Small but lasting changes
As a registered dietitian nutritionist, I’ve been teaching clients how to cultivate better habits to live healthier lives for nearly three decades.
While eating well and exercising regularly are key elements to a healthy lifestyle, managing stress, getting enough sleep and cultivating meaningful relationships are equally important.
Many people think that living a healthy life requires a lot of work and is time consuming. Not the case.
The key to creating good habits is to focus on making small actionable changes you stick with consistently so that they become part of your daily routine. For example, this study found that small dietary changes can help people be healthier. University of Michigan researchers found that, while eating a hot dog could cost you 36 minutes of healthy life, enjoying a serving of nuts instead may help you gain 26 minutes of extra life.
Here are seven of my go-to habits to consider adopting for a healthier life.
1. Get to know yourself.
It’s important to know yourself and recognize what works — and what doesn’t work — for you. I’ve counseled many different types of clients over the years, and they have different routines and preferences.
Some clients enjoy eating a larger breakfast, while others are in a rush in the morning and get by grabbing a yogurt and a piece of fruit. Some enjoy exercising outdoors (like me), while others prefer working out at a gym.
Take some time to reflect on what you like and on what works for you. It will be much easier to make small changes you can stick with for the long haul.
2. Keep healthy food at arm’s reach.
The foods you keep in your home are what you will eat — even if you think otherwise. By far the easiest way to eat better is to keep healthy foods in your home. Keep the fridge and pantry stocked with an assortment of produce, both fresh and frozen, oats and other whole grains, nuts and nut butters, beans, yogurt, fish and chicken.
Including simple grab-and-go foods like hummus, baby carrots, berries, nuts and air popped popcorn will also help ensure that you nibble on healthy snacks.
And the adage “out of sight, out of mind” rings true. If you want to keep the occasional cookies and cake in your house, stash them away so they’re less tempting.
3. Eat a colorful salad every day.
Eating salads are a great way to get a variety of nutrients without too many calories. The different colors of vegetables impart different nutrients, so it’s best to choose a colorful variety.
Fill up on produce you enjoy — you’ve got enough to choose from. Several top picks include romaine lettuce, kale or spinach topped with a colorful assortment of tomatoes, carrots, red peppers, beets, mushrooms and cucumbers.
If you don’t love salads or aren’t in the mood, another way to get your veggies is to enjoy a vegetable-based soup or to eat your favorite vegetables grilled or lightly sautéed. You’ll still get the healthy nutrients, including antioxidant vitamins A and C, vitamin K, folate, potassium and fiber.
4. Find movement that feels good.
I’m often asked, “what’s the best exercise to do?”
My response is the one that you enjoy and will consistently do. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
— Do I prefer to exercise in the morning or evening?
— Outdoors or at a gym?
— Solo or in a class?
Get to know what works for you. I love to swim and take yoga classes while also biking outdoors in nature. It’s quite rare to get me to work out on a stationary bike because I don’t enjoy it.
Be consistent and try incorporating some kind of movement most days. It’s better to exercise regularly for 30 minutes a day than to work out for 2 hours on the weekend.
And lifestyle activities like taking the stairs, walking your dog and parking a few blocks away from your destination and walking also count. It’s a good idea to plan your fitness routine instead of leaving it to chance. Put it on your calendar.
5. Cook some of your meals at home.
I love eating out, but I also enjoy cooking and preparing my own meals at home. Research shows that restaurant foods are higher in calories, saturated fat, sugar and sodium, which can contribute to obesity and also have a negative impact on your health. This is no surprise as my research found that restaurant portions are over-sized, often two-to-five times larger than they were in the past.
Cooking your meals at home helps you to keep your portion sizes in check and enables you to be the boss of what goes into the food you’re cooking. When cooking at home, I try to cook with lots of fresh vegetables, beans, whole grains, and healthy oils. I keep my salads colorful and add flavor by topping them with avocado, roasted chickpeas, water chestnuts and homemade dressing.
6. Pay attention to your portions.
While you don’t have to weigh and measure everything you eat, I advise that you become conscious of how much you are eating.
It’s easy to eat too much and not even realize it. For example, when pouring cereal, many people pour three cups into a bowl instead of the recommended one cup. And while you may be enjoying a low-sugar healthy whole grain cereal, if your portion is too big, you’ll end up consuming too many calories.
One of the simplest ways to practice portion control is eat mindfully and pay attention to your hunger levels. Tune into your inner wisdom, and if you have the urge to go for a double portion, ask yourself if you are hungry or bored.
Another simple trick I write about in my book “Finally Full, Finally Slim” is to practice plate therapy. While we often fill our plate with a large piece of meat, a heaping helping of rice or mashed potatoes and one lonesome broccoli floret, instead fill half your plate with mixed vegetables, a quarter healthy starch like sweet potatoes or quinoa and the other quarter healthy protein like fish, chicken, beans or tofu.
7. Be positive.
Instead of dwelling on what you shouldn’t eat, focus instead on foods you can enjoy. I tell my clients that no restaurant or food is completely off limits. You can generally find something healthy to eat on a restaurant menu.
And, thinking positive thoughts, in general, while being grateful for the good in your life will make you healthier and happier too.
So, while counting your steps, count your blessings as well.
7 habits for a long, healthy life:
— Get to know yourself.
— Keep healthy food at arm’s reach.
— Eat a colorful salad every day.
— Find movement that feels good.
— Cook some of your meals at home.
— Pay attention to your portions.
— Be positive.
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