I’m going to go out on a limb here and hope that despite this being December, a month that fosters excessive over-eating in the name of holiday spirit, some of you may want to make some dietary changes before the New Year. Why should you want to muck up the busiest month of eating to adopt some lifestyle changes? Well, if you’ve seen recent headlines, then you know that "Americans’ eating habits worst since 2008," and "We are all addicts: drugs, alcohol and food…". You can keep using excuses like festive eating month, birthday and anniversary celebrations, office parties and social get-togethers, as explanations for your need to make poor nutrition choices, or you can decide to start making changes that will help you to navigate the social temptations that pepper our lives.
We eat too much sugar, salt and unhealthy fats. We eat way too many prepared foods, and that habit prevents us from tracking calories or ingredients in a meaningful way. We eat too much. We eat for emotional reasons, for happiness, sadness, anxiety, stress and we use food to cope. Most of us want to "fly by the seat of our pants" when it comes to eating. We are willing to be fiscally responsible but not nutritionally responsible. We are willing to save for a car, house, dream vacation, but most of us refuse to do our due diligence to eat healthfully, with portion control most of the time (as in 80-90% of the time), and then save up for an occasional, intermittent treat. We want to food splurge on a regular basis without facing the impact - until we have troubling or frightening health symptoms. We don’t want to fix ourselves nutritionally until we break. And most troubling is the fact that when doctors or loved ones want to intervene, most of us become withdrawn, indignant or downright combative. Somehow we accept a drug addict intervention, but not a food intervention, even when clearly carrying tremendous excess weight or at risk of a medical crisis. We don’t want to say no to our kids, we don’t want to say no to ourselves, and we don’t want an outsider telling us the word “no.”
The best way to change lifestyle habits is to first decide if you are someone who prefers dramatic and radical change, versus someone who prefers step-by-step, gradual change. Even if you feel a dramatic and complete shift is best, you need to avoid extreme deprivation. It immediately sets you up for failure. Humans depend too much on the pleasure principle to exist. So the following dietary recommendations can be followed one at a time, or embraced as a significant and committed lifestyle makeover. Treats are allowed occasionally tasty food is emphasized.
- Eat less processed and prepared foods in general.
- Commit to a healthy breakfast daily that includes a healthy protein (eggs, Greek yogurt, and unprocessed nut butter for example)
- Stop drinking calories on a regular basis except for one to two servings of a calcium-rich beverage like skim milk, almond, or soy milk.
- Commit to one or two non-meat days weekly, and embrace lower saturated fat proteins like skinless chicken, fish, egg whites, tofu/tempeh, and beans and legumes.
- Commit to healthier snacks that hover around 100 calories, like fruit, vegetables and a lowfat bean dip, yogurt, unprocessed nuts, air popped popcorn with 100 calorie portions your goal.
- Eat larger meals for breakfast and lunch and smaller dinners when possible.
- Every lunch and dinner should include at least 3 servings of vegetables, a 4 ounce portion of a healthy protein, a single measured serving of grains (peas, corn, potatoes, whole grain rice or pasta, or a whole grain serving of bread) and dessert with the meal or later in the evening can be a fruit .
- Try to stop eating 4 hours before bedtime.
- Make water or unsweetened teas your beverage of choice
- Allow yourself one or two treats a week and savor them slowly, focusing on the pleasure of the moment
- Get moving daily
- Use a support buddy or group to help with motivation and to keep you on track
- Weight yourself once a week, and notate your starting BMI and waist size
- Add flavor to vegetables by roasting or sautÃ©ing them with a small amount of olive oil (vegetable, canola or corn oil) and toss with dry or fresh seasonings.
- Use flavored vinegars to spice up salads
- Buy your protein in pre-sized 4 to 6 ounce portion sizes
- Creamy, salty and sweet may taste good but when those are primary ingredients that means it’s a treat, not a regular daily choice. Pungent flavors should come directly from simple fruits and vegetables, or from dried and fresh seasonings.
- Plan your meals the day before
- Make snack bags of nuts, cut up vegetables, air popped popcorn ahead of time.
- Have a salad and pre-washed fruit always ready in the frig
- Create yogurt parfaits with Greek yogurt, berries and a portion of nuts for a quick meal or large snack on the run
- When possible, cook several entrees ahead of time so when hunger hits, you have healthy options ready.
If there is any take-away message it’s that planning and portion control ahead of time makes your commitment to healthier eating more manageable, and it helps individuals to curb the instinct to "grab anything when hungry." Following a general eating outline helps your body to begin to regulate hunger and to experience an appropriate calorie load at each meal and snack. You can certainly incorporate some of these recommendations into your holiday eating fest, even if you choose to wait to embark on a full lifestyle change in the New Year. The ultimate goal of changing now, is to encourage healthier swap outs for your current meal and snack choices. It also puts portion control on your radar because even healthier foods should be eaten with some attention to serving size. If you are still eating treats on a regular basis, then portion control becomes a limiting aid. Adding in some vigorous daily walks or a commitment to formal exercise several days a week, especially during the holiday feeding frenzy, will help you limit weight gain and improve your health profile. Exercise can then help to nudge weight loss. The big question you need to ask - can you implement these changes by yourself, or do you need additional professional help? That’s a topic I will explore with you in the New Year.
Amy Hendel is a Physician Assistant and Health Coach, journalist and host of Food Rescue, Simple Smoothies and What’s for Lunch?_ Author of Fat Families, Thin Families and** The 4 Habits of Healthy Families**, she tweets health headlines daily @HealthGal1103. Catch her guest appearances on local and national news and talk shows, and check out her website. Follow my blogs._
Health and lifestyle journalist;Physician Assistant;HealthCoach;Nutritionist