If we know that diet and exercise help us lose weight, reduce heart attack risks, and maintain healthy blood pressure and sugar levels, why don’t we eat more fruits and vegetables to fuel our thirty minutes of exercise five times a week?
Our taste buds are the culprit. They crave calorie-rich, high-fat foods, a hangover from our hunting and gathering days. Combine that fact with our modern-day processed foods designed to maximize big flavor, and you have the recipe for a healthy diet sabotage.
Plus, bad food is addicting. A 2010 study published in Nature Neuroscience concludes that a steady diet of fast food changes brain chemistry in rats. The hunger signal malfunctions in the obese junk-food-eating rats so that they eventually refuse healthy food and eat only fatty food, despite electric shocks .
All food is addicting, even more so than drugs, some studies show. But just as you can become addicted to junk food, you can crave healthy foods in the same way—over time.
Developing new habits takes time and starts with small, realistic steps. Successful changes happen gradually, say making simple substitutions one small habit at a time. For example, you may replace your morning pastry with a healthier, sweet breakfast option to accompany your coffee. You might try whole wheat waffles topped with fruit preserves or honey-coated grapes to satisfy that sweet craving.
Indeed, you can retrain your tastebuds and fool your biology, so long as you’re dedicated and patient.
But when it comes to chronic illness, diet and exercise count even more. Lifestyle changes sometimes mean life and death.
A four-year study, published in the American Journal of Medicine, sought to measure the effects of lifestyle intervention on Type 2 diabetes participants’ weight loss. Of 5,145 participants, half benefitted from weekly diet and exercise intensive coaching throughout the year while the other half received diabetes information and support a few times a year.
The results confirmed the importance of active rather than passive assistance for chronically ill patients seeking to improve their health. The study subjects who received coaching lost more weight and lowered their cholesterol and blood pressure readings more than the subjects without lifestyle modifications.
But studies under controlled circumstances and settings don’t always paint a true picture. A Tufts University study examined the wellness programs at two companies. 94 overweight or obese employees received weekly nutritional counseling on hunger management (eating high fiber, low sugar foods) during their lunch hours for six months, compared to 39 similar participants who didn’t.
Those with the counseling lost an average of 17.6 pounds over six months, while the others without gained weight. The nutritional counseling helped inform participants not only how to reduce their caloric intake but also to control their portions. A key factor was convenience—counseling at the workplace.
And yet another study, conducted at the churches of a group of Type 2 diabetes African American congregants, coached diabetes self-management, including how to eat healthy, keep active, reduce stress, and monitor blood sugar. In 12 weeks, the participants lost weight and lowered their blood pressure.
The takeaway from all of these studies is that people need to be guided with targeted information funneled to them. Too much information overwhelms well-intentioned people from making the hard changes to their lifestyles.
Additionally, the researchers conducting the studies noted that people need strong motivation to make new habits—like pain. If they don’t suffer, they find little motivation to make tough choices.
And coaching does help, especially if dieters are handed meal plans, shopping lists, visualizations for reaching goals, and other tools to ease the pain of change and hard work where it’s needed most–deprogramming habits.
Support groups help too. Whether it’s commiseration, cooperation, or inspiration, support from others going through the same trials and tribulations bolsters the odds for success claims Marla Heller, dietician and author of the The DASH Diet Action Plan.
It just seems impossible for some of us.
Sure, life gets busy, we have no time to plan meals or even shop, let alone exercise. However, we know that commitments take priority. We commit to our partners, careers, children, parents, and so many others. When we commit to ourselves, we’re more likely to succeed in making those lifestyle changes to improve our health.
After committing to make those dietary and activity changes, keep in mind these 5 key factors to helping you change your habits and mindset.
1. Be patient
By selecting one or two achievable goals, say, walking for ten minutes, if you’re just beginning or meditating for two, you’ll set yourself up for success. If you fall off the wagon, be kind and compassionate to yourself. You’d forgive mistakes in your children or even your pets before yourself. Don’t. Without berating yourself, pick up where you left off before you went astray. Changes happen slowly over time.
2. Slow down
Appreciate every morsel you eat. Celebrate your successes small and large. Don’t eat on the run. Be mindful of your body, how it feels when it’s hungry, when you’re eating for other reasons than hunger, and when you’re full. Eating mindfully will alert you to destructive, unconscious habits.
3. Be reasonable
If you choose a too-restrictive diet, the odds are against you losing weight or keeping it off if you do lose. According to the American Psychologist, dieters tend to gain back more weight than they lose. If your diet is unreasonable, given your time constraints and prior eating habits, you’ll spend more time fighting off painful cravings than losing weight. Additionally, social eating becomes more difficult with a restrictive diet. Food is integrally tied to our social relationships, so eating what everyone around you isn’t, makes a diet even more difficult.
Know yourself, your weaknesses. A diet feels like deprivation, so make sure your stomach feels full, filling up on healthy grains and protein, especially in the first meal of the day. Plan your success. Think about your week ahead of time and find the pockets of stress, time constraints, and comfort-eating hours. Pick a plan to solve these trouble spots.
5. Be ready
Being prepared for the challenge is half the battle. Buy a crockpot and put oatmeal or other ready meals available to eat when you have little time to cook but can assemble it when you do have time. Also, choose your fast food healthy choices in advance so you know what you’re going in for when time is short and you need to grab and go. Deciding when you’re rushed and hungry is disastrous.
Let’s face it.
We don’t do what’s good for us because it’s hard. Habits form unconsciously over months, maybe years. Rooting them out, exposing them to the light of day, and changing them takes enormous courage, effort, and drive. But we’re worth it.