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Here’s how to establish the right healthy eating pattern for you.

The joy of eating is that one size doesn’t fit all. Some of us eat to live, while others live to eat. For those with certain chronic conditions, like diabetes, food choices are closely tied to disease management, while others may customize meals in an effort to lower their risk of developing heart disease or another condition. Some of us love to create in our kitchen, while others prefer takeout.

Whatever your preferences and goals, the key is to develop what the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans describe as healthy eating patterns, which meet your wellness goals, fit your lifestyle and fall within your budge. According to the Dietary Guidelines, healthy eating patterns support a healthy body weight and should help prevent and reduce incidence of chronic disease, with a person’s nutritional needs met primarily through diet.

Why are healthy eating patterns so key? They take into account quantity, proportion, variety and all the different foods and beverages a person consumes; they’re also meant to be adaptable. By thinking about our dietary patterns, we can develop consistency and create opportunities to experiment with different foods.

Establishing Consistency. As a first step, you need to decide on an eating pattern that best fits you. This is the foundation to ensure you’re able to stick with it. To start, do a self-assessment, asking these questions:

  • What are your goals?
  • What are you willing to change?
  • How skilled are you in food preparation?
  • Do you eat out more, or will you cook?
  • How many meals and snacks do you usually eat daily?
  • What types of food do you like and dislike?

Have a Plan B. Life can be unpredictable. Everything from a busy work schedule to demands at home can affect one’s ability to shop for food, eat meals at regular intervals and stick to a healthy eating pattern. It’s imperative you build flexibility into your approach. As an example, if you decide you are going to eat five times a day, but get caught in meetings that last most of the day, need to grab a late dinner out and have an early flight, those good intentions may fall by the wayside. Instead, you may want to develop two eating patterns: one for a more consistent schedule and the other for busy days – which could include travel days.

It also helps to be prepared. You may want to have your stash of tasty, nutritious go-to items for busy days when you can’t follow your eating plan, so you aren’t without food for long periods. Focus on foods containing protein that are nonperishable and portable. These could include the following:

  • Roasted chickpeas – 1/4 cup
  • Nuts/seeds – 1/4 cup; buy individual portion packs or portion them.
  • Roasted soy nuts – 1/4 cup
  • PNB, almond butter, soy nut butter or sunflower seed butter – 2 level TBS
  • Jerky (nitrate-free) – four to five pieces
  • 3-ounce can or pouch of tuna, salmon or chicken
  • Individual containers of oats, rice and beans or rice pasta. These can be customized with protein add-ins.

The good news is that these foods are not liquids, so it’s OK to take them through TSA airport security checkpoints if you’re a frequent flyer.

Be Consistent – Not Rigid. An eating pattern is reflective of a series of meals, not just what you eat once. Too often, the mindset is that a person needs to rigidly stick to an eating plan without exception – as if one indulgence is a major setback. This black-and-white thinking is not positive, not sustainable and can be frustrating. When we focus on patterns over time, it allows for a more realistic, doable approach to eating well.

If you know, for instance, you are attending a party and the food choices aren’t part of your plan, the goal isn’t to stay home or just lurk in the corner and not eat, but to accept that you may exceed your daily allowance and move on. No need to starve the next day, or to deny food the day of the event to stay within your calorie and nutrient cap when you overindulge. That typically leads to eating more than you planned. Allowing for some wiggle room is a much more practical approach.

Dietary patterns don’t demand perfection. It’s the consistency with which you eat nutritious foods that makes the difference. If you are successful with your food choices and eating habits 70 percent of the time, that’s great. It’s impossible to be perfect, and no one is healthier as a result of trying to attain that goal. Focus instead on what you can control within reason, and make the changes that you can attain and sustain.

Upgrade What You Eat. We upgrade our phones, laptops, cars and airplane seats. In various areas of our life, we upgrade for efficiency, comfort and ease. So how can you upgrade your food choices and eating habits? If you cook, perhaps you will decide to get a few new pans, or spring for flavored vinegar, exotic spices or produce you haven’t tried before.

You may even decide to take some cooking classes to broaden your culinary repertoire. To make your eating habits stick, you might benefit from tracking using an app or keeping a photo log of your plate, so you can assess your progress, identify problem areas and establish an eating plan you can live with.

You might wonder why you can’t stick with your current model. ​ Upgrading prevents the monotony, increases the diversity and provides the excitement to keep you motivated for the long run. This is your chance to tweak and fine-tune your eating pattern to determine what works, what has not been successful and where you may want to focus your efforts moving forward.

Shape your food choices and eating habits to fit your goals and lifestyle, alter as needed and reassess to progress.

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Leslie J. Bonci, MPH, RD, CSSD, RDN, is a registered dietitian nutritionist and the owner of Active Eating Advice in Pittsburgh. Her clients include professional athletes as well as “real” people. She is a media personality and has authored and co-authored six books including the “Run Your Butt Off,” “Walk Your Butt Off” and “Bike Your Butt Off” series. You can find her blogs, videos, tips and recipes at her website: www.activeeatingadvice.com.

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