How I learned to be a healthier eater

Course corrections to breakfast, snacks and more snacks along the way to wellness

To me, telling someone exactly what you eat everyday feels like a confession. There’s a hesitancy to divulge completely, and guilt over what I allowed to pollute the temple that is the body. If we are what we eat – and, by metabolic processes, we are – then I am a nutritional sinner.

But Nick Creelman, the registered dietitian at NAIT who heard me out, did not suggest penance in response. Or at least he would not want his recommendations to be seen that way. Inspired by the revision of Canada’s food guide in January, I visited Creelman for an assessment of how I eat and what I could improve.

After we set goals, mostly around snacking and carb-cutting, he sent me away for a month, when we’d meet again to see if I’d changed my ways. It was a time of confronting hard truths: I like eating many sweet things; I’m a sucker for processed foods; my typical dinner looks nothing like the cheery plate on the food guide website. Instead, it is shades of brown.

But it was also a month of revelations. As it turns out, I could change – some things. Here’s what I learned in attempting to be a better person to my own body.

Breaking bad breakfast habits

fried eggI love breakfast. Some nights I go to bed thinking about how good it’s going to be, even though it’s only

  • 1 slice of homemade sourdough toast with peanut butter
  • 1 bowl of Shreddies with 2 tablespoons of 6% plain yogurt
  • 1 banana
  • 1/2 glass of orange juice
  • 1 cup of black tea

It’s the same every day. Or it was until Creelman got involved and suggested changes:

  • Fat content. Keep the yogurt for its milk fat, Creelman recommended, as it slows the digestion of carbohydrates, delaying the onset of hunger again. But switch to lower fat, trimming the day’s overall intake, which tends to be more than necessary.
  • Carbohydrate content. The suggested serving for a bowl of Shreddies is one cup. What was my serving? Creelman asked. It turned out to be 1 1/4 to 1½ cups. This cut my carb consumption by as much as 22 grams a day, meaning less would end up stored as fat.
  • Protein content. To make up for the cuts, Creelman suggested switching out the peanut butter for a daily egg or two to tide me over until my mid-morning snack.
  • Vitamins. We get the vast majority of vitamins we need from the food we eat. Vitamin D, which helps the body use calcium and phosophorus and also contributes to healthy bone structure, can be an exception. Creelman suggests sticking to the recommended 1000 international units of D3 per day.

Snack hacks

cottage cheese with berries

Morning. It turns out that my morning snack is actually healthy. It’s a half-cup of quick oats with milk, whatever seeds are handy, raisins, unsweetened coconut and some cinnamon. (I switch it every Friday for a slab of biscotti; Creelman allows this weekly indulgence as “something to look forward to.”)

Afternoon. This needs work. I blame cookies, any kind of cookies, for being delicious and always there for me. I tell Creelman that I counteract their unhealthiness with fruit. He says this is just adding carb to carb and that a small cup of protein-packed cottage cheese, sweetened with fruit, is a smarter choice.

I blame cookies, any kind of cookies, for being delicious and always there for me.

Evening. Another tough one. Who wants more slimy, colourless cheese when there’s ice cream to be eaten? “My motto is, eat healthier,” says Creelman. “It’s no fun to be the healthiest.” Reduce the ice-cream portion and add berries and nuts. “Calorie-wise, there might not be much difference. But at least you’re getting some vitamins, minerals, proteins and healthy fats.”

Then he ups the ante. “Try to decrease the frequency. Monday, for example, you’re not doing it.”

What’s for dinner?

pulsesWere there a contest for laziest vegetarian, competitors would take one look at me, pack up their store-bought hummus and ready-peeled carrots, and go home. Fake meat products are my go-to. But, as a heavily processed food, do they really keep me healthy?

Not like pulses would, says Creelman, which are also much cheaper (especially generic varieties, which he says rival name-brand quality).

“A lot of people own plant-based proteins but don’t know what to do with them. I am one of those people.”

“A lot of people own plant-based proteins but don’t know what to do with them,” he says. “I am one of those people.” For ideas, he gets recipes from Alberta Pulse Growers and Pulse Canada and makes balanced meals that include 20 to 30 g of protein and eight to 10 g of fibre. (Women should eat about 25 g of fibre daily, while men should get 38 g; Canadians generally get about half of what they need.)

In addition to that pretty plate on Canada’s food guide being half fruits and vegetables, Creelman points out its smaller size. One reason for large food portions is the common 12-inch dinner plate. The one in the picture is only nine inches wide.

When we meet again

herbal tea

After a month of trying to improve my diet, I go back to Creelman with mixed feelings. I find I have time to fry an egg two, maybe three mornings out of five, which has meant continued gorging on mid-morning carbs. I take vitamin D about once every two weeks, because it's hard to remember. The last time I took a vitamin regularly, it was shaped like a cartoon character.

Also, I amass a collection of tinned chickpeas and black beans, enough to start a cobbled road to hell, as the old saying goes. I struggle to curb evening sweets, though manage to spend a couple of sad Monday nights in front of the TV with nothing more than herbal tea, mostly undrank as it cooled to the temperature of tears.

I amass a collection of tinned chickpeas and black beans, enough to start a cobbled road to hell.

But Creelman points out the positive: I’ve become conscious of what I eat. “Mindfulness is half the battle,” he says. “It’s better to know. When you don’t, you’re never going to change.”

So we make new goals. I commit to cottage cheese, writing my name (needlessly, I suspect) on a tub in the fridge at work. I vow to soldier on through Miserable Mondays and consider a tip from Creelman to try roasted chickpeas (which, happily, can be prepared with cinnamon and sugar). In the same vein, I promise to cook with more pulses – even going so far as to suggest trying a new recipe from the websites each week. Naturally, Creelman thinks that’s a great idea.

I suspect, however, that he knows I won’t quite manage it, that I’ll miss weeks. But he believes that I’ll try, and so do I. Eating healthier is a lifelong project; the incentive to carry on is that, the more you work at it, the better your chances of getting an extension on the deadline. Starting is hard, Creelman knows, but essential.

“It takes effort,” he says. “And it takes practice. It gets easier.”

Nick Creelman’s tips for eating healthy away from home

Eliminate the possibility of over-eating. “If the portions are huge, ask for a to-go box and take half of it home” – before you start eating. That way, says Creelman, you won’t be tempted to force yourself to finish the meal at the restaurant.

Address the craving. Particularly with fast food, reduce fat, salt and calorie intake by stopping to think what it is you came for. If the thought of a burger got your mouth watering, the fries and pop may be excesses.

Skip the wedge salad. “People think I have a personal vendetta to destroy all iceberg lettuce on this planet,” says Creelman, who despises the vegetable for its lack of nutrition. “It does nothing. It provides crunch. I don’t even like the crunch it provides. It’s below celery for me.” Opt for leafy greens with substance, he advises, such as romaine lettuce, spinach or kale.

Pre-eat. Don’t kill your appetite, but “never arrive at the restaurant starving,” says Creelman. It just means adding an appetizer you probably don’t need.

Eat for yourself. “Food [should] provide us nutrition or pleasure. If it’s providing neither, it’s an issue.” Don’t eat something such as dessert you don’t like simply to make someone else happy. “It doesn’t provide nutrition; it’s not providing you pleasure. So why are you eating it? For someone else’s pleasure. That’s not how we do it.”

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