I work at Trader Joe’s. This May will be 10 years. For the uninitiated, Trader Joe’s is a unique grocery store. Most of our products are our own Trader Joe’s brand, and any item with a Trader Joe’s label is free of artificial colors, artificial flavors, preservatives, and GMOs. We also carry a wide variety of organic items. And unlike Whole Foods and the “natural” aisle of chains like Kroger and Giant Eagle, our prices are fantastic. We tend to attract health-conscious consumers, or at least people who are trying to “get healthy” (even if they sometimes don’t exactly know what that means).
Every January 2nd at Trader Joe’s is the same.
People assume we aren’t that busy because the holidays are finally over.
Those people are wrong. We are busy. Crazy busy. Absolutely swamped.
Two words: Resolution Season.
Customers come armed with recipes, diet books, detox plans, and web printouts of every variety. They FILL their carts with produce. And I mean FULL. More produce than anyone could possibly finish before it spoils.
They put other things in their cart as well. January is actually one of the busiest months of the year for us because people also resolve to cook more meals at home, carry lunches, etc. But produce is by far the hottest-ticket item.
At first glance this might not seem like a negative thing. What’s wrong with people eating more produce? Aren’t we supposed to be eating more fruits and vegetables? Isn’t that the goal?
As with most things, the devil is in the details. What unfolds on January 2nd at my Trader Joe’s is a microcosm of the problem with dietary New Year’s resolutions in general:
- The amount of produce people buy in one shopping trip is ludicrous. It honestly makes me sad when I ring up these huge carts full of beautiful, shiny fruits and vegetables, because I know that at least half of it is probably going to wind up in the trash. This is not just a hunch of my part; according to the U.S. EPA, in 2014 Americans wasted approximately 33 million tons of food.
- Not all fruits and vegetables are created equal. Eating more spinach and zucchini is one thing. Loading up your cart with ears of corn, pineapples, mangoes, and other high-sugar produce isn’t going to help anybody meet their “New Year, New You” goals. I know this is a controversial topic, and I’m planning a future post devoted to fruit consumption. But for now, suffice it to say that fruits and vegetables high in sugar and starch spike blood sugar levels and increase hunger. Yes, they have vitamins and minerals and some fiber, but there are other choices that have all of these benefits without all the sugar. I’m not saying never eat pineapple. I’m saying that eating it constantly is not going to improve metabolic health.
- But the above two points pale in comparison to the most important of all: the whole “New Year, New You,” concept is a recipe for failure and discouragement (and usually expensive). Dietary change is tough. Reversing ingrained habits is tough. It takes time, pure and simple. It’s not a linear path to progress. It’s a circuitous route full of peaks and valleys, set backs and leaps forward. There are no shortcuts. Believe me, I’ve looked everywhere for them and always come up empty-handed.
I’m no stranger to the allure of Resolution Season. I have been one of those people filling my cart with produce at New Year’s, vowing to never eat (fill-in the blank) again. Where did most of that produce go? That’s right, in the trash. And when I chose to eat pizza and ice cream while my celery sat rotting in the vegetable crisper, I felt unspeakable shame and self-loathing. Then the whole cycle repeated itself: throwing out the “bad” food, filling up the fridge with “good” food, eating some “good” food until I was bored, or sad, or lonely, binging on “bad” food, hating myself, needing money for bigger pants. Like a record stuck in a groove, playing the same notes over, and over, and over. For years.
More recently, my resolution pendulum swung violently the opposite direction. I resolved to never make another New Year’s resolution again. All resolutions were bullshit, they never worked, it was all a trap to rob people of their money and self-worth. As I have previously discussed, all-or-nothing approaches are rarely the solution. My professed hatred of New Year’s resolutions was in truth a cover for my own struggle to manage my diet. I already knew eating a pint of ice cream every night was killing me. I didn’t need a barrage of Resolution Season advertisements screaming at me that I needed to change.
So how do I feel about New Year’s resolutions today? As with most things, I try to find a comfortable middle ground. First of all, I don’t have to wait until New Year’s to make changes. Like I discussed in my previous post, “Leaving Precious,” the day I embarked on reversing my addiction to sugary coffee drinks was August 7, 2014. I began training with Matt at Ludus Magnus a month before that in July 2014. Any day can be a day for change, not just January 1st.
I take the same attitude towards resolutions as any other type of change: slow and gradual, one thing at a time. It’s not a sexy message. It doesn’t make for a splashy billboard or slick commercial. But it’s the only thing I’ve ever found that works for me.
I still don’t like resolutions specifically devoted to weight loss, and here’s why: they are inherently punitive. Their starting place is that I am unacceptable as I am, and that I will not be acceptable until I lose X number of pounds. If I fail to lose X number of pounds, then I am a failure. Getting stronger is a positive effort to improve my life and health. Eating better is a positive effort to improve my life and health. Weight loss is a side effect of those efforts, not the goal. It may seem like semantics, but for me, changing that frame of reference has made all the difference.
Everything wrong with the standard New Year’s resolution is one image:
Forget everything you may have done on January 1st in the past. Want to make a New Year’s resolution? Think small. Like, really small. Be specific. Frame it as positive rather than punishing.
For instance, want to eat more vegetables? Instead of buying a cart full of twenty different varieties, pick one or two:
“I am replacing my pasta with zucchini noodles.”
“I am buying cauliflower rice instead of white rice.”
“I am using spinach instead of iceberg lettuce in my salads.”
Whatever you pick, do that one thing until it becomes automatic. Then pick another thing.
Pick these things not because they will make you skinnier, but because they nourish your body and make you feel better in your daily life.
Remember this: you never know where one small change can lead you. Rather than trying to anticipate and plan for every little thing you want to correct in your life, just change one thing and be open to the possibilities it brings. I never could have envisioned most of the amazing things that have happened to me in my two-plus years with Matt at Ludus Magnus before they came to be. If I had tried to plan it out, I would have sold myself way short.
And don’t get so caught up in self-improvement that you forget to have fun and enjoy yourself. I made a New Year’s resolution last year, and it had absolutely nothing to do with diet or exercise. I love going to shows of all kinds, yet I rarely went to them. Last year I resolved to go to more shows, and I did: I saw Kinky Boots, The Book of Mormon, and Wicked. I traveled to Cincinnati to see Jason Isbell, one of my favorite singers. I saw Tom Segura and Joe Rogan, two of my favorite comedians, perform their stand-up acts. These experiences brought me so much joy.
Happy New Year!
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