long-term diet program and/or that it incorporates lifestyle factors apart from food, like sleep and exercise. When I say lifestyle, I’m talking about something much more encompassing: a mentality that allows for sustainability. In the space of a three-week detox or a quick fat-loss plan, you might be able to avoid a long list of “forbidden” foods entirely. In the space of a lifetime, however, total avoidance is difficult to maintain without falling prey to some form of mental disorder. Sometimes, as in the case of allergies, intolerances, and moral/ethical/religious convictions, it is necessary (and therefore easier) to avoid certain foods. For others decisions, however, like avoiding sugar or genetically-modified products, it is sometimes better to be flexible and make peace with the idea of occasional treats — it will depend on the food and your own situation how often these treats should be incorporated.

NOTE: Be careful not to turn these exceptions or treats into rules (for example, I can have one piece of chocolate cake each week or I can only have french fries on days that I also go to the gym). These sorts of rules have good intentions behind them, but they can easily be incorporated into an orthorexic mindset. Think instead about what treats are acceptable to you and give rough guidelines about how often you can have those treats without interfering with your original goals. Most importantly, don’t think about the treats as “cheating” or “falling off the wagon”: if you can have a slice of cake now and then without de-railing your health goals, GO FOR IT!

Make Conscious Decisions

The biggest factor in all of this is woven through all of the above tips: make conscious decisions. The difference between a treat and a cheat, between a choice and a failure, is the level of involvement you had in that decision. A craving for a bowl of chocolate ice cream is fine and completely understandable: does that mean you should grab the whole carton and a spoon and start chowing down? Probably not. Does that mean you shouldn’t have any ice cream? Not necessarily. Food tastes great–there’s no denying it–but the taste only lasts a few moments: after that you have to deal with the consequences to your health. By giving into cravings for taste without thinking about the long-term consequences, we set ourselves up for guilt and self-punishment. By making a conscious decision to eat something, despite any negative consequences, we can fully enjoy it and then move on to make a lifetime’s worth of healthy decisions. Similarly, we are empowered by decisions to avoid something or to opt for a healthier option.

None of these tips will necessarily change anything about what you’re eating, but by incorporating these elements into your mindset surrounding food, you will set yourself up for success and for healthy mental processes.

Real Resolutions: How to Set Achievable Goals

This post is coming a little late for New Year’s resolutions, but I’ve been thinking about this topic since I saw the New Year’s Resolution Rush at the gym earlier this week. I go to a gym on campus at my university about two or three times a week at 6:30 am, right when it opens. As you might expect, most students find it difficult to get up for morning classes, much less 6:30 am workouts, so the gym at this time of the morning is fairly sparsely populated. Except for the first few weeks of January. In January, without fail, there is always a huge crowd of students standing outside the doors to the gym by 6:25, eager to make good on their exercise-based resolutions. Of course, by mid-term time, nearly all of them are gone.

I’m not one to begrudge someone for not making it to the gym, especially not so early in the morning — I myself have been known to re-set the alarm for an extra hour or two of sleep on occasion. What I find interesting about this annual rush, however, (I’ve seen it for the past six years) is what it indicates about the sustainability of any sort of resolution, New Year’s-related or otherwise. Resolutions made on the first day of January are notoriously unsustainable: we’ve probably all had experiences with those promises that don’t last much past January 3rd. The question we should all be asking ourselves, then, is “why?” Why did we fail to reach our goals? This question can have many answers and it will depend on the person and the goal, but most of those answers can be summarized into four main reasons why most resolutions and goals fail to be accomplished. In this post I will outline those four main reasons and give examples of some solutions.

Mistake #1: Lack of Motivation

Lack of motivation is a huge contributor to goal-failure but one that is not often recognized. It’s great to say “I want to exercise more,” but the important question to ask yourself is how much do you want it? Do you want to exercise more than you want to play video games? More than you want to hang out with friends? We have limited time in the day, and any goal that involves doing something is going to require some time out of your day. You probably didn’t have a ton of unfilled time before making this goal, so it is likely that you will have to stop doing something else in order to make time for this new time-consuming activity. If you have a full-time job, a good social life, a couple of hobbies, and a desire to eat and sleep everyday, fitting in exercise can be really difficult: so do you want to workout enough that you are willing to give up something else?

Solution: Consider your level of motivation before making the goal. When you decide that you want to lose fat or get in shape or learn how to play piano, you have to decide whether you care about it enough. Do you care enough about losing fat to stop eating certain foods? Do you care enough about getting in shape to make time in your schedule to walk or go to the gym? Do you care enough about learning to play piano to find time to practice every day? These may seem like obvious connections, but we often don’t think about the connection between the abstract and the practical when we’re making resolutions. If you find that your motivation isn’t enough, then maybe this isn’t the right time in your life for that goal. Amend it or postpone it until your level of motivation is sufficient to accomplish it.

Mistake #2: Ambiguity

I can’t count the number of times that someone has told me about a resolution like “I want to get healthier” or “I want to save more money” or “I want to be more organized.” These resolutions are coming from a good place – a desire for self-improvement – but there is very little chance that this person will be successful in accomplishing any one of those goals because they are too ambiguous. The words “healthier,” “more,” and “organized” are such abstract concepts that can mean so many different things that these goals could be accomplished in many different ways but are therefore unlikely to be accomplished at all.

Solution: Make a concrete plan. First, ask yourself what “healthy” means for you. Does this mean that you want to lose fat? gain muscle? regulate blood sugar? Once you have a more solid idea of your goal, make a resolution that will help you get there. For instance, “I will stop eating snacks between meals” or “I will go to the gym three times per week” or “I will avoid any foods with refined or added sugar” are all good, specific resolutions that could all work towards the end goal of “healthy.” Similarly, saving money could involve getting a new job or it could involve not buying $5 lattes every day of the week. Becoming more organized could mean using an agenda to write down to do lists and appointments or it could mean taking time to sort and file the papers on your desk. By making your resolutions more specific, you are more likely to be able to stick to them for a longer period of time.

Mistake #3: All-or-Nothing Mentality

The all-or-nothing mentality has historically been my own biggest weakness when it comes to making resolutions. I have a tendency to sometimes give up entirely at the first sign of a slip-up. For example, last September, I decided to start meditating for 10 minutes twice a day (morning and evening) to help with stress management. It was easy to meditate in the morning right when I woke up, but I found taking the time in the evening to be difficult: by the time I was getting ready for bed, all I wanted to do was sleep, not spend another ten minutes sitting, breathing deeply. I tried to force myself to do it, but it just wasn’t working for me. It frustrated me that I wasn’t able to succeed with my resolution, and so whenever I thought about meditating, I got frustrated (defeating the whole purpose of stress-relief meditation). As a result, I just stopped meditating entirely, even in the mornings. Because I had failed in part of my resolution, I made myself fail all of it.

Solution: The way to deal with small failures is not to give up, but to address why they happened and how to avoid them in the future. In my case, once I realized that evening meditation was just not working for my schedule, I should have compromised and focused on just my morning meditations, which I enjoyed. The same principle can be applied to things like new ways of eating or exercising. If you have decided to avoid chocolate, for instance, but then you eat a kit kat bar one day when you’re stressed or upset or just craving chocolate, there’s no reason to give up on your resolution all together. Just get right back on the wagon and move on.

Mistake #4: Resolution Overload

The final mistake I see a lot of people making with resolutions is trying to change too much at once. It can be difficult, sometimes, when there are lots of things about our lives that we want to change, to choose just one to focus on, but that can be really crucial to the success of any one resolution. If your goal for the year is to lose fat and gain muscle and regulate your blood sugar and learn to play piano and get organized and and and and ad infinitum, then it is unlikely that you will be able to reach any of your goals, much less all of them. As mentioned earlier, we have only so much time and so much motivation: choose too many goals and those valuable resources will be spread too thinly.

Solution: Stick to one resolution, goal, or habit at a time, then move on to the next one. This can be in the form of gaining a new habit every few weeks (this month I will stop drinking soda, next month I will stop eating chocolate, the month after that I will start going for a walk after dinner every day, etc.) or it could be tackling a bigger goal each year (in 2014 I will lose 3 dress sizes, in 2015 I will bench press my body weight, in 2016 I will learn to speak Spanish, etc.). Each of these goals takes effort to attain: if you focus all of your effort in a given period of time on that goal, you are more likely to reach it.

Even though New Year’s has passed now, it’s never to late to make or revise your resolutions. Good luck!

How To: Afford Real Food on a Budget

This post is part of the Tips From a Student series. The student lifestyle can sometimes be non-conducive to health. In this section I share my own strategies for balancing health, school, and social life.

One of the most difficult parts about a switch to a Real Food lifestyle is learning how to deal with how expensive real food can be in comparison to processed alternatives. When you’re on a tight budget, it can be really tempting to just grab a bag of pasta and a can of tomato sauce (which will cost only a few dollars and will feed you for days), but in the long term that sort of diet could lead to all sorts of nutrient deficiencies and other health problems. On the other hand, the price tags on fresh vegetables and meat can definitely make you think twice about making healthy choices. In the last year, I’ve learned a few things about how to make healthy eating financially feasible on a student budget.

Budget Priorities

The first thing to decide is what level of priority food has in your budget. How important is it to you? This is different for everyone, and sometimes it changes over time. If you have very little income and a lot of student debt, you’re probably going to be looking for the least expensive options for everything, including food. However, if you have some flexibility with your budget, maybe you’ll decide that buying more tender cuts of meat or opting for organic vegetables is something that matters to you. It may cost a little more, but if you feel it’s important to your health, maybe it’s worth it. The important thing is to evaluate those priorities so that you know what to spend your money on once you get to the grocery store.

Eating Out

Eating out (or ordering in) is generally a major part of the student lifestyle. It’s an easy way to meet up with friends, and it’s often more convenient than cooking something at home (because who has time to cook or do dishes when there’s a paper due?). However, it can often get VERY expensive, especially when a dinner out turns into an evening of drinks with friends. Plus, for the type of food that can usually be found at a student pub, you’re being massively overcharged. If you’re looking to be more healthy on a budget, eating out is a great thing to cut out: you save money, and you can redirect that $20-30 you would have spent on one meal with a drink towards a quality real food meal at home.

If you usually eat out with friends, try inviting them over to your place for a meal instead. It’s pretty easy to make a large meal for under $20, so you wouldn’t be spending any more money (probably less), and you would get to keep the leftovers. Your friends will probably love saving the money too, and they might even chip in for ingredients, bring over a side dish or dessert, or reciprocate sometime by cooking dinner for you.

Meat (and other protein)

Now I’ll give you some practical tips for grocery shopping. The first thing to do is find a good grocery store: one that frequently has good deals on produce or sales on meat, and preferably one with a 10% student discount (many Loblaws stores have student discounts on Tuesdays). Convenience stores ARE NOT a good place to buy food: even if they have anything worth eating, it’s going to be marked up outrageously. (Yesterday I was in my local convenience store and saw canned bamboo shoots — which I buy from Loblaws for less than $2 — for $3.99!). Definitely find a real grocery store.

Protein can be one of the most expensive elements of any diet. Meat and fish, especially, are hard to afford on a budget. Eggs are a great, inexpensive alternative, with a dozen usually selling for between 3 and 4 dollars. For meat, the best options are usually ground meat and organ meats. Conventional ground meat (the type from grain-fed animals that can be found a grocery stores) is usually sold for $3-4 per pound, and organ meat is even less expensive because it’s not very popular (though it is the most nutrient-dense meat available). Fresh fish is generally very expensive, but canned fish is usually more reasonable, and it often goes on sale. Canned fish like sardines and wild salmon ($1-4/can) are excellent sources of omega-3 fats and calcium.

Grass-fed or pastured meat is generally more expensive than the conventional type, so it depends on your budgeting priorities whether you think its health benefits are worth it. This is a useful post from The Paleo Mom which ranks the health benefits of various different types of meat and fish; it can help you decide if something is worth the price. If you do decide to eat good quality meats sometimes, try to get them directly from the farmer. Some butchers will carry grass-fed beef, but it’s usually more expensive than getting it from the farmer. A grass-fed beef farmer who I met at my local farmer’s market sells me 5 pounds of ground beef for $20 and organ meat for $2/lb.

If you prefer more expensive cuts of meat like steaks or roasts, I recommend waiting until they’re on sale at the grocery store and then stocking up. Often grocery stores will give big discounts for any meat that’s approaching its best-before date; buy it and freeze it until you want to use it. That goes for any type of meat on sale: chicken thighs and whole chickens go on sale frequently for as little as $2/lb. I periodically go to Costco to stock up on inexpensive meat; the picture below is about $400 worth of meat at an average of $4.50/lb.

What my freezer looked like after my last Costco trip.

What my freezer looked like after my last Costco trip.

Vegetables

Vegetables are a little harder to budget than meat because most types of veggies are harder to freeze and save for later. However, vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, cauliflower, and broccoli are always good ones to chop up and keep in the freezer. Similarly, tomatoes can be made into huge batches of tomato paste and sauce to be preserved or frozen and kept for later. This can be useful in cold climates where very few vegetables are in season over the winter.

The best idea for buying vegetables on a budget is buying seasonally. Usually, if something is in season and local, it will be less expensive than something that had to be shipped a long way. Plus, if it’s in season, there is plenty available to meet the demand, so the prices will be lower — unlike when you’re looking for strawberries in December. Most grocery stores will have signs that tell you in which country the vegetables were grown. If you’re in Canada like me, opt for veggies from Canada or the US instead of from Chile or China.

Alternatively, find a few staples that are inexpensive all year round to use as go-to options. Things like cooking onions, carrots, mushrooms, and bananas don’t vary in price much during the year and are all fairly inexpensive. Similarly, squashes are generally sold for about $1/lb for a large portion of the year.

If you have the time and/or inclination, growing some of your own foods would be a useful budgeting tool. However, if you’re a student, you probably, like me, don’t have enough time or space to do any gardening.

Pantry Items

Pantry items are things that can really tie a meal together. It is important to have a stock pile of herbs, spices, oils, vinegars, cooking fats, condiments, etc. on hand to make a meal really interesting. These are the sorts of things that you don’t need to buy every week: you can stock up on them once and then just replace them gradually as they’re used up. Unfortunately, they tend to cost a lot when you do need to buy them.

The most important thing to do when stocking pantry items is to keep an eye out for sales. If you have a favourite brand of olive oil, buy 2 or 3 bottles when it goes on sale. Also try buying in bulk when possible. Spices, especially, can be bought in bulk and are less expensive that way than when they are sold together with jars or containers of any kind. Buy the spices in bulk and store them in reused condiment containers or jars from the dollar store.

The type of pantry item that I have found to be most unnecessarily expensive is baking ingredients. “Healthy” baking (with grain-free flours and natural sugars) ends up being a very expensive undertaking. If that’s important to you, try finding the ingredients in bulk (Bulk Barn is a great place to look). Personally, I just don’t bother baking except on special occasions, and I save my money for the vegetables and meat that I care more about.

 

These are the tools I use to eat real food on a student budget. If you have any other ideas, please post them in the comments below. I’d love to hear more suggestions 😀

 

Take Control: Eliminating the Should’s

This post is part of the Tips From a Student series. The student lifestyle can sometimes be non-conducive to health. In this section I share my own strategies for balancing health, school, and social life.

I often hear from people about what they “should” be doing. They “should” be exercising. They “should” be doing school work instead of watching TV. They “should” go to sleep earlier. They “should” eat better food. We’ve all done this at one point or another and probably more often than we’d like to admit. (Right now, for instance, I probably “should” be doing research for my thesis rather than writing this blog post.)

But what does “should” really mean? It means that — by your own analysis, your own evaluation of the situation — there is one thing (a) that you believe to be most important but that you have consciously chosen to do another thing (b) that you value as less important. That is technically what it means, but put that way it doesn’t seem to make much logical sense: why would I consciously choose (b) when I think (a) is more important? If I think school work is the best use of my time on a Friday night, why do I go out with my friends?

When we follow this line of questioning to its logical conclusion, the answer ends up somewhere around either masochism or being weak willed. To choose the less important or less valuable option, you must be too weak willed to fight against your basic instincts and do what you cerebrally know is best. This seems a bit extreme when written out in this way – we don’t necessarily think this consciously – but in the end this message is what gets through.

I experienced this for years: throughout my teen years I knew what I was eating wasn’t healthy. I had lists of foods that I knew I “should” eat and lists of foods that I “shouldn’t,” and every time I ate a chocolate bar, or a handful of chips, or an entire box of cookies, I told myself that I “should” be eating something healthier. I was constantly frustrated at my lack of “self-control,” as though the hand that was taking the cookies and the mouth that was chewing them were somehow divorced from “me” – as though my own brain had no control over my body.

As years of this “lack of self-control” went on, I actually developed an impression of myself as weak willed – I was clearly not a strong enough person to overcome these cravings. The problem was, though, that I am NOT weak willed. In everything non-health-related I have always been very driven: strong, goals-oriented, with a clear sense of my priorities. So why did I somehow reach the conclusion that I was weak willed?

I think a lot of it comes down to that word “should.” It indicates consciousness of a bad choice and therefore subconsciously reinforces a sense of loss of control.

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The same goes for balancing school or work with a social life. When you choose to go out with your friends even when you have a deadline the next day and you say, “I should have stayed home,” what you are subconsciously saying that you weren’t a strong enough person to make the “right” decision.

But am I saying you should have stayed home? NO!!! I am talking here, not about finding “self-control” and making the “right decision,” but about reconsidering your priorities and eliminating the word “should.” By choosing to go out, you are demonstrating that — in that moment — your social life is a higher priority than your school work. By saying “I should have stayed home,” you are indicating that school has priority over social life. This sort of contradiction can drive you crazy – especially when it is as pervasive as it is in our everyday lives. If you change your mindset, though, so much can change.

For instance, say you had planned to go to the gym before work this morning but then only got five hours of sleep. Instead of going to the gym, you decide to roll over and get another hour of sleep. You could then say you “should” have gone to the gym, OR you could respect yourself and your decisions and say that sleep has to take priority over exercise and be glad for that extra hour of sleep.

This sometimes may seem a lot like rationalizing, but by phrasing it like a conscious, intentioned decision instead of a regret, your overall disposition can turn from negative to positive, even though your actions themselves don’t really change.

The more you do this, though, the easier it becomes to consciously pick the “right” choice because it is no longer about the “right” and the “wrong” choice: it is about your priorities and your determinations. It is about choosing to have that chocolate because you feel life you deserve a treat. It is about choosing to go out with friends because you need to de-stress. It is about choosing to think positively and get rid of the “should’s” because you have control over your own thoughts.