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Habit forming: nutrition mantras

Whether you’re finishing the last mile of a marathon or searching for meaning in a yoga practice, an inspiring mantra can make all the difference. But, encouraging words can also be a boon for your nutritional goals.

For success, a positive mindset is important, as is the right phrase. Choose a short, believable mantra, using uplifting, actionable language. “It should be affirmative, not something negative or framed as ‘should,’” says Krista Schaus, a master coach with Precision Nutrition in Ontario, Canada. She notes that you may need to tinker with a phrase to make it your own. “If it’s too long or the words don’t connect with you strongly, it’s no good.”

Address your reasons for change within the mantra, so that it serves as a brief, powerful reminder. Jonathan Dick, Equinox’s London-based nutrition education lead, Tier X coach, and Equinox Fitness Training Institute master instructor, recommends phrases like ‘remember my why,’ or ‘I’m doing this for me.’ They’re quite general, he explains, but they tend to keep people honest. 

The affirmations can be incorporated into a routine or summoned as needed. Some people repeat their words of empowerment in the morning, throughout the day, or before each meal. Others post them on the refrigerator, write them in journals, or store them in an email.

Here, three common eating challenges and the habits and mantras that can mitigate them:

The challenge: I’m having a “bad” eating day 

It can be difficult to moderate oneself once the eating floodgates are open, particularly in a stressful personal or professional environment. A pizza lunch can quite easily turn into grazing on office snacks and rationalizing that since your day is shot, you might as well go overboard at dinner. 

But, it’s always possible to steer yourself in the preferred direction. “If someone has one ‘bad day’ in the month, their rate of success is 92 percent, but in the moment, it feels like zero percent,” Schaus says. It’s important to stay positive while also considering the underlying issues that indulgence and temptation may be masking. “Often, our food [impulses] are not about food,” she adds. “I love the concept of the ‘five whys’. ‘I want cake for breakfast.’ Why? What’s underneath that? ‘I want to feel better.’ Why? ‘I want to feel more secure.’ What’s underneath that? Take it, strip it away. At the bottom, it’s ‘I want to feel loved. My husband and I separated six months ago, and my best friend is on vacation.’ Seeing what lies underneath is one of the secrets [to understanding your eating cravings].”

Empowering mantras:

1. “80 percent fuel, 20 percent fun.” Purposefully incorporating wiggle room into your diet can help you stick to nutritional goals. “It’s what you do most of the time that matters,” Dick says. “We classify consistency as 80 percent with any given habit. That leaves you 20 percent to have some fun and enjoy life and food.”

2. “I’m doing this for me.” When you feel like you’re on the verge of sabotaging long-term diet and health goals, remind yourself why you’re resisting unhealthy options and mindless eating. “Say, ‘I’m doing this for me. The reason why I’m saying no to this temptation and making the choice is for me.’ That can be an incredibly powerful motivator,” says Dick. 

It’s what you do most of the time that matters.

Jonathan Dick

The challenge: I’m struggling with keeping my new nutrition plan straight

When you’re starting a new eating regimen, like cutting out sugar or going gluten-free, it can be hard to stick to all of the tenets and easy to become disheartened. But nutritional overhauls can’t be expected to occur overnight. “Somebody doesn’t go from lying in bed all the time to going running,” Schaus says. “They go from going for a walk to going for a jog to going for a run. That’s the way that things happen.”

Empowering mantras:

1. “Every step gets me closer to my goal.”“Consider replacing [small] habits,” says Jillian O’Neil, a Tier X coach and dietitian at East 85th Street in New York City. “Think of one thing, like milk in your coffee, and switch to almond milk.” Big, sweeping changes aren’t the only way to achieve your goal. Instead, try to focus on the little things and employ a mantra that supports the idea of individual steps to achieve a whole. 

 2.  “I am changing.” Remember that you’re committed and you’ve already made strides in the right direction. “A mantra can be ‘I am capable of change,’ [but] it can also be ‘I am changing,’” Schaus says. “Sometimes you have to convince yourself that you’re already there.” 

The challenge: I’m not allowing myself to enjoy food

Getting too wrapped up in the rules of your eating plan can backfire and eliminate joy from food experiences. Some people become so concerned that deviation will keep them from losing weight, that they shy away from indulgence completely, believing that they don’t deserve it. Of course, some prefer only to eat healthy, but the issue arises when people are constantly denying themselves things that they want to eat. 

“[Your] health doesn’t just [involve] what you put on the plate and what you do at the gym; mental health is also a big part of the lifestyle,” Dick says.

If it causes you stress, the rigidity of your diet can minimize the effects of your hard work. “If there is stress in the body, the body is going to hold onto weight,” explains Schaus. “It’s a physiological response.” 

Empowering mantras:

1. “I’m allowed to enjoy this.” Granting yourself permission to find joy in food can be a powerful step. “You have to start with self-love,” Dick explains. “It’s really important to start showing yourself [the] compassion you would if it were a friend or family member. You would say, ‘It’s okay. You can enjoy it. That one bite isn’t going to throw you off your plan or stop you from getting to your goal.’” 

2. “Food can excite me.” If you’ve lost your desire for food in general, try to recall feelings that you’ve had for favorite dishes in the past. “Good, beautiful food is exciting,” Schaus says. “Come at eating from the perspective of looking at it as gorgeous and colorful instead of how small it is or what calories are in it,” she advises. 

Photography by Jarren Vink