You do everything right, from always loading your plate with veggies to doing meal prep every Sunday, but then you hit that point — you just get tired of working so hard and feeling deprived. A cheat day sounds like a good idea, but often leads to cheat weeks, and suddenly, you’re back to square one. If this scenario sounds familiar, it’s likely you need a different strategy for long-term healthy eating.
No matter what type of food track you might be on, burnout like this can loom large. It can feel like a grind or even boring to always be focused on healthy foods, says Maya Feller, RD, CDN. It’s especially hard when you assign a moral value to food, she adds.
“When we polarize food and place it into good or bad categories, every food interaction becomes charged, it turns into an act that will be praised or punished,” she notes. “What’s needed is to reframe the relationship with food.”
Feeling crispy with your food choices? Here’s how to veer away from burnout when those give-it-up moments arise:
Get more creative when it comes to the texture and appearance of what you’re eating, suggests Feller. For example, increase the amount of crunch in a dish by adding jicama, broccoli stems or celeriac root, which can all be cut into matchsticks and sprinkled on top of dishes or added to salads.
Also spend some time on appearance, she recommends. Go for more color and think about visual appeal. Even if you’re pressed for time, making a beautiful plate can help you feel excited about what you’re about to eat, rather than seeing food only as fuel, Feller says.
Eating as in-season as possible is a good way to feel more connected to your food, which can help lower the chances of healthy-eating burnout. It’s also usually more environmentally sustainable and offers great nutrient density, according to Dr. Elson Haas, founder and director of the Preventive Medical Center in San Rafael, California, and author of “Staying Healthy With the Seasons.”
“Nature gives us what we need, when we need it,” he says. “Seasonal choices are meant to balance us out. That’s why eating a salad in the dead of winter sometimes feels odd, compared to having one in summer. Yes, you’re getting nutrients, but it might not feel like what you need on a deeper level.”
When you’re continuously eating the same, exact meals, it’s easy to get bored since those flavors become predictable. When that happens, consider using more spice blends that can turn a staple into something new, suggests registered dietitian Brigitte Zeitlin, RD, CDN, owner of BZ Nutrition. “These blends will add big, robust flavors to your meals,” she says. “Switching up the flavors will keep your taste buds guessing and excited for the next meal.”
People frequently burn out on healthy eating because they take an “all or nothing” approach, believes Zeitlin. Skipping favorite indulgences can help you stay on track, but telling yourself you can never again have the ice cream you love is likely to backfire. That’s a white-knuckle approach that’s tough to maintain, Zeitlin says.
“Eventually you’re going to overeat it, feel badly and then eat it more,” she notes. “If you eat what you want in small amounts as you reach your goals, you don’t feel overly restricted or tortured, and reaching your goals will feel more manageable and sustainable. Indulgences are a part of life — a great part — and they should be part of your diet.”
Maybe you got off track — way, way off track — for a day or two. Will it really make that much of a difference in the long run if you’re focusing on eating healthy the rest of the time? Not really, believes Zeitlin. But what will be harmful is an ongoing negative attitude about it, she says.
No single meal or day is going to make or break your end goal.
“The feelings of shame and guilt do way more harm than the actual food you just ate,” she says. “How you talk to yourself is a big part of your health, and you should show the same kindness to yourself as you would to your best friend. No single meal or day is going to make or break your end goal. Take a deep breath, double up your veggies on the next meal and move on.”