How to implement healthy habits into your lifestyle and sustain them

I hear it over and over again: “I know what to do, but I’m just not doing it.” You know what foods are ideal and should be incorporated into your regular routine: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, etc. You also know what foods should be minimized or consumed in moderation: baked goods, fried foods, sugar-rich foods, etc. But with this information so readily available, why is it so hard to put these concepts into practice?

There are many factors that can affect your eating habits. These aren’t excuses. They’re real reasons that can make eating healthy a challenge.

Emotions. Patterns and habits shape what you consume and changing your habits isn’t easy. You might have established emotional relationships with food, whether it’s using food for comfort or stress management, growing up in the “clean plate club,” where you were required to eat all the food on your plate regardless of hunger cues, or using food for celebrations.

Food plays a role in your emotional state. Specific foods increase happy hormones, dopamine and serotonin, which triggers your brain to associate food as a reward. This can result in you becoming dependent on food when you feel any type of negative emotion such as anxiety, depression, or stress. You start to “need” to eat that food to feel better and offset the negative emotion.

Environment. Living in a certain area can mean having minimal access to healthy options, and the low cost of cheap but unhealthy food might make it the only option despite that food possibly being higher in additives, fat, sodium, and sugars.

Environmental factors also include location of food. If a tempting meal is nearby or easy to get, it’s only a matter of time before you eat it. You might sometimes feel disappointed by your lack of willpower in avoiding unhealthy food, but no one has enough willpower to stay away from it forever. The most successful people are the ones who keep trigger foods or highly tempting foods away, so they’re less likely to consume them. All these environmental factors can make eating healthy a challenge, especially when optimal food choices aren’t easily accessible.

Physical. Physical factors include actual feelings of physical hunger. When you’re physically hungry, your body craves instant energy, which generally results in a desire to eat a carbohydrate-rich food made of simple sugars. Your body easily processes carbs, which leads your body to craving them when you’re hungry. For this reason, if you don’t eat consistently and skip or delay meals, you’ll tend to get sugar cravings. Once you eat the sugar, your body craves more sugar, which results in a downward spiral for your physical and mental health due to feelings of guilt and lack of control.

Another physical factor includes genetics. There are certain genes that affect eating preferences and behaviors and the way your brain is influenced by particular receptor genes. These factors contribute to the way the foods you eat affect you, which also affects how easy or difficult it can be to make changes in your eating habits.

Emotions, environment, and physical bodies can affect your food choices, habits, and patterns. So what can you do about it? Here are some realistic tips to make sustainable steps toward positive changes.

Eat Fruits and Vegetables

Why it’s important. Fruits and vegetables provide incredible sources of antioxidants, minerals, nutrients, phytochemicals, and vitamins essential for health. Diets high in fruits and vegetables can reduce the risk of many chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and more. Fruits and vegetables are also packed with fiber, which is filling and helps maintain a healthy gut.

Focus on the Colors of the Rainbow

Different-colored foods provide different antioxidants, nutrients, and benefits. For example, red fruits and vegetables (red bell peppers, strawberries, tomatoes, and watermelon) improve heart health and memory. Orange and yellow fruits and vegetables (carrots, oranges, pineapple, and yellow squash) improve eyesight and support your immune system. Green fruits and vegetables (honeydew, kale, kiwi, and spinach) assist with strong bones and teeth. Blue and purple fruits and vegetables (blueberries, eggplant, purple cabbage, and purple grapes) improve memory and reduce inflammation.

Quick tip. Eat at least one color of fruit and vegetable each day. For example, eat something red on Monday, something orange on Tuesday, something yellow on Wednesday, something green on Thursday, and something blue or purple on Friday. This way, you eat all the colors over the course of the week in order to get a variety of nutrients in. If you eat more than one color in a day, more power to you.

Fill Up Half Your Plate With Vegetables

Vegetables are low in calories and high in nutrients and fiber, meaning they’ll fill you up guilt-free. Whether you buy canned, fresh, or frozen, all vegetables are good. Putting more veggies on your plate can also reduce the portion sizes of other foods because there’s less space for them.

Quick tip. Batch cook a big portion of vegetables on the weekend, so you have easy access to them throughout the week.

Include Fruits and Vegetables at Each Meal

Focus on having at least one serving of fruits or vegetables at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Quick tip. Make a smoothie that includes fruits or vegetables. Have a soup packed with vegetables. Add veggies such as cucumbers, lettuce, onions, peppers, spinach, sprouts, or tomatoes to a sandwich. Include a side salad with a meal. Add veggies to an omelet. Try a veggie-based recipe swap such as cauliflower rice or zucchini noodles. Make a stir-fry including lots of vegetables. Add diced carrots, mushrooms, and onions to a meatloaf.

Optimize Snacks

Have healthy snacks readily available. Easy-to-access healthy snacks will set you up for success and prevent temptations from other undesirable food options. Healthy snacks will also keep you fueled and satiated to reduce cravings. When a good snack is present, people are more likely to choose that option.

Quick tip. Spend about 10 minutes a week to plan and prep healthy snack options that include fruits and vegetables. Delicious snack examples are fruit paired with cheese, nuts, or yogurt; vegetables paired with dips such as hummus; fruit kabobs with fruit and cheese; fruit with nut butters; or the tasty snack of celery, nut butter, and raisins.

Increase Fiber Intake

Why it’s important. Fiber-rich foods provide satiety and many health benefits. Higher fiber intake reduces the risk of chronic diseases, such as many cancers, diabetes, heart disease, and more. Foods high in fiber tend to be lower on the glycemic index, which results in better blood sugar regulation. Because fiber fills us up, it can also help with weight management. Furthermore, fiber optimizes gut health and aids in digestion and bowel movements.

Quick tip. Add more fruits and vegetables into your routine using the tips from above. Consider substituting brown rice for white rice or doing a combination of the two. Add extra fiber into your salad by including bulgur wheat, edamame, garbanzo beans, or kidney beans. Add artichokes to your pasta or pizza. Enjoy oatmeal with blueberries and chia seeds for breakfast. See sidebar for foods rich in fiber.

Reduce Intake of Sugar and Sweets

Why it’s important. Diets high in sugar can contribute to decreased oral health, elevated triglycerides, increased inflammation, increased risk of chronic diseases such as cancer and diabetes, and weight gain. Sugar is empty calories, meaning it has minimal to no nutrients. Sugar doesn’t fill you up and it causes spikes and crashes in your energy levels. Sugar can also contribute to headaches. For all of these reasons, sugar isn’t good to eat in high quantities. Here’s how to reduce your intake.

Stay Fueled

When you’re hungry, you tend to go for the sugary treats that provide instant energy. Sugar cravings are generally highest between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.

Quick tip. To better control your hunger, have a healthy afternoon snack already prepared, so there’s less temptation to eat a sugary snack. Refer to the fruits and vegetables section for snack ideas. If you notice yourself getting hungry around 3:30 p.m., have a snack around 3 p.m. to reduce sugar cravings and control hunger levels.

Plan Sugar Into Your Routine

All-or-nothing thoughts are very common, and restriction can result in bingeing and exacerbate feelings of guilt, which can also result in eating more sugar. Find the gray area when it comes to sugar.

Quick tip. Allow yourself a dessert once or twice a week in a social event. This way, you enjoy the sugar without the guilt and can participate in social activities. Give yourself permission to eat some sugar throughout the week. Have a small, portion-controlled sweet such as a small square of chocolate or a mini-ice cream bar a few times a week. Having an allocated amount and quantity can help incorporate the moderation and balance of sugar without the feelings of guilt and the binge factor.

Find Rewards Not Related to Food

Stress contributes to sugar cravings and sugar intake. When you’re stressed, your cortisol (stress hormone) level increases, and your dopamine (happy hormone) level decreases. Sugar increases dopamine levels, and your body wants to feel better when experiencing high amounts of stress. In addition, the faster you feed yourself sugar, the more the brain associates it as a reward and coping tool for when you’re stressed. Therefore, you’ll tend to crave sugar when stressed out or during the need to relax after a long, hard day.

Quick tip. To combat sugar cravings during high-stress times, determine non-food-related rewards that will boost those happy hormones and provide stress relief. This isn’t easy and takes a lot of practice and time. Some alternative rewards can be deep breathing; doing arts and crafts such as drawing or knitting; doing some type of self-pampering such as getting a facial, massage, manicure, or pedicure; exercising and movement; going for a swim or walk; meditating; planning a trip or adventure; playing music; reading; shopping online; taking a warm bath; or watching a special show or movie. Basically, do something that makes you feel good.

A Final Thought

Feeling overwhelmed with all these options? Make small, realistic steps toward reaching your goals. Pick just one or two tips to implement. Make these changes over the course of three to four weeks to encourage the routine. Once the routine seems to become more habitual, pick another tip to implement. Slowly, you’ll notice how you’re developing strong, sustainable strategies and habits for better eating.