Healthy eating is the key to controlling weight and lowering your risk of several diseases. Learn how to build healthy eating habits into your daily life.
Do you automatically munch on cookies or other snacks while watching your favorite TV show? Down a soft drink in the afternoon as a pick-me-up? Or maybe you grab take-out food several times a week, although you know it’s not the healthiest fare. If any of these scenarios sound familiar, you aren’t alone.
It’s not hard to get into bad habits when it comes to eating. Afterall, if you lead a busy life with a hectic schedule, it’s easy to choose quick but unhealthy meals and processed food snacks without thinking through the possible impact on your health or your waistline. Sometimes unhealthy eating is a holdover from the way your family ate when you were growing up, too
But here’s good news: You can replace unhealthy food choices with healthy eating habits, and it doesn’t have to be hard or time-consuming. All it takes is getting motivated, making substitutions of healthy food for the unhealthy variety — and sticking with your food changes until they become habits.
Get motivated to adopt healthy eating habits
There’s no better motivation to adopt healthy eating habits than knowing you’ll likely be healthier, long-term. In fact, if you want to reduce the odds of developing a chronic and even life-threatening disease — and who doesn’t — you can go far by consuming foods that build health instead of potentially harming your well-being.
National Institutes of Health (NIH) researchers say there’s evidence what you eat regularly can influence your risk of developing and dying from stroke, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. The scientists found the risk of death was significantly higher in people who ate diets containing a lot of salt-laden food, processed meat and red meat, and sugar-sweetened beverages. What’s more, not eating enough healthy foods — specifically, nuts and seeds, seafood rich in omega-3 fatty acids, fruits, whole grains, vegetables, and healthy fats such as olive oil — also raised the risk of chronic, life-threatening diseases.
The study established a large number of Americans die due to their unhealthy eating habits, according to David Goff, MD, PhD, director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s (NHLBI) cardiovascular division. In fact, according to the NIH-funded analysis, nearly half of the deaths of Americans in 2012 due to stroke, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes were associated with unhealthy eating choices.
However, research has also shown that turning to healthier dietary habits can improve health quickly, Goff added.
Use the “Three Rs” for healthy eating habits
Making sudden, radical changes in how you eat is rarely successful in the long run, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Sure, you can starve yourself or follow a fad diet and drop pounds quickly — but it’s not a healthy approach, and the weight loss almost never lasts.
Instead, try what the CDC calls the Reflect, Replace, and Reinforce approach.
First, take some time to reflect on your eating habits — both the healthy and the unhealthy ones. It helps to keep a food diary for a few days. Write down everything you eat and the time of day.
Note what seems to trigger eating that’s not healthy. Were you feeling tired, or stressed out or depressed? Also, note if there are “cues” that tend to trigger when you eat snacks, sweets, and junk food when you aren’t even hungry — and when you overeat. For example, do you tend to munch on unhealthy foods when you watch tv or are bored? Have you gotten into a habit of always eating a sugar-laden dessert after dinner?
Next, reflect on your eating habits. Ask yourself how you could avoid cues or triggers for unhealthy eating. For example, consider eating fruit after dinner instead of a sweet dessert and bring healthy snacks to work instead of opting for a candy bar and soft drink.
Reinforce your new healthy eating habits by recognizing your progress and noting changes in your health, mood, and self-control.
Healthy eating tips
- Focus on adding healthy foods to your diet, rather than just taking unhealthy foods away. Keep more fruits, low-fat dairy products, vegetables, and whole-grain foods at home, and keep healthy snacks at work.
- Concentrate on relaxing and enjoying healthy, unrushed meals. If possible, eat a meal with your family several days of the week. If you are single, make a point to eat with a friend or invite a single neighbor over for dinner a few times a month.
- Keep water handy — whether plain, carbonated, or naturally flavored (without sugar) — to replace high sugar colas and juice drinks.
- Read labels. Avoid excessive salt, unhealthy added fats, and extra calories. Check how many servings are in a pre-packaged food or meal so you only eat one, and not multiple, servings.
- Pay attention to portion control. Restaurants frequently serve overly large portions that add up to excess calories. Don’t be shy — ask for a box to take half the fare home.
- Check out the well-researched DASH Eating Plan, endorsed by the NHLBI, for the healthiest food choices and meal ideas. Not only can the DASH plan lower blood pressure and help control weight, but it’s a good example of what a healthy diet should contain.
Bottom line: Healthy eating changes take time
Just as bad habits take time to develop, healthy eating habits aren’t automatic, either. So be patient with yourself, the CDC advises, but stay focused on making dietary changes long-term.
If you slip up and reach for an unhealthy snack or meal, stop and ask yourself why are you doing this? Were you bored, anxious? A mistake doesn’t mean you have failed. Don’t beat yourself up, but do resolve to make changes you need to make and commit to building healthy eating habits, one day at a time.
April 09, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN