It’s tricky to stick to our habits and resolutions and eat healthily at the best of times, never mind in the midst of the current chaos and when working just a few steps from our kitchen cupboards. Heather has three tips for making it easier to eat healthily now and into the future. Read on or watch her share tips on Virgin Media Weekend AM.
Focus on one goal at a time – go small to win big!
In January, many of us promise ourselves we will turn over a new leaf and kick all our less than healthy eating habits into touch. We are going to ditch all the junk food, exercise madly every day and drink green smoothies until they come out our ears. But research shows that even if we start by implementing a raft of healthier habits, most of us will have run out of steam by the end of the second week in January. Right about now! That’s because our habits have been established over many years. They are difficult to change, especially if we try to change too many things at a time. The wealth of science behind behavioural change and habit formation instead recommends focussing on only one goal. Make this one goal achievable and easily measurable.
One of the most common goals is to stop eating the sweet treats that may have crept in over Christmas or previous lock downs. Instead of focusing on not eating any treats at all, chose something more realistic. Consider limiting treats to Saturday and Sunday. Another popular goal that can make a really positive impact to your health is to eat more veg. But if you are someone who currently only eats one portion a day, it is unrealistic to aim to eat the recommended five a day immediately. And aiming to just eat more veg is too vague. Instead, a realistic and measurable goal for you might be to eat 2 portions of veg per day. Once you have established that as a habit, you can start to build on your positive success. This is better than setting yourself up for failure.
It’s the long-term eating habits, the foods we eat every day or week that make the biggest difference to our long-term health. So, making small changes that we can stick to for good, that become as second nature to us as brushing our teeth are going to make the most difference. It’s OK if it takes a bit of time to reap the rewards.
A couple more tips to help habits stick. Firstly, think about when to insert this habit into your daily routine. If you want to eat more veg, your goal might be to eat at least one portion of veg at lunch every day. Or to drink a glass of water the minute you get up. It can also be helpful to have some way of tracking your progress like one of the many apps available like habithub or even something as simple as a tick chart. We all like instant rewards, but the problem about smaller, long term changes is that we don’t notice their benefit straight away, so need to tap into some way to acknowledge that we are on track. This helps to get back ‘on the wagon’ if we have a bad day.
Build an environment that helps, not hinders, habits
This is especially important now, as most of us are spending more if not all of our time at home. However, we do at least have the power to change our environment to make it easier to achieve our goals.
If your goal is to limit treats, but your house is still full of Christmas goodies or you always include a raft of treats in your weekly shop (for the kids!), then your environment is working against you achieving your goal. In that case, you need to build a more helpful environment, by getting rid of any lingering goodies or limiting the amount you buy. And make sure that you store whatever you do buy out of sight.
If your goal is to limit treats to Saturday and Sunday evenings, but you keep your chocolate biscuits right next to your coffee, it’s going to be very difficult to resist those biscuits on a wet Tuesday morning. Instead, store them in a different room. One patient keeps them in her garden shed! Experts call this friction – something that makes it a little more difficult for you to continue to follow a habit that you are trying to change. And build on that by having some healthy snacking options available in eye line instead.
- If your goal is to eat 3 portions of veg daily, then have a tub of veg soup. Prepare some chopped up veg sticks or a bag of salad in the fridge ready to go. This makes it easier to achieve your goal.
- If you want to drink more water, have a water bottle or flask beside your desk.
- We know from behavioural science that this environmental factor is one of the most important in successfully changing habits.
Meal planning – a real game changer for healthier habits
Building on the other two points, meal planning can help achieve a healthy eating goal and prepare your environment. The most patients we see who are successful in changing their eating habits are usually meal planning. Spend just a few minutes at the weekend planning your dinners for the next 5 days. This can really help to maintain healthy eating habits. It’s when we are short on time and ideas and hungry that we are more likely to make less nutritious food choices. For many people it’s more the chore of thinking what to cook than the actual cooking itself.
Planning ahead allows you to build in meals that match your goal. Then, stocking up on the ingredients that you need to make them helps ensure your food environment is supporting your goal. It also saves money and reduces food waste, one of the hot topics in nutrition this year. If you have other family members at home with you, get them involved too. You could even take it in turns to do the cooking.
Ready to get started?
So, identify your goal, do what you can to make your environment as helpful to that goal as possible and then make out your meal plan and shopping list. Before you know it, you will have adopted one healthier habit and be ready to move on to the next.
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