Starting over in Spring: Dietary ‘big rocks’

This is the second part of our post-lockdown health reset. We’re focusing on simple mindset, diet and lifestyle shifts that will get you back on track this Spring.

Last week we introduced the Japanese concept of ‘Kaizen’, the implementation of small, continuous improvements that generate momentum and the motivation to forge ahead on a new trajectory.

This week we’re focusing on the concept of ‘big rocks’ and seeing how we can apply it to our health routines, to create permanent change.

If you’ve never come across the concept before, the idea is that by filling a jar with pebbles and sand (the less important tasks, according to the analogy), there is no room for the big rocks (your priorities). By filling your jar with the big rocks first, the pebbles and sand can fall around them, allowing you to fit more in.

The idea of ‘crowding out’ unhealthy foods and destructive habits with healthy alternatives is a dietary application of the big rocks strategy. An example might be to focus on including a big plate of veggies into your day somewhere instead of attempting to give up your numerous dietary vices. The former is usually much more achievable than the latter.

Willpower vs biology

There’s another reason that this strategy is so effective when applied to our dietary choices.

Anything we eat on a regular basis is either feeding our good gut bugs and helping them to proliferate (resulting in more energy, better moods and cognition, healthy weight and metabolism, improved digestion) or starving them. The latter can lead to a state of ‘dysbiosis’ which is a drop in diversity and abundance of healthy microbes and potentially an overgrowth of harmful ones.

The interesting thing is that each of the different types of microbes residing down there have their own preferred food. In addition to that, the microbes that are proliferating at any given moment can influence your food cravings.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that when you’re in a rut with over-indulging in takeaway or junk foods, they actually become addictive and it’s hard to break the cycle?

This is one of the primary reasons. There are microbes thriving in that environment you’ve created and they don’t want you to change the status quo!

By regularly adding in some fresh vegetables or other high fibre foods and increasing the quota over time, you allow a resurgence of healthy microbes that will put in their vote for healthier food choices.

So, you can see why overcoming cravings isn’t just a lack of willpower on your part – you’re going up against biology. And biology will usually have the upper hand.

Deciding on your dietary big rocks

When aiming for any sort of transformation, but particularly in the area of health, it’s important to focus on the easy-to-implement habits that simultaneously offer the
greatest impact.

It’s tricky to come up with a generic list of generic dietary suggestions that apply to most people because it depends where your baseline is, where your weakest links are and how high you’re aiming.  

Here are a few simple habits that, when implemented, seem to have the biggest impact across the board.

1. Glass of warm water or lemon water (or warm lemon water!) upon rising.

Starting off nice and easy, a la Kaizen. Now, I don’t subscribe to the idea that outside of peak Summer, we need several litres of water per day to remain healthy or hydrated. However, it’s certainly true that we are often very dehydrated upon waking and that this needs to be rectified swiftly for our bodies to function in their optimal state. 

Plenty of important, health-sustaining processes happen in the first half of the day and they’ll occur much more efficiently if our cells and tissues are functioning properly. A glass on the bedside table before bed makes this one low-hanging fruit!

2. Stretching the window between dinner and breakfast

Gradually bringing the time of dinner forward so that you’re eating earlier (without snacking later in the evening, in case that wasn’t obvious!) is another simple change that can have huge results.

Increasing the window between dinner and breakfast is a simple way to dabble in the practice of ‘intermittent fasting’ and for many people, this change alone can have significant results in terms of weight loss, mood, energy levels and other health markers.

Isn’t it fascinating to think that just by changing the time that you eat – without addressing your diet or anything else – you can improve your health?

Aim initially for a 12 hour window and gradually increase it to 14 or 15 if it’s achievable within your lifestyle. In my experience the lion’s share of the benefits come from making dinner earlier than breakfast late – especially for women. 9am is my suggested cut off for this meal.

3. A huge, balanced salad every day

Learning to create quick, delicious and interesting salads is one of the most powerful health strategies you can master (and there’s a formula – I’ll do a series on this soon). Until you’ve mastered it, finding a place that sells them is a win, too.

Aim to structure your day around lunch or dinner consisting solely of a huge, hearty salad that’s so satisfying, it can be a standalone meal. This is easy enough if it includes adequate healthy fats, carbohydrates in the form of fruit or starch and a decent serving of protein.

The first elements that tend to go missing from the diet when health slips down the priority list are fibre, enzymes and phytochemicals (found in abundance in fresh, raw produce). By committing to this practice, you’re ticking off all of them and more, without
having to overthink it.

4. Green smoothie – the cheat’s salad

This is the only time of year that I’m a devout fan of this idea, because our bodies generally crave an abundance of cleansing greens during Spring. It’s a balance, though. Throughout the rest of the year, my experience is that some people can overdo greens – remember, more is not necessarily better.

For busy folk who can’t regularly prioritise epic salad-making, this is an extremely do-able way to flood the body with the aforementioned fibre, enzymes and phytochemicals that are so often overlooked during hectic periods. Toss some fruit, cucumber and a handful of herbs or leafy greens into a blender and you’re done.

And don’t chug! Drink it slowly, so that your saliva and digestive juices still have a chance to do their thing.

5. Healthy swaps: try the ‘one better’ approach

This is a way to apply the concept of Kaizen to our dietary choices. If you’re struggling with cravings and a diet that might have slipped down a few notches throughout Winter and lockdown, this is a great way to tackle it: replacing your most craved foods with something marginally better.

It’s best to start with one thing at time. It might be committing to swap out your unhealthy go-to takeaway options with healthier ones that you still enjoy or that sickly sweet, processed afternoon treat for fresh berries and yoghurt. The trick is to choose an equally indulgent replacement – just a marginally healthier one. Treat yourself. It’s an act of self-care. On an ongoing basis, these small wins build self-trust and resolve. And gradually the cravings subside, energy levels increase and by then you’re well and truly on your way.

Good luck team. Great time of year for it.

Georgia is a clinically trained nutritionist, wholefoods chef, columnist and mum. She’s been featured in Body & Soul and had TV appearances on ABC Breakfast and Studio 10 for her unique approach to food and health. She’s known for reinventing traditional foods for the modern kitchen and was instrumental in a radical new approach to sports nutrition with a program for the NRL Parramatta Eels, kickstarting their ascent on the ladder in recent years. Find out more at