Americans are losing the battle of the bulge because they don’t eat smart: 108 million people diet each year, spending a whopping $30 billion on weight loss products. Even so, two-thirds of Americans are overweight.
The reason: We continue to eat the wrong way. “People think you have to make big changes,” says Buff Donovan, a licensed social worker and HAP’s director of Coordinated Behavior Health Management for HAP. “But good things happen in small packages.”
But you don’t have to live on kale to be healthy. Here are some tiny tweaks that can have a big impact on your health.
Notice small patterns.
How often do you forget to brush your teeth? Probably rarely or never. It’s a daily routine and habit we don’t have to think about. The same holds true for the little eating habits that sabotage our diets. “Maybe you come home and go through the door into the kitchen,” says Donovan. “That might prompt you to go to the pantry and eat something.” To change that routine, you first need to notice the pattern and then up-end it. Changing a behavior takes effort. Donovan tells people to write down the behavior or thoughts that trigger an unhealthy habit. Then she has them think about what they can change, like leaving tennis shoes at the back door to prompt an after-work walk instead of grabbing a snack.
Play to your strengths.
Maybe you like salad, but piled with unhealthy dressing. Or perhaps you love chicken breast – fried, that is. Even healthy habits can be undermined by unhealthy ones, says Jen Bruning, a registered dietician, nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “I like to gently introduce new eating habits or talk about preparing things in a healthier way that allow people to make a few changes at a time.” Small wins drive other changes. For example, you might switch to a low-calorie, but still creamy, dressing, or bake breaded chicken breasts instead of frying them.
New habits take about a month to set. Your taste cravings developed when you first started eating. “The foods your parents exposed you to helped form your food tastes early in life. But that doesn’t mean if you never had vegetables you’ll never like them,” says Bruning. Our taste buds renew about every 10 days, “so if you’re trying to remove something like sugar or salt, give it time,” says Bruning. “If you get past about four weeks, your taste buds will sense those flavors differently.” Simple swaps – naturally sweet fruit for sugar-packed jam, for example – can help.
Acknowledge the change.
For many people, food means comfort. That’s why banishing foods associated with pleasure often fails. “Some people are very hesitant to try new flavors and change food, so we talk about small changes,” says Bruning. “For example, it can be about swapping portion sizes – decreasing one thing and increasing another – or plate balance to get more high-nutrient, low-calorie foods.
Connect the days.
Whenever you’re trying to make a change, even a small one, you’ll have good days and bad days. Donovan says it’s helpful to record those hits and misses on a calendar. Over time, you’ll likely see the number of good days inch up. “Eating well is like building a house,” says Donovan. “You have to have a good foundation, then build it brick by brick.”
Looking to eat more protein and veggies or less sugar and salt? Go to hap.org/healthysnacks for our infographic featuring delicious 200-calorie snacks that will help you meet your goals.