We all want to be healthier (and happier), but sometimes our busy lifestyle pushes our personal well-being down the list of priorities (even if we have the best of intentions). We've all been there. You're late getting home, so you make a quick grilled cheese instead of that nutrient-dense healthy soup you planned. But eating badly isn't the only unhealthy habit we need to cut back on.
Now that we've given up a few things to be happy, it's time to ditch some bad habits to be healthy too. Because let's face it, you're totally worth it. Ahead, our network of nutritionists and health experts share the most common bad habits they see and how to stop, stat.
Prioritizing Calories Over Ingredients
It's something we're all guilty of, but holistic nutritionist, health coach, and founder of Frolic and Flow, Carly Brawner, says we definitely need to quit. "Many of my clients come to me extremely calorie-conscious," she said. "Instead of being calorie-conscious (which doesn’t tell the full nutritional story), I encourage people to be ingredient-conscious. Choosing foods based on ingredients is the best way to ensure you’re providing your body with junk-free, nutritional fuel. If a food consists of whole, chemical-free ingredients from the earth, it’s usually a good option."
So why is it so bad? Brawner says it's the chemicals, fake and added sugar, along with the hydrogenated oils in low-calorie, packaged foods that make them unhealthy. "Higher-calorie foods from whole sources don’t need to be avoided because of their caloric content (avocados, coconut milk, organic grass-fed meat, nuts, and seeds, etc.)," she explained. "Here are a few questions you can ask yourself when picking foods based on ingredients. If you answer no to most of these questions, it’s probably not a food you want to eat:
Can you pronounce them?
Are they free of artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives from a lab?
Are they free of added sugar and/or loads of naturally occurring sugars (and how much)?
Are there less than seven ingredients?
Are they from the earth?
Swapping Natural for Artificial Sweeteners
While we all had the right motivation going into it, swapping natural for artificial sweeteners has actually done the opposite for our health. Stephanie Middleberg, MS, RD, CDN, founder of Middleberg Nutrition, and author of The Big Book of Organic Baby Food, urges us all to ditch them for good. In fact, it's the first thing she advises her clients to do. "As soon as fats were vilified, low-fat foods and artificial sweeteners increased on the market and simultaneously inflammation and thus weight issues, diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune conditions all increased steadily," she explained.
"Artificial sweeteners not only lead to chronic disease, but they also slow metabolism, lead to digestive issues (gas, bloating), skin issues, and increase cravings."
The reason for this is two-fold. "First, they are thousands of times sweeter than sugar, so the body comes to need that high level of sweetness to be 'satisfied'," she said. "Second, the brain thinks it is getting sugar, so when it doesn't get it, it essentially gets *pissed off* and seeks it out later that day. It may seem counterintuitive for a lot of people, but once you start reaching for the full-fat versions of foods, it is amazing how it increases energy, satiety and is a key player in fueling your metabolism and healing your gut."
Amy Shapiro agrees. "Splenda, Equal, and Sweet'N Low are just plain evil," she said. "Sure they are calorie-free and make your coffee taste sweet, but they’re tricking your brain, messing with your hormones, and possibly causing disease in your body. I find that many of my clients use these sweeteners to help them conquer cravings, drink more water, or skip meals by creating a dessert-like coffee, but what they're really doing is numbing their taste buds and causing cravings." Shapiro recommends slowly cutting back so you can get used to less sweetness (remember these products are 300 to 600 times sweeter than sugar), and then switch to using less of the real thing or choose natural calorie-free sweeteners such as stevia or Xylitol.
Who hasn't been prone to snacking after dinner? Even Middleberg says she's guilty of it, but it's not a good habit to get into. "We all have our 'witching' hour, or that time frame where we just tend to mindlessly eat," she said. While many of us will snack between 4 to 6 p.m., the majority do it after dinner between 8 to 11 p.m. "When we snack late at night we need to look at why," she said. "Are you truly hungry? Are you bored, anxious? Do you look to it as a reward after a long, stressful day?
Or is it just simply a habit? It could be a result of many of those, but the key is to acknowledge it and begin a new night time regimen."
If you're finding it hard to break the cycle, then Middleberg recommends limiting it to one snack and reaching for either hot water with lemon or tea. Then it's time to close down the kitchen. "This leads to a better night sleep and feeling much more energized in the morning," she said.
Being Afraid of Fat
We often reach for low-fat foods in a bid to manage our weight, but new research shows that eating fat is actually good for us. Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN, and founder of Real Nutrition NYC, wants us all to confront our fear around the healthy food. "For years we’ve been told to cut back on eating fat, to eat fat-free food, and to get salad dressing on the side, but ever since we started doing that we’ve all gained more weight and haven’t felt as good as we should," she said. "Ultimately, when we remove fat from foods and food products we end up eating more of them to feel satisfied, so, in the end, we take in more calories than we would have if we just had some fat in our food to begin with."
So how does eating fat help? Shapiro said it actually helps us to feel full because it's "calorically dense," aids us in absorbing certain nutrients, is essential for our skin cells to replenish, and we need it to balance our hormones. "Of course not all fats are created equal," she explained. "Focus on fats derived from plants including nuts, avocados, and seeds as well as those from fish, which are good for us and can assist in heart health, beautiful skin, and weight loss too." So next time you ask for just vinegar on your salad (blech), remember to toss in some avocado or olive oil too.
"You’ll eat less, feel great, and will have glowing skin too," she said.
Feeling Guilty About Food Choices
Eating is one of our favorite hobbies, so make sure you enjoy every morsel and don't end it with regret. Angela Simson, integrative nutrition health coach and founder of The Gratitude Project, said guilt around food is one of the worst eating habits. "So many of us view other health professionals, celebrities, even Insta-famous vegans as the 'rules' when it comes to food," she explained. "We are all so bio-individual that what I eat and thrive from could be absolute poison for someone else. Idolizing these 'clean eaters' is giving so many women (especially young girls) a complex about what to eat, ultimately leading to food guilt.
"I’ve seen clients cry to me about how they ate a banana and they can’t believe they put that sugar into their bodies. I’ve also seen people freak out about a slice of wholemeal bread they consumed at breakfast and the cake they ate at a friend's wedding. The guilt leads to stress, which is so much worse for our bodies than eating an indulgent meal in a mindful way."
To ditch the guilt for good, follow Simson's three rules to be healthy:
Listen to your body.
Work out what you thrive on eating.
Live a little and enjoy it when you do.
Poorly Chewing Our Food
Who would have thought that something so simple could be damaging our health? But Brawner says failing to masticate our food properly is impacting our digestive health. Poor digestion leads to depleted energy levels, bloating, IBS, skin problems, weight gain, leaky gut, and many other serious health issues, but the one thing each of us can do to improve digestion is to sufficiently chew our food. "With the rush of the modern world and many meals on the go, chewing our food doesn’t happen like it did when we sat down to eat each homemade meal," she said.
"Chewing is phase one of the digestion process and vital in supporting your body's natural digestion."
How does it work and why? Brawner says chewing puts the food we're eating in contact with saliva, and saliva contains important digestive enzymes. Additionally, thorough chomping converts food and nutrients into a state that is more favorable for vitamin and mineral absorption (consumption doesn't always mean absorption). "While some recommend chewing a certain number of times, I recommend getting into the habit of making sure each bite is mash-like before swallowing," she urged. "Chew your way to better digestion and more energy."
Are you guilty of these bad habits too? What do you need to give up to be healthy?