The federal Dietary Guidelines are complex, which is one reason why so many people struggle to make the modifications necessary to improve their nutritional intake. It can quickly become overwhelming, which is why I spent the first six months of my year-long project to adhere to the federal Physical Activity Guidelines and Dietary Guidelines taking a step-by-step approach to incorporating each rule into my daily life.
One day, while talking to ACE Certified Health Coach Sabrena Jo, one of my mentors at the American Council on Exercise, I mentioned that I had reached the point where this project was no longer about learning new rules and finding ways to incorporate them into my lifestyle. Instead, it was now about mastering consistency.
At my weight, my plan included eating 17½ cups of vegetables each week (2½ cups/day), with specific amounts allotted to different types of veggies: dark green, red and orange, beans and peas, starchy vegetables and others.
I averaged 17¼ cups of vegetables each week during the seventh month of my project, just a quarter-cup short of my goal. My ratios weren’t quite right, however. For example, I ate more green vegetables and fewer red/orange vegetables than the Dietary Guidelines call for. I told Sabrena that I was going to work on perfecting the balance between vegetable types.
“You are going to make yourself crazy,” she said. “Comparing yourself to perfection is a dangerous thing.”
Perfection vs. Progress
At first, I was taken aback, but I soon realized she was absolutely right. The Dietary Guidelines represent the ideal eating pattern. Beating myself up — even if only for a moment — for being a quarter-cup shy of my weekly vegetable goal and eating more green vegetables than I was supposed to is a recipe for disaster.
Before I started this project, I had averaged 6 to 7 cups of vegetables each week, about three-quarters of which were broccoli.
Instead of comparing myself to the ideal behavior represented by the guidelines, I’ve begun comparing my current self to my old self — which never fails to lift my spirits and keep me motivated.
The Importance of Listening to Your Body
When it comes to physical activity, I’m trying to learn how to listen to my body. Early in this project, after years of exercise streakiness due to aches, pains and chronic headaches, I let my commitment to my new behavior changes cloud my judgment. I would sometimes force myself to exercise through pain or double up and perform two workouts in one day in order to hit the weekly goal defined by the Physical Activity Guidelines.
Some days I need a day off. Other days I need to push myself. The key is identifying which is which.
At times, that drive served me well and kept me focused on the task at hand. Other times, I found myself grimacing in pain as I churned away on the elliptical despite some hip pain, or quitting a resistance-training workout after only a few exercises when the headache I had hoped would go away only worsened.
On the flip side, I sometimes found myself skipping workouts a few days in a row when I probably didn’t need to be so conservative. It’s a process, but I’m finally getting in tune with my body and becoming mindful of its needs. Some days I need a day off. Other days I need to push myself. The key is identifying which is which.
A Perfect Day (for Me)
I know what a “perfect” day looks like for me:
- A breakfast that includes 1 cup of dairy and 1 cup of fruit — usually oatmeal made with fortified soy milk and a banana
- A morning workout — either 50 to 60 minutes of cardio or a full-body resistance-training session
- A high-protein lunch that includes 1 cup of vegetables
- An afternoon snack that includes 1 cup of dairy and 1 cup of fruit — usually plain yogurt with berries
- A well-balanced dinner that includes 1½ cups of vegetables
- An evening snack that includes 1 cup of dairy — usually frozen yogurt
If I stick to this outline, I will typically hit all of my daily goals, including eating 3 cups of dairy, 2 cups of fruit and 2½ cups of vegetables. If I do those things, and get my workout in, everything else usually falls into place.
Of course, I don’t do this every day, though I’m doing it more often as time passes. The point is, I wake up each morning with a well-defined set of goals. Less than a year ago, I had no idea how to eat a well-balanced diet or fit a workout routine into my schedule.
I’m making steady progress in all aspects of my life, from my relationship with food and physical activity to my attitude about my happiness and my understanding of holistic health. I can’t let the quest for perfection stand in the way of that important work.
I’m honored that NBC News BETTER invited me to share my journey with you through the completion of The Lifestyle Project and beyond, and now I want to hear from you. Do you have any tips to share? Tell me about them. Have questions about my journey? Ask me on Twitter or follow me on Instagram.