15 tiny tweaks for an instant health makeover
It always struck me as slightly odd that we make health resolutions in January. Sure, a new year is a theoretical blank slate — and our holiday habits provide us with ample inspiration for things we’d very much like to change about the way we treat our bodies. And, it helps that everyone around us is making the same resolutions (which, coincidentally, are identical to the ones we made the year before).
But, I’d like to argue that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the New Year’s Resolution model: We set ourselves up to fail by committing to massive life changes in the middle of winter. Environmental factors contribute to a wide range of physical and psychological symptoms, such as lower energy and decreased motivation, that undermine even our best efforts in the colder months. Sure, we’d all like to eat cleaner and get to spin class a few mornings a week. But, starting that habit in 20-degree weather? Good luck. And, as we’ve said many times before, the more ambitious your resolution, the less likely you are to accomplish it — baby steps, it seems, are really the way to go.
With these thoughts in mind, we’ve compiled a list of super-simple healthy tweaks you can realistically make. Really. Like, starting tomorrow. Look at it this way: At this point in the year, you’re already eating better. Why not take your wellness game up a few more notches? Your body will thank you when January 1 rears its ugly head once again.
Tweak: Ditch artificial sweeteners
Switching out the sugar in our morning coffee for Splenda and Stevia seems like a no-brainer — they provide the sweetness we crave without any of the metabolic chaos that comes with a sugar habit. But, Shira Lenchewski, registered dietitian and nationally recognized nutrition expert, says that while the fake stuff seems better for your calorie intake, you’re actually making it harder to avoid real sugar. “Artificial sweeteners like Splenda contain a synthetic chemical called Sucralose, which is 600 times sweeter than natural sugar. Because Sucralose is so much sweeter than natural sugar, it overstimulates the taste buds, causing people to crave intensely sweet foods throughout the day.” And, recent research suggests that sucralose itself may be messing with your body’s insulin response. Try reaching for an apple to go with your coffee: Not only will it neutralize your sugar yen, but the fiber will help keep future cravings at bay throughout the day.
Tweak: Get the right amount of sleep
We all know how important it is to get enough sleep. As New York-based physician Dr. Frank Lipman puts it, “From serotonin production to blood sugar management, immunity, and heart health, sleep impacts every aspect of your health.” Says internationally recognized cardiologist Dr. Kevin Campbell, “Sleep is essential for our bodies to recharge and for our brains to repair important pathways associated with memory and learning new things.” But, as Campbell points out, more isn’t always better. He points to new research suggesting that the “perfect” amount of sleep may be 7 hours a night — although some people need more than others. Experiment to figure out how much sleep makes your body feel its best, and then commit to that number of hours — even if it means resisting the urge to hit snooze.
Tweak: Wash your hands
Here’s an easy one. Wash your hands more — especially after using the ATM. According to recent research, “ATMs harbor the same organisms seen in a public toilet,” Campbell explains. “It is important to wash your hands or use hand sanitizer after touching ATM buttons in order to avoid exposure to nasty microbes and [to avoid carrying] them into your car or home.”
But, be sure to look for a soap that’s triclosan-free. A common ingredient in anti-microbial soaps, triclosan has been shown to seriously mess with hormone production and increase the risk of breast cancer. Luckily, there’s no need to reach for an anti-microbial: Research shows that products claiming to have anti-microbial properties are not better at preventing disease than regular old hand soap.
Tweak: Snack smarter
We’re all familiar with the 3 p.m. snack attack — and how it can wreak havoc on our clean-eating intentions. But, as Campbell points out, there’s a right way and a wrong way to snack. “Research shows that eating two to three healthy snacks throughout the day can improve your metabolism, improve weight control, and reduce obesity. Snacks should be limited to 100 to 200 calories and should be rich in nutrients, such as fruits and veggies.” Lipman suggests incorporating hummus and avocado — the healthy fats in each go a long way toward keeping you full until your next meal.
Tweak: Stop “thirsty”
We’ve heard it before: Adequate hydration is essential to proper function of every body system, especially in the summer. But, it’s all too easy to get dehydrated — as Lipman points out, “if you wait until you’re thirsty to drink, then you’re already dehydrated.” Instead of letting that dry-mouth feeling come on, get into the routine of drinking eight to 10 ounces of water every hour or so, whether you’re thirsty or not. And, if you need extra incentive to keep refueling, try out a new hydration habit — flavor your water with lemon, cucumber, herbs, or in-season berries.
Tweak: Try jogging
We know, we know: Who wants to run in face-melting heat? Well, it doesn’t take much of a step up in the cardio department to generate a major net health benefit. According to Campbell, “Recent research shows that even jogging for as little as five minutes a day has been shown to reduce risk for heart disease, prolong life, and decrease heart attack risk.” Think about running around the block once or twice after dinner. In addition to the cardiovascular health benefits, getting your heart pumping will help kickstart your metabolism, giving your digestive system a serious boost.
Tweak: Increase probiotic intake
From Greek yogurt to kombucha, it doesn’t get much hipper these days than probiotics. Luckily, there’s some health science to back up this particular fad. As board-certified internist and weight-loss specialist Dr. Sue Decotiis points out, “Probiotics are a crucial part of a daily routine of healthy eating, supplementation, and physical activity. Probiotics help naturally “cleanse” our bodies by processing and eliminating toxins from our digestive tract. When our digestive tract is functioning efficiently, so are our hormones and metabolism.”
But, there’s more to the probiotic party than yogurt. Lipman suggest that you “develop a taste for…unpasteurized, fermented foods such as pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kefir, [which] feed your gut with trillions of healthy bacteria.” Try to incorporate one fermented food or drink into each day to keep your gut biome in tip-top shape.
Tweak: Replenish B vitamins
Winter isn’t the only time to be concerned about your vitamin intake. One easy wellness fix: Make sure you’re getting enough B vitamins. As Dr. Decotiis points out, B vitamins, like folate, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12, are essential for proper metabolic function, but they get depleted quickly and must be consumed daily. And, alcohol depletes B vitamins in the body — “All the more reason to increase intake especially after a long summer of social drinking.” Rather than popping supplements, load up on fruits and veggies (especially dark greens like kale), whole grains, fish, and eggs.
Tweak: Cut back on alcohol
If you’re anything like us, you’ve been partying just a little bit harder these past few months — and we don’t blame you. After all, there’s nothing quite like drinking outside on a warm evening. But, consider cooling it a bit on the booze for the rest of the season. As Dr. Decotiis points out, “Besides the obvious that alcohol adds more to your daily caloric intake, it also affects hunger hormones.” Specifically, research has shown that alcohol decreases the amount of leptin, an appetite-suppressing hormone made by your endocrine system. This makes it harder for your body to register that it’s had enough to eat — leading you to overconsumption.
Tweak: Replace nonfat yogurt
In the past few years, nonfat yogurt manufacturers have made a killing on our collective fear of that short little “F” word. But, it turns out that avoiding fat like a deadly plague isn’t doing us as much good as we might think. Because it takes longer to digest, fat stays in your stomach longer, helping to keep you full after meals. And, as Lenchewski points out, “One of the most pervasive food myths is the idea that consuming dietary fat makes you fat. But, truthfully, consuming any macronutrient (carbohydrate, protein, or fat) in excess will result in weight gain. The fact is, fat adds flavor, and when it’s removed, sweeteners and artificial flavors are typically added in its place.” Then there’s the recent research suggesting that full-fat dairy is better for reducing body fat than nonfat options. Go ahead: indulge. Your metabolism will thank you.
Tweak: Plate your food
Research has already shown that the size and color of your plate can make a big difference in terms of how much you eat. But, here’s another plating-related trick to consider. While many of us go out of our way on presentation to impress our guests, pulling out all the tips and tricks we’ve learned from our Food Network marathons, we tend to get lazy when it’s just us. Think about spending a little time on the aesthetics of your dinners for one. A bit of effort can go a long way toward teaching us to be mindful of what we’re putting into our bodies. Lenchewski says, “When food is plated beautifully and thoughtfully, it makes the meal or snack more appetizing and enjoyable, and as research suggests, can even prevent overeating.”
Tweak: Put food away
Even when you try to eat well by cooking something healthy, you’re not out of the woods. Sometimes, there’s nothing more tempting than that second helping. But, if you find yourself reaching for a refill — whether you’re hungry or not — here’s a no-brainer fix. Board-certified internist Dr. Pat Salber suggests removing temptation altogether. “After you plate your food, immediately put the rest in the fridge so you won’t be tempted to help yourself to seconds.” Out of sight, out of mind. Added bonus: This way, cleanup gets done beforedinner.
Tweak: Set goals for fall
One way to deal with the seemingly inevitable downturn in wellness in the fall and winter? Be deliberate about setting specific goals before bad weather (or seasonal affective disorder) gives you an excuse to crank up the lazy. Dr. Decotiis suggests a proactive approach to your wellness goals by taking accountability before things start to go south. “Start tracking your eating and exercise habits again, and you might be surprised with your findings. If you’ve fallen off the wagon, there’s no better time to get back on track than right now. You’ll go into the fall and winter feeling better about yourself.”
Tweak: Befriend vinegar
Vinegar has long been a favorite in alternative medicine circles for treating everything from acne to ear infections. But, one proven benefit should take the sour stuff into the spotlight for good. Apple cider vinegar has been shown to help regulate blood sugar, which helps keep your most intense food urges under control. Lenchewski says, “Vinegar helps fight sugar cravings by inhibiting the hunger hormone (ghrelin) and preventing blood sugar from spiking after a meal.” Try incorporating ACV into your daily routine with an afternoon cocktail of 1 tablespoon of vinegar mixed with 1 teaspoon of honey and 8 ounces of grapefruit juice.
Tweak: Re-think dessert
Eating better doesn’t have to mean giving up dessert. It’s all about putting a little bit of thought into how you indulge. As Lipman points out, “The quickest way to whip up a sweet and healthy treat is to make your own popsicles. Freeze your favorite smoothies or juice with a few chunks of fruit or berries.” Even better? Throw a little kale into the mix for a super-healthy, refreshing, and fiber-packed dessert.