“I resolve to have a healthier diet this year.”
Perhaps you are one of those people who have said that as we begin a new year. Perhaps you are one of those who have said that in many Januarys. If so, you might be saying “This year I really mean it.”
If that is the case, you are not alone. In January, sales of exercise equipment go up, gym memberships increase and diet companies have a surge in new membership. People get very excited and jump into extreme programs that often backfire. If getting fit requires a vast change in your diet and behavior, you are less likely to succeed in it. Change comes best when it comes gradually.
Jumping into an exercise program at a high level is likely to give you sore muscles or injuries and you will find it hard to adjust to a new way of eating. With sore muscles or injuries, people drop the plan for a bit, which turns into weeks and months. As that time flies, new exercise equipment may sit in a corner collecting dust while you sit on the couch doing the same.
Drastic changes in eating habits suffer much the same fate. A USDA study done between 1995 and 2006 showed that despite government and health agency promotions of better eating, most people didn’t change their habits much. On a scale of one to 100, most Americans rank at about 50. That’s not too bad, but it’s not too good either. As a society we have begun to shift to more whole grains and fish and seafood — both good trends — but we are eating fewer vegetables and fruits and more red meat.
This can be pretty discouraging information, but it doesn’t need to be. It doesn’t really matter to us individually how society at large is doing. The group picture says nothing about us as individuals and each person’s own individual record matters. It is possible and could even be pleasant to make the transition from couch potato to good healthy living. It requires some will power, of course, but also some changes in thinking. For example, you don’t have to jump into the advanced levels of that new exercise program in the first week.
Experts say that walking is still the best way to start. This is my personal favorite — not because I am a diligent walker, but because it doesn’t require extra cash, strict scheduling or fancy clothing other than a good pair of walking shoes. If the weather is nasty, you can walk indoors or up and down your stairway. It can require little time to get ready or clean up after and no time to transport to the right facility. When the sun is out, it is more enticing.
On very cold days, you can still bundle up and take a walk. If you use a pedometer, 10,000 steps — often recommended as a goal — is 5.5 miles. Again, it isn’t necessary to start there. Begin with a walk of a quarter mile each way then gradually add to it and work up. It gets easier and as winter turns to spring, it will become more and more interesting.
A gentle nudge toward better eating might be making a meal plan for a week at a time and then shopping for it. Pull out your calendar when making a written plan so you don’t sabotage the ability to carry it out by putting a detailed dinner on a day when you are so busy there isn’t time to make the meal. For a time, the USDA suggested planning a meal around whole-grain carbohydrates. We naturally set up our plans around a main course, which is often a meat dish.
Since vegetables and fruits tend to be the weak spots in our eating, maybe we should start the plan by deciding on a vegetable — or at least pick the vegetable to go with the main dish before going any further. Vegetables seem to hold a rather obscure spot huddling in the corner of our minds and our plates and are often pretty much ignored.
Later columns will explore preparation of meal plans and recipes for making vegetables more appealing.