If the disruption created by the COVID-19 pandemic or overindulging during the holidays derailed you from a healthy eating routine in 2020, you’re in good company. Lockdowns necessitated by the pandemic threw millions of people off their established eating and exercise routines, leading countless numbers of people to put on the “quarantine 15.” And it’s common for people to stray from their healthy eating routine during the holidays.
“Most of us have struggled with eating and weight gain (during the pandemic),” says Holly Herrington, an advanced clinical dietitian with the Digestive Health Center at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago. “Our routines changed, we can’t go to the gym. We’re stress-eating more than ever, I’ve seen it with my patients. In times of anxiety, many of us turn to food.”
Fortunately, there are specific steps you can take to get back on track.
Here are 11 strategies for hitting the reset button on your healthy eating regimen:
— Don’t beat yourself up.
— Establish the “why.”
— Re-frame your mindset
— Make a plan.
— Stick to a schedule.
— Clean out your environment.
— Set realistic goals.
— Create a good daily habit each week.
— Cut down on your sugar intake.
— Don’t deprive yourself, but adjust.
— Aim for progress, not perfection.
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1. Don’t beat yourself up. Keep in mind that there are plenty of valid reasons you slipped from or even ditched your healthy eating habits during the past nine months, says Maxine Smith, a registered dietitian with Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Human Nutrition. “For most of us, 2020 put a wrench in habitual routines — for some, more than others,” Smith says. “Working from home, loss of employment, children doing virtual school are just a few examples of demanding changes. These changes bring on stress and unfortunately, most of us — if we are honest — don’t reach for the apple or carrot sticks when it feels like our lives are reeling out of control.” Many people are having trouble sleeping, which can bring on the “munchies.” Given all that, Smith suggests this: “Give yourself some grace.”
2. Establish the “why.” Ask yourself why you want to eat healthier, Smith says. The “why” will be personal for each individual. It could be that you want to put your pants on with ease, or that you want to have the energy to play with your grandchildren. Or you might want to strengthen your immune system to protect yourself from COVID-19 and other diseases. “Reminding yourself of your ‘why’ helps keep you motivated to change and resist the short-term gratification of tasty but unhealthy foods,” Smith says.
3. Reframe your mindset. Instead of starting the year with the mindset of “I have to go on a diet,” think in terms of “I’m choosing to make healthier food choices,” says Brittney Bearden, a sports dietitian with Texas Health Sports Medicine in Dallas. “What motivates you to have healthy eating habits?” Bearden says. “Is it to feel better mentally and/or physically? Is it to be a positive role model for your children?” Write down three to five personal reasons why you’re choosing to implement healthier eating habits in the new year. Refer to them when you’re feeling discouraged.
4. Make a plan. “The first thing I always tell my clients is to make a plan,” Herrington says. She suggests her clients ask themselves these questions:
— What about my eating is preventing me from reaching my goals?
— Should I increase my exercise?
— Is it time to slow down on ordering take-out?
“Answering these questions will help you build your plan,” Herrington says. “It may involve eating at home a little more, consuming more fruits and vegetables and going for a daily walk.”
5. Stick to a schedule. This is a crucial strategy that can help you follow through on your plan, Herrington says. “Most people don’t eat on a schedule, and I ask, ‘How’s that working out for you?'” she says. You don’t need to develop a rigid, to-the-minute military style timetable. “Simply plan your times for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Herrington says. “Write them down like you’d schedule meetings.” Putting the times to paper will help you subconsciously define the times you won’t be eating, which helps you cut down on between-meal snacking.
6. Clean out your environment. Keeping unhealthy foods out of your home will cut down your opportunities to break your healthy routine. “If you know you’ve been grazing on potato chips, what would happen if you didn’t have them in the house?” Herrington says. If you don’t have chips, cookies, cakes, pies and soda and other sugary drinks in your house, they can’t tempt you.
7. Set realistic goals. Don’t expect to accomplish all your goals quickly or at once, Herrington says. If you set a goal of, say, losing 15 pounds a week, you’re likely to be disappointed. “Part of why we don’t stick to plans is that we try to do too much at once and we are uncomfortable and overwhelmed.” Setting smaller, achievable goals, like losing a pound a week or getting a half-hour of exercise daily will help you achieve your goals over time.
8. Create a good daily habit each week. Developing one good habit each week is another good, achievable strategy. “Long-term goals need short-term strategies,” Bearden says.
Examples of good dietary habits include:
— Eating at least five servings of vegetables each day.
— Drinking at least 64 ounces of water on a daily basis.
— Exercising for at least 20 minutes each day.
9. Cut down on your sugar intake. Putting your healthy eating regimen on reset is a great opportunity to cut down on your intake of added sugar, says Keri Gans, a registered dietitian based in New York City. She’s the author of “The Small Change Diet” and is also a consultant for Splenda, a low-calorie sweetener. The average American gets about 13% of their calories — about 270 calories — from added sugars, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Low and no-calorie sweeteners can help consumers satisfy their taste for sweetness while decreasing calories, Gans says.
10. Don’t deprive yourself, but adjust. “The more foods you put on your ‘don’t eat’ list, the more you will want them,” Gans says. “Deprivation typically only leads to overeating. Instead, learn to enjoy these foods in a healthier way.”
Here are three examples of healthy ways to prepare some favorite foods:
— If you love pasta, prepare it with lots of veggies and grilled shrimp instead of cream sauce.
— For a healthy version of french fries, prepare them in an air fryer or bake them yourself. “Or, enjoy them with a burger but sans the bun,” Gans says.
— Instead of pizza topped with overly processed meats, try a slice topped with veggies.
11. Aim for progress, not perfection. “Eating healthy is an ongoing process for everyone,” Bearden says. “Focus on creating dietary habits that are sustainable, enjoyable and nutritionally adequate for your needs.”
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