Do you sometimes feel like you have to drastically change your lifestyle and eating habits to stay healthy and to, hopefully, live longer? Sometimes that’s the message we get from articles on the internet and in magazines. The list of things you “should” do seems overwhelming and there’s a lot of debate about what IS the best diet for health and longevity.
For example, one of the latest diet fads is a “zero carb” diet, consuming all fat and protein with no carbs, not even healthy ones. Extreme diets like this are not sustainable and you can argue that they’re not healthy either, especially when you consider the research showing the health benefits of fruits and vegetables.
To be successful long term, you need lifestyle changes that are maintainable, that you won’t be frustrated with and ready to throw in the towel after a week or two. Fortunately, a new study shows you don’t have to make drastic changes to your eating habits to get health benefits. This study, carried out by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, shows that upgrading your diet even modestly can pay off with greater longevity.
Small Steps to Better Health & Longevity
To reach this conclusion, researchers looked at the dietary habits of 74,000 adults over a 12-year period and used various scoring systems to assign a value to foods. Foods that ranked high based on the scoring system included foods we characteristically think of as healthy – fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and fish. The researchers assigned lower scores to foods such as processed foods, red meat, and foods and beverages with added sugar. When they tabulated the results, they found that only a 20-percentile improvement in food quality scores over time was linked with an 8 to 17% reduction in mortality. That’s significant! In contrast, a decline in diet quality over the 12-year period was associated with a 6 to 12% increase in premature death.
Small Changes, Big Results
What message is this study sending? To improve diet quality enough to reduce mortality is achievable by making small dietary upgrades over time – eating an extra serving of vegetables each day, substituting unsweetened tea for soft drinks, choosing nuts over sugary snacks. In other words, you don’t have to completely overhaul your diet to get enjoy added longevity benefits. What’s more, you’re more likely to stick with positive changes longer term if you make them incrementally. Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to upgrading your diet.
Yet, even making small, gradual changes takes planning. Plan ahead and make sure you have healthier options available and ready to prepare. You’re more likely to make a new, healthy eating habit stick if you write them down and make it easy to implement. For example, if your first small change is to eliminate beverages with sugar, make sure you have plenty of unsweetened tea or substitute beverage without sugar on hand and have purged your fridge of unhealthy alternatives. This means having enough of the good stuff to take to work as well. It’s easy to fall back into bad habits if you’re stranded at work without healthier options and the only thing you have access to are vending machines. In case you haven’t noticed, vending machines aren’t a good source of healthy fare and neither are the traditional office snacks that employees share with one another.
Another stepwise approach to upgrading your diet is to begin by changing one meal a day or even one meal a week to healthier options. Once you’re comfortable with this change and it’s become a habit, increase the frequency with which you eat healthier. Also, look for healthier options you will enjoy most. If you hate the taste and texture of kale, don’t force yourself to eat it just because it’s healthy. Make a list of fruits and vegetables you find to be tasty and begin with those. You may find as you change your diet, healthier fare that you once found unpalatable now appeals to you.
As the study showed, you don’t have to make drastic changes to get benefits. Healthful dietary changes can be as small as switching steel-cut oats or quinoa for your instant oatmeal and adding a handful of berries or nuts.
Drastic Dietary Changes Rarely Work Anyway
One reason healthy lifestyle changes are so hard is that we try to do too much too quickly, rather than taking small steps and letting our body adapt to those changes before adding another. Your brain works against you when you try to make drastic changes to your diet and lifestyle. Eating unhealthy foods, especially sugar-filled ones, activate pleasure centers in the brain that reinforce that habit and it takes time to retrain your brain. Don’t go cold turkey – find healthier substitutes and gradually change how you eat. If you can make a change and make it stick for 21 days, studies show that it’s more likely to be sustained.
Also, the healthful changes you make to your diet may not be the same as someone else’s. You’re unique in your own physiology and food preferences. Fortunately, there is a wide range of healthy foods to choose from. The more closely the foods you choose correspond to your tastes, the easier those changes will be to implement and stick with.
The Bottom Line
Forget total dietary overhauls. Take a slow, incremental approach to change your diet and know that even small changes benefit your health. It’s easier to accomplish goals if you take them step-by-step. Keep learning about nutrition, exploring new, healthy foods, and don’t forget, you’re a work in progress!
Psychology Today. “Change Little By Little
Medical Daily. “How To Change Your Diet: Even Small Improvements May Reduce Risk Of Premature Death”
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