If I had to point to one aspect of my fitness journey that I’m not happy with, it’s my diet.

All my life, I’ve been a big eater. No, seriously. Like, Grandma makes an extra pan of lasagna whenever I come over. That kind of big eater. I always eat what I want.

And that’s still true. Except, I’m learning (slowly) how to change what I want.

Man making pasta from stratch

My Relationship with Food

I grew up all over the world. I’ve had stints in the Midwest, California, Colorado, Siberia, Southern Russia, Germany, Ireland, and Italy. I’ve also traveled to 25 countries. For me, travel = great food. I’ve been spoiled from an early age. Since I was an infant, my Mom cooked gourmet meals every night. When our family lived in Russia, we paid $5 a day to have a Russian ‘babushka’ cook for us. When I studied in Italy, I learned what real Italian food tastes like. I came to appreciate the joy of truly fresh, organic vegetables during my internship in Northern Ireland. Now that I live in San Francisco, I get to eat some of the best meat, fruit, vegetables and fish in the world. I have high standards when it comes to food, and I like a lot of it.

Food was also about more than sustenance. It was comfort. It was something I could depend on when everything in my life constantly changed. When I left home at age 14 to go to a boarding school in Germany, I sought out opportunities to cook because it was the only thing that made the homesickness and loneliness go away. The kitchen was my refuge, my happy place.

When I started my fitness journey, my unhealthy eating habits slapped me in the face. I would spend an hour in the gym with my trainer, and then go home and binge on pasta and cookies. I knew I needed to change my habits.

Like many who enjoy food for emotional reasons, I over-indexed easy ways to make food taste good: add fat, dairy, salt, or sugar. My favorite recipes were lasagna, macaroni and cheese, spaghetti and meatballs, chocolate chip cookies, and tiramisu. I cooked each of these so often, that I had the recipes and methods memorized. Partnered with a sedentary lifestyle, I quickly packed on weight in the first years of my professional career. Eating cemented itself as a coping mechanism for dealing with the emotional issues of being a closeted gay man.

healthy food versus unhealthy food

Change Your Wants

When I started my fitness journey, my unhealthy eating habits slapped me in the face. I would spend an hour in the gym with my trainer, and then go home and binge on pasta and cookies. I knew I needed to change my habits, but they were so ingrained, I didn’t know how to do it.

So, I sought advice from my trainer, and he suggested a dieting system accessed through a multi-level marketing scheme. I was skeptical, but I trusted his recommendation and decided to try it. The system I tried advocated replacing breakfast and dinner with nutrient-rich protein shakes, along with a low-calorie lunch high in protein and vegetables. Twice a month, the system called for a two-day fast, during which I would drink a special Acai-based juice along with some formulated ‘snacks.  I followed the plan rigorously, and quickly saw results. I lost about 20 pounds in the first month, and noticed big changes in both my body and my emotional connection to food. After those two-day fasts, I felt so clean and healthy that I found my cravings for unhealthy food greatly diminished. After feeling so clean, putting cheesy, fatty, salty foods into my body was the last thing I wanted.

Don’t want to change. Change your wants.

With my initial weight loss complete, I eased back into eating full meals for lunch and dinner, but stuck with regular protein shakes (at least two per day). With the mental and emotional ‘reset’ on my dieting habits, I started forming better ones. Here are a few changes I made to my diet as I pursued greater health.

My Diet Now

  • Complex carbohydrates. I replaced refined pasta with BarillaPlus or spelt pasta. And I stopped eating bread altogether. I opted for quinoa or brown rice instead of white rice, and started experimenting with lentils.
  • Snacking. Potato chips, cookies, and candy no longer sounded appealing. Instead, I stocked up on grapes, dark chocolate, almonds, hummus, carrot sticks, and Kind Bars.
  • More lean protein. Chicken became my go-to meat, and I cut out fatty, salty proteins like sausage, processed deli meats, and red meats. I started using ground turkey or chicken in recipes instead of ground beef or pork.
  • Fats. Only coconut and olive oil for cooking. Grass-fed butter for a little extra flavor here and there. Always use sparingly.
  • Vegetables! I look for ways to add veggies into recipes. I add spinach or kale to meat sauce, I load up a quinoa stir fry with peppers, peas, carrots and herbs, and keep plenty of leafy greens on hand for salads. Avocado is my new best friend, and makes a great salad dressing when puréed with yogurt and herbs.
  • Things to which I almost always say no:
    • Pastries
    • Candy and candy bars
    • Pizza
    • Cream sauces
    • Frozen dinners
    • Processed meats (sausage, hot dogs, bologna)
    • White pasta
    • Anything fried or deep fried
    • Cheese sauces
    • Salad dressings
    • Bagels, croissants,  cereal, and other high-carb, sugary breakfast foods
    • Added sugar
  • Things to which I still say yes (but shouldn’t)
    • Ice cream
    • Cookies
    • Cupcakes

Macronutrients

As I was learning how to eat more intentionally, meal tracking helped me become more aware of what I was putting in my body. For almost a year I input every meal into an app that tracked macronutrients and calories. Using this helped me understand how to better balance my ‘macros.’

Macros are the three overarching types of nutrition we consume: Carbs, Proteins, and Fats. Finding the right balance of macros to partner with your workout is key to achieving your fitness goals. Overall, research suggests that about 50% of your diet should come from carbs, 25% from protein, and 25% from fat (note, these percentages can fluctuate widely based on your activity level, body type, and dietary needs).

By tracking my dietary intake, I learned about how much food my body needs to stay energized, as well as the right macro balance for my activity level and body. I also noticed that over time, my eating preferences have changed. I no longer want certain things like I used to. For example, I used to crave macaroni and cheese all the time and ate it regularly. Now, eating a bowl of mac and cheese makes me feel so sluggish and bloated that I no longer want anything to do with it.

Nutrition plan

More Than Sustenance

Eating is something deeply intertwined with our mental and emotional state. For most of us, it’s about far more than sustenance – it brings us together with our family and friends, and provides comfort and pleasure. As I’ve evolved in my fitness journey, the emotional fulfillment I used to get from eating my comfort foods has been superseded by the sense of accomplishment and progress I feel in meeting my personal fitness goals. I slowly wean out more and more unhealthy foods as I become more committed to my fitness. Six months ago, I was eating a quart of my favorite ice cream every week, and a year ago, I was still having 1-4 drinks per day. Now I’ve cut out alcohol entirely, except for social occasions, and I’ve switched to Halo Top ice cream (low calorie, low fat, high protein healthy ice cream). I’ve recently started exploring vegetarianism.

For me, my consumption habits are a reflection of the state of my priorities, just like my exercise regimen. The more my motivations, goals, mindset, priorities, and actions are in tune, the healthier I eat, and the more I exercise. When I lose focus, that’s when I can revert back to emotional eating, which in turn, affects the intensity and frequency of my workouts. That’s the thing about holistic health – it’s all interconnected.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is this: the actions you take reflect the person you are, including your motivations, values, commitments, and priorities. You can try to change your actions all you want, but without an underlying shift in commitment to holistically healthy values and motivations, you’ll struggle to get results. That’s why slapping an exercise and a diet plan on top of one’s life too often results in a short period of commitment followed by relapse. A healthy lifestyle (including diet) comes from an integrated, deep, thoughtful and intentional commitment that in turn changes behaviors and actions.

So, next time you’re challenged with an eating decision, visualize your values and goals. And then do what you want. Ultimately, the choice you make is in service to your primary value – and that depends on what you want more.

Don’t want to change. Change your wants.

Follow Jacob’s journey to becoming a personal trainer here.