We all want to adopt a healthier lifestyle but, for most of us, it can be difficult to know where to begin. The decision often starts with a motivator: to lose weight, to prevent or fight a chronic disease such as diabetes or heart disease, to have more energy, or to simply live a longer, higher-quality life.
However, once this motivator is determined and we decide to start living a healthier life, it can be difficult to decide on the best next steps. You could begin a new diet, but which one? You could join a gym, but what exercises should you do? You could avoid eating out, but what about your social life?
It may feel overwhelming but let’s take a step back and start with small changes. The following small changes may lead to a big, positive impact on your health.
Is portion control the culprit?
- Try drinking a glass of water 30 minutes before each meal – There’s often times you may feel hungry, but your body is actually thirsty. Filling your stomach up with some water not only hydrates you and kickstarts your digestion, but it will help to satisfy your hunger, resulting in consumption of fewer calories.
- Use smaller plates and bowls – This is a mind trick, but it works. Choose an appetizer plate rather than a dinner plate to eat your lunch or dinner on. Filling an appetizer plate with your meal will trick your mind into thinking you have a larger portion, when in fact your portion has been reduced.
- Avoid television and electronics while eating – This technique helps to steer your attention to your meal and satiation. Distractions such as TV may result in a lost awareness of fullness and may lead to over-eating. Try eating with a friend or loved-one and be in tune with your hunger and fullness cues.
- Pack up leftovers before reaching for seconds – Once you consume your first dinner plate, pack up the remainder of the food for your lunch the following day. Your brain takes about 20 minutes to register a full stomach. Therefore, this break from eating will allow the feeling of fullness to kick in. You may also not have enough food for seconds once your lunch is packed.
- Avoid food 2-3 hours before bed – This will help reduce the overall calories you are consuming during the course of the day. It is most often not a salad that is chosen as a night-time snack. Rather, it may be a calorie-dense, less nutritious snack. In addition, laying down on a full stomach may impact digestion and lead to heartburn or acid reflux. Try to make dinner your last meal of the day but if you get hungry before bed, snacks such as Greek yogurt, berries, a tablespoon of nuts, or one square of dark chocolate are all healthy options.
Does “exercise” sound intimidating?
- Park your car in the back of the parking lot – This small change really adds up those steps. Whether it’s a grocery store, your workplace, or a restaurant, try to park your car away from the entrance of the building. It may add a minute or two, but it’s worth it in the long run.
- Go on a 20-minute walk before starting your day – It is often difficult to find the time to fit exercise into a busy schedule. Perhaps a short walk upon waking can become a habitual way to jumpstart your day. You can walk with a friend or partner for socialization, or maybe a dog, or even by yourself for personal time to clear your head. Aim for the stairs – Choosing to take the stairs can often be faster than waiting on an escalator or waiting for the elevator. In addition, it helps to burn calories, add steps, and work out your leg muscles.
- Buy yourself an exercise journal – Using a journal to write down the exercise you partake in can be a motivator in-and-of itself. For example, let’s say you went on a walk in the park for 20 minutes and felt great afterwards. Try writing it in your journal along with the way you felt. The next day, you may want to increase your walking time to 30 minutes, just to be able to write about it in your journal. It’ll be wonderful to look back in a few months and see all your accomplishments written down in front of you.
How do you aim for healthier options?
- Try eating a salad before your dinner – This may be a simple way to get extra vegetables in and also help to satisfy your hunger prior to eating your dinner which may lead to consuming fewer calories.
- Fill your plate with vegetables first – When placing food on your dinner plate, start with the vegetables. Whether they are roasted veggies or a raw salad, fill at least half of your plate with these and then place the protein or starch to follow. Vegetables often have the fewest calories out of everything on your dinner plate but also the most nutrients. The majority of our plate should be filled with them.
- Replace sugary drinks with lemon water – Would you believe me if I told you sugary drinks such as sweetened teas, sodas, milkshakes, or sports drinks are one of the leading causes of excess weight? Well it’s true! Try swapping sweetened drinks for water with fresh lemon. The lemon aids in sweetness but is also wonderful for you, your digestion, and your complexion. If water is too plain, feel free to try green tea, which has many health benefits.
- Chop up your veggies the day you buy them – Have you ever bought yourself plenty of vegetables in the grocery store but then had them go bad before you had a chance to eat them? Try meal prepping with them the day you buy them. If they’re washed, chopped, and ready-to-eat, you’ll be more likely to reach for them rather than a less-healthy snack option. For example, try chopped carrots with hummus or chopped celery with peanut butter.
- Make healthy swaps when dining out – There’s no need to avoid social eating situations but rather, it can be beneficial to make healthy swaps. Choose a side of cooked vegetables or a salad rather than French fries. Ask for olive oil and vinegar for your salad rather than ranch or the house dressing. Avoid sugary beverages and stick to water but feel free to sweeten it with lemon. Try a turkey or veggie burger rather than a beef burger. If pasta or pizza are a must, add extra vegetables to the dish. If a dish comes with a rich, creamy sauce, ask for it on the side and only have a portion of it.
There are many small techniques you can adopt to live a healthier lifestyle. Choose the ones that will be easiest for you to implement and begin with those, one at a time. Keep that motivator in mind and a journal by your side. Try to come up with your own small changes that will leave a positive impact on your health.
–Kelley Magill, Graduate Practicum Student, BWH Nutrition and Wellness