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Personal experience: Change is difficult, even when necessary

“You need to change.”

Those are probably some of the hardest words to hear. Those words are especially difficult when they involve the everyday foods you eat.

Being told to change your food habits can feel threatening, overwhelming and/or fear-inducing.

It is often met with immediate resistance; more than if your doctor told you “I have this new prescription I want you to try.”

It feels so deeply personal and it is easy to attach more meaning to it than the speaker intends.  It can feel like a judgment on your current efforts (especially if you thought you were eating healthy) or a life sentence (“I will never be able to eat ‘normally’ with family and friends again).”  It may be an honest wake-up call to your current denial of reality or it may just be an honest adjustment in your complacent “norm.”

I know the feeling. Recently, I was told by my own doctor that I needed to make some significant/major shifts in my diet. These changes were necessary to deal with some chronic, slightly enigmatic health concerns I have wrestled with these last few months (and for some issues, years).

Even as a dietitian, I have found this very difficult.

In pondering these dietary difficulties, I offer you my top tips for what to do when your doctor tells you that you need to change the foods you eat. I offer these to you with the perspective of both the patient trying to adhere to what is hard and of a practitioner who has had to ask others to do so.

With these tips, it is vital to realize that there are numerous reasons underlying a doctor’s order to alter your diet. It could be due to digestive distress, a particular drug therapy or treatment. It could be to control blood sugar levels, blood pressure or weight. Identifying inflammatory foods might be another reason. Some diet changes might be long-term adjustments while others might be necessary for only a short while. It is good to have a clear understanding from your doctor of the purpose of these changes and how long you might need to make them.

Know that you CAN do it. I know this sounds cliché (I tried to think of another way to say it!) but it is very true. Some of us say “I can’t” far too readily and we need a kick in the pants to shed the excuse. The diet changes asked of you may be hard. In fact, they will be. They might require a lot of you, but you CAN do them. Not long ago a family member’s doctor told her to follow two therapeutic diets simultaneously. I suggested she do them one at a time as it was “impossible” to do them concurrently. Ironically, I now find myself having to do the same two diets and, wonder of wonders, I am actually able to do them. It can be done!

Do it. Unless you can reasonably prove that the changes are scientifically unreasonable (I.e. like the good ole “low cholesterol diet”), just TRY the changes. Pretend your doctor suggested a new prescription with high success rates. Know that you can do it and that you ought to try.

It won’t be hard forever. Regardless of whether the changes you need to make are long-term or not, it is the newness of a change makes it so hard. That “newness factor” won’t last forever.

A new normal can be established. In the first days or weeks you may find yourself immersed in handouts, apps, websites or your doctor to get guidance.

You will likely feel like there is too much to remember. It won’t always feel this way and the rewards of getting the outcomes you want will help to make it worth it. Also, recognize the foods we eat and the reasons we partake of them runs deep. It is natural to feel a sense of loss.

Get Support. Don’t expect yourself to be able to make changes if you don’t have supporting tools AND relationships. Don’t just try to do it.

Do it with real live help. Use Ebooks, magazines, websites, Facebook groups, cooking clubs or formal support groups. It is too big of a change to make without some serious support, so find a venue that will give you the support you need to make the adjustments successfully.

Put your goals in writing. When the going gets tough as you pass by your old favorite foods that are now “off limits,” having goals will be helpful to look at. This is especially true if the changes you need to make are long-term.

Ask yourself what you want to be different in four weeks, three months, six months or one year (your time frame of choice). Maybe your goal is eating without digestive discomfort, being able to move around with your kids, improving a lab value or reducing your medication dose.

When you feel like you are missing out or that the change is too hard, these goals will be the answer to the question, “Why am I doing this?!”

Track it. This might not be universally applicable but if your changes are due to allergies or digestive issues (aka something with symptoms), I highly recommend you keep a detailed food journal.

By “detailed” I mean what you eat, drink, sleep, stress, movement etc. You may hate doing it day-to-day (I do and I am a dietitian!) but you will profusely thank yourself later. Quantify any symptoms you experience by giving things a rating from 1 to 10 (ie. I feel bloated 7 out of 10 today ,etc.).

This type of tracking allows you to see what you did and how it affected you (your symptoms). Sometimes the most profound connections are easily overlooked in the day to day.  Unless you have a record to reference, you may miss those connections and the opportunity to make helpful adjustments later on.

Much more could be said about successfully navigating necessary dietary changes; however, these tips are a great start. Even though the changes may be difficult, you never know what good things might be on the other side. Getting healthy and feeling better is worth it!

Cathryn Arndt is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) and owns a nutrition counseling business called The Pantry Lab LLC.  She lives locally with her husband and baby daughter.  To learn more about Cathryn, visit her Facebook page or You Tube Channel by searching under “Dietitian Cathryn.” Find her blog at thepantrylab.com