It’s an essential function for human survival, and Americans tend to have a peculiar relationship with it. With New Year’s resolutions on the mind, eating is worth consideration. After all, a 2019 survey said just over 40 percent of Americans who set resolutions denote eating more healthily as one of their goals. Other top resolutions include exercising more (50 percent), saving money (49 percent) and losing weight (37 percent). Given that less than 10 percent of people are successful with their resolutions, how can you make eating healthy actually work?
It’s all about taking small steps.
“When I think about people with their New Year’s resolutions, they often are these ideas of grandeur where they decide they are going to go on XYZ diet,” dietician Cary Kreutzer explained. “It’s too big of a step.”
You can work your way up to big goals by meeting smaller ones. Are you a soda drinker? Swap it out for sparkling water. Do you enjoy a super sweet Starbucks beverage every day? Start by going just a few times a week and work your way down. Another method is cutting back to a smaller size or choosing a different kind of milk.
Slow and steady wins the race
“If you don’t change your core eating habits, you’re going to go back to the same eating habits you had,” Kreutzer, who is the director of the USC Master of Science in Nutrition, Healthspan and Longevity program, said. It’s a lifestyle, not a diet!
If you like to snack, consider what’s in sight. Can you easily scoop up a handful of M&M’s on your walk to the kitchen? Consider keeping those treats in the cupboard. If you’re overeating certain items, like ice cream, think about buying a carton less often or even only buy it as a treat when you’re out.
It’s also important to consider what is in your refrigerator. Do you have an overstuffed freezer? It might be time to scale back on the frozen meals. Food from the freezer section is ultra processed, so it won’t fill you up very well. This is where whole foods, like fruits and vegetables, come in, which will fill you up because they are loaded with fiber. Sometimes adding in fresh produce can be difficult depending on your living situation, the size of your family, financial status and so on. Kreutzer noted purchasing canned vegetables, which are easy to store and prepare. Just be sure to wash off the salty solution they sit in. Preparing a few meals for the week when you have free time can also make it easier to choose healthier foods.
Kreutzer also suggests keeping a food log. Evaluating food can help you understand both what and why you eat— were you actually hungry? Was this meal nutritious? She’s not a big fan of counting calories, but doing it short-term can better your understanding of food choices.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released dietary guidelines for Americans, which it does every five years. The framework advises customizing and enjoying nutrient-dense food and beverage choices to reflect personal preferences, cultural traditions and budgetary considerations; focus on meeting food groups with nutrient-dense food and beverages and stay within calorie limits; and limit foods and beverages higher in added sugars, saturated fat and sodium.
As part of the guidelines, the USDA develops several Healthy U.S.-Style Dietary Pattern options. Kreutzer was particularly excited to see the addition of the Healthy Mediterranean-Style Dietary Pattern.
“How fantastic is that, that the government and scientists and others are finally realizing!”
The Mediterranean diet is different from diets like keto or Atkins. It’s more of a style of eating that is low in animal products and red meat and high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds and olive oil. According to the Mayo Clinic, interest in the Mediterranean diet began in the ‘60s with the observation that there were fewer coronary heart disease-related deaths in Mediterranean countries than in the U.S. and northern Europe. It shifts eating to be plant-based, instead of meat-based, and encourages consuming healthy fats (like in olive oil), instead of saturated and trans fats that contribute to heart disease.
What’s more, the Mediterranean diet is flexible, just as the USDA guidelines explain. It’s all about evolving your habits, instead of forcing you to adhere to strict rules.
“Researchers know that there’s so much failure with diet because they are fad,” Kreutzer said. “Dieting is not really healthy dieting because your system just doesn’t like those extreme changes.”
Healthy living is more than healthy eating.
While healthy eating choices are key to maintaining your health, there are other important habits to implement.
“Exercise is critical,” Kreutzer said. “Not only does it build muscle, it reduces your appetite. It kind of decreases your appetite, at least for a little while after you finish exercise. And if you’re a stress eater, it’s going to kind of reduce your stress level that maybe you won’t be reaching for all those comfort foods.”
However, like food choices, exercising shouldn’t be extreme. Kreutzer recalled having students who set out to run every day, though they never have before, which led to failure.
“It needs to be an exercise that you thoroughly enjoy,” she said. Walking, cycling, jumping rope, you name it. We don’t all need to have marathon ambitions.
Environment is just as important as exercise. How we talk about food in front of children, friends and family is critical. Kreutzer stresses not to give up traditional food practices in lieu of something more “American” (and then in turn, others, like kids at the lunch table, should learn to be respectful of foods that they haven’t seen). She also explained parents have to be committed if they want their children to eat healthy.
“Whether you’re a child or an adult, you need a support system.”
In addition, hurling “you’re going to lose your figure” and “are you really going to eat that” at your child does not help develop stable eating habits. Kreutzer explained there is a family component to eating disorders, after all (sometimes individuals actually need a therapist, not a dietician, when it comes to eating issues). Portrayals of media in beauty standards don’t help either. Though shifting, thinness remains idealized, highlighting our larger cultural problem of putting too much emphasis on weight.
“We really need to be looking more at health,” Kreutzer said. “As long as your blood pressure’s good, your cholesterol’s good, you’ve got energy, you’re eating a healthy diet… you’re fine. Don’t worry about it.”