Moderation is a tricky concept. Much as we want to believe that a miracle diet can help us lose weight and stay thin, the truth is that sooner or later, real life happens. Birthdays happen. Pizza happens. Pancakes happen.
For many people, it’s the tail end of a diet – the period after losing weight when you’re trying to return to a normal lifestyle – that sabotages long-term goals. This is because people aren’t meant to eat according to “diets” forever. Navigating life post-diet (or a healthy life in general, even if you haven’t dieted) brings with it lots of questions. How much can I indulge? If I can eat whole-wheat pasta, why can’t I eat white pasta if it’s being served at a party? Avocados are high-fat … should I eat them? Should I eat low-fat dairy? What about low-carb bread?
Well, having lost quite a bit of weight once upon a time (and having kept it off for nearly 10 years), I feel proud and qualified to speak to my experience on this subject. No matter which weight loss plan you’ve adhered to, chances are you’ll eventually come upon a “maintenance” phase in which you graduate to real-life and have to juggle healthy eating with everyday living and casual indulgences.
In real life, of course, we eat both carbs and fats, so whether your diet was low-carb or low-fat, you’ll now be indulging in both macronutrients in moderation (or at least you should be).
Enter my favorite three favorite diet hacks of all time. These three little tricks help me make sure I’m eating a diet that’s low in high-fat meats and refined carbs, low(ish) in overall calories, minimally processed, and conducive to staying fit and healthy.
Hack 1: Eat a meat OR eat a carb – don’t eat both in one meal.
I choose either a meat or a carb for my meal, and I don’t include both in one sitting. This means that I tend to eat vegetarian sandwiches, burritos, tacos, etc., and if I have chicken or steak, I’m not having potatoes on the side – I’m probably having green vegetables.
Now, since carbohydrates are technically found in veggies, fruits, dairy and pretty much every food besides meat, I realize I need to define “carb” as I’m using it here. I generally mean things that contain wheat, starch, rice, corn or flour – things like breads, potatoes, rice dishes, tortillas, flatbreads, things with a crust, popcorn, baked goods, etc.
I also realize that meat isn’t the only source of fat, obviously. I have written before about the health benefits of healthy fats, so on this blog, the only type of natural fat I give advice about eliminating is that of meat. I believe in eating meat as infrequently as possible, but all evidence shows that healthy fats such as olive oil, avocado and even coconut oil are really good for us!
Hack 2: Limit meats and carbs to 1 serving per day.
Keeping your meals either meat-free or carb-free is generally pretty easy, but there’s an additional rule that can make things a little more challenging. I only have one serving of meat and one serving of carbs, max, per day.
There are three meals in the typical day, of course – so you’re probably wondering what on earth I eat for my third meal. Usually, it’s eggs, a rice-less stir fry with nuts and legumes, or fruit with nut butter. I’ll outline a few meal plan ideas at the bottom of the post!
Hack 3: Eat the healthiest versions of your meats and carbs.
Finally, since I’m usually eating carbs and meats once a day, I make sure to eat the healthiest options for both macronutrients. Here’s a list of the foods I generally eat, and those I avoid.
Eat: Sweet potatoes, whole-wheat bread, whole-wheat pasta, quinoa, brown rice, fresh corn, stove-topped popcorn
Eat rarely: White rice, white potatoes
Don’t eat: White bread, white pasta, refined sugar, packaged foods, potato chips, fries
Meats (and other animal products)
Eat: Turkey, chicken, fish, shellfish, eggs
Eat rarely: Beef, pork, whole milk, natural cheeses
Don’t eat: Processed meats (bacon, sausage, hot dogs, etc.), processed cheeses (American, usually.)
As you’ll see from this list, it’s actually quite easy to make small substitutions at restaurants that allow you to follow these rules. Getting sweet potato fries instead of regular ones makes your diet a little healthier. Same with turkey burgers instead of beef burgers, and whole-wheat buns instead of white ones.
You’re probably wondering what these little tricks look like when they play out in real life. Here are a few meal plans that would be pretty common for me in my life. You’ll notice they meet all of the requirements above, and that every single meal contains a source of protein as well as either a fruit or a vegetable (or both!):
Breakfast: Apple with almond butter.
Lunch: Sandwich on wheat bread with avocado, hummus, spinach and tomato.
Dinner: Chicken breast with steamed broccoli and asparagus sautéed in coconut oil.
Snacks: Mixed nuts, banana, coconut water.
Breakfast: 2 eggs scrambled with spinach.
Lunch: Salad with iceberg lettuce, kale, slivered almonds, tomatoes, cucumber and balsamic vinaigrette, topped with turkey breast.
Dinner: Whole-grain pasta with olive oil, broccoli, spinach and tomatoes.
Snacks: Apple, salted avocado, a few small slices of local extra-sharp cheddar cheese.
Breakfast: Omelette with feta cheese, tomatoes and spinach.
Lunch: Turkey chili topped with avocado.
Dinner: Stir fry with brown rice, green and red bell peppers, black beans, kale and cilantro.
Snacks: Mixed nuts, baby carrots with hummus, orange.
Day 4 (Note that this day is completely vegetarian!)
Breakfast: Plain Greek yogurt with blueberries and strawberries, topped with chia seeds.
Lunch: Lentil soup with assorted vegetables and spices (no potatoes!).
Dinner: Black bean burger without the bun, topped with tomatoes, onion, lettuce and mustard, with homemade sweet potato fries on the side.
Snacks: Apple, banana, baby carrots, mixed nuts.
Breakfast: Banana with natural (sugar-free) peanut butter.
Lunch: Burrito bowl with brown rice, black beans, fajita vegetables, salsa, avocado and lettuce.
Dinner: Grilled salmon with sautéed broccoli and asparagus.
Snacks: Coconut water, sliced green pepper, baby carrots with hummus.
You’ll probably notice that I almost never waste a meat or a carb at breakfast time. There’s just no reason to – Greek yogurt, nut butters and eggs all contain plenty of protein, and don’t require me to skimp on my meals later in the day. Of course, if you’re a sucker for breakfast meats, obviously you have plenty of meal ideas for meat- and carb-free meals above, you just need to mix them around a bit!
You’ll also see how easily these three hacks make room for indulgence. Let’s say you’re at a baby shower (as I was for my beautiful cousin Beth two weeks ago!) and you’re greeted by this ridiculously delicious-looking spread:
I don’t believe in living a less full life because of dietary rules. I ate my slice of cake, and you can be damn sure I enjoyed every minute of it (actually, it was literally one of the best cakes I’ve ever tasted – mad props to Mariano’s). I just made sure that counted as my carb for the day. As I said before, these hacks have a way of keeping your daily caloric intake in check while also keeping your consumption of meat and carbs healthy and moderate. I savored my slice of cake, but I made up for it by staying healthy and focusing on fresh, plant-based foods during other parts of the day. Now that’s having your cake and eating it, too.