As a nutritional therapist I see clients with a variety of conditions and symptoms. Rather than focus solely on their goals, I turn the attention to the achievement of a sustainable healthy lifestyle. To do this it’s all about creating and achieving lasting healthy habits and in this article I’ll show you how to achieve these healthy habits for yourself..
For example at this time of year (January) so many people are thinking about weight loss without any consideration for how to achieve it and more importantly how to maintain it. In this article, I provide you with some simple tips to help set you on the path towards achieving lasting healthy habits.
If you only focus on the end goal it can lead to a very negative and critical mind set. If your behaviour and action deviates from the goal it can make you unhappy and can seem like failure. When this happens, the inner voice tells you to just give up. By creating healthy habits you will move positively towards your goal.
I’ve been in the profession for fifteen years: ten years in practice and five years training. By placing the emphasis on healthy eating habits it completely changed the way I think. I don’t think about dieting, I don’t weigh myself. I don’t worry if one day I am out and having some cake or I’ve eaten a lot of chocolate over Christmas. I don’t worry because I know that I can just pick up and restart those healthy habits that are ingrained in me.
So how can you implement and achieve lasting healthy habits?
First of all give your attention to an action you can take and always start with one thing at a time. For example, if you drink a lot of tea and coffee you may focus week one on reducing tea and coffee by two cups a day. The following week reduce by two more cups. Do this in a gradual but really focused way, on the one thing and the one action that you’re going to take.
If you work in an office and there are always biscuits around, the conventional habit might be to eat a couple of biscuits with your coffee. It is an ingrained habit but you can convert it to a healthier habit. Rather than sit there and feel deprived by eating nothing, you might eat a couple of oat cakes instead. It’s got the texture of a biscuit but it’s full of fibre and low in sugar.
This leads me to the achievement of small, incremental changes.
Sir David Brailsford (former performance director for the British cycling team) talked about small, incremental changes. If you can improve things 1% in one area and 1% in another area and 1% in another area, incrementally they will all lead up to quite substantial changes (as we know from the results of the British Cycling team) . From a health point of view, start with something small like reducing coffee intake, then move onto something else, making small changes as you go. All those small changes help move you towards your end health goal rather than placing the emphasis just on the goal.
Don’t set the bar too high because this too can lead to a feeling of failure. If you decide to just stop coffee altogether, you’ll spend all day wanting that cup of coffee. You’ll probably crave it and most likely it will make you miserable. You won’t be able to focus on anything else.
Attractive and Convenient
Is your habit attractive to you? If it is you will be more motivated to achieve it and stick with it. If it seems attractive to increase your vegetable intake so that you’re eating a variety of vegetables with every evening meal, then this is a good first step to take. If you struggle to enjoy most vegetables currently but do enjoy peas and carrots, then make this your initial focus. But do it consistently. However, if you find that one day you haven’t followed your new habit, don’t worry. You’re more likely to get back to it the day after as your motivation will help you.
Make this new habit easy and convenient. If you’re pushed for time in the evening, don’t kid yourself that you’re going to start preparing complex and time consuming meals, no matter how healthy they may seem. It’s all well and good wanting to convert to eating brown rice rather than white pasta, but as it takes 30 minutes to cook there will be many occasions when you won’t have the time or energy. However quinoa is as quick to cook as pasta. Plus it’s nutritious, protein rich and low in starchy carbohydrates. This simple switch is achievable and this new easy habit can therefore be sustained.
Clients may ask me to write a meal plan for them but I tend not to for very important reasons. What may be appealing, attractive and easy to implement for me will not be for them. Instead I focus on meal options (and lifestyle advice) personal to their likes, dislikes and lifestyle so that they leave the consultation motivated. They know the advice is achievable which is essential if they are to stick with it.
The next essential element to achieving lasting sustainable habits is about having patience. You need to accept that you’re human and accept that you might go off plan. Don’t worry about it as you can come back to the healthy habit the next day. Have patience with yourself to make the changes. “Repeat, repeat, repeat!” That’s how to set and ingrain a new habit. You’ve got to keep repeating it. It doesn’t matter if you go off plan one day as you will come back to it the next day. Just focus on that one thing and keep repeating it.
It’s well researched that when introducing a new food to a child, the taste has to be tried about ten times before it is accepted. We should apply the same approach as adults. There are so many vegetables out there to try that are rarely eaten. Go be adventurous! Buy a new vegetable, add a little to your plate alongside your usual vegetables and keep repeating this daily. New habits are learned and reinforced over time.
Another approach is to add your new habit to something you already do. For example, I try to encourage my clients to have healthy lunches. If they work in an office I might encourage them to make a salad or something nutritious for work the night before. Understandably I’m often told there isn’t time to do this in the morning. I may suggest that whilst the evening meal is being prepared and cooked it’s possible to prepare a salad for work the next day. This can be popped in the fridge and ready to go the next morning. There is a greater chance of the new habit succeeding by attaching it to an existing habit.
Who has heard of journaling? It’s a fairly new concept which I try to do most nights before going to bed. Journaling is a really good way to reflect on your day and think about your successes. Write down what you’ve achieved that day. Any small actions that are moving you towards your new habit. Give yourself a pat on the back. When you start writing down your achievements it helps to reinforce them in your mind. Don’t focus on the things you haven’t done, just focus on the positive things. Accept that the creation of your habit will not be a linear straight line. It’s going to be a curvy journey but generally the trajectory is likely be in the right direction.
Reflect on your journal weekly because you’ll be surprised when you start doing this how many successes and good things have happened. Journaling can be a very positive activity.
Four Stages to Competence
I really hope you read this final section as it should make a lot of sense to you in so many areas of your life. There are fours stages of competence when learning a new skill and I feel this applies perfectly to forming new habits too.
When implementing a habit we start off being unconsciously incompetent. We may be following an unhealthy habit without even being conscious about it. As we start to think about these existing habits we become consciously incompetent. We know we are following a habit that is not healthy and start to take steps to correct it. We then move into the development stage of trying to change that habit and at that point we become consciously competent. It’s in our mind all the times as we’re really focused on changing this unhealthy habit and implementing a healthy one. Finally over time we become unconsciously competent because we don’t even think about the healthy habit and it then becomes an ingrained behaviour.
A habit is “A routine of behaviour repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously”. When we apply these principles to our eating behaviours we move the focus from short-term goals that are generally short-lived towards a sustained healthy lifestyle.