The 12 Essential Nutrition Habits

A step-by-step guide to building better nutrition habits

December 11, 2017
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Adapted from MMA superstar Chael Sonnen’s new book The Four-Pack Revolution: How You Can Aim Lower, Cheat on Your Diet, and Still Lose Weight & Keep It Off 

In the early 1990s, researchers at MIT discovered that at the core of every habit is a neurological loop comprising three distinct components: a cue or trigger, a routine, and a reward. To form a new habit, you must find a way to break this loop and replace old, destructive behaviors with more empowering alternatives.

The birth of a habit begins the moment you decide to take action, and with enough repetition any behavior, good or bad, can become automatic. As new thoughts or behaviors are repeated, connections between the neurons in your brain begin to change. Since our brains are as unique as fingerprints, we all have slightly different responses. A habit that takes you a week to develop may take a friend much longer. But researchers who study habit formation have demonstrated that physical changes in the brain can occur in as little as one week. 

Here’s a step-by-step guide to building better nutrition habits into your life. 

More: 17 Positive Habits That Will Change Your Life

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Eat Slowly

Our fast food culture has created an army of speed-eaters. Leave that for Joey Chestnut and put the fork down. This habit has nothing to do with what you’re eating, but it can have a dramatic impact on how much you’re eating. Why? There’s a delay between when the food reaches your stomach and when your brain realizes you’re full. Slowing down while you eat helps you become aware of your hunger and other appetite cues. If it takes 15 to 20 minutes to finish your meal, then you’re doing well.

Eating meals with others is always a good idea, as you’ll naturally break up your eating with conversation. Your relationships will benefit, you’ll eat less, and enjoy your food more. If you’re always on the go and 20 minutes per meal is out of the question, then lower your expectations. Take five minutes instead of two. Anything extra will help—just get something in your win column.

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Stop Eating at 80 Percent Full

This takes some discipline as well, especially if you’re a fast eater or let yourself get overly hungry by waiting long periods of time between meals. Waiting for your brain to catch up with your stomach can feel like eternity. Eating slowly (Habit 1) makes it easier to stop when you’ve had enough to eat.

Here’s a timeline of how you should feel after eating:

  • Immediately after: You’re still craving a little more—if there’s food left on the   table, you’ll want to eat it. Resist the urge and wait a few minutes. Walk out of the kitchen and around the block if need be.

  • One hour after eating: You’re no longer thinking about food. If you’re craving something, it’s an emotional response and food can’t fix that problem.

  • Two hours later: You may find yourself thinking about your next meal. You could eat, but the urge is not that strong. You’ll be able to continue going about your day without distraction. Drink two glasses of water.

  • Three hours later: Okay, it’s almost time to eat, but your hunger isn’t making you too grumpy. Thankfully, you’ve planned your day, and a balanced meal is not far away. If you’re not hungry at this point, chances are you ate too much at your last meal.

  • Four hours later: You have one priority, and that is to eat. Now.

More: 10 Slimming Staples for Your Pantry

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Eat Protein-Dense Foods with Each Meal

Eating 20 to 30 grams of protein with each meal stimulates your metabolism, improves muscle mass, and reduces body fat. A good gauge is to use the size of your palm as a visual reference for an adequate portion size. Meaning if a piece of wild salmon is about the same size as your palm, you’re looking good.

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Eat Vegetables at Every Meal

Not only are vegetables low in calories and high in fiber, they are also loaded with micronutrients essential for cellular health. The alkaline effect of vegetables helps offset the acidic nature of protein and grains while feeding the healthy colony of bacteria in your gut. So eat your veggies, often and in whatever form you can.

I’m also big on the benefits of juicing green vegetables such as cucumber, celery, spinach, kale, parsley, and chard. I have used fresh veggie juices for enhanced nutrition during strenuous training and weight cutting for years. Green juices are a healthy way to increase your water intake and are loaded with nutrition. Naturally low in sugar, they also work well as an appetite suppressant. While there are many approaches to dieting, it’s rare to find a popular diet that doesn’t recommend eating vegetables.

More: Shaun T’s 5 Rules of Food

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Enjoy Carbohydrates

Forget no carb, forget high carb—you need a balanced, healthy approach to carbs to keep you going. Carbs make meals more satisfying. They taste good, and the ones I recommend are high in fiber. Just avoid anything starchy and white (potatoes, rice, sugar, or anything processed). Healthy carbs are easy to come by: Non-starchy vegetables, lentils, beans, peas, and cauliflower are all excellent choices.

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Eat Similar Meals

A few go-to meals make the process of healthy eating much easier. This approach requires less thought, it’s easier to measure portion size, and if you know you enjoy the food, you’ll have a better chance of following through. If you get bored, you can always spice things up or use different condiments for a change in flavor.

Bottled water
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Drink water, not sugar water

If you’re looking for one thing to change in your diet, start here. Fruit juice–based drinks and sodas are loaded with sugar and calories, and expose you to a number of health risks from tooth decay to weight gain. Replacing them with water or herbal teas is not difficult to do and is the easiest way to improve your diet. Let’s add diet soda here as well, even though it’s technically low in sugar. Recent research indicates that consumption of diet soda may triple the risk of stroke and dementia.

More: How Soda Destroys Your Body

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Increase Lean Body Mass

Your weight loss will primarily come from changes in your diet, not exercise. Still, building lean body mass (a.k.a. muscle) is an integral part of the fat-loss equation. Muscle tissue increases your metabolism and naturally burns more calories. Plus, you’ll look, feel, and move better. No matter what age you are, your muscles will respond if you challenge them. If you’re out of shape, don’t rush this process—start slow and build up. As your diet improves and your weight comes down, your energy will increase. Most people overestimate what they can do in a month and underestimate what they can achieve in a year. In 12 months, you can radically transform your body.

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Decrease Inflammation

Inflammation is a natural response the body uses to protect itself. For acute injuries, inflammation is beneficial and stimulates the healing process. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is dangerous and contributes to an increased risk of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Many people suffer from chronic, low-grade inflammation,and a sedentary lifestyle, lack of sleep, stress, and poor diet all contribute to the problem.

Eliminating the worst offenders—sugar, processed carbs, trans fats, processed meat, and alcohol—will also have a major impact on reducing inflammation. Sound familiar? These foods keep coming up over and over as red flags. Thankfully, inflammation is pretty easy to correct, and the foundation foods of this plan—beans, fish, nuts, seeds, and veggies—will help balance your system.

More: The 15 Grossest Things You’re Eating

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Manage Cravings

Cravings happen to everyone. Pretending you’re never going to eat a piece of fried chicken again is not entirely reasonable, so plan to eat your favorite foods with a weekly System Reset meal. If your cravings seem out of control or are stubbornly persistent, try adding more protein to your diet. Protein has been shown to reduce cravings. Also, make sure you’re properly hydrated and eating enough. Remember, you shouldn’t be hungry an hour after a meal. If you are, take a deep breath and reel those emotions back in.

Meal with brussels sprouts
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Learn Portion Size

As we mentioned previously, counting calories is tough, but having several go-to meals makes staying on track much easier. A meal should consist of:

  • 2 palm-size portions of protein

  • 1 palm-size serving of complex carbohydrates

  • 2 handfuls of vegetables

  • 1 tablespoon of oil

This formula is easy for anyone to remember and works while eating at home or dining out. Remember, a serving size is the amount of food indicated on a food label; a portion is how much food you choose to eat at one time. Pay attention to how the portions you eat relate to the serving size noted on the food label when calculating the nutritional value of your meal. When you dine out, don’t let the chef determine how much you’ll eat.

More: 11 Tips to Keep Your Diet on Track While Eating Out

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Have a Plan for When Things Fall Apart

There will rarely be a week that passes in which everything goes to plan. Life offers constant opportunities to learn to adapt when the unexpected comes your way. On occasion, you’ll eat something unhealthy or find yourself out of time when you were planning to work out. Anticipate these challenges and be ready for them. Don’t be one of those people who throw everything away because one or two things didn’t go as planned. Eliminate negative thinking and instead devise a plan for what you’ll do when things go awry.

So there you have it: 12 excellent habits that you can take on to make a lasting change in both how you eat and how you feel. But remember, small steps. Don’t feel obligated to take on all 12 at once. Experiment and see what works best for you.

Find more weight-loss tips in Chael Sonnen’s book The Four-Pack Revolution

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