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Eating healthier is always a top New Year’s resolution, but after a year of quarantine baking and stress eating, it may be an even more common goal in 2021. In a recent nationally representative CR survey of 2,670 American adults, nearly 1 in 5 said they’re eating less healthfully than they were a year ago. And of those, 54 percent said their diets are worse now than they were earlier in the pandemic.
Despite starting out being inspired to change, past experience indicates that for many people, resolutions fail before spring. A recent study suggests that the difference between abandoning and achieving your goals may lie in the way you phrase them.
“We found that people who set ‘approach’ goals were significantly more successful than those who set ‘avoidance’ goals,” says the study’s author, Per Carlbring, a psychology professor at Stockholm University.
Think of it as opting for positive vs. negative reinforcement, for instance saying, “I will start to” instead of “I will quit or avoid.” In this study, published in the journal PLOS One, 59 percent of those who set approach goals achieved them vs. 47 percent of those who set avoidance goals.
“When you set a positive goal, you’re rewarded for doing something good rather than feeling resentment about missing out on something,” says David Creel, PhD, a psychologist at the Bariatric & Metabolic Institute at the Cleveland Clinic.
We’ve come up with four “approach” healthy eating goals that nearly everyone can benefit from and realistically work toward in 2021.
1. I Will Cook With Fresh, Whole Foods Whenever Possible
For some people, 2020 was a year of cooking from scratch because of extra time at home and limited options for eating out. But for many others, it was a year of juggling work and school from home, then grabbing a frozen pizza or other prepackaged food and calling it dinner.
“The problem with most packaged and prepared foods is that they are loaded with sodium, added sugars, and fats,” says Su-Nui Escobar, RDN, a professor of nutrition at Nova Southwestern University College of Osteopathic Medicine and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
The trick to achieving this goal is to find ways to make fresh, whole foods easier and less intimidating to prepare. One way is to plan ahead. Make a list of meals and then make a shopping list so you can be sure to have everything you need.
Another tip: If you don’t buy the packaged foods, defaulting to them won’t be an option. “It’s easier to act on good intentions in the absence of temptation,” says Traci Mann, PhD, a professor of social and health psychology at the University of Minnesota.
It also helps to prep what you can ahead of time, such as chopping veggies or cooking extra chicken that can be used in more than one meal. And it’s okay to make healthy cooking as convenient as possible by using packaged foods that aren’t overly processed. “Have things like canned beans and frozen vegetables on hand, and you’ll be able to put together a healthy meal in a hurry,” Creel says.
2. I Will Start Eating More Plant-Based Foods
Eating a predominantly plant-based diet—one that’s rich in fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains, and low in meat and other animal foods—is undoubtedly a healthy choice. Research has shown that eating this way helps reduce chronic inflammation, a condition linked to an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s.
You can start working toward this goal by making small swaps, such as replacing half the meat in your chili recipe with extra beans, or building tacos on a foundation of baked tofu instead of chicken. The more plant foods you sub in, the more disease-preventing fiber, antioxidants, and phytonutrients you’ll get in every meal.
3. I Will Focus on My Food When I’m Eating
Snacking without thinking about what or how much you’re eating can easily lead to weight gain. “But just telling yourself to be more mindful might be too vague,” Mann says. “The more specific your goal is, the more likely you’ll achieve it.”
To that end, she suggests having a detailed plan. If you tend to snack mindlessly while you work, don’t keep any snacks in your work area. “Go to the kitchen, prepare a snack and eat it at the table before returning to your desk,” she says.
The same goes for mindless snacking in front of the television. Pause what you’re watching and go have a snack instead of taking the entire bag of chips, pint of ice cream, or box of cookies to the couch.
4. I Will Trade One Sugary Snack or Drink a Day for Something Without Added Sugars
Americans consume an average of 77 grams of added sugars a day—about 18 teaspoons—which is far beyond the recommended 9 teaspoons (36 grams) for men and 6 teaspoons (25 grams) for women. “Sugar is full of empty calories that contribute to weight gain without adding any nutrition to your diet,” Escobar says. “But I believe in a diet of inclusion, so instead of trying to eliminate sugar, eat it when it’s part of something pleasurable that you really love.”
To succeed at this replacement goal, don’t try to banish your favorite sweet treat. “Look for things that aren’t a big deal to you and that you’re willing to give up,” Creel says. “Then have a strategy so you know ahead of time what you’ll have instead.”
You can also make painless cuts in your intake of added sugars with some simple swaps.
For instance, instead of a sugary strawberry yogurt, have plain yogurt topped with fresh or frozen strawberries.
If you usually take two sugars in your morning coffee, try stepping down gradually. Start with 1½ teaspoons, then cut back by half a teaspoon a week to let your taste buds adjust. See how low you can go.
Check the amount of added sugars on the nutrition facts label of packaged foods. Sugars can show up in unexpected places, such as in jarred pasta sauces, canned soups, and condiments. Even though they may contain just a few grams per serving, when you’re aiming for no more than 25 or 36 grams per day, a few grams here and there add up quickly.
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