The simplest advice is often the best when it comes to making positive changes to your diet, yet it’s a piece few of us follow.
“With New Year’s resolutions people tend to fixate on unrealistic goals, and that sets them up for failure,” says Reena Panjwani, registered dietitian-nutritionist at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. “They say, ‘I’m going to lose 50 pounds,’ or they get caught up in a cleanse or jump into the Whole30. More often than not, that leads to a cycle of fad diets, not a healthy, long term change.”
Instead of thinking of them as resolutions, Panjwani says, think of them as new traditions — things you’re going to start now and maintain over time.
Here are 4 key steps for getting it right:
Avoid the pitfalls
- Don’t make weight-related resolutions
- Focus on behavioral changes
- Avoid fad diets
- Set realistic goals
“Realistic goals are measurable, and a timeline helps,” says Panjwani. “For example, if I don’t go to the gym at all now, I’d say, ‘For the next month, I’ll go to the gym twice a week.’ At the end of the month, I can easily evaluate my progress. If I met my goal, I can set a new one. If not, I can consider what I can do to make it happen the next month.”
Take it one meal at a time
“Look at every meal or snack as an opportunity to make healthy choices,” says Panjwani. “Make that choice the goal — not what you think that choice will ultimately do for you.”
Maximize your efforts with sleep and exercise
Sleep, activity and nutrition are connected.
“Inadequate sleep can lead to increased stress, and that can lead to strange eating patterns, late-night snacking, skipping breakfast, and unhealthy nutritional cycles in general,” says Panjwani. “Of course, we all aim for 8 hours of sleep per night, but if you’re only sleeping 6 now, try to get 7. Small, incremental changes make a big difference.”
The same is true for physical activity. If you’re already doing a lot of cardio, add strength training 1 or 2 days a week. If you’re not exercising at all, start with 10 minutes a day and work your way up to 30.
Set the right goals
Here are 5 realistic nutrition-based goals Panjwani recommends.
1. Increase your vegetable intake
Most of us don’t eat enough vegetables, so start small. If you’re not eating many vegetables, focus on adding 1 or 2 more servings a day. Throw a handful of spinach into pasta, or add peppers and onions to your scrambled eggs. You don’t have to start eating salad for every meal to get a big nutritional benefit.
2. Switch from refined, white grains to whole grain
Choosing whole grain pasta, bread or crackers can increase fiber, which is important for digestive health.
3. Cook at home 1 more night a week
We all get in the habit of relying on processed or packaged foods because they’re easier to throw together at the end of a long day. Try to cook just one more night a week with fresh ingredients. It’s a great way to cut down on hidden sodium and extra calories.
4. Cut down on sugary drinks
Tennessee is second only to Mississippi in soda consumption, and more than 40% of us drink non-diet soda daily. Cutting down on that is an easy way to remove empty calories, and the same is true of juice, which many people forget about. Start by trying to cut out 3 sugary drinks per week, or drink one extra glass of water per day. Most of us don’t drink enough water, and hydration is key for metabolism to function properly.
5. Go meatless 1 day a week
Swap the meat in one or two meals for beans, lentils or tofu, for example, which are great, affordable sources of protein.
For more expert advice from Panjwani, click here to learn all about intuitive eating.