By Lindsay Christensen
Nutritionist @ The Pratt Clinics
The world in which we live can certainly make it difficult to lead a healthy lifestyle. Between the abundance of junk food available at grocery stores, the siren calls of Netflix urging us to binge on TV shows rather than go to bed, and our largely sedentary jobs, there are many factors working against us in our efforts to be healthy. In this blog post, I’d like to share 8 mindset shifts that can help you let go of unhealthy habits and make sustainable, beneficial nutrition and lifestyle changes that can help you get and stay healthy for life.
When many people first begin to make diet and lifestyle changes, they see it as an “all or nothing” effort. While this attitude is well-intentioned, it can actually work against you in the long-run by generating excessive amounts of stress. Recognize that you can’t be “perfect” with your diet and lifestyle all day every day and that there will be twists and turns in your journey towards optimal health. As long as you stay the course, your health will continue to move in the right direction, despite the occasional piece of birthday cake or missed exercise session.
You are worthy of optimal health!
One of the greatest barriers to sticking to a healthy diet and lifestyle that I’ve observed is under-prioritizing oneself. Unfortunately, many well-meaning people put the needs of their spouse, children, or employer ahead of their own needs, leaving little time for health-promoting self-care. Rather than looking at your health as an “afterthought,” make it a priority! Recognize that you are worthy of the attention and time it takes to be healthy. Set aside time “personal time” each day to exercise, meditate, and prepare healthy meals for yourself; these tasks needn’t take a ton of time, especially if you meal prep (more on that later!). Valuing and taking care of your health will, in turn, allow you to show up as a better spouse, parent, and employee to those individuals who depend on you.
View food primarily as fuel
In our modern-day world, food has come to serve many roles for which it was not originally intended. At its essence, food is the fuel that we use to create and maintain our bodies. However, many people instead view food as a distraction, reward, or an emotional band-aid, leading to the consumption of processed and refined foods. Contrary to popular belief, the inability to stick to a healthy diet is not due to a lack of willpower; rather, research suggests that it is the result of the reflexive tendencies we have developed to view food as a tool for relieving boredom, celebrating achievements, and placating negative emotions.
To develop a more positive relationship with food, tune in to your body and recognize the difference between your emotions and true physiological hunger. Each time you reach for food, do a quick self-check: Are you truly hungry, or are you bored, sad, or anxious? If you are bored, engage in a healthy activity that grabs your attention, such as reading a good book or exercising. If you are feeling sad or anxious, take some time to meditate, write in a journal, or talk about your feelings with a loved one. If you find yourself regularly turning to food as a reward after a stressful day of work or to celebrate an achievement, find a non-food means of rewarding yourself, such as going out to a movie or concert.
These recommendations are not intended to remove the joy and positive emotions associated with food; eating should always be a pleasurable experience. What these recommendations are intended to do is help you parse out your emotions from true hunger so that you can create a healthy and enjoyable relationship with food.
In addition to reframing your view of food primarily as fuel, rather than a salve for your emotions, I also recommend letting go of the idea of food as being “good” or “bad.” Classifying food as “good” or “bad” attaches a moral stigma to foods and makes us feel guilty when we eat foods associated with the “bad” nametag. Instead of viewing foods as “good” or “bad,” take a more objective view and consider whether they are effective or ineffective for supporting your health. For example, vegetables are clearly effective for supporting your health, while refined sugar is ineffective. Having refined sugar now and then will not ruin your progress, but recognize that it detracts, rather than adds, to your health.
Become aware of patterns that are not in your best interest.
Many of us follow patterns in our daily lives that are not conducive to optimal health. Some people indulge in too much wine on the weekends or eat a bowl of ice cream every night before bed. Others spend hours on social media or watching TV in the evening, disrupting their circadian rhythms with blue light and depriving themselves of sleep. Harmful patterns such as these can significantly sabotage your efforts to get healthy. To get and stay healthy long-term, first identify the patterns that are holding you back. Then, the next time you see yourself beginning to engage in a pattern, stop yourself and course-correct. For example, if you tend to reach for ice cream every night before bed, ask yourself whether you are still hungry because you didn’t eat enough at dinner, or if this is just a pattern that is adding more calories and sugar to your diet. If you are truly hungry, then add more nourishing food to your evening meal, so that you stay satiated all the way until breakfast the next day.
Refocus negative thoughts
Science has proven that negative thoughts are harmful to our health, whereas positive emotions and optimism are associated with better physical health and longevity. If you want to make lasting changes in your health, then wrangling your negative thoughts and replacing them with positive ones is essential. Research has found that people who express more positive emotions and report more positive experiences have better immune function and heart health and lower systemic inflammation. (1, 2, 3)
You may be wondering, what if I’m not a naturally positive or optimistic person? Am I destined for poor health? The answer to this question is a resounding “no!” Exciting research indicates that it is possible to change your brain’s “default mode” to be more positive and optimistic through simple exercises such as keeping a gratitude journal, reframing negative events, and helping others.
See sleep as non-negotiable
Many times, when people feel hungry, it is because they are sleep deprived and not because they are truly in need of more calories. A single night of sleep deprivation raises levels of ghrelin, the body’s “hunger hormone,” which stimulates appetite and triggers food intake. (4) Sleep deprivation also diminishes activity in the higher cortical regions of the brain, where decision-making occurs, and increases activity in the amygdala; together, these effects result in the selection of hyper-palatable (i.e. sugary and high-fat) foods capable of triggering weight gain. (5) Conversely, adequate sleep can lead to healthier food choices. (6)
To maintain a healthy appetite and minimize food cravings, commit to getting 8-9 hours of sleep a night in a completely dark, cool environment. I also recommend avoiding blue light exposure at least one hour before bed to optimize your melatonin production; this can be achieved by wearing blue-light-blocking glasses such as True Dark glasses.
Use exercise as a motivational tool
Exercise doesn’t just promote weight loss and tone your muscles; it also “tones” your brain, making you more likely to engage in healthy diet and lifestyle habits! Scientists have found that engaging in a consistent yoga practice encourages healthier eating behaviors and higher levels of physical activity. (7) Other forms of exercise, such as running, biking, and hiking may have similar effects. Choose a form of exercise that speaks to you, and use it as a tool for motivating healthy changes in other areas of your life.
Plan meals ahead of time
Meal prepping is both a mindset shift and a lifestyle change that can SIGNIFICANTLY up your odds of sticking to a healthy diet long-term. Meal prepping refers to the concept of preparing whole meals or dishes ahead of schedule. Having pre-prepared meals on hand means you’ll be able to satisfy your hunger immediately with a healthy option, rather than turning to processed snack foods, fast-food, or takeout.
There’s no hard and fast rule for when and how often you should meal prep. Depending on your schedule, family size, and lifestyle, you can either prep meals a week at a time, a few days at a time, or a day in advance. Whichever strategy you choose, you’ll increase your odds of sticking to a healthy eating pattern. As the nutritionist at The Pratt Clinics, meal prepping is something I can help you with! Give us a call to learn more.
Mindfulness training is a scientifically-proven way to improve your mindset and increase your ability to maintain healthy habits. Research indicates that mindfulness training, such as mindfulness meditation, rewires the brain, leading to smarter, healthier choices. Staying mindful while eating moderates food consumption and prevents binge eating. (8) It may also improve digestion and your enjoyment of food!
If you are new to mindfulness, I recommend starting by using the Calm app. This app offers guided meditations, courses on mindfulness, and relaxing music that can help you achieve a more mindful state. To stay mindful while eating, avoid responding to emails, texting, and watching TV during your meal. Instead, focus on the food in front of you and the company with whom you are eating the meal.
Find a support system and get the family involved
Making healthy diet and lifestyle changes can be difficult in a world where unhealthy living is so prevalent. Finding a support system of people with the same goals can make working towards optimal health an easier and more enjoyable process! This support system could be your family, new friends in an exercise class, or members of a health-oriented Meetup group. Visit Meetup.com to find nutrition and exercise-related groups in your area.
If your family is not already on-board with making diet and lifestyle changes, bringing them into the picture could dramatically enhance your chances of success. Furthermore, research has found that when parents engage in healthy behaviors, their children are more likely to develop healthy habits. Getting the family involved may, therefore, not only make a healthy lifestyle easier for you but set your children on a healthy path for life.
Make a plan!
Having a comprehensive healthy living “roadmap” can do wonders in helping you achieve your health goals. Whether you want to fine-tune your diet or overhaul your lifestyle, Dr. Pratt and I can help by creating a health and nutrition plan that fits your unique needs and will help you successfully reach your goals. Give us a call at The Pratt Clinics to learn more about what we have to offer.