How are you feeling right now? Are you tired? Is your energy low? If you answered yes to these two questions, then it might be time to reconsider your daily habits and make a few adjustments. We get it, though; changing your lifestyle is hard. So how do we ditch the bad eating habits to be healthy now?
To make any new lifestyle shift stick, the swaps need to be small and relatively simple. Anything that requires strict dieting or extreme exercise will putter out within a matter of weeks, sometimes even days. To find out how we can trick ourselves into eating healthier (and ultimately being happier), we tapped our top nutritional experts and health coaches for their go-to habits to adopt now.
Eat Whole Foods, Close to Their Natural State
It sounds incredibly simple, but one of the best (and simplest) things you can do for your health is to incorporate more whole foods into every meal—it's the one thing your diet is missing. Registered dietitian and author of Anti-Inflammatory Eating for a Happy, Healthy Brain Michelle Babb, MS, RD, CD, said the simplest way to do this is to cook most of your foods from scratch, using fresh produce, beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fish and other quality proteins. But for those of us who don't have time to do this every day and rely on a few packaged foods for convenience, Babbs urges us to forget the nutrition fact panel and get right down to the ingredient list. "If you don't recognize the ingredients as food that you'd normally have in your pantry or refrigerator, then take a pass," she stressed.
Foodie and plant-based advocate Ellie Bullen of Elsa's Wholesome Life agrees. "Eat more vegetables," she said. "Start by having one meat-free day per week; this will also help you learn the different ways to cook with vegetables."
Sleep and Prepare for Sleep
While it's important to develop good eating habits, Carly Brawner, holistic nutritionist, health coach, and founder of Frolic and Flow, says this will all go out the window if you don't take your sleep seriously. "You can eat 'perfectly' and exercise diligently, but if you are consistently getting little or poor quality sleep, you're neglecting a pivotal part of your health," she said. Unfortunately, sleep has become a huge problem in the U.S., with 1 in 3 Americans not getting enough of it. Without proper shut-eye, we increase our risk of depression and anxiety, weight gain, heart disease, and other serious health problems.
"Sleep is when the body takes care of necessary tune-ups," said Brawner. "It's when our digestive, endocrine, immune, and neurological systems rest, recover, and repair. Good sleep increases the body's ability to manage stress, boosts energy and mood, and bolsters the immune system. It's so important."
Brawner recommends her clients try for at least seven hours of sleep and to hit the sack before 11 p.m. If you struggle with bedtime too, then Brawner has some helpful tips:
- Do not allow electronics in the bedroom, and use blue light–blocking glasses or screen covers a few hours before bed.
- Create a bedtime routine.
- Install blackout curtains.
- Don't eat too close to bedtime.
Don't Be Carb-Phobic
While the high-protein, low-carb movement rages on, Babbs says it's important to include complex carbohydrates like vegetables, fruit, beans, and whole grains in your daily diet. "High-fiber foods help regulate digestion, feed the good bacteria in the gut, balance blood sugar, and manage cholesterol," she said. So don't be afraid of them; be smart about which ones you eat, and make sure they're always coming from whole foods, not processed ones.
Eat More Plants
Want to lower your stress levels? Eat more plants. It's that simple. Yes, okay, so you've heard it a million times before, but Amy Shapiro, founder of Real Nutrition NY, says there's a reason for it. "Eating fruits and veggies at every meal isn't just easy; it is really, really good for you," she urged. "Not only are they low in calories, but they are high in nutrients, vitamins, minerals, fiber, enzymes, and disease-fighting antioxidants. What more could you ask for?"
As Shapiro said, it's super easy to make this a daily habit. She recommends telling yourself, There must be plants at every meal, whether that's fruit in your yogurt for breakfast, salad for lunch and roasted veggies, or even Chinese food with dinner. "It's easy to implement and so important to do regularly, especially if you want to prevent and/or slow illness and aging," she said.
Find Your Way Back to Healthy Fats
While we've been told for years to cut them out, now experts have found some fats are actually essential ingredients for our health and brain function. Babbs recommends a "health-promoting Mediterranean diet" that's high in the right kind of fat. "Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fat and has been associated with less inflammation and a reduction in heart disease and obesity," she said. "Other healthy fats that come from fish, avocados, olives, nuts, and seeds also safeguard against disease and protect the brain from premature aging."
Reduce Your Sugar Intake (Drastically)
Did you know that the average American consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar a day? That's a whopping 68 kilos a year. If you want to get back on the health train, Brawner says it's time to cut back the sugar in a big way. "While many are under the impression that eating fat is the cause of our obesity epidemic, science shows that sugar is the main culprit," she said. "People who eat a lot of sugar consume lower levels of vitamins and minerals, fiber, and iron. This means we are filling up on sugary foods, not foods containing the nutrients that our bodies need." Brawner says high-sugar diets are increasing our risk of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, autoimmunity, and a plethora of other serious health conditions. "Seriously, sugar is not sweet," she said.
If you think you need to reduce the amount of sugar you eat but don't know where to start, Brawner says not to focus on labels and calories, but rather the amount of sugar and ingredients in your food. "Check the total sugars in the nutritional facts on the back of the product (divide or multiply by the serving size) as well as the ingredients listed," she added. "When you decide to have sugar, try to stay around 4 to 6 grams per serving, but no more than 1 to 2 servings a day."
But sugar is everywhere and in everything, right? The obvious examples are pastries, cookies, cakes, soda, and other sweet drinks, but Brawner said many of us forget that sugar is in almost every processed item you buy from the grocery store. "Store-bought salad dressing, yogurt (especially low fat), milk, marinara sauce, hot sauce, frozen meals, granola, protein bars, condiments, and dried fruit all contain hidden sugar," she said. "So be aware of these when grocery shopping. It's a sure bet that when my sugar-loving clients eliminate sugar from their diets, they see a change in weight, body shape, and overall health and happiness."
Drink More Water
Okay, so we know that most of you are already drinking water, but are you getting enough? Shapiro says this is a habit everyone should get into, even if it does cause some major eye rolling. "Water makes up about 60% of our body, and many of our bodily functions depend on adequate hydration, including digestion, body temperature regulation, transportation of nutrients, and circulation," she said. "Additionally, by avoiding dehydration, you keep your skin plump; stomach full and happy, which prevents excessive hunger (oftentimes we confuse thirst for hunger); prevents bloating; prevents headaches and energy slumps."
To make sure you stay hydrated, Bullen recommends carrying a water bottle on you at all times and aiming to fill it two to four times throughout your day.
Move Your Body
If you haven't heard, sitting is the new smoking, and the perfect antidote for that is to get up and move. "The government recommends at least 30 minutes of vigorous activity daily, but if you can't get to the gym, don't quit just yet," said Shapiro. "You can walk to work, take the stairs, take standing breaks, get a standing desk, or even meet up with a friend for a workout a few nights a week. It is important to get the blood flowing through your body to increase your energy and to maintain your muscle mass."
Shapiro says our muscles slowly deteriorate as we age, which slows down our metabolism and stops protecting our bones. "By exercising and even doing yoga or lightweight training, you can prevent these," she stressed. "Additionally, staying active and exercising increase your good cholesterol, which will help to protect your heart and prevent cardiac disease."
Carey Peters and Stacey Morgenstern, co-founders of Health Coach Institute, concur with these recommendations but ask that you start small; otherwise, you could lose momentum. "You have to remember that you're probably not going to be a heavyweight lifting champion the first week in," they said. "Like a child, you must walk before you run, but do walk."
Some simple suggestions: Get up and walk around the block. Dance in the morning to some great pop music. Instead of taking the elevator in your office, walk the three flights up to work. Park at the other end of the garage at the grocery store. Try a new fitness class on the weekend with a friend, or suggest to your partner or kids that you go outside for a walk or a game of tag.
"It will add up, and you'll find that you're naturally getting more exercise in your daily routine without even realizing it," they said.
Indulge Within Reason
We get it: The holidays are here, and it's almost impossible to resist all the delicious foods, sweets, and seasonal treats. But Peters and Morgenstern say you don't have to. "Don't limit yourself too much this season," they said. "This is only destined to fail and leave you with a massive guilt trip after the fact. Instead, select a few key treats that you will indulge in, and really enjoy them."
If your mum's chocolate cake is your thing, then Peters and Morgenstern say to have a piece but put it on a nice plate, sit down at the table, and savor it slowly. "A couple of things may happen," they said. "You might realize you only need a few bites to kick the craving, but you will fully experience the act of eating the cake and not be as tempted to go back for more and more mindlessly." Sounds like a good plan.
Ditch the Guilt
With that in mind, Peters and Stacey urge us all to say sayonara to the guilt once and for all. "Maybe you feel bad about the fact you've been living an unhealthy life until now," they said. "Perhaps you have one of those days when you just can't resist the chocolate chip cookies at your child's school luncheon, or it could be that you're so tired from working late that you turn off your alarm instead of getting up for your morning walk," they said. "Remind yourself that it is okay. We are humans, not machines. Acknowledge the slip, forgive yourself, and move on in the healthiest way possible.
"Letting it hold you back or chalking up the entire day, week, or month as a loss and dropping your healthy habits altogether will only make you feel worse," they said. "Be kind to yourself and you will notice that these slips happen less and less, and when they do, you're able to pick yourself right back up again."