How To Eat Healthy, Even When A Cheeseburger Is Right There

Illustration by Sam Woolley.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.

One day you’ll decide to start giving a shit about your body, but that does not mean the world-at-large will help you along the way. That’s something I had to learn on my own—the friends and websites I consulted before changing my eating habits never mentioned how lonely it can be to try to lose weight and exercise. When I was at 350 pounds, I figured my decision to get healthy would thrill my friends and family, and that they’d practically come and de-junk my pantry for me.



Instead, they kept inviting me out to eat, kept planning vacations, kept doing everything that they always did (and honestly, had the right to do). Turns out, no one feels obligated to shield you from temptation—you are not that star athlete from the hood who everyone wants to succeed, and mothers until you do so. In fact, once you commit to eating better, the world seemingly makes its threats more alluring, and more noticeable (especially during the holiday season). It’s hard out there, between any combination of work, school, homemaking, child-rearing, and having a social life. Each of these very regular life commitments will someday, somehow, test your will.

Now, this might be upsetting news for those of you halfway into a new year resolution to mind your health better. You may have been hopeful that somewhere along the line—10, 14, 20 months into being resolute by eating healthier—it becomes easier to ignore those cupcakes that Tammy from accounting bought in for the office, or that the all-inclusive buffet at your vacation resort will somehow look less appealing. Let me tell you, firmly, that it does not. Especially if you’re hungry, and even then, sometimes when you aren’t. I’m sorry. But do not fret! Here are some tips on not killing your progress or commitment to smart eating just because life’s happening (which is always).

Beware of “dieting.”

Losing weight, and thereafter maintaining it, means eating healthy foods you can eat until you die. (Which hopefully then won’t be from heart disease.) When you do decide you’d like to prolong your life by eating the right way, your first move should not be a declaration to yourself or bystanders that you’re “going on a diet.” This suggests to them and you, that your commitment to eating better is only temporary, and the end goal is to merely lose weight.

More importantly, if your diet is overly restrictive, a few things will eventually happen: a) you will begin to miss the foods you cannot eat, b) you will eventually break down and eat a lot of those foods, and c) you will gain back everything you lost, and then probably some more. If you’re reading this ahead of your making life/dietary changes, plan now on simply incorporating more whole foods like fruits and vegetables into your daily diet; plan on adjusting your portion sizes; plan on maybe exercising some more. As we know, losing weight can be quite simple with a few life adjustments! But if you’ve already started a fad “diet” to lose weight—something like Atkins, or South Beach—quit now, you’re doomed. Start over, and do it right this time.

Plan ahead.

It bears repeating that life will do nothing to facilitate your weight loss—you’re on your own. To remain on track, you’ll need to become an avid planner. Work or school meals are relatively easy in that you can bring your own food to these places. This is something lots of people do as a cost-cutting measure anyway, so not only are you now controlling your portions and calories, but you will also save money. What you put in your lunch/snack pack is up to you; but generally, a mix of protein, fiber, fat, and something grainy does the trick.


Social gatherings are a bit trickier. If you’re a person who generally gets invited to things, then people will continue inviting you places; and the better you start feeling (which will radiate outward), the more things you’ll get invited to. It’s important to plan ahead for any situations where the food offerings will not be in your control. If you’re going to an event at a restaurant, look up the menu ahead of time. See which dishes fall into acceptable caloric ranges for you, pick the tastiest one, and eat that. Most restaurant sites have nutrition guides with this info, as well as an abundance of phone apps, like MyFitnessPal. Unless you’re eating at The Cheesecake Factory, there should be something on the menu for you to eat.

If you’re going to a party or reception with finger foods, or a even a full out spread, ask the party-thrower what kind of foods they’ll be serving if possible. If there are no good options, eat ahead of time to avoid being tempted. You can even pocket your own snacks, something like nuts, and eat those. Do this in a private area, or do it in full view if you’re unafraid of being “that guy.” And actually, speaking of that...


Don’t pay attention to teasing, hating-ass friends.

If you’re like me, no one will be more inadvertently or unintentionally discouraging of your new eating habits than your closest friends and family. In general, acquaintances and strangers are not audacious enough to snidely comment on your ordering a garden salad at a pizza place—your friends will. They will snicker, they will joke; they will try to make you feel guilty for what they’ll view as an attempt to make them feel guilty by not indulging along with them. The most brazen/assholey of them will outright try persuading you into ordering something knowingly unhealthy; they’ll dangle a slice of pizza right in your damn face. Naturally, you’ll want to fit-in; you’ll also to want to eat that dish they’re eating that’s maybe, probably more delicious than your dish. But hold firm. Say mean things right back at them, order your healthy meal, and eat it slowly in their faces as if it’s the best thing you’ve ever tasted (and you should eat slowly anyway for satiety purposes). For that meal at least, they’ll back off. They secretly admire your resolve, too.


Also, when eating out, order first.

Your being tempted by friends or family is an inevitability; when you’re at a restaurant, be sure to order first. Do this especially at places with few healthy options, like say, The Cheesecake Factory. Ordering first lessens the chance of you being swayed by everyone else. Of course, you can always go back and change your order; but doing this will draw comments from your friends, and most importantly, the ire of your waiter/waitress.


Don’t be afraid of “cheating.”

Look, you’re going to eat some fatty, sugary, delicious foods every now and then, and you’re supposed to. Cheating rids the brain of cravings, and leaves you able to abide by the rest of your eating plan worry-free; and also, life is short and you should enjoy things. Lots of so-called clean eaters eat at least one cheat meal a week; some cheat for a whole day even, though it’s technically not encouraged.


How you cheat is up to you. You can plan a day for your cheat, like Saturday, so as to have something to look forward to; you can cheat spontaneously. If it’s the latter, do not thereafter go into “fuck it” mode and binge because you think you stepped out of line. Doing this will lead you to either abandon your healthy ways completely, or, leave you with a really bad stomachache and maybe an extra pound. The best way to go about cheating—in my opinion—is to plan out your meal in advance. Maybe it’s a couple slices of pizza, maybe it’s a burger and fries, maybe it’s a small batch of cookies. Plan it, eat it, get back on the wagon.

Prep for extended events, trips, and vacations.

Vacations are hard. The hardest, actually. If you’re intent on staying the course while on trips, your first order of business is to be just that—intent. Do all you can to lessen the allure of unhealthy food, which will invariably be in abundance. Planning goes an extra long way here. If possible, go to a local grocery store and stock up on essential food items. And plenty of water. Also, vacations will find those hating-ass friends and family of yours at their extra temptingest, so be prepared for an onslaught of both seduction and snickers at any meal gatherings. The absolute best thing you can do whilst vacationing is move around as much possible. Go explore; exercise. The more physically active you are, the less you’ll think about food; the more you sweat, the less inclined you’ll be to wreck your efforts at the table. Which reminds me:

Junk food should not be treated as a reward.

It’s hard not to feel a bit entitled after a workout. Maybe you ran on the treadmill for half an hour, perhaps you rowed your heart out for 45 minutes, whatever; you just did a relatively strenuous activity, and survived it. You feel good about yourself and you should. However, burning a few extra calories shouldn’t be treated as license to subsequently go in on a bag of French fries; abecedarian as it sounds, just because you worked hard doesn’t mean you deserve a cookie.


Americans are conditioned to expect rewards for doing anything out of the ordinary; food especially has long been used as a treat. When I was younger, eating my vegetables meant getting dessert. If I had a particularly good sports game, I could then order whatever I wanted from Wendy’s. I always ordered a triple cheeseburger. My experiences are not unique; and it’s difficult to divorce those feelings of food nostalgia from your new, healthier life. When food has long grown out of being a source of sustenance, and instead serves as a source of award or comfort, it becomes difficult to tell people how to treat it.

It’s not my place to tell you how to view your meals. But in this capacity, the technical “reward” for adhering to a healthy diet is your cheat meal; your ultimate reward is the benefit of feeling healthy, and actually being healthy. If physically exerting yourself will increase your appetite, plan ahead with a banana or snack waiting for you when you come out of it. Satisfying hunger with a snack when you’re actually hungry will do the trick.


When things get hard—and they will—remember why you’re doing this in the first place.

You’re eating better for a reason. Maybe you don’t want to die prematurely; maybe you have a family you want to stick around for; maybe you have a crush; maybe your skin’s begun to chafe from all the extra fat, and it burns; maybe walking up stairs has turned into a veritable mountain-climbing expedition; maybe someone just called you a name (“fat-ass,” maybe); maybe you just want to feel healthier. Any of these, any others, are good excuses to change your eating habits. But ultimately it’s the how, not the why, that will get you there.


Alex Gray is a writer.