It is now mid-January, and most of us have made a New Year’s resolution. You’ve taken the first step, but how do you increase the “stickiness factor,” a term used by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference.”
Setting a goal that is simple and singular helps. We often overdo it by focusing on multiple resolutions on a host of topics, like being organized, working more efficiently and improving health. While these are all admirable, multiple large goals diminish your chances of success. Instead, your goal might be to improve health by losing weight and reversing disease.
Changing habits is always hard. There are some things that you can do to make it easier, though.
Your environment is very important. According to Dr. David Katz, director, Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, it is not as much about willpower as it is about your environment. He wrote about this subject in the Huffington Post on Jan. 4 in response to Tara Parker-Pope’s Jan. 1, New York Times Magazine article about weight loss.
Willpower, Dr. Katz writes, is analogous to holding your breath underwater — it is only effective for a short time frame. Thus, he suggests laying the groundwork by altering your environment to make it conducive to attaining your goals. Recognizing your obstacles and making plans to avoid or overcome them reduces stress and strain on your willpower.
According to a recent study, people with the most self-control utilize the least amount of willpower, since they take a proactive role in minimizing temptation (J Pers Soc Psychol. 2012;102:22-31). Start by changing the environment in your kitchen. I touched on the importance of environment in my Nov. 25, 2010, article.
Support is another critical element. It can come from within, but it is best when reinforced by family members, friends and co-workers. In my practice, I find that patients who are most successful with lifestyle changes are those where household members are encouraging or, even better, when they participate in at least some portion of the intervention, such as eating the same meals.
Automaticity: Forming new habits
When does a change become a new habit? The rule of thumb used to be it takes approximately three weeks. However, the results of a study at the University of London showed that the time to form a habit, such as exercising, ranged from 18 days to 254 days (European Journal of Social Psychology, 40: 998–1009). The good news is that, though there was a wide variance, the average time to reach this automaticity was 66 days, or about two months.
Lifestyle modification: Choosing a diet
U.S. News and World Report released its second annual ranking of diets last week. The panel included 22 weight-loss and nutrition experts. Three of the diets highlighted include the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, the Ornish diet and the Mediterranean diet. All three diets were ranked in the top five for heart health. The DASH diet was ranked the No. 1 overall diet, and the Mediterranean diet was ranked No. 3. Both the Ornish and the DASH diets ranked within the top three for diabetes.
What do these diets have in common? They focus on nutrient-dense foods. In fact, the lifestyle modifications that I recommend are based on a combination of these three diets and the evidence-based medicine that supports them.
For instance, in a randomized crossover trial, which means patients after a prescribed time can switch to the more effective group, showed that the DASH diet is not just for patients with high blood pressure. The DASH diet was more efficacious than the control diet in terms of diabetes (decreased hemoglobin A1C 1.7 percent and 0.2 percent, respectively), weight loss (5 kg/11 lbs. vs. 2 kg/4.4 lbs.), as well as in HDL (“good”) cholesterol, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and blood pressure (Diabetes Care. 2011;34:55-57).
Interestingly, patients still lost weight, although caloric intake and the percentages of fats, protein and carbohydrates were the same between the DASH and control diets. However, the DASH diet used different sources of these macronutrients. The DASH diet also contained foods with higher amounts of fiber, calcium and potassium and lower sodium.
Therefore, diets high in nutrient-dense foods may be an effective way to lose weight while treating and preventing disease.
Hopefully, I have inspired you to achieve your New Year’s resolutions. And one more tip: Don’t trip over the present looking to the future. In other words, take it day by day, rather than obsessing on the larger picture. Health and weight loss can — and should — go together.
Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, go to the website www.medicalcompassmd.com and/or consult your personal physician.