If you’re like some of us, you’ve had many a New Year’s self-improvement resolution melt into rueful regret by the time the Valentines were being addressed. “Most people overthink it and try to make too many changes at one time,” says Deanna Schweighardt, outpatient dietitian at Saint Barnabas medical center. “More often than not, that leads to failing to make changes that last.”
It doesn’t have to be that way, says Schweighardt. It’s a great idea to use the fresh, unspoiled New Year to change your patterns of eating and activity to embrace better health, she says. But a realistic, step-by-step approach can improve your odds of success.
The key, says Schweighardt, is to start small. “Concentrate on one change at a time, and give yourself three weeks to create a new pattern of behavior,” she advises. “Work on that until you’ve mastered it. Then add another goal. It’s a much better strategy than trying a lot of changes at once, getting frustrated when you don’t achieve perfection and then giving up.”
Schweighardt suggests these three steps:
1. Make Every Day a Three-Meal Day
If you’ve been a breakfast skipper, start by adding that meal to your day regularly. It may sound paradoxical to try to trim down by adding a meal, but in this case “eating ‘more’ can actually help you eat less,” she says. “When you eat more often, you tend to have better control over the types and amounts of food you eat.”
Breakfast is called the most important meal of the day for good reason. “Your body has been fasting overnight—think of how the word comes from the phrase ‘breakfast’—and eating gets your metabolism going,” says Schweighardt. “We know that eating just one or two meals a day slows the metabolism, so eating more meals means your metabolism is more efficient. If you only eat one or two meals a day, you get hungry and crave higher-fat foods.”
When you’re hungrier later in the day, you tend to eat more to feel satisfied. “Your brain doesn’t really get the message that you’re eating for about 20 minutes,” she says, “and during that time you’re likely to take in more calories than you need.”
“Healthy snacks can be a great addition to your three meals,” says Schweighardt. “I usually recommend not going longer than four hours during the day without eating.”
Only when you’ve made these changes a reliable part of your daily routine is it time to move on to step.
2. Eat More Fruits and Vegetables and Limit Sugary Drinks
The ideal is to consume at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, says Schweighardt.
“For lunch and dinner, half your plate should be covered with fruits or veggies, one-quarter should be lean protein and one-quarter starch,” she explains. “Most people devote half their plate to starch.” Starches, like breads and pasta, are converted to sugar, and should make up much less of your daily caloric intake, she says.
Sugary beverages contain lots of empty calories, so it’s a good idea to drink water instead. “Most of us don’t drink enough water, so I recommend water with and between meals,” says the dietitian. And remember that many fruit juices contain a lot of sugar—you may wish to infuse your water with fresh lemon, orange, cucumber or mint to add flavor instead of calories.
To help you achieve your dietary goals, technology may help. “There are a few tools I love to recommend,” says Schweighardt. “Two websites, MyFitnessPal.com and LoseIt.com, offer apps that help you be more aware of what you’re eating. Either will tell you how many calories you need per day, and you can plug in your food choices to see how you’re doing.”
3. Increase Physical Activity—Gradually
Have you had three weeks of success with your new fruit-and-veggie-rich regimen and your substitution of water for sugary drinks? Good for you! Now you’re ready to amp up the exercise.
But again, set a goal that’s easy to achieve. “You needn’t make a resolution to suddenly begin working out at the gym daily,” she says. “A more realistic first target might be simply to walk for 10 to 15 minutes three days a week, or to take the stairs instead of the elevator at work if your office is in a two-story building. Pick a small goal like that that you can reach and feel good about. Then you can work yourself up to going to a gym.” When you do, she says, regularity is more important than extreme exertion.