Making a Change Feel Normal

A long time ago, I wrote about the idea of a money free weekend – two days spent doing stuff that’s free or extremely close to it. At that time, the idea of a money-free weekend was a bit of a challenge for my family – we almost always spent money doing something each weekend.

Now, the opposite is true – most weekends are spent doing things that don’t cost anything at all. This past weekend, we carved pumpkins, roasted pumpkin seeds, went to a state park, worked on homemade Christmas presents, planned a birthday party, played some board games, fixed a child’s scooter, and went on a bicycle ride. Virtually none of that cost anything at all, but I found myself happily exhausted from all of the activity by Sunday evening.

In short, the thing that seemed like drastic, painful change in the past now seems like the norm.

I’ll give you another example from my life where this transition is ongoing. A few months ago, I had some bloodwork done that showed elevated cholesterol numbers and some other unusual readings. I had a few follow-up tests and talked to my doctor and a dietician about it. They both strongly encouraged me to change my diet above all else, giving me one simple mandate: eat plants.

That seemed very difficult. No meat. No cheese. No milk. No eggs. What would my diet even look like?

I started it with gusto about a month ago. At first, it was incredibly hard. I wanted some cheese. I longed for a dish that I couldn’t eat. All it felt like I could eat was salad and peanut butter.

As time went on, though, I just kept trying new meals and new foods and new spices and things. I tried soups and skillet meals and smoothies and sandwiches.

After a while, I began to discover a lot of things that I liked. More importantly, my desire for a lot of the things I used to be enamored with began to subside. It’s reached a point where, quite literally, if I had a slice of meaty pizza or a bean burrito in front of me, I’d choose the bean burrito.

These two experiences – and many others in my life – have some distinct things in common.

First, a radical life change is easier if there is just one simple rule to follow. Don’t spend money this weekend. Eat plants. Play a game each evening. Read two books a week. A very simple rule is very simple to follow.

Second, the simple rule is tied closely to something I truly want to change in my life. I want to be healthy over the long haul. I want to be in financially good shape. These are strong central desires for my life, and because they’re strong, they trump the other shorter-term desires I have.

Third, the things I like or immediately desire are often influenced heavily by what I’ve been doing and thinking about recently. If I’ve been buying a lot of books and reading a lot, I tend to want to do it more. If I’ve been playing a lot of board games, I tend to want to play more games with my friends. If I’ve been eating a meat-heavy diet, I crave meat.

In other words, once I push through the “inertia” of my previous habits, it’s easy to find that new habits just kind of click into place.

If you’ve got something you want to change, try this. Come up with a rule for yourself that’s challenging, but extremely simple to understand and remember. Make it five words or less, for example, and make it very clear in terms of knowing whether you’re following it or breaking it. Eat just plants. Spend no money on weekends. Read two books a week. Run ten miles a week.

Then, simply follow that rule for one month. If you fail, start the month over. Keep retrying until you find yourself able to follow the rule for a full month. If it’s still tough, add another month at that point.

If you’re like me, you’ll find that it gets easier and easier to follow that rule and suddenly you’re skating directly in the direction of the big life goal you want to achieve.

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  1. jill says:

    I went off all red meat, chicken and most dairy 10 years ago; and all dairy 3 years ago.

    It’s really hard at first; but then I enjoyed all the new food I found. you can’t just remove food; you have to replace it.

    anyways–> there’s amazing vegan cookbooks out there. and I found a mac and cheeze that I can make that has no actual cheese in it; the first mac and cheese that I could eat in 20 years! (cheddar cheese gives me migraines).

    anyways- check out 101cookbooks.com, theppk.com (amazing cook books there!) and such for great vegan recipes. good luck being healthier!

  2. marta says:

    I am so confused — I thought you were already “nearly vegetarian” (or was that vegan?) for quite a while now… You have been talking about that for *years* and now it seems that only a few months ago you had to think about what a diet consisting mostly of plants would look like?

    Here we have that disconnect again…

    Anyway, good luck with achieving a healthier lifestyle. As for cheese, it seems that it really triggers high cholesterol in some people. A friend of mine said her doctor told her she didn’t have to give up cheese; she only has to make sure she drinks a glass of wine with it. And then a glass of water. ;)

    Works for me!

  3. Honey says:

    There are so many vegan blogs out there, you don’t even need to buy a cookbook! Meet the Shannons is veganizing everything in the Betty Crocker cookbook (inspired by Julie & Julia), alice in veganland, happy herbivore, rural vegan, vegan dad, vegan momma, veganyumyum…lots and lots of stuff (and that doesn’t even include recipe sites, which also abound…)

    There is a product in cheese called casein that is basically an opiate and physically addictive, which is why cheese is the hardest thing to cut out of your diet. Not to mention there are a lot more types of actual cheese than there are vegan cheeses. Daiya is probably the best cheese replacer out there, and you can make a lot of “nut cheeses” at home if you have a food processor.

  4. chacha1 says:

    Casein is not a “product,” it is a natural protein occurring in cow’s milk. It is an opioid, meaning a substance with analgesic effects (very different from an “opiate,” meaning a product of the natural alkaloids of the opium poppy), but is not an alkaloid and is not physically addictive.

    All dietary proteins which are not metabolized in their native state are either excreted or converted to glycogen for storage in the muscles.

    The real reason cheese is difficult to cut out of a diet, for most people, is that it tastes good. The same reason people find it hard to cut out sugar.

  5. Michelle says:

    I SO agree with this – every time I challenge myself to a “radical” new self-improvement change, it pretty quickly becomes the new normal, and I’m much the happier for it. Many years ago I was a new vegan learning to “eat plants,” and more recently, I’m a budding cheapskate/anti-hoarder working on a year long project of buying zero “stuff.” I’m 3 months in, and not shopping for anything other than carefully budgeted groceries, personal care items, and gas has become my new normal. These kinds of projects are so empowering, and are the things that make the biggest difference in one’s life over the long term, I think. People have given you great advice above on being vegan, but if I could add one thing: in my experience, it is much easier to remain committed to changing your diet over the long term if you reinforce your knowledge about the health benefits with the many other compelling environmental and ethical reasons in support of a vegan lifestyle. Jonathan Safran Foer’s recent _Eating Animals_ is an incredibly thoughtful, non-preachy exploration of all aspects of contemporary animal agriculture, or anything by John Robbins is pretty classic. Also, I love all the creative if amateur recipes available for free on VegWeb.com. Congratulations and good luck!

  6. Johanna says:

    Trent, I’m so happy to hear this that I’m not even going to snark about it. :)

    My experience was similar to yours – I missed meat at first, but after a surprisingly short while, it just didn’t seem appetizing anymore.

    I much prefer cookbooks to food blogs, and my very favorite cookbook in the whole world is “Pasta e Verdura” by Jack Bishop. (Unfortunately, it seems to be out of print, but there are used copies to be had.) Not all the recipes are vegan, but they are all vegetarian, and most of the ones that call for dairy are easy to veganize. You may be pleased to know that exactly none of them call for tofu, although sometimes I like to add it. It’s not just 140 recipes for tomato sauce, either – there are dozens of inspired vegetable combinations that work just as well on their own as they do with pasta.

    And I second Michelle’s suggestion to learn more about what your new diet means for the animals. I went herbivorous for environmental reasons, but I stayed this way for animal welfare reasons.

  7. lurker carl says:

    There is a large body of research determining the relationships between diet, exercise and serum cholersterol. A moderate exercise regime and a nutritionally balanced diet that is very high in soluble fiber seems to be the most promising.

  8. enza says:

    Nice comment Lurker Carl.

    Many medical professionals that I’ve come into contact with misunderstand the relationship between cholesterol and diet.

    I always start the day with four boiled eggs and toast and my cholesterol is about as low as can be. I also do intense exercise 4 days a week (some cardio but mostly resistance training and haven’t missed a week in 3 years), and have a diet rich in salmon, spinach, oats, yogurt and lots of fruit. Once per week I have lean red meat and fries as a treat to keep me sane and on target.

    Trent, do a little bit of digging yourself on this subject. You’ll be surprised what you find.

  9. Personally, I don’t think that actual change is what causes the biggest stress in life, its more the thought of change. Think about it–whenever there is an impending change coming in my life, I usually spend more time stressing out about what its going to be like than how it is after the change takes place.

    I think its a natural human trait to fear change, but also a natural human trait to deal with it effectively.

    Just my humble opinion.

  10. Jane says:

    I’m not sure why you have to fully eliminate eggs, meat and dairy to be healthy. If you eat lean meats and dairy in moderation, what’s the problem? Eggs are also a great and cheap protein source. Maybe the fact that you have elevated cholesterol levels already led them to say no to eggs.

    The problem with the American diet is portion control and lack of balance, not certain types of foods. Fat, even the saturated variety, is fine in moderation, as is lean meat. I could see why one would become a vegetarian or vegan for environmental or ethical reasons, but I think the decision to do it for health reasons is not as cut and dry.

    In Europe and other parts or the world you see less hand wringing and obsession with diets. People eat (gasp!) white rice, butter laden croissants and high in fat pastries without batting an eye. The difference is that they control portions AND they walk more.

  11. Stephanie says:

    I’m wondering: if Trent said that he had a health issue and he talked it over with his doctor and came up with a plan to correct the problem, why are people trying to talk him out of it? If he wants to be vegan, let him be vegan.

  12. Romeo says:

    Trent, and others:

    Very motivating. And it makes perfect sense, in theory. However, the hardest part for many people is the paradigm shift; to go from the commonly accepted practice of spending money on the weekends to actually not spending money is intimidating. Most of your reader’s have already accepted this shift, how do we suppose that we get other’s to follow suit?

  13. Des says:

    @marta – I think Trent had been trying to reduce his meat consumption. But “nearly vegetarian” feels a LOT different in practice than “vegan”.

    My experience was that giving up meat was relatively easy, dairy was the really hard part. That is partially because it tastes good, but it has a lot to do with the fact that it is just so prevalent. Good ole American food is full of animal products, so that is what we are accustomed to buying, preparing, and it is what is offered in most restaurants. We found that ethnic foods (Indian especially) were easier to vegan-ize or were vegan already. Mexican food was also good when we replaced sour cream with guacamole and cut out the cheese.

    Trent is right, though, it was definitely a paradigm shift, and we get the same funny looks from family about our diet as we do about being frugal. Its actually kind of amusing when I picture my father-in-law’s reaction at finding out we don’t have cable. He repeated the look when we said we were giving up dairy, and again when we told him we were adopting foster kids. :)

  14. Heather says:

    I am a believer in moderation, in moderation of course! I try to stick to “clean eating” which is basically eating food that is as close to the source as possible. Basically it has you eating LOTS of vegetables, small portions of meat/protein and small portions of carbs about six times a day. It helps me maintain consistent blood sugar levels and gives me lots of energy throughout the day. I believe portion sizes are also incredibly important.

    Good luck Trent!

  15. Nancy says:

    Also, being vegan has been a huge money-saver for us. Not only are our groceries significantly cheaper, but going out is cheaper too – veggie dishes are always cheaper than non. We cheat on occasion, but my body is usually not happy about that.

    We do it more for health reasons than ethical ones too, pushed hard by my cancer diagnosis. “Anti-Cancer” is one book by a medical researcher/professor (read: reliable author) that pushed me toward being vegan. The research he discusses on the effects of animal products is fascinating.

  16. Golfing Girl says:

    I call this the Rule of Three Weeks. Do anything consistently and it will feel normal. I teach this to my golf students, especially those who tell me that a new technique feels too strange to even try. Anything becomes habit/normal after a while, good or bad.

  17. Karen says:

    Will have to give the free weekend a try with my boyfriend soon – of course after my birthday and Halloween!!!! I don’t get any trick or treaters so at least I save money by not buying any candy/treats!!

  18. michael bash says:

    Diet – Don’t fall in the trap. “Eat plants.” doesn’t mean eat ONLY plants. It means give plants a higher priority. It’s not meat or no meat. I pretty much cut beef and pork. Most usual meat is ground turkey thigh (in 200 grs packages). And the less dairy the better.

  19. Michelle says:

    #18 – why can’t it be ONLY plants? It’s a spectrum – if Trent wants to eat only plants, he can certainly do that.

  20. lurker carl says:

    Going back many years to some basics I learned in a class called Comparative Anatomy and Physiology.

    True herbivores have areas within their digestive tracts where bacteria synthesize and modify proteins these animals require that aren’t readily available in their plant-only diet.

    True carnivores (and insectivores) depend upon their prey for their plant-based nutrients by consuming contents of the digestive tract along with the rest of the carcass.

    As omnivores, humans obtain a complete diet by consuming everything – not either plant or animal exclusively. Our digestive system does not function properly when forced to endure a diet devoid of plant material nor are a full compliment of necessary nutrients supplied in such a diet. Although the human digestive tract operates quite well on a herbaceous diet, vital nutrients are often missing from such a diet as well. The human appendix is functionally inadequate to work as a cecum in harboring the bacterium necessary to suppliment the herbivore’s nutritional requirements. There are several plants which can substitute for nutrients commonly found in animal tissues but they must be intentionally and regularly included in volume to the diet or supplimented by artifical means (pills).

    Be aware of the risks involved and compensate adequately, stepping into a new diet without allowing for nutritional deficiencies is not something anyone should take lightly. Malnutrition leads to unwelcome ailments in adults and permanent disabilities in children.

    Your body, your life.

  21. Johanna says:

    @lurker carl: “Although the human digestive tract operates quite well on a herbaceous diet, vital nutrients are often missing from such a diet as well.”

    You know, if you really wanted to help people rather than scare them away from a vegan diet, you could mention what those nutrients are. Are you talking about vitamin B12? That’s one nutrient (and is easily obtained by taking a daily multivitamin). If you know of others, do tell.

  22. lurker carl says:

    My hope is everyone takes the nutritional adequacy of any diet into serious consideration before embarking on the journey. Information about all forms of vegetarian diets abound on the internet and in great detail. But if you want it spelled out, here ya go.

    B-12 suppliment is a must have. Other common deficiencies with a vegan diet are B-2, alpha linoleic acid, lysine, methionine, zinc, calcium, iron. Not that these nutrients are particularly difficult to obtain from food or suppliments but they may be either absent in an individual’s diet or chemically or physically bound so it is unavailable for absorption. Not so much a fault of the diet but of the participant.

    People don’t know what essential nutrients are deficient until symptoms develop. If the victim is a fetus, nursing infant or growing child; developmental damage is usually permanent.

  23. Stephanie says:

    Trent didn’t take this dietary change lightly…he talked it over with his doctor! Why are people trying to talk him out of it? You might as well say “look I’ve never met you and I don’t know any of your personal stats as well as a trained medical professional would….but here’s what you should do….”

  24. Evita says:

    “Eat only plants”: for self only or family ? separate meals or imposing the new way ? who does the cooking ? what about being a guest in another home ?
    I found that the biggest obstacle to change is often the family or people you are living with as they are so impacted by lifestyle changes.
    I wished Tent had touched the subject.

  25. Katie says:

    @Stephanie: the number of traditional GPs who are uninformed regarding nutrition is staggering. One should both listen to the doctor as well as do your own research.

  26. Johanna says:

    @lurker carl: “People don’t know what essential nutrients are deficient until symptoms develop.”

    They do if they have blood tests done. And diagnosing nutrient deficiencies based on symptoms isn’t always the greatest way to go, either – if I had a nickel for every ex-vegetarian who diagnosed themselves with iron deficiency anemia, I’d have a lot of nickels.

    I am really sick of people who go out of their way to make vegan diets out to be dangerous, or make vegan parents out to be child abusers.

    Of course it makes sense to pay attention to nutrients in your diet. But that’s true whether you’re vegan, vegetarian, omnivorous, or none of the above.

    If anyone on a vegan, vegetarian, or mostly vegetarian diet is looking for real information about nutrition, a great place to start is a site called “Vegan Health.” It’s run by a registered dietitian who really knows his way around the scientific literature.

  27. Johanna says:

    @Evita: Maybe if Trent’s only been at this for a month, he hasn’t had the opportunity to be a guest in anyone’s home yet. But I too would be curious to know if this change is just for him, or for the rest of his household also. (And by the way, parents who serve their children vegan meals are no more “imposing their way” on the children than are parents who serve meat.)

    Me, I’m in a household of one, so I don’t have to worry about cooking for anyone else on a regular basis. I find that usually, if someone cares about me enough to invite me to their home and prepare a meal for me, they also care about me enough to want there to be something that I can eat. If they’re not sure what to prepare, I either offer suggestions or offer to bring something. And if they mess it up a bit (like when my aunt sprinkled parmesan cheese on my veggie pasta), I forgive them and eat it anyway.

    A good (but not perfect) book on the subject is “Living Among Meat Eaters” by Carol Adams.

  28. Johanna says:

    @Katie: Trent says he also talked to a dietitian.

  29. Ajtacka says:

    @lurker carl: I have never eaten meat. I have heard all the arguments about why it’s bad for me. As a child, I had a teacher tell me my parents ‘abused’ me by raising me vegetarian, other people told me that they didn’t have the ‘right’ to do that. What you’re saying sounds very similar – that by raising us vege, they risked our health and even our lives.

    My response? We were much healthier than most of our friends. We were very seldom sick. My parents did actually care about our health and our diet – probably more than most of our friends’ parents, simply because they were by definition more aware of what we ate. And *any* child or adult can have deficiencies in their diet. Just because someone eats meat or doesn’t eat meat, doesn’t mean they have a healthy or unhealthy diet.

  30. K Ann says:

    Theories abound when the subject of eating for maximum health and wellness are concerned. One thing I’ve found to be trememdously helpful for myself is adding chia daily to my diet. I was first introduced to chia when I made the Dr. Oz smoothie that has become so popular. Chia was the only ingredient I wasn’t familiar with prompting me to research it. Chia includes a complete protein, is high in fiber, higher in Omega 3′s than even salmon and slows down the breakdown of carbohydrates in your bloodstream. Basically I was impressed with the information I found and began to incorporate it into my meals. Now it would be very difficult for me to give chia up. I use it in seed form sometimes and in gel form several times daily. I particularly like mixing it into beverages, soups, spaghetti… My counts have improved dramatically. My triglycerides dropped by half, my HDL improved and more. I would encourage anyone who is seeking better health to at the very least give chia a try.

  31. Stephanie says:

    @Johanna
    Thanks for the recommendation on the book. I have it on hold at the library now. I look forward to reading it as there has always been friction between my hubby and I when want to go vegetarian or vegan. Usually I end up cooking us two different meals and it can be quite tiring…(asking him to cook for himself would only add to the tension).

  32. lurker carl says:

    Johanna, you asked me to point out nutrients commonly deficient in a vegan diet. I did so and was accused of calling vegans child abusers. Does the dietary practice of vegans translate to cruel and inhumane treatment or is the intent to humiliate and offend your children? Such an accusation is totally unfounded. Name calling is a rather peculiar way to justify or endorse a dietary regime.

    Now I ask you, how are these dietary deficiencies eliminated without popping pills? Please do so without accusations, antedotal stories or telling folks to read a book/website and figure it out for themselves.

  33. Johanna says:

    @lurker carl: You referred to the children of vegan parents as “victims.” Victims of what, if not child abuse?

    I mentioned the Vegan Health website for three reasons: (1) There’s more relevant information than I could possibly include in a blog comment that anyone would want to read, (2) even if I could include all the information, it’s always good to cite your sources, and (3) the person who runs the site is an expert on vegan nutrition, whereas I am merely a user.

    What’s your objection to vitamin supplements? (And does it extend to fortified foods, which are no more “natural” than vitamin pills?) Since I see no reason why a healthy diet that doesn’t include vitamin supplements should be in any way preferable to a healthy diet that does, I can’t really answer your last question.

  34. lurker carl says:

    Victims of developmental disorders due to nutritional deficiencies, not abuse. It was not my intent to insinuate that anyone is abusing their children through dietary choices, being abusive never entered my mind until you brought it up.

    Thank you for the explanation. I do not object to using multivitamin suppliments or fortified foods but many areas of the world do not have reasonable access to nutritional suppliments. Or the freedom to access the appropriate books and websites to obtain this information.

  35. Johanna says:

    “many areas of the world do not have reasonable access to nutritional suppliments. Or the freedom to access the appropriate books and websites to obtain this information.”

    And this is relevant how?

  36. lurker carl says:

    It is relevant only those who do not have it.

  37. Johanna says:

    That’s a red herring. Nowhere in this comment thread has anyone said that everyone in the world ought to go vegan. This discussion has been about Trent’s change to his own diet, and a few other commenters discussing their own experiences.

    By definition, everyone participating in this discussion has access to the internet. So on the offchance that they can’t physically get to a store that sells books or vitamin supplements, they can order those items online.

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