Is it a bad habit to snack, eat after dinner, or clean your plate? Not always. Your bad diet habits might actually be good diet habits! Read on to see my take on a few common diet myths.
I spend a good part of my day talking to people about their eating habits, which is not just enlightening, it’s entertaining, too. When someone reveals what they typically eat in a day, I can get a pretty good sense for how nutritious their diet is. But it’s the little ‘asides’ that tell me much, much more. Oftentimes as we’re talking they’ll suddenly say, “I know this is really bad, but I…,” and then go on to describe their breach of some sort of ‘dietary commandment.’ In my quest to be not just flexible but to also help them find their own personal sweet spot when it comes to healthy eating, I try to help them see that what they think is a bad habit might not be so bad after all.
When this comes up, my goal is to help clients see both sides of the “bad habit” issue. Because while some of the most commonly considered bad diet habits can be a problem, they can have a upside, too.
I see plenty of people who believe that snacking—under any circumstances—is just plain wrong. They believe that “three squares” a day should do it, and that snacking serves no purpose other than to spoil your appetite for your meals. But many who don’t snack often find themselves overly hungry at mealtime—particularly the evening meal, since there’s such a long gap between lunch and dinner. Snacking done properly can really help with weight control, since the right snacks (think a shot of protein and a bit of carb) can keep your hunger in check. And eating more often means there’s less pressure to hit all your nutritional targets from just your three meals alone. You can work in extra fruits and veggies, for example, at snack time.
Eating after your last meal isn’t always a bad thing. People who get into trouble with evening snacking are those who eat out of habit, not hunger. Plenty of my clients tell me that they finish dinner around 8 PM, and by 9 they’re rummaging in the kitchen for a snack. Clearly hunger isn’t the driver here. On the other hand, if dinner comes early and you’ll be up late—and you’ve got some unspent calories to spare—a small, light snack really shouldn’t be a problem.
It is a good idea to mix it up with your diet. That way you don’t get bored, and you can reap some nutritional benefits when you eat a wide variety of foods, too. Having said that, some people find that it’s reassuring to eat more or less the same foods every day. They know how their meals and snacks affect their energy levels, they know that their calorie intake stays pretty consistent from day to day, and they don’t have to put a lot of extra thought into meal planning. As long as your diet is well-balanced and you’re eating the recommended amounts of fruits, veggies, proteins and grains, it’s probably not a problem.
Generally speaking, I think people should keep tabs on their weight. I often suggest a Friday weigh-in, because I think it helps keep you on track for the weekend (rather a Monday morning “weigh and repent”). On the other hand, there are other indicators that your diet and exercise program is working—aside from what the scale says. If your program is causing you to lose fat and build muscle, you might not see much of an effect on your weight – but you do notice that your contours are changing. Sometimes the scale doesn’t budge, but you know you’re making progress when you’re able to zip up your jeans without a pair of pliers.
I don’t quite understand why people think this is a bad habit, but many do. I know plenty of people who will eat an omelet for dinner without a second thought—but the idea of eating last night’s meat loaf for breakfast strikes them as positively wicked. If protein with a side of carbohydrate makes a good breakfast, what difference does it make if it comes from leftover shrimp stir-fry or a protein shake?
When clients admit to a bad habit of licking their plates clean, it suggests to me that they’re eating a lot more than they think they should. This one could be a bad habit if the only thing that signals the end of your meal is a clean plate, rather than a comfortably full stomach. At the same time, being able to finish a plate of food is psychologically very satisfying, which is why it’s so hard to control portions by deliberately leaving food on your plate. But the habit of cleaning your plate doesn’t have to be a bad one. If you’re the one dishing it up and you know how much food you should be eating, you’ve got the best of both worlds. You get to control the portions, and you get the satisfaction of cleaning your plate, too.