11 Tips to Improve Your Eating Habits and Help You Feel Better
Eating well is one of the most important things people can do to manage their health. Regardless of your age or your lifestyle, everyone can benefit from a nutritious diet.
And for people who live with chronic conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS), psoriasis, psoriatic arthritis, and other autoinflammatory or autoimmune diseases, choosing the right foods—and staying away from harmful foods—can make a big difference in how they feel day to day. For example, you may be able to better manage symptoms, avoid triggers, and keep your energy level from dipping.
But how do you know which foods or types of foods are best? There is no one “best” diet for a chronic condition like MS, for example. Some people find that adding anti-inflammatory foods, such as berries, fish, and nuts, to their diet helps them reduce the frequency or intensity of flare-ups. Others find that a healthy diet helps them manage symptoms like fatigue, pain, and low mood.
How to Improve Your Diet When You Have a Chronic Issue
It’s not always easy to choose beneficial foods, to incorporate them into your diet, and also to stay on a path of healthy eating. Here are some things to remember and strategies to use to select—and stick to—a healthy eating plan.
1. Know Yourself and Your Condition
When it comes to finding a diet plan that’s right for you, start with as much information as possible, because it’s important to understand your condition before you make any changes. Ask your doctor what nutritional changes might benefit you, and as you do, keep in mind the following:
- Your specific condition (or conditions)
- The type and severity of your disease
- Which life stage you’re in
- Your body mass index (BMI)
- Food allergies or intolerances
- Your medical history
Work with a registered dietitian to help you figure out an eating plan that will work for your condition and unique needs.
2. Don’t Change Everything at Once
It can be tempting to revamp your diet in one fell swoop. But that’s not a good idea, says Nina Young, a Los Angeles–based registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in digestive and autoimmune nutrition. “People try to take on too much all at once, get overwhelmed, and go back to old habits.” Instead, she says, you should “be realistic about how quickly you can make changes that are sustainable.”
Roberta W. Gershner, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Ossining, New York, whose clients include people with autoimmune and autoinflammatory conditions, couldn’t agree more. “Take one habit at a time that needs to be changed and work on that first,” Gershner advises. “Don’t add another habit that needs to be changed until the previous one is working.”
Taking it slow gives you enough time to get used to making each change before you tackle the next one. It may help to start with the changes that you feel are easiest and save those that seem hardest for later. And go easy on yourself if you “cheat” once in a while or find yourself going back to old eating habits. It’s okay, and you can get back on track.
3. Set Yourself Up for Success
According to Young, planning ahead is key. Make a shopping list before heading to the grocery store so you can avoid impulse buying, which often means choosing unhealthy foods and snacks you’re craving in the moment. Don’t shop when you’re hungry.
Strategize ways to make healthy food options easily accessible at home, at work, and when traveling. For example, you can pack cut veggies and raw nuts in your bag or briefcase. “Have a backup plan for challenges such as illness, vacation, and loss of motivation,” advises Young.
And don’t be afraid to ask for support for times you’re not feeling well and can’t do it all yourself. That could include asking a family member to cook for you or ordering your groceries to be delivered to your home.
4. Be Kind to Your Gut
The foods you eat affect the makeup of your gut microbiome (bacteria that live in the gut) and, though more studies on gut health are needed, research suggests that the composition of the gut microbiome affects the immune system.
Kelly Gentile, 58, who lives in Boston and has had moderate psoriasis since 2014, says that managing her diet has been key to managing her condition. “I’ve had my gut microbiome sequenced and food sensitivity testing done to better understand my specific food triggers.”
The gut microbiomes in people with some chronic diseases have been shown to be different compared to healthy people. For people with psoriasis, for example, gut microbiomes are less diverse and have less “good bacteria” compared to the microbiomes of those without psoriasis, according to research.
And while not everyone needs to do in-depth testing, most everyone can improve the health of their gut microbiome with healthy eating. Taking probiotics may help, but it’s an even better strategy to avoid eating a diet high in saturated fats and red meats, and eating a diet with fish, nuts, and dietary fibers.
“A diet rich in plant fiber supports a healthy community of gut bacteria, which is vital for the immune system,” Young says.
5. Be Aware of Food-Drug Interactions
Medications and foods can interact in many ways. For instance, certain drugs can limit the absorption of nutrients in food and supplements. And with some medicine, eating certain foods, especially at the same time as you take your meds, can hinder the absorption or efficacy of the drug. Additionally, certain foods taken together with certain medications may change the taste of what you’re eating.
Talk to your doctor about any potential interactions or eating instructions any time you’re given a new prescription.
6. Eat Smaller Meals, More Often
“Try to eat a healthy, small meal every three to four hours,” advises Gershner. She also cautions against skipping meals, which can make you feel hungry and cranky and wreak havoc on your blood sugar. When you’re hungry, you’re more likely to reach for a “quick fix,” like processed snacks or junk food, and you’re also more likely to overeat.
7. Strike a Balance
Eat well-balanced, regularly spaced meals that include protein and healthy fats. “[This] supports balanced blood sugar and provides optimal nutrition,” Young says. Plus, when you feel nourished and satiated, you’re less likely to overeat or indulge in foods that don’t fit your eating plan.
8. Opt for Natural Foods
Skip packaged foods that list dozens of ingredients whose names you can’t spell or pronounce. They are likely processed foods, which are often devoid of nutrition and usually include preservatives, artificial flavors or colors, and excess salts, sugars, and unhealthy fats. Eating these foods can cause inflammation and, says Young, “stimulate the brain’s reward center and override fullness signals, often leading to larger portions.”
Instead, opt for whole foods like fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and whole grains. Plus, consume healthy fats, fish, poultry, and probiotic dairy in moderation.
9. Avoid or Reduce Saturated Fats
“Research supports avoiding saturated fats,” says board-certified neurologist Lauren Krupp, M.D., director of the Multiple Sclerosis Comprehensive Care Center at NYU Langone in New York City. “The balance of fats in the diet plays an important role in managing inflammation,” she says.
Young recommends foods that contain healthy fats, including avocado, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and olive oil. Gentile suggests “ditching inflammatory oils, like corn, safflower, and palm oil.”
Additionally, replace processed meats, like deli meats, salami, and bacon, with fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, trout, and sardines. These foods will make you feel satiated, and, Gershner says, “They contain omega-3 fatty acids, which can [help] reduce the risk of inflammation and thus illness.”
10. Drink Plenty of Water
Drinking water does more than keep you hydrated. It flushes toxins from your system and can make you feel satiated and less likely to overeat.
But drinking more water may seem counterintuitive to people with MS, who often cope with fatigue as well as bladder issues and may equate more water intake with more trips to the bathroom. Not drinking enough water, however, can cause people with MS to be dehydrated, which can increase fatigue and cause urine to become concentrated, leading to urinary tract infections.
11. Consider an Elimination Diet
“Some people may benefit from an elimination diet,” Young says, but should do so only “with the support of an experienced dietitian.” Always discuss any changes to your diet with your doctor before you make them.
Elimination diets are usually done for a short period of time to help people identify the specific things they’re eating that could be contributing to their symptoms. The general idea is to identify certain trigger foods by eliminating one food or ingredient for a few weeks and keeping a food diary and symptoms log.
But eliminating a certain type of food may lead to nutrient deficiency. Therefore, when starting an elimination diet, it’s important to have the support of a dietitian to make sure you’re still getting enough calories and nutrients.
Noting a recent study, Young says, “The Wahls elimination diet [also known as the modified paleolithic diet] and the low-saturated-fat Swank diet may help improve some MS symptoms.” The findings of one small clinical trial suggested that both diets may offer measurable reductions in fatigue and improvements in quality of life.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do when making over your diet is to eat mindfully. Maintaining a healthy diet isn’t just about what you eat; it’s also about how and when you eat. As Young says, “[Mindful eating means] bringing conscious awareness to eating habits—slowing down, noticing what’s happening when you have the urge to make poor choices, and being kind to yourself.”
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