Simple modifications can help you achieve your health goals
By David Dunaief, M.D.
2020 has been a most unusual year. In some ways, it’s been a case study in new habit formation, as many of us altered our routines to adapt to a COVID-19 world.
As our thoughts turn to a brighter 2021, many of us will make resolutions to develop healthy new habits – and in some cases to undo bad habits we’ve picked up during the past year. If this is you, cheers!
Changing habits can be incredibly difficult. You can make it easier on yourself, though.
Set a goal that is simple and singular. Don’t overdo it by focusing on multiple resolutions, like eating better, exercising more and sleeping better. Complexity will diminish your chances of success. Instead, pick one to focus on, and make the desired impact part of your goal, for example: improve your health by substituting green leafy vegetables for breads and other baked goods.
Manage your environment. According to a study, people with the most self-control utilize the least amount of willpower, because they take a proactive role in minimizing temptation (1). Start by changing the environment in your kitchen. In our example resolution above, that means eliminating or reducing the breads and baked goods in your home and keeping a refrigerator stocked with leafy greens you like.
If one obstacle is the time available to cook when you’re hungry, consider in advance the ways you can make in-the-moment food preparation simpler. This could be as simple as pre-washing and chopping greens when you arrive home from the store or while watching your favorite TV program, or it could be as detailed as precooking meals.
The latter is my personal favorite, and it’s easily accomplished by cooking more than you need for a single meal. For example, rather than chop and roast just the tray of broccoli we’ll eat tonight, we’ll prepare two trays at a time – one to eat today, and one to have in the fridge. I try to always have at least one prepared healthy meal at the ready for reheating, in case we don’t have the time or energy to cook later.
Rally your support network. Support is another critical element. It can come from within, but it is best when reinforced by family members, friends and coworkers. 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.
One reason so many have turned to baking during their at-home time is that it provides a fun group activity with a shared outcome. You can produce the same experience by experimenting with new greens-intensive recipes together. Making pots of vegetable stews and chilis, vegan spinach lasagnas with bean noodles, bean-and-green tacos, and cheeseless eggplant/spinach rollatini can be more fun as a group – with the same delicious outcomes. Bonus: if you double the recipes, you can refrigerate or even freeze the leftovers for reheating later.
Be consistent. 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 (2). The good news is that the average time to reach this automaticity was 66 days, or about two months.
Choose a diet that targets your health needs. U.S. News and World Report released its annual ranking of diets this week (3). Three of the diets highlighted include the DASH (Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension) diet, the Ornish diet and the Mediterranean diet. These were the top three for heart health. The Mediterranean diet was ranked number one overall – for the fourth consecutive year – and the DASH diet tied for second overall with the Flexitarian diet. The Flexitarian and Mediterranean diets tied for the top spot for diets that help manage diabetes.
What do all of the top diets have in common? They focus on nutrient-dense foods. In fact, the lifestyle modifications I recommend are based on a combination of the top diets and the evidence-based medicine that supports them.
Of course, if you’ve tried to change your diet in the past, you probably know that not every diet is easy to follow, even after you get beyond the “changing my eating habits” part of the equation. Choosing a diet that works for both you and others in your household can be tricky. And, let’s face it, no one wants to make two meals – or more – to accommodate everyone’s needs.
According to U.S. News and World Report, the easiest to follow are the Mediterranean diet, which took the top spot, the recently redesigned WW (Weight Watchers) diet, which took second place, and the Flexitarian diet, which came in third. If you’re not familiar with a Flexitarian diet, which we noted also tied for the second-best diet overall, its name is a combination of “flexible” and “vegetarian,” and its focus is on increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables and minimizing – but not necessarily eliminating – your intake of animal products. For many, this lack of rigidity can help, whether the goal is to transition to a complete vegetarian lifestyle eventually or to manage different palates around the table.
I encourage you to read more about each of these diets and select one, in consultation with your physician, that will help you meet your personal health goals – from both nutritional and manageability standpoints.
Here’s to a happy, healthy 2021!
(1) J Pers Soc Psychol. 2012;102:22-31. (2) European Journal of Social Psychology, 40: 998–1009. (3) www.usnews.com.
Dr. David Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com.