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Try These Experts’ Tips to Help You Eat Healthier — and Stick to It

Leading nutrition experts explain how to improve your diet in 2020 — using Microsteps and sustainable behavior change.

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Over 40% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, and nutrition is at the top of the list. According to one poll, 54% of respondents said eating healthier was the goal of their resolution. But while making healthier food choices is great in theory, it is challenging in practice. A recent study found that nearly 80% of millennials thought their diets could be healthier. And with so many fad diets popping up, it can feel hard to know which is the healthiest — and the most effective and sustainable — way to lose weight. 

For many of us, right after the ball drops, we begin our plan and give our resolution our all — for the first month. Then work, family, and old habits creep in, and we lose sight of our goal and fall back into our old ways — and only 6% of Americans accomplish their resolutions. But don’t let that be you: Thrive has attainable Microsteps (a much more sustainable alternative to traditional resolutions) to get you to your 2020 goal. Here, top registered dietitians share their best tips and tools to change up your diet and form long-lasting, good nutrition habits.

“We can safely say that resolutions haven’t worked, and it’s most likely because the goals people set are more about what they dream of having. They set actions without a well-thought-out self-assessment and plan. They’ll say, ‘I’m going on a diet in January because I need to lose 25 pounds.’ Instead, people need to start with self-reflection. Ask yourself honestly, ‘Why am I not eating well in the first place?’ Is it because you have no time? Can’t cook? Lazy? Not motivated? Stressed? Can’t afford it? What stories are you telling yourself? What patterns are reinforcing your bad behavior choices? Once you have been honest with yourself, create a plan for change. Be specific and write it down. Goals without clarity are doomed to fail. Define how you want to eat and feel, the type of body you want, the amount of energy you want to have, etc. Get rid of the word ‘diet,’ in your mind, and acknowledge that you are creating a lifestyle, and the healthy habits you form will change your self-image. Your identity will morph from, ‘I am a person who wants to eat healthy,’ to ‘I am a person who honors my body and chooses quality food.’ Think about habits as the method through which you embody a particular identity. In other words, every time you eat well, you embody someone who is fit and healthy. Or every time you eat and cook food at home, you embody someone who doesn’t eat fast food.  

The next ingredient for lasting change is to restructure your environment for success. This includes both your physical and social surroundings. Is your home set up so that eating healthy is easy, or do you have a six-pack of soda in the fridge and a gallon of ice cream in the freezer? Let’s face it, we all fight the gravitational pull of junk food. The best solution is not to keep it in your home or work environment where its obvious, available, and visible. Give your pantry and fridge a makeover. Make it hard for you to access the foods that sabotage your nutrition. Do you get tempted driving by fast food every day? Take a different route to work. Do you get tempted by the unhealthy food in your office conference room? Stay out of the room and bring healthy snacks from home. Your social environment is equally important. Seek out tribes that share your vision for healthy eating both in person and online. Pair up with friends or co-workers that can socially reinforce your desired behaviors. Be intentional with your social media use, and join online communities that are in line with your health values. It’s here that you will find like-minded people who share information and videos that can teach you not just what to eat, but also model what a healthy lifestyle looks like. A lot of small habits turn into big changes, and every action you take is a vote for the type of person you want to become.”

Nicole Magryta, M.B.D., R.D.N., integrative clinical nutritionist and author of Nourish Your Tribe

“I’m a physician and a scientist, and what I follow is the research that is evolving our understanding of health. Some of the discoveries actually shift what we once thought was the ‘right’ way to eat into new ways to make good choices. Here are some health tips that can revolutionize your approach to better living in the new year:

1. Shop the middle aisle: Unlike the old adage that you should ‘avoid the middle aisle’ to only buy fresh foods, it is now clear that the middle aisle offers foods that can activate our body’s health defense systems. For example, dried or canned beans are a good source of dietary fiber that feed our healthy gut bacteria, or microbiome, which improves our immunity. Similarly, some tinned smaller fish like sardines, anchovies, and even tuna can be a source of healthy marine omega-4 fatty acids. Canned tomatoes can be a source of lycopene, which protects your DNA. And dark chocolate has been shown to activate stem cells that help us heal from the inside out. Visit the middle aisle, and choose wisely.

2. Don’t worry so much about individual elements, like gluten or lectins or sugar, it’s the sum total that counts: Research has shown us that dietary patterns matter more than individual elements.  That’s why the Mediterranean diet works — it’s not just one aspect of the diet. If you eat mostly plant-based foods, you’ll be building up your body’s health defenses, and it’s OK to occasionally eat something less healthy. Fashion your eating habits after the healthiest cultures, and don’t stress about any single healthy — or unhealthy — ingredient.

3. Love your food to love your health: Start a new health regime when it comes to nutrition by looking at what you love that is healthy, and find delicious ways to cook and combine those ingredients. Be bold and explore new foods that are healthy so you can discover new pleasures to enrich your life. It’s time to move away from deprivation, guilt, and shame when it comes to healthy eating.  Living well means leaning into the healthy food that you enjoy.”

William W. Li, M.D., author of Eat to Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself

“Your resolution should be something that you’re actually motivated to do. It may sound obvious, but we often make goals that we think we should make, rather than ones that we actually want to take action on. And without being truly motivated, maintaining your goal will be much harder. 

Accountability is an essential part of sticking with your goals in the long term. Options like seeing a dietitian, signing up for a race, and tracking your progress in an app like Lose It! can all go a long way in keeping you motivated and on track. As you go through your year, it’s also important to maintain the mindset that a slip up isn’t a failure. Just because you got off track once, that doesn’t mean your goal goes out the window. Instead, it’s important to accept the mistake and move on guilt-free. You may even be able to learn from the experience and make a plan to avoid similar situations in the future. 

When it comes to setting resolutions, two common mistakes I often see are making goals that are either non-specific or unrealistic, or both. As a result, we end up with goals that are difficult to achieve. 

To make goals more specific, make sure that you’re clear on how you will take action on your goal, and you have a way to measure when you’ve made progress on it. For example, using tracking apps like Lose It! can help with measuring your progress, as they can give you data on the nutrient content of your meals, and track changes in weight loss, food or macronutrient intake, water consumption, and exercise. 

One way to ensure your goals are realistic is to avoid the all or nothing mindset. So rather than saying you’re going to stop eating dessert altogether, a more realistic goal would be to start by reducing how often you consume dessert. Again, apps like Lose It! can be helpful since they can help teach you the nutrient content in different foods, and see how some popular ‘off-limits’ foods can still fit into your healthier lifestyle.”

Kelli McGrane, M.S., R.D. at Lose It!

“The biggest mistake I see with my clients, and most people struggling to lose weight, is that they have an all-or-nothing mentality. People need to stop looking for a fast way to lose weight and move on, and start getting real about making lasting changes they can sustain. To keep weight off and maintain weight loss, you must change how you look at food. Start writing down every single thing you eat. Then add the calories. Weight loss is calories in versus calories out. When you start to monitor what you eat, add in healthy foods. I actually encourage all of my clients to eat carbs at every meal. So often, people eat something bad, or skip a workout, and their mindset switches to, ‘Oh well, I’m going to stop working out,’ or ‘I’m going to continue eating badly.’ A little planning goes a long way when it comes to losing weight. Sunday is a great day to plan and prepare. Plan your food for the week and then hit the supermarket.”

Gladys DiTroia, weight-loss specialist, coach and founder of The Real Deal 

“To ensure your New Year’s resolution success, I recommend focusing on one thing at a time, and doing that one thing well before you try to change something else. Multiple habits that we do on a day-to-day basis combine and form our behaviors. If we set a New Year’s resolution to start eating better — a behavior — then that requires us to start shopping for healthier food, portioning our foods, ensuring that we eat the right amount of food on a daily basis, drink enough water throughout the day, and so on and so forth — a habit. So by choosing to make one behavior change, we’re actually trying to change multiple habits at the same time. Statistically, it takes about 66 days to form a new habit. Choose one habit to focus on for 66 days. Once you can successfully do that one thing for 66 days, then work on another. Over time, after continuing to use this model, you’ll then form long-lasting and sustainable behavior changes.

For those who are looking to add more movement into their days to enhance their well-being, I recommend doing something first thing in the morning to get your body moving. This is when your mind and your body are at its best, without all the stress. For those of you with a morning routine, I would strongly encourage to add movement into your routine, and notice how it will enhance everything else you do. For those of you without a routine, this is a simple place to start, so that you can take care of yourself first, as most of us spend our days taking care of others. Start by getting up 15 to 20 minutes earlier to establish a morning routine such as mobility, stretching, yoga, or even taking a brisk walk outside without distractions, honoring yourself and your body.”

Nathan Kohlerman, founder of NeuIntention

“The key to healthy eating is making small changes that are specific, measurable, and attainable. For example, instead of declaring you want to ‘eat healthier’ or ‘lose weight,’ try setting specific goals like replacing one sugar-sweetened beverage each day with fruit-infused water, or incorporating one more serving of veggies per day from what you previously ate.   

My number one healthy snacking tip is to have protein, and produce options at eye level in the fridge and pantry so they are the first to grab when hunger strikes. Some examples are hummus and sugar snap peas, cheese and grapes, or an apple and peanut butter. Pairing protein and produce is what I call a ‘snack with staying power,’ and one I recommend to my clients wanting to lose weight or have more energy.”

Mia Syn, M.S., R.D., registered dietitian and nutritionist at Goli Nutrition 

“Really think through what you want to accomplish and why you want to accomplish it. You need to have a well-thought-out reason for what you want to do, and why you want to do it, because this is what you will keep returning to for willpower even when you feel like you have lost some of your motivation to keep going.

Break the goal into bite-sized pieces. When you just keep looking ahead and the destination looks too far is when you are most likely to quit. Make a plan that is divided up week by week, with weekly goals that at the end add up to your plan, but where you can just focus on the goal of the week in the moment.

Give yourself concrete rewards. Brains respond to positive feedback, and a reward at the end of bite-sized accomplishments will encourage a good feeling about moving forward with the next week’s goals. 

Create a support system to also hold you accountable. It’s easier to deceive yourself that you are sticking with a goal than it is to deceive others. Form a small group of people who will emotionally invest in keeping you honest, cheering you on, and being brutally honest when you lean towards throwing in the towel. Studies find social support does make a difference in goal-keeping.”

Dr. Gail Saltz, M.D.,  psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, columnist, and best-selling author

“One small, actionable tip that you can easily integrate into your life for a healthier 2020 is to eat more fruit. Nine out of 10 Americans do not eat the recommended amount of fruit per day — according to the C.D.C. Whole fruit contains vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals, fiber, and most importantly, water.

At Mastering Diabetes, we consider water a micronutrient. The reason we do so is because much like vitamins and minerals, water assists in thousands of chemical reactions in your blood and in tissues, and is an underappreciated component of whole foods that rarely gets mentioned. Every second of every day, thousands of chemical reactions are taking place in your body simultaneously, and water is an essential participant that enables them to be carried out efficiently.

Water helps in many aspects of nutrient digestion and absorption. In your stomach, water helps unfold intact food material. In your small intestine, water helps digest and absorb glucose, fatty acids, and amino acids into your blood. In your large intestine, water plays a vital role in bulking your stool, feeding your microbiome, and helping to regulate the electrolyte balance in your blood. 

Refined and processed foods are significantly lower in their water content than fruits. For example, cornflakes contain four percent of water by mass, and a typical whole-wheat bagel is 34% water by mass. On the other hand, fruits generally contain between 70 and 95% water by mass. This means that when you eat fruit, you actually eat water, which helps keep you hydrated and improves both mental and physical performance.”

 —Robby Barbaro, M.P.H., co-founder of Mastering Diabetes

“If cutting calories and exercising more have not worked, then it’s time to try something new. Revolutionize your diet by concentrating on five things: mindset, fasting, low glucose, water consumption, and sleep. The number one thing that will get us to our healthiest body is having a positive mindset. You have to think you can for it to work.  Stop the negative chatter and start replacing “I can’t” with “I will.” If you are negative from the start, a healthier you won’t happen.

Our body wants downtime and so does our digestive track. It’s actually a health benefit to keep a twelve-hour fast overnight in order to burn stored fat. This means do not eat right up until you fall asleep and if you can, stop eating around 6:30 p.m. A lot of people have heard that fasting is good so they do it during the day, and then they can’t control their hunger hormone and often times tend to over-eat when they finally eat a meal. Don’t do this. Only fast at night. To help control your hunger hormone during the day, balance your blood sugar with fiber, fat and protein, and don’t let yourself get too hungry.

For a healthier you, drink water – think 80 ounces throughout the day to help stay fuller longer and have more energy, as well as flush fat and toxins. “

Julie Hefner, author of Nourishing Your Body, holistic nutritionist, and owner of Nourish Nutrition and Health

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