Many of us made pledges or resolutions to exercise or eat healthier in the new year, but it’s not unusual for these kinds of resolutions to fall by the wayside in the first weeks of the New Year. But why is that? And how can we make better plans?
Well, people often set lofty and unrealistic goals — especially when it comes to nutrition — says Becky Kerkenbush, a clinical dietitian, certified specialist in gerontological nutrition and fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
"After the first of the year people are very motivated. They often make grand changes and expect great results in a short amount of time, and unfortunately that doesn't happen. So, we see resolutions tend [to] fade away within four to six weeks of the New Year," she notes.
So, how can we do better by ourselves? Kerkenbush says that when we think about dieting, we need to change our mindset from "diet" to "way of living."
"It's much, much bigger than just what you're eating," she notes. "It's stress, it's emotions, it's who's your support around you, do you work, do you work too much? So, all those are factors into how successful your meal plan will be."
Oftentimes the New Year is when diet programs accomplish what they are made to do — make money, sell books, and make products.
"[Fad diets] take advantage of providing you the meal plan, providing you all of these black and white guidelines, which at first people really want and are successful with. But then there's no long-term maintenance education," says Kerkenbush.
Programs such as the ketogenic diet, gluten-free, and other popular low-carb/high-fat diets may help someone lose weight initially by restricting foods, but they are not sustainable in the long-term, according to Kerkenbush.
"They don't have a support system, so without the prior preparation and putting some thought into it, the resolution can easily fail," she explains.
Kerkenbush notes one of the top culprits she's seen in the past year is the keto and gluten-free diets.
"[Keto is] usually unsustainable because it heavily restricts carbohydrates, which our brain and muscles do need to function properly," she explains. "I see people that do not have celiac disease and are not gluten sensitive or have a gluten allergy follow [gluten-free diets], and it mainly, for them, cuts out a lot of food, which reduces their calorie intake and that's where the weight loss stems from."
Instead of following a mass-marketed diet, meal plans should be followed because they are individualized for the person, says Kerkenbush. In addition to looking at someone's medical history, meal plans should take current lifestyle into account, as well as food tolerance.
"One size does not fit all and that's also why some of these fad diets fail," says Kerkenbush.
The first step to success is being able to make your food at home. "The better you are at food preparation, meal planning and cooking, the more success you'll have," says Kerkenbush.
The Mediterranean diet is still one of the best meal plans out there, according to Kerkenbush, because it stresses enjoying real whole foods, maintaining an active lifestyle, enjoying meals with family and friends, and actually taking time to eat without the distractions we've become accustomed to.
- Eat primarily plant-based foods: whole foods like fruit, vegetables, whole grain, legumes and nuts
- Replace saturated fats (like butter) with healthy fats like olive oil and canola oil
- Reduce use of salt: season your dishes with herbs and spices
- Limit red meats to a few times a month: instead, eat fish and poultry twice a week
- Enjoy meals with family and friends: "You have that conversation that slows you down so you're not eating, you're not in front of the TV eating mindlessly, where we tend to eat too much," notes Kerkenbush
- Exercise: "People think, 'I'm not going to go out and run two miles,' but what they're talking about is just being active every single day," explains Kerkenbush. Thirty to 60 minutes of activity a day can be broken up throughout the day. Simply walk away from your desk every 15 minutes, take the stairs, take an extra walk during lunch, and hydrate sufficiently.
"There are lots of ways to increase activity," notes Kerkenbush. "I just think we just get into a rut and we just get so focused on work that we don't take the breaks that we are entitled to."
"It really does go hand-in-hand. Good sleep, good nutrition, good activity really creates that healthy lifestyle," says Kerkenbush.
Instead of trying to commit to a new goal or meal plan that is drastically different from what you are accustomed to, Kerkenbush suggests having one goal or one new habit. "Do that for a couple weeks, let that become more natural to you and then add on to that," she explains. "It's not one meal that makes or breaks you, but it's what you do repeatedly over time."
- Eat something a half an hour to an hour after waking up: "A car does not run well when it's on empty; our body also does not run well if it hasn't had food," she says.
- Avoid extreme hunger: Use a hunger scale, 0 = extreme hunger; 10 = uncomfortably full. "Eat before you're extremely hungry and fast when you're satisfied. Be mindful," Kerkenbush says.
- Don't skip a meal: "When we skip a meal, we tend to over-eat at the next meal or make very poor food choices because of hunger," she says.
The less overwhelmed you are with changing your habits, you'll have greater chances of success in the long run. Kerkenbush says changing a small daily habit is a great place to start, and if you are seriously contemplating drastic food changes, consult your doctor or a dietician before you make those changes to see what will work best for you and your body.
"I think that people need to educate themselves on what works and what does not work," says Kerkenbush. "There is no magic pill that helps us lose all of this weight and there is no magic diet that is perfect for every person."