As a dietitian living with psoriatic arthritis, I understand how challenging it can be to make diet changes that feel both sustainable and empowering.
Do you find yourself wanting to set goals around “eating healthier” or breaking some other “unhealthy habits” but then life gets in the way? While setting new goals around eating sounds simple, in reality, it’s not.
Life gets busy and complicated, and we often find ourselves falling back into old ways. Sometimes, the “goals” we set have some rather unproductive, or even dangerous, rules lurking beneath the surface.
Food often sounds simple, but diet and nutrition can bring up a lot of emotions. If you are like me, you might be able to relate to feeling guilty about “breaking a rule” of a new diet. It’s important to be patient with yourself when making changes around your diet and to take time to sit with any emotions or thoughts that come up.
For me, when feelings like guilt arise around my nutrition goals, I try to use it as a learning opportunity. Some questions I ask myself include:
If the answer to any of these questions is no, I reconsider why I decided to make the change in the first place.
So, how do you make some healthy changes in your life that you can feel good about it? Here are some tips to keep in mind.
As a dietitian, I often see people vowing to start a new fad diet. Usually, this is a diet that requires doing a complete pivot from how they’ve been eating or involves buying expensive premade meals or supplements. These companies and products promise incredible results, often in a matter of a few short weeks.
It’s important to remember that while weight loss products and companies may seem like they can help you, they are ultimately seeking to make a profit. The diet and weight loss industry makes billions of dollars every year.
It’s also important to remember that many of the people you see promoting these diets or products on social media often get paid a lot of money to do so. Plus, you usually don’t see the follow-up of a year later. It’s hard to know if they actually stuck with it and if the diet or product helped them in the long run.
Instead of starting a new plan that requires you to change everything about how you eat, research suggests you will actually be more successful if you start with smaller, more attainable goals.
This change may be switching from soda to water or eating swapping out one snack for a piece of fruit. Start as small as you need by making a few healthy changes that feel like things you can do regularly and without too much effort.
“I’m going to buy this new diet book and I’ll reset how I eat entirely.”
“I am going to drink a glass of water with my lunch instead of a soda or sweet tea.”
So often, people approach a diet change with a lot of enthusiasm and bite off a bit more than they can chew. Because this sort of radical change takes so much time and effort, they fizzle out in a few weeks and then revert back to the way things were.
Instead, try breaking your larger goals up into smaller, more incremental changes.
Instead of cutting out sugar from your diet entirely, you may start with swapping out one sweet beverage for water or seltzer twice per week. After a couple of weeks, you may realize that this is entirely doable. In a few weeks, you may bump that up to swapping out a can of soda every day.
Pretty soon, you may find yourself reaching for that can of seltzer instead of soda every time.
Breaking up your goals also allows you time to identify barriers in your life and find ways to work around them without giving up on big goals that seem impossible.
For me, I had been exercising regularly for half an hour during the workweek, but I decided I wanted to bump that up to 45 minutes. I thought initially that the way to do this was simply waking up earlier. Before long I recognized that this was more of a challenge than I anticipated.
I’d wake up my dogs or my toddler would get up, and pretty soon I’d be struggling to fit in even 30 minutes of actual exercise with a lot of interruptions. Then it hit me… I didn’t have to do it all at once.
I went back to my old 5:30 a.m. alarm when my husband gets up to walk the dogs. I try to wrap up my workout by 6 a.m. and then I try to sneak in another 10 to 15 minutes of exercise at another point in the day.
While this example focuses on getting more movement into my day, I’ve applied a similar mindset when setting goals around food.
Keeping track of your progress can be very motivating. There are several ways of doing this, using digital apps, physical journals, or even just a calendar.
If you achieve your goal for the day, you can give yourself a check, a smiley face, or a sticker. You can color code this for different goals you may have.
Drink enough water? Blue check. Exercise? Red heart. Took 10 minutes for quiet time and meditation? Green smiley face.
When you look back, you will see all the progress you made. Sure, a few hectic days may have kept you from accomplishing everything you were hoping to do for that particular week or month, and that’s OK.
Having a tracker to look back on can help you focus on the fact that over a duration of time, you earned a lot of checkmarks, hearts, stars, and smiley faces.
This can be especially helpful on those days when you don’t feel like doing the work. When you see how far you’ve come, you want to keep going. That boost may be enough to encourage you to go for a quick walk, drink another glass of water, or shut off the TV and turn on a guided meditation.
Invest in yourself by investing in some fun equipment!
This could be a small fitness tracking wristband, a journal to keep tabs on your progress, a pretty water bottle, or some fun Tupperware to keep healthy snacks prepped and ready to go. These items don’t need to be expensive or fancy.
I find that investing money into my progress and health can actually feel really great. It’s almost a way of saying, “Yes, I am worth it!”
The other morning, at 4:15 a.m., my dog got sprayed by a skunk in our backyard. It completely upended our Saturday, and about 12 hours later, I realized I hadn’t brushed my teeth yet that day. Did I beat myself up? Not even a little bit.
Every single person is going to have a bad day and not get everything, or anything, done. Your workout may be interrupted. You may not get to the grocery store on time and find yourself eating something that is “off the diet.” You may grab a soda instead of water.
And that is all perfectly OK.
Remember that a change will not be long lasting if it isn’t sustainable to you.
Being disappointed in yourself because you didn’t drink enough water one day.
Recognizing the factors that kept you from achieving that goal and acknowledging that life will always throw curveballs
SMART stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely. I often hear the goal of “eating healthier,” but that is pretty vague.
When you are setting a new goal, spend some time thinking about what this goal means to you personally. Why is this goal important to you? What are you going to do to get to that goal?
Being thoughtful and intentional can make it easier to track, manage, and ultimately, reach even your biggest goals.
Forming new habits can take time. It can take 18 to 254 days for that new habit to become… well, habitual.
So give yourself time to work these new habits into your regular routine. While it may not seem like a huge change right away, over time, you will be able to look back and see all the positive steps you’ve made toward improving your health.
Fact checked on March 24, 2022
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