The New Year is right around the corner, and if you are looking to makeover your diet there are some simple suggestions to help you eat healthier in 2020. I’m not talking about a major food overhaul, but month-by-month “mini-resolutions” that will give you a complete nutritional upgrade by next December.
You can introduce these small goals with each new month, however the order you tackle them depends on your individual needs. For example, you may find that it makes sense to start the New Year by avoiding triggers and seeking support – and then add the other diet suggestions in the order you wish.
I’d recommend putting each mini-resolution in your calendar at the beginning of each month so you have a reminder of each goal you’ve committed to.
1. Prioritize protein
This is my number one nutritional tip for overall health and weight management. Protein is a key building block for skin, hair, nails and bones, and it also helps preserve muscle mass as we age, which helps keep metabolism running at full speed. Consuming a meal with protein makes us feel fuller and can help us consume fewer calories overall than a meal that consists only of carbohydrates and fat.
To boost your protein intake, aim to include at least 3 ounces (a deck of card’s worth) of fish, poultry or lean meat with each meal, or at least a ½ cup of beans or lentils. For breakfast, consider egg whites, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt or peanut butter on whole wheat toast.
2. Eat more plants
Plant-based diets can help reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and obesity. But if you haven’t been able to dive into a full meat makeover, don’t worry. Start by simply “plantifying” your favorite dishes, suggests Sharon Palmer, a registered dietitian and author of “Plant-Powered for Life.”
For example, replace meat with beans when making tacos; swap meat for veggies in lasagna and other pasta recipes, or consider chickpeas in place of chicken in salads and dishes, like a “chickpea” masala dish instead of chicken masala. I enjoy making sesame cauliflower bites, which are a tasty and healthy alternative to chicken wings.
3. Start a meal with soup or salad
Enjoying a cup of soup before a meal is one of the few occasions where adding an appetizer fills you up and helps you consume fewer calories for the entire meal, according to research. Just be sure that you opt for broth-based soups instead of those made with cream, which boost unhealthy saturated fat and calories.
Salads offer similar satiety benefits and are loaded with beneficial plant nutrients. Just don’t overdo it with dressing, nuts or fried meats. In terms of calories and fat, these high-calorie extras can make a salad look more like a burger and fries.
4. Focus on fiber
Aside from protein, fiber is another nutritional winner. It’s packed in nutrient-rich foods, like fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes, and it gives you a feeling of fullness without contributing any calories. A quick and easy way to boost your fiber intake is to incorporate two fruits and vegetables into your day as snacks. For other fiber-boosting strategies, try sprinkling fiber-rich chia seeds or Fiber One on top of your favorite cereal or yogurt; opt for Wasa crackers or whole wheat bread instead of white bread; and bake with white whole wheat flour. My chocolate strawberry chia seed pudding parfait boasts a whopping 16 ½ grams of fiber.
5. Stay hydrated
Drinking water and staying adequately hydrated can help to stave off hunger and prevent symptoms of dehydration, including fatigue and dizziness. While there’s no definitive evidence that eight glasses of water each day is a “magic” number to aim for (and water-rich fruits and veggies, along with tea, coffee and milk, all count toward fluid needs), it’s certainly a reasonable goal.
Try filling up a large water bottle each day to carry along with you, and consider making your own naturally flavored water pitcher at home with lemon, orange or cucumber slices. If you need a reminder to drink, consider the Water Minder app, which helps you track your water intake, or even a light-up water bottle that will “glow” when you need to up your ounces.
6. Experiment with new recipes
One of the best ways to combat food boredom is to try new recipes, which can offer fun and creative ways to boost the nutritional value of your diet. Check out new cookbooks, cooking magazines, food sections in newspapers, social media pics or the internet for inspiration.
If you are looking for a new way to enjoy spaghetti squash for example, you can simply Google it! For some innovative vegetarian ideas, check out my king oyster mushroom scallops or my carrot “bacon” wrapped dates.
7. Slash sugars
A diet high in added sugars can spell trouble for your waistline and health. Because of this, the American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than six teaspoons of added sugars each day, or about 100 calories. Similarly, men should aim to keep their added sugar intake to less than nine teaspoons a day, or about 150 calories.
On average Americans consume about 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day, which amounts to an extra 350 calories!
To easily slash sugars from your diet, cut out all sugar-sweetened beverages, including soft drinks and fruit drinks, as well as candy, cookies, sweetened breakfast cereals and dairy foods with added sugars. And beware of hidden sugars in foods like condiments, salad dressings, tomato sauce and breads.
8. Try intermittent fasting
When it was first introduced, it may have seemed strange, but more and more research is revealing the health benefits of intermittent fasting.
According to experts, a critical aspect of fasting – which is different from simply restricting calories – is that the body undergoes a metabolic switch from using glucose to using ketones as fuel, a result of the depletion of liver energy stores and the mobilization of fat.
I’m personally not a fan of strict fasting regimens, but I do see the value in limiting the amount of time spent eating during the course of a day, as it can eliminate problems like mindless nibbling and possibly improve health. If you want to experiment with fasting, I’d recommend a time-restricted feeding approach, where you consume all of your calories within a range of three to 12 hours a day, depending on what you can handle.
9. Keep a food journal
Writing down what you eat or taking pictures of your meals and snacks is one of the best strategies to help you stick to a healthy diet, particularly during nights out, travel and other times when your eating environment is not the usual. It keeps you conscious of every bite that goes into your mouth and can help you make better food decisions.
Planning meals and snacks in a food journal before you eat can help to ensure that your day is filled with nutrient-rich foods, and it can also help you budget for sweet treats, fried foods and alcohol. If writing in a notebook is inconvenient, consider an app like Lose it! or MyFitnessPal.
10. Be more mindful when eating
That means turning off our phones, iPads, TVs and other screens that prevent us from being fully present during meals. Cutting out these distractions helps us tune into our appetite, while fully experiencing the flavor and texture of foods. It also helps us avoid eating impulsively, which can lead to poor food choices.
Being more mindful during meals can also help us pay attention to our internal hunger and fullness cues, which can help inform us of when we’ve had enough to eat.
11. Avoid food triggers
It can be difficult to resist tempting foods and desserts that can derail you from achieving your health goals when they’re staring you in the face. Because of this reality, I live by a simple strategy: “Out of sight, out of mind.”
You can make it easier to stick to your goals by simply avoiding your triggers. This can mean not purchasing tempting foods at the supermarket; walking home on a path that avoids passing your favorite fast food joint or ice cream shop; or avoiding restaurants where you are tempted to overdo it.
12. Seek support
One of the most important aspects of achieving a healthier diet is having a circle of friends or family members who support your goals. Even just one person to share your experiences with can be helpful. If you find you need more support or professional guidance with following a specific nutrition plan, I recommend meeting with a registered dietitian nutritionist. You can find one in your area on the website for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Lisa Drayer is a nutritionist, an author and a CNN health and nutrition contributor.