May. 6. 2020
Written By:
McKel (Hill) Kooienga
McKel Hill Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

McKel Hill Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

Founder of Nutrition Stripped and the Mindful Nutrition Method™

Healthy eating shouldn’t feel restrictive or rigid.

It’s important to build in flexibility into your regular habits to allow for times when they’ll be broken.

There are so many times in life where there are external circumstances that require or force us to pivot, adjust, and be flexible in order to go with the flow.

I know this may seem contradictory, especially since so many diets and plans have taught you that you have to be strict with the way you eat and with your lifestyle habits.

Even if you’re not currently following a strict diet or plan, this same mentality likely still appears subconsciously from it being so ingrained in our society — it’s the whole “all or nothing” thought process here that doesn’t actually work for any of us in real life.

Being too rigid can cause you to develop some unhealthy thoughts and behaviors that can be more damaging than just having a little bit of flexibility. Plus, the reason we create healthy nutrition and lifestyle habits, whether they’re related to what we eat or how we move or care for our bodies, is so that we feel or best and can enjoy life.

If your habits are getting in the way of enjoying your life, you’ve got it backward! So let’s pivot and gameplan together.

I’m going to walk you through how you can be flexible with your nutrition and health habits in a very intentional way that keeps you on track with your goals, while also giving you the freedom to enjoy life’s moments. 

Why Balance is Needed for Long-Term Healthy Habits

Being too rigid can look like feeling stressed out about breaking habits or feeling like you have a lack of willpower, lack of determination, or lack of motivation in certain situations.

Here’s an example. One situation I constantly hear come up from the community is about going out to eat. 

I’ve had dozens of women tell me that they’re eating well during the week, but then when they go out to eat with friends or over to a friend’s place for a girl’s night, they don’t follow the same eating principles and end up eating pizza and chocolate and having a glass of wine. 

This is followed immediately by them sharing feelings of guilt for eating that way, feeling as if they’ve “fallen off the bandwagon,” which often causes them to give up their healthy eating habits for multiple days waiting for the perfect time to start up again, or feeling stressed or anxious that the same thing is going to happen at their next social event. 

Have you ever been in a situation like this where you’re feeling like you’re choosing between sticking with your healthy habits and routine or enjoying the moment? Like this to let me know you’ve experienced something similar because you’re not alone! 

Here’s the first thing I want you to know:

One meal, one skipped workout, or whatever it might be, will not make or break your health goals.

This is why I constantly say health is a daily practice, it’s all those small actions we make over time that create long-lasting change.

The Science of Sticking to Habits

A study showed that when people were trying to form habits, perfection wasn’t necessary.

It was the repetition of the habit in the early days that mattered most! 

That means, doing something most of the time is just as effective as doing it all of the time, giving you room for flexibility.

Yes, consistency is key, but you don’t have to be perfect. 

Here are a couple of strategies to use to intentionally practice balance with your eating habits.

If-Then Planning

You can use the simple strategy of if-then planning to add flexibility into your habits. 

With if-then planning, you’re identifying the moments you’d like to break your habit temporarily.

The idea here is that you build in guidelines for when it’s OK to break from a regular habit ahead of time, that way, you’re not making decisions in the moment, and when you break your habit, you feel satisfied rather than looking back and wishing you had made a different choice.

Let’s go through an example so you can get a better idea for what this looks like. 

Let’s say you’re constantly around sweets or snacks at work — people are bringing in candy, ordering pizza for meetings, and sending cupcakes and cookies to celebrate birthdays.

On one hand, you don’t want to be restrictive and say no to all sweets and snacks, but on the other hand, eating these types of foods a couple times every week isn’t going to make you feel your best. 

Here’s how if-then planning comes into play. 

If you normally don’t eat sweets, come up with an occasion where you would absolutely love to eat sweets. What type of dessert would be a 10 on your satisfaction rating? What experience would be a 10 for you? 

I can almost guarantee that eating store-bought cookies in front of your computer isn’t going to truly satisfy your sweet tooth or even be an enjoyable experience, right? 

So instead, you may say something like, “If I’m going to eat sweets, I’m going to enjoy one of my two favorite desserts at home with my husband.”

Can you see how this gives you full permission to enjoy your favorite desserts, but it also gives you some guidelines so you aren’t just mindlessly eating any treat put in front of you? 

It reframes your mind from feeling like you’re missing out on something to knowing that there’s a much more satisfying alternative for you to enjoy instead. 

The key with using if-then planning for these types of exceptions is to make them so that after you make this decision, you feel happy that you chose to break your normal habit at that moment, rather than looking back and wishing you had made a different choice, which can often happen when you make in-the-moment decisions.  

When you’re thinking about using if-then planning for exceptions, make it feel special and make it something that feels really worthwhile for you. With these guidelines for yourself, it’s also important that you put it in writing in advance, and you don’t simply come up with it spur-of-the-moment.

This simple strategy can give you clarity around what balance looks like for you and makes it much easier to hold yourself accountable. 

In addition, keeping the phrase I shared the earlier top of mind can really help your shoulders relax and add more ease into your mindset by just knowing that one meal isn’t going to make or break your health goals — consistency is really the key factor here. 

If you’re working on creating or maintaining healthy habits, grab my free guide for creating healthy habits with ease so you can create habits that last.