Health & Environment

How To Make Healthy Eating Habits Stick This New Year

Texas A&M AgriLife experts offer 10 tips to make healthy eating attainable and sustainable.
By Ashley Vargo, Texas A&M AgriLife Marketing and Communications January 4, 2024

overhead view of a table with plates of food and vegetables, as people eat with forks
Figuring out how to introduce healthy eating habits might seem overwhelming at first, but you don’t need to make too many changes at once.

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The start of the new year offers a chance to reflect on the past and set goals for the future. Many of us aim to improve ourselves, but, unfortunately, New Year’s resolutions are often quickly abandoned because they are unrealistic or too difficult to maintain.

This is especially true for resolutions centered around physical health, like healthy eating. Instead of relying on strict rules and super-human discipline, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts have shared tips for establishing realistic healthy eating goals that can endure through January and beyond.

Don’t Force The New Year’s Day Start Date

Though it might seem counterintuitive, allowing yourself the flexibility to start implementing new habits when you’re ready, rather than forcing yourself to adhere to the calendar, may help them to stick better.

“At New Year’s, there is still so much going on,” said Dr. Jenna Anding, professor and AgriLife Extension specialist in the Department of Nutrition at the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Starting new habits on Jan. 1 works for some people, but, for others, it doesn’t. If you’re ready to embark on changing a particular behavior, pick a day that you know you can start with confidence.”

Set Small, Measurable Goals

Many resolutions are defined with vague or broad language like “lose weight,” “eat healthy” or “improve fitness.” By making goals that are specific and measurable, they will also be easier to achieve.

“If the goal is specific, then you have something that you know you’re working toward,” Anding said. “For example, if you want to include more vegetables in your diet, commit to one or two more servings of vegetables a day. Or, if you’re currently eating out for four or five meals a week, try to cut it back to three. And when that change becomes comfortable, and a true habit, then you can work on something else.”

Use Milestones And Reward Yourself When You Reach Them

In addition to a broader, overarching goal, establish tiny, attainable ones along the way. For someone planning to lose 30 pounds, for example, setting the goal to lose 5 pounds every two months can help with making steady progress.

“If you have small, incremental goals, you’ll get that internal sense of satisfaction and accomplishment every time you meet one,” Anding said. “That’s going to help with motivation and can really help keep people on track.

“And, when you reach a milestone, remember to treat yourself,” she said.

Practice Mindfulness

Miquela Smith, AgriLife Extension health program specialist, Lubbock, suggests practicing mindfulness to pay attention to what the body really needs, which can prevent overeating. She defines mindfulness as the practice of bringing your thoughts into the present moment.

“When people overeat, they often don’t even realize they’ve done so, because they’re eating while their mind is somewhere else,” Smith said. “The practice of being engaged with your body and being present in any given moment can help us make healthier choices, because we’re going to pay attention to our fullness cues.”

For those looking to start practicing mindfulness, she recommends integrating it into activities you’re already accustomed to.

“Start with something that you enjoy doing,” Smith said. “Eat a few meals a week with no distractions. Keep the TV turned off and the phone put away, and, instead, fully engage your senses while you’re eating. For example, before taking a bite, describe in your mind what the food looks and smells like.”

Consider Other Dimensions Of Health

Health requires balance. Experts have defined eight dimensions of wellness that factor together to make up a healthy, happy life. Smith encourages people to take stock of how they’re doing holistically.

“We are more than just our physical health,” Smith said. “You can’t be well if you ignore all the other dimensions of your life — your social, occupational or intellectual well-being, for example. And you don’t need to tie your entire self-worth or view of success to one single dimension.

“If you’re taking care of yourself in a holistic way, then that’s success,” she said. “Just remember that physical health is important, but it doesn’t have to be the one dimension that defines you.”

Don’t Use The Scale As Your Guide

Even if a healthy eating goal is part of a plan to lose weight, nobody should be a slave to the scale. For changes to be sustainable and truly healthy, they shouldn’t be constructed around what will lead to the most weight loss in the shortest amount of time.

Start by establishing healthy routines that you can maintain, which will likely help with weight loss later.

“Look at what you can do to be more physically active, or consider what is the one thing you might want to improve about your diet,” Anding said. “If you’re just starting out on a health journey, make weight loss secondary.”

Make Cooking At Home As Enjoyable As Possible

Food that is made at home is usually much healthier than food from a restaurant, and making the meals yourself allows more control over ingredients.

“If you’re having trouble convincing yourself to cook at home, do whatever you can to make it more enjoyable,” Anding said. “This might include listening to music or a podcast you enjoy, bringing others in to help you cook or starting off with some of your favorite home-cooked meals.”

Identify Obstacles To Healthy Choices

Like any new change, slip-ups and setbacks are inevitable, but they don’t have to be devastating. If you have a bad day, examine what may have triggered it.

“Nothing is going to change overnight,” Anding said. “And we all slip up, but tomorrow is another day. We always get another chance. Take a look at what led you to an unhealthy choice and prevented you from accomplishing what you wanted to achieve.

“Maybe you didn’t eat healthy one day because you were at a sporting event or it was a holiday party and everyone brought dessert. That’s fine. The key is to not beat yourself up and try to get back on track as quickly as you can,” she said.

Make Use Of Established Healthy Eating Styles

A healthy diet is one that is rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, lean meats and dairy products, but you don’t have to construct an entirely new eating style on your own if that seems daunting.

The Mediterranean diet emphasizes using plant oils, vegetables, fish and nuts, and has been shown to help with heart health and reducing inflammation.

The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, DASH, eating pattern is designed to limit sodium intake and improve heart health as well. Like the Mediterranean diet, it is also rich in vegetables and fruits.

Lastly, the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, MIND, diet incorporates aspects from both diets and has been linked with improved brain health and cognition.

“All three of these are great eating patterns to adopt,” Anding said. “Choose one or two things about these diets that you want to try, and then gradually switch from a typical American diet to one of these other three.”

Build A Support System

There’s no denying that implementing these changes is going to be hard at times. Because this process is a very personal endeavor, it’s natural to think that it should be done in isolation. But making a successful lifestyle change will be much easier if the people around you are aware of your goals.

“For anybody embarking on a health journey, let family and friends know so they can be supportive,” Anding said. “And surrounding yourself with people who are trying to accomplish a similar goal is good too. That way, you have a support system and a source of accountability.”

Further Information

To find more resources on healthy eating and nutrition, visit AgriLife Extension’s nutrition website. Or, if you’re looking for menu ideas, check out Dinner Tonight, where you can find plenty of recipes as well as tips, tricks and techniques for making delicious and nutritious meals for the family.

This article by Ashley Vargo originally appeared on AgriLife Today.

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