As a dietitian, this is a common situation I encounter: a new client explains that they have been trying to make some healthy eating changes for the past few months, but is feeling frustrated with how tough and unsustainable it all feels. Upon further discussion, it is revealed that they have been tracking all of their calories, often trying to hit specific macronutrient (carbs, fat, protein) ratios. Many times this is in conjunction with a newly-adopted exercise regimen that is just shy of Olympic training.

When asked how they decided on these specific diet and exercise changes, the answer is always the same: I found it online.

Now, I’m not here to throw shade on the internet, but it is certainly easier than ever to get swept up in health advice from a charismatic online personality that may not have our best interests in mind. Or perhaps the advice is well-meaning, but it does not take into account where we are starting from. As in all behavior change, figuring out where we are starting from is half the battle.

So what’s wrong with stringent calorie tracking, defining precise macronutrient ratios, and Herculean exercise programs? Well, nothing is inherently wrong with these practices, but we need to recognize that these are the behaviors of professional athletes. If our starting point is as a mostly sedentary office worker who wants to build some better eating habits, than starting with the complexities of nutrient metabolism means you are jumping over some really important steps. To use an obvious analogy, it’s like learning a few complex phrases in Chinese without taking the time to understand the fundamentals of the language. It’s just not sustainable.

So where should we start? Adjust your environment.

The goal with adjusting your environment is to make healthy eating easier. And, inversely, to make unhealthy eating more difficult. Rather than using willpower to pressure ourselves into making healthy choices, how can we reduce the need to use willpower in the first place? The answer here is different for everyone and depends on the state of your current environment.

What to ask when getting started with healthy eating

  • Does my kitchen need an overhaul to clear out treats that will cause me to exhaust my willpower?
  • Can I stock my kitchen with healthy snacks for the week?
  • Can I use smaller plates and bowls to discourage overeating at mealtime?
  • Do I need to reassess my grocery shopping habits to encourage healthy eating?
  • If grocery shopping is the bane of your existence: Can I set up a grocery delivery system or sign up for a local farm’s CSA (community supported agriculture) program?
  • If figuring out what to cook is your pain point: Can I try a meal delivery service or get in the habit of scheduling my meals for the week ahead?
  • If your social group is always getting together for pizza or burgers: Can I suggest a healthier option? Can I share my health goals with my friends and get them on my team?
  • If you’re totally at a loss for what to eat or need some support: Can I establish care with a Registered Dietitian?

For physical activity

  • Can I get involved in a regular fitness class that will become part of my schedule?
  • If you can’t justify getting back in the car to go to the gym after the work commute: Can I schedule the gym into my trip to/from work? Can I get home exercise equipment?
  • If you have a daily step goal you’re struggling to reach: Can I get in the habit of parking further from my destination and walking the rest of the way.
  • Would I be more active if I had a dog that needs walking? Rescue a pup!

These seemingly abstract environmental changes add up to make a big impact. But most importantly, they are the necessary foundation for a healthy lifestyle. Once this foundation is built, some people find that moving on to more “advanced” concepts can help them reach their goals… but not everyone. Sometimes we find that a solid foundation is all we really needed.