Starting a Healthy Eating Plan: 8 Simple Steps To Get Started Right and Beat Confusion and Overwhelm
Starting a healthy eating plan? It’s time to ditch the confusion and overwhelm. Learn how to get started the right way with this simple 8 step process.
You’re here because you want to start a real food diet.
Maybe you have a specific diet protocol in mind, such as Paleo, AIP, GAPS, or a real food version of Keto.
Or, perhaps you have no interest in following a specific “diet.” (You may even hate that word). But you know you are ready to start eating healthier, in a way that nourishes your health.
Starting a healthy eating plan or a general whole food, nutrient dense, real food diet, does not have to be so hard.
In fact, I believe you can actually enjoy the process if you do things right. There are eight key steps to starting the right way.
Follow these steps to quickly get on track with eating a nutrient dense real food eating plan…
So you can start feeling better fast, improve your health, and actually stick with it this time.
Ready? Let’s dive in.
Prefer to watch? Here’s a video I recorded on this same topic:
Step 1: Choose a Template for Starting A Healthy Eating Plan
I like to think of it as a template, not a “diet.” That’s because I don’t believe in necessarily sticking to a rigid set of rules or using a dogmatic approach when it comes to nutrition.
The truth is we’re all bioindividual, which means that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach that works best for everybody.
I truly believe that we need to remove the guilt and diet shaming from the realm of nutrition.
In upcoming content I’ll be diving more in-depth into the top choices for different diet templates that are available, and how to choose the one that’s best for you.
But I don’t want you to get overwhelmed at this stage at all.
I’m just going to give you a brief overview of what some of the top options are that you might want to consider right now.
Top Options to Consider for Real Food Healthy Diet Templates
These options include:
- A whole food diet
- A traditional or ancestral diet, meaning a properly prepared whole foods diet
- Or other diet templates that remove some of the top allergens, such as gluten free.
All of these templates can be very helpful in different occasions, depending on your individual needs.
And remember, this is about choosing a template, not a strict set of rules to follow for life.
What do I mean by "template?"
A template means that you’re choosing this as your starting point. The template represents foods that you’re choosing to include in your diet most of the time or build your plate around.
It does not not necessarily mean committing to always excluding these foods for good.
The template you choose helps you determine:
- What you want most of your meals to look like
- What foods you want to buy when you go to the grocery store
- And in general what you want to keep in your house to eat on a regular basis.
There really is no one right or wrong answer here.
If you already know that you want to stick to a certain specific diet template such as Paleo or AIP, that’s great. The remaining steps in this process will help you start your chosen diet template on the right path.
If you’re not sure yet which diet template to choose, or you don’t have something specific in mind like paleo or AIP or gluten-free just yet, that’s totally fine.
When in doubt, you can simply choose real food in general as your template. This means think about removing most refined processed foods. Aim to eat mostly foods in their whole unrefined forms as they’re found in nature.
If you start to build most of your meals around these whole foods instead of processed and refined foods, this is an incredible first step.
And that may be all you need. Or you may decide on a specific template later on in your journey. Either way is totally fine.
Step 2: Focus on What TO Eat (Not Just What To Cut Out)
This is really important. Many of the diet templates mentioned above like Paleo, top allergen elimination, AIP etc. are essentially defined by foods to cut out or avoid.
But it’s also very important to focus on what you WILL actually be eating, or what to emphasize on your plates.
A very common mistake is only thinking about what you’re cutting out and being left with almost nothing to eat.
Knowing what to eat, and eating enough of the right foods, is super important to avoid starvation mode, excess hunger, or excess feelings of restriction.
You may think it’s strange that I say we want to avoid excess hunger and restriction. Isn’t that what “dieting” is all about?
Unfortunately, that is largely the focus of typical “dieting” mentality. And I believe it’s the reason most weight loss “diets” fail in the long run.
The truth is, all this focus on restriction and excess hunger can actually backfire.
Not eating enough can leave you feeling hungry all the time and actually more susceptible to giving into cravings for comfort foods that you’re trying to avoid.
Not only that, but this leads to hormonal signals that tell our body to conserve energy, slow everything down, and store fat for survival instead of burning it for energy now. This becomes a very vicious cycle.
As counterintuitive as it might sound, whether you are starting a healthy eating plan for weight loss or to help with inflammation and painful health conditions, a big goal is to ensure you eat ENOUGH. Enough of the right foods, that is.
When starting a healthy eating plan or specific real food diet, an excellent starting point is to think about what are the main components to include as you build balanced plate real food meals.
In most cases regardless of which template you actually chose in the step above, the question of what to eat can actually be very simple.
Focus on building a balanced plate
It’s hard to go wrong by building balanced plate meals with the following main components:
- Quality protein sources such as meat, poultry, seafood. (Ideally proper sourcing as well, e.g. wild-caught, pasture-raised, 100% grass-fed, organic)
- Lower glycemic energy-dense vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, summer squash, carrots, etc.
- Whole food unrefined healthy carb sources such as sweet potatoes, winter squash and maybe some properly prepared legumes or grains if tolerated.
- And finally leafy greens and other accessory nutrients, which we’ll discuss a little bit later in more detail.
Step 3: Start Stocking Up On “The Essentials”
This will help you get your kitchen set up for success with your chosen real food diet template.
Make sure you have at least “the essentials” for basic kitchen equipment. There are more advanced cooking tools that can save you time and make eating this way even easier.
You also want to stock up on staple food items that you may not already have on hand. These are the kinds of things you buy once to use for a long time. So you just need to stock up to build your initial stash of these items.
Staple Foods to Consider for Starting a Healthy Eating Plan
This would include things like:
- Quality cooking oils and healthy cooking fats
- Nuts and seeds, if tolerated
- Other snack foods or convenience foods such as canned sardines
- Collagen protein or other protein powder, if using it to supplement your main meals
- Perhaps some “nice to have” items like cacao powder, coconut butter, etc.
If possible, have a weeks’ worth of fresh fruits, vegetables and protein sources on hand as well.
The goal is to have your refrigerator or freezer stocked and ready to go with the main components you need. This allows you to put these real food meals on the table FAST and cut down excuses you might otherwise make for not being able to cook.
Even if you’re not ready to go all in on any particular diet template, protocol, or healthy eating plan just yet, having your kitchen stocked up in this way is one of the best first steps you can take to get started seeing results from eating this way.
Step 4: Learn the Basic Cooking Methods
I like to keep things as easy as possible. That’s why I like to think about cooking methods rather than recipes.
Recipes can be fun for special occasions, or if you have more time on your hands. But typically following recipes can be a very tedious time-consuming process. Think multiple steps, lots of strange ingredients.
Instead of recipes, you can think of cooking methods. Ask yourself what is the simplest way to put X, Y, and Z ingredients on the table and ready to eat.
Does this sound too simple and boring? Think again.
The secret is your palate really will adjust to crave these simple nutrient dense real food components over time, as you get used to eating this way.
Season your food with some basic spices, maybe even just salt and pepper. Use enough healthy oils and fats in your cooking. And that may be all you need to enjoy your food and bring out the natural flavors of these foods.
I personally keep things simple most of the time, and I absolutely love the way my food tastes eating a real food diet.
Another nice thing about cooking methods vs. recipes?
Over time you'll really start to memorize these basic cooking methods
This means you can throw together simple meals fast.
You might even be able to do so while you’re talking on the phone, without even giving it much thought and without even having to look up the steps or the recipe.
Remember you can always make things fancier over time. There’s a time and place for looking up new recipes and digging through food blogs and cookbooks. And if that’s the kind of thing you truly enjoy, by all means go ahead and do it.
But I recommend getting started by just mastering some of the basic components:
- A few different ways to cook each cut of meat
- The simplest way to cook vegetables using the kitchen equipment you have on hand
You’ll quickly land on your preferred methods, and you’re good to go.
Looking for a shortcut? I have a free guide that shows you how to put together some of my favorite energy dense vegetables and carb replacements, fast. Think of it like your real food “cheat sheet.” You can download it for free here.
Step 5: Think about adding in nutrient dense/gut nourishing "superfoods"
In functional nutrition, we look at how the major systems in our body properly function and forms of dysfunction that may be taking place.
The GI tract, or the gut, is one of those main places where we see a lot of dysfunction from years or even decades of abuse.
There are certain therapeutic foods that can actually help to naturally undo some of that damage. These foods can really nourish the GI lining and support overall more optimal gut function.
Other foods are really “superstars” in terms of nutrient density. This means they pack a punch in terms of a high proportion of micronutrients to overall calories. Or they contain certain key nutrients that are often missing from the modern diet.
These nourishing and therapeutic foods can be a bit more advanced. Especially if you’re just getting started mastering healthy eating habits and incorporating the above steps.
So if the idea of adding in some of these foods that may seem weird or unusual or unknown freaks you out, don’t even worry about it. You can skip this step.
If you’re just starting a healthy eating plan and not ready for these more advanced foods, just focus on the basics for now. But keep these in mind as good options to possibly add in later. This can help accelerate the process of improving your health with a real food diet.
Top "Superfoods" to Consider for Gut Heath and Nutrient Density
Some of my favorite therapeutic foods or nutrient dense superstars that really helped me especially in the beginning of my real food journey include:
- Bone broth or meat stock
- Water with either lemon juice or apple cider vinegar added to it, to gently stimulate the production of digestive enzymes and stomach acid that may be lacking in the modern diet
- Bitter herbs including leafy greens or herbal tinctures you can take before meals
- Beet kvass, which is a form of fermented food that can actually help stimulate proper gallbladder function, support friendly bacteria and enzymes, and so much more.
Remember these foods can be more advanced. So don’t feel like you have to add in all of these or even any of them at all when you’re just getting started.
It may be something to be aware of as a “next step” and work up to over time.
Step 6: Pantry Cleanout
Once you’ve dipped your toes in the water a bit with the above steps, and set yourself up for success, you’re ready to take things to the next level and get serious with your real food journey.
Now is the time to get rid of any foods that are already in your house that you know don’t serve you.
Any foods in your fridge or cupboard that contain either inflammatory oils or refined sugar are a top priority that you do not want in your diet.
They do not serve you regardless of your diet template that you’ve chosen, so I highly recommend getting those out now.
Depending on which diet template you chose in Step 1, there may be other foods already in your house that do not fit into the parameters of that template.
For example foods with gluten if you’re cutting out gluten. Or grains and legumes if you’re doing Paleo.
Don't want to throw all that money down the drain by doing an extensive pantry clean out?
I hear you on this. There are reasons you might hesitate at this step:
- You might not even be sure if you’re going to stick with this particular diet template for the long-term.
- Or you think you may eventually reintroduce some of those foods.
- Perhaps you have family members or roommates you live with and you share food.
Bottom line: it’s not always practical to throw all that food away. Especially if your whole household is not on board with the same diet changes.
So if that’s the case, find a way to make those borderline items less accessible.
Move them to the top shelf where they’re out of sight. out of mind. Or assign a designated shelf in the fridge or cupboard that’s just for you and your food.
Worried that might not be effective enough?
It’s true, if you have those items in your house, there is always the possibility that you’ll get tempted and reach for them when times get tough. But I do find that even these subtle tactics send a powerful signal to the brain that these are the foods you’re focusing on. It becomes less of a temptation to eat foods you’re trying to avoid.
It may not be ideal. But life is not always perfect. Don’t let perfectionism be a barrier to getting started.
Either way this is a good step in the process of helping to break those patterns:
- Get rid of the really bad foods that you know don’t serve you or anybody else in your household
- If you don’t live alone and/or you don’t want to throw away foods that you’ve spent money on that you might want to use later, go ahead and get them out of sight, out of mind.
Do the best that you can with this step. Something is better than nothing.
Step 7: Set a Timeline
This step is actually optional. You can simply focus on the primary steps above:
- Clean out your pantry
- Choose the foods that you will emphasize
- Practice your real food cooking methods
- Take it one day at a time and just keep going
This may be all you need without needing to follow a strict timeline or trial elimination period. While those steps may sound simple, they are anything but that. Simple changes like this truly can be enough to build momentum and lead to huge changes in your health.
That being said, many people do find it can be helpful to have a temporary reset or a challenge period. This can really help you build some momentum and stick with it.
For whatever reason, many people find that it needs to “be official” for them to actually stick with the plan. I was definitely this way in my early days of starting a healthy eating plan. Even now, I find these temporary resets a helpful tool to recalibrate periodically.
Think of this like a reboot or a spring cleaning. A reboot can be especially helpful to break that cycle of cravings and other habitual behaviors.
Don't underestimate the power of group accountability when starting a healthy eating plan
If possible, find an accountability partner or group to join you on a reset or temporary elimination challenge. It helps to feel like you’re not doing it alone.
But that’s not always a possibility for everyone. If that’s the case, simply mark a date on your calendar. Define your own parameters: start date, end date, foods to emphasize, foods to avoid.
Doing so can be a good step towards making this official. The more it feels like a game or a fun challenge, the better.
I occasionally run group challenges for this type of real food reset. Most people going into the reset are quite scared. They think it’s going to be really hard. They’re not so sure if they really want to commit to a 21-day or 30-day period of cutting out certain foods.
I’m happy to say that by the end, clients are always incredibly happy with their results. Participants typically end surprised at how great they feel. They’re typically glad they jumped in and committed to the process, despite the initial fear.
The group accountability and community aspect is an especially powerful force. It’s easy to underestimate just how helpful the group accountability and community aspect can be to encourage follow through and positive results.
Contact me if you’d like me to send you details when I run the next group sugar detox/real food challenge. We’d love to have you!
Step 8: Keep Going!
Last but not least, just keep going. That means even if you slip up (because you inevitably will at some point). Just keep going…
Even if you cave in and eat something that you know that you “shouldn’t”…
Even if you have to get off plan because of travel, attending a wedding, or other special events. Or if life just gets in the way…
The most important thing is that you just keep going and do not stop.
That means even if you’re not perfect. Even if you slip up. Even if something takes you off track.
Just simply get back on track and keep going, day after day.
Do not throw in the towel just because an obstacle comes up.
And believe me, obstacles will come up at one point or another.
So forget about the all-or-nothing mentality. Remember you’re in this for the long haul.
Don’t panic when I say “long haul"
Know that the changes you decide on during your initial transition or temporary reset period do not need to be forever. This can be a fluid process and it most likely will evolve over time.
Sometimes what may seem initially like drastic measures can be really helpful to repair past damage, transition the taste buds and reset your habits.
But you will also learn the most powerful tool of all. That’s the ability to truly listen to your body, tune in to your body’s unique needs and learn from your body’s innate intelligence.
If you stick with this process, you will find yourself naturally gravitating towards those healthy, delicious, nutrient-dense real foods. Over time, you will naturally not even crave the foods that are inflammatory or simply don’t serve you.
And it won’t be because of deprivation, guilt, or willpower. You’ll find this happens simply because you feel amazing and you want to keep going on this path.
Ready to Get Started?
Resources for starting a healthy eating plan and sticking with it long term
Your next best step is to download my free guide, Top 6 Real Food Healthy Carb Swaps. This will be an incredible helpful tool for starting a healthy eating plan.
Think of this free guide as your “cheat sheet” to help you get started implementing steps 1-4 in this process.
Do you already have the basics down, but you’re ready for more support with the steps in the 2nd half of the process? Contact me to get on the waitlist for the next round of The RESTART Program which I teach periodically.
I sincerely hope the 8-step process laid out above helps you get started or back on track with your real food, nutrient dense, healthy eating journey. Please contact me in the free group or on Instagram with any questions or comments.
Functional Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (FNTP)
Licensed RESTART Instructor