As we approach the start of another new year, it is normal to feel a little burnt out from all of the holiday festivities and lack of routine that tends to coincide. Heck, we have also been navigating life in a pandemic for the past few years! More than ever, the promise of New Year’s resolutions is infectious (no pun intended) and offers a way to prioritize ourselves again in our crazy world.
The interesting thing is, most resolutions tend to be very similar each year. Since the late 90’s, health-based goals such as weight loss and increased exercise, have been the most common resolutions to make. It makes sense coming off back-to-back months of holiday gatherings full of food, alcohol, and decreased movement plus increased stress. It can feel almost necessary to set a resolution around health and if you do not, it can feel like you are on the outside of something you should be focused on.
As health care professionals, we understand the motivation to prioritize health. We also want you to know there are ways to achieve health improvements without the mere focus of weight loss. For more information on why we don’t focus on weight loss- check out this article. In brief, about 95-98% of those who pursue intentional weight loss will regain it within a year, sometimes more weight than what was originally lost. As a result, dieting is actually a prescription for weight gain, not weight loss. Additionally, studies show that only about 9% of people who set resolutions are successful around the one year mark. No wonder there is the allure of the “fresh start” vibes come January.
When the New Year comes around, it is important to take time to consider the longevity of past goals and the underlying reason(s) for goal setting. A common reason resolutions tend to be short lived is that they tend to be unrealistic and are not aligned with our daily lives or values. Let’s talk about how to set health-based goals that do not require a number on a scale to be successful and make it past that one year mark!
Tips for Non-Weight Based Goal Setting
“The pursuit of health is not a moral obligation. However, I do believe the pursuit of health, whatever health means to you, is something everyone deserves access to, with adequate resources, non-stigmatizing health information, and skills for fostering behavior change”– Rachel Hartley, The Joy of Eating
Identify Your Underlying Motivation
First, it is important to acknowledge that it is absolutely normal to want to make changes for the New Year or any time of the year. That is a part of growing and being the best we can! Second, recognizing we are social creatures who seek connection and affirmation helps to understand why and how we may approach goal setting. Planning out intentions with friends or family may feel like a really great way to connect, but for long term goals we need to look internally. We all have different motivators and when we can differentiate between our external vs internal motivators, it can help to acknowledge what’s truly important to us.
External motivators can help you stick to goals, but are not necessarily coming from within:
- Obligation to workout for a challenge group
- Having a weight goal based on the BMI chart
- Eating based on a certain diet or food rules
- Adhering to the calorie target on an app
- Accountability sessions with a Registered Dietitian
- Exercise dates set up with a friend
Internal motivators are tied to your personal goals and values:
- Going for a walk to help reduce joint stiffness
- Engaging in supportive eating and movement behaviors to help control blood sugar levels
- Eating certain foods because you enjoy the taste and how you feel
- Choosing to move your body because it supports your mental health
- Eating adequately because it energizes you and helps you complete your work
Sometimes external motivators (meeting a friend for a jog) can support internal motivators (moving your body to lower blood pressure). Once we are aware of our motivators, we can try to connect these to our values to further engrain our drive for this behavior change. This holds up when the magic and allure of resolutions inevitably fade. It is not a lack of willpower or determination, we just need to get to the root of your internal why.
Connect Motivators to Values
Connecting your motivators and values is another way to reinforce your behavior change. Brené Brown has a fantastic list of values that may be a great place to start. Let’s say you identify your values include family, health, financial stability, and travel and you are motivated to increase your physical activity to lower your blood pressure. We can connect values and motivation in the following way:
- Family: increasing your physical activity and lowering blood pressure will hopefully lead to a longer and more able-bodied life which will allow you to spend more time with your family. Additionally, there are lots of ways to move together as a family like walks, hikes, pickleball, backyard soccer games, swimming, etc.
- Health: increasing physical activity has been shown to lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels as well as increase longevity and quality of life.
- Financial stability: high blood pressure requires daily medication which comes at a cost. Additionally, if the blood pressure is uncontrolled it can lead to cardiovascular disease and stroke, both of which are expensive hospital stays.
- Travel: regular physical activity will give you the strength and endurance you need to take those long leisurely walks around Athens or hike to that amazing view in Hawaii.
Once you have identified your values you can ask yourself- are my behaviors in alignment with my values? I encourage you to ask this question with curiosity and not judgment. At times, we all get out of alignment with our values and this is just an opportunity to realign yourself with what truly feels important to you. Sometimes patients find it is easier to first identify their values, then identify internal and external motivators for change. You can actually work backwards to find a New Years Resolution that truly fits by doing this!
Choose Small Changes
Marketing around January floods the media with insane resolution messages. Most of them promote very quick and drastic changes. Messages such as, “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you” or “No pain, no gain”. Okay, Mickey Goldmill. Behavior change overnight sounds pretty awesome, I’ll give diet culture that. At the same time, remember that habits themselves do not occur overnight either, so we cannot expect change to happen that way.
It almost makes small changes feel irrelevant and not good enough. The reality is that creating an environment that fosters self-confidence through smaller changes over time significantly improves the likelihood of lasting behavior change. Additionally, extreme goals do not account for the other daily priorities and unplanned events like work, family life, illness or other stressors that may arise. For example, if you want your morning to have more structure and would like to wake up everyday at 4:30am, eat breakfast, go to the gym, take the dog for a walk, pack a lunch and make it to work on time, but are currently getting up 10 minutes before you have to leave with none of the above happening, that is quite a jump. Alternatively, setting a goal to wake up 15 minutes earlier and pack you lunch before work is a small step to help you work towards a bigger goal. These little goals help to build a solid foundation of larger lifestyle changes. If you want a resolution that truly sticks, try making it a smaller and very specific behavior change.
Build Your Support System
Building a positive relationship with ourselves and paving the way for our own health can require a lot of unpacking. Establishing a better relationship with food and movement may be doing less movement and creating less rigid structure around food. This time of year can feel triggering and difficult to navigate for anyone recovering from an eating disorder, disordered eating or chronic dieting. Your current goals may look different than those around you and likely different from your own in previous years. It can feel like it challenges your identity and creates a sense of missing out. I promise that honoring your individual path towards health will be the most rewarding challenge you can take. Boundary setting with others may be necessary: “I decided to make my goals focused around my family this year” or “Thanks for offering to join your challenge group. I know I’ve joined in the past but I’m working on goal setting with my dietitian this year”.
It can be helpful to create a solid support system with friends, family, therapist, dietitian and any other practitioners that can support you this upcoming resolution season. Giving yourself permission to set up more frequent check-ins may feel helpful when the world gets really loud.
Goals to Consider
If every year when January 1 rolls around you’ve always considered a new diet or exercise program as your New Year’s Resolution it can be difficult to imagine a health goal that isn’t a specific plan around food or exercise. Here are a few alternative goals you could consider.
Remove the Morality From Food
Viewing behaviors as “good” or “bad” creates a sense of morality to our actions, which is often unhelpful. For example, we may hear people say, “I’m so bad for having this dessert” or “I was good today, I had a salad for lunch.” Last time I checked, food can make you feel good or bad, it can taste good or bad but it does not have a timeout corner.
The more often we can refrain from using words like good, bad, should or shouldn’t, it allows us to become more curious vs judgy. For example, instead of the goal, “I will not eat any sweets come January 1st” ask yourself the following:
- What is my relationship with sweets?
- Am I choosing sweets/desserts more often in place of other foods?
- What desserts do I really like? Which ones could I do without?
- How am I feeling before, during and after eating these foods?
These questions can help you understand your relationship to foods on a deeper level and allow you to connect more to how foods are making you feel physically and emotionally. When we are constantly telling ourselves we should or shouldn’t be eating a food, it tends to color our relationship with that food. If you tell yourself you shouldn’t have cookies, it can make you feel guilty, anxious, and ashamed if/when you do. However, if you think more about the cookies you really enjoy, and recognize that eating too many of them makes you feel fatigued later in the day, it makes it a lot easier to pick only the cookies you are really into at the holiday party and walk away from the others. We tend to build a sense of distrust in ourselves when we only think about what we shouldn’t be doing or how bad we are. We can reframe the above goal of not having any sweets by recognizing what is happening and shifting the language of the goal.
Here is a brief example of a conversation we have with many of our clients:
“I’m noticing that I crave something sweet after dinner and the more I fight that craving, the worse I feel if I give in and have it.” Craving something and honoring it can feel like the opposite of what you “should” be doing, however, is something we find very important to work through. It’s important to first understand the craving- if you are skipping meals, missing food groups, not feeling full/satisfied after meals, not sleeping well and/or have strict rules around eating certain foods, these can all create a desire for a quick energy food, such as a sweet after dinner. Addressing what else may be going on allows you to build a non-judgemental relationship with your cravings and food in general, while we work on nourishing your body appropriately. Pretty cool, right?
Counting Colors vs Calories
Improving your nutrition may be something that feels really important to you and dieting has felt like the only way to do this. It is super normal to feel the pull for a new diet or to “get back on track” after the holidays. The issue is that dieting is still restrictive eating and again has an extremely high failure rate, likely leading to weight regain, slowed metabolism, and increased likelihood of disordered eating or an eating disorder. A helpful re-frame is to take a step back and look at the bigger picture – health. Beginning to focus on abundance or what we can add in vs what to restrict, eliminate or avoid, allows you to improve your nutrition and health without restriction.
For example, based on 2021 data, only about 1 in 10 Americans meet their daily fiber intake. Fibrous foods include whole grains, cereals like oatmeal, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and beans/legumes. Foods with a high fiber content help to lower cardiovascular disease risk, support the gut microbiome, stabilize blood sugar, support longevity and of course help with bowel movement frequency. Unfortunately, the restriction that comes with dieting and ever shifting diet trends we hear more about what to avoid and the more we restrict the more we lose out on things like vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and fiber. The more variety we try to include in our meals, the more likely we are to increase nutrients like fiber, while naturally crowding out other less nutrient dense foods.
So why consider color? Different colors of foods represent various flavors, textures and nutrients like fiber. Each of these different colors also provides a host of phytonutrients which confer health benefits. Not only that, but the more colors we have on our plate the more appealing our food seems. Consider what colors you tend to eat. If you find you have a mostly beige diet, think of a color you may be open to adding in. Try picking a new color to explore every week or two and see what you enjoy. Learning about what each color offers can be a fun way for the whole family to experiment with new foods while supporting everyone’s health.
Discover Enjoyable Movement
Physical activity is known to help reduce anxiety and depression, manage stress, prevent chronic disease and improve overall longevity. Everyone’s relationship to exercise looks different and it is helpful to think about your own life and how you respond to different types of movement. Think about the times you have engaged in movement in a way that feels positive and energy inducing vs out of punishment or obligation.
If we can move away from constantly tracking our steps and calories burned and instead focus on which forms of movement make us feel the best, we are much more likely to make this a part of our routine – and not hate it along the way. Movement can be anything from taking the stairs at work, walking your dog, weight lifting, swimming, biking, HIIT classes, gardening, dancing in the kitchen, playing with your kids or stretching before bed. Expanding our definition of movement allows us to appreciate what we can do each day and minimizes the all-or-nothing mindset. We do not have to kill ourselves in the gym for hours to achieve benefits. 10 minutes of walking is shown to improve cardiovascular risk!
Self-care should be exactly what it sounds like. “The practice of taking an active role in protecting one’s own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress” – per the Oxford Dictionary. Sure, a face mask and massage can make you feel fantastic, but there’s more to self-care than a smooth face and relaxed muscles. Take a minute to think about moments in your life where you feel happy, calm, present or inspired. Focus on supporting these feelings more often. Establishing self-care behaviors such as deep breathing, meditation, social media detoxing, journaling, spending time with family/friends, reading books, attending sessions with your support team or listening to podcasts are various ways to support your well-being.
We know stress is a normal part of life. At the same time, working on stress reduction in certain areas will make a significant difference in our mental and physical health. This includes stress around what we are eating. If we are constantly worried about weight gain and fearing foods, we are living in a continuous state of stress. Working through this with your dietitian offers a beautiful new way of eating.
If you are looking for other goals to consider check out this post by Kelly Ogden, MS, RD, CDN.
At this point, if you still wish to pursue weight loss..
I want you to continue to think about your why and what you want to achieve with that weight loss. Are you hoping for more confidence, increased energy, better labs/conversations at your next physical, improved sleep, better relationships? Make a list. Picture your life being different. Now remind yourself that dieting typically leads to weight gain, not weight loss. This year I encourage you to acknowledge that weight does not equal your health and that increasing health promoting behaviors is what makes us the best versions of ourselves both physically as well as mentally and emotionally. Weight changes may occur alongside behavior modifications based on what your body needs, but ultimately it’s the behaviors you need to control, not the number on the scale. Take a look at what health promoting behaviors you are currently engaging in and where you would like to be. Give yourself permission to step beyond the scale and let’s see how we feel in a year!
Whole-Hearted Eating Podcast with Dana MOnsees and Cristina Hoyt
The Mindful Dietitian with Fiona Sutherland