Starting a diet is a January ritual and I’m here to tell you to do something different:
Don’t “go on a diet”. Just make healthful choices. Permanently, most of the time.
This is what I do. Permanently. Most of the time. It works.
The term “diet” is loaded with negativity. First the word diet implies that you’re following a temporary eating plan. You’ll go back to your previous eating habits once you’re “cured” or you lose weight. You know, the eating habits that got you into trouble in the first place. This is the wrong approach to healthy eating and weight control. Second, “diet” implies food prohibitions, based on the idea that some foods are bad or forbidden. So right away you crave the food you’re told to give up. Third, most of the regimens described as “diets” are weirdly restrictive, emphasizing all of one type of food, complete avoidance of other foods. No one can stick to these diets for long. The dieter feels like a failure, when the real culprit was the silly diet.
Despite my nutrition credentials, I like to identify a few food-related behaviors to re-emphasize every year. January is a good time to make a list of those things.
- More Protein. Older adults need more protein to fight muscle loss (sarcopenia) and maintain fitness. We don’t need massive amounts, but we do need enough. This topic always brings out the dismissive comments from other nutrition professionals: “Oh everyone gets enough protein. It’s easy, nothing to worry about.” Unfortunately, as we get older and eat less food, it’s easy to fall short on protein. I have to remind myself about this all the time and make a deliberate effort to include small or modest amounts of high protein foods in meals.
- Keep up with water/hydration. You might pay attention to water if you’re exercising, or if the weather is very hot, but you need to keep up with fluid intake every day all year long. I’ve recently heard of acquaintances getting into medical problems caused by simple dehydration. One way to make this more obvious and may fun is to find a nice big water bottle or pitcher or some other container, fill it with water in the morning and leave it out on a counter as a reminder to drink water throughout the day.
- I can’t live on bread alone. The proverb “you can’t live on bread alone” references a Biblical saying that isn’t actually about food intake. But in my case, it is. I could easily eat nothing but bread — home made, sourdough or yeast, store-bought artisanal, whole grain — so I have to consciously rein it in and diversify: “Stop with the bread! Have a piece of cheese (protein!).” Most of us have these sort of conversations with ourselves about food choices. Mine are frequently based on nutrient intakes.
- There’s always room for small portions of yummy treats. One bite of chocolate, a 1/4 cup scoop of quality ice cream, a lovely modest size cookie, a small piece of wonderful birthday cake or Thanksgiving pie.
- Exercise. Physical activity. Something daily. Mix it up. Unfortunately, the image of exercise presented by the media is that exercise is for thin, muscular and well-dressed 30-year-olds using expensive equipment. I don’t buy into that unproductive belief system, but it concerns me that plenty of people use it as an excuse to do nothing. If anything, as we age, we need to pay more attention to daily physical activity.
That’s it. Pretty simple. You might have other ideas to improve your food choices, such as more vegetables, fewer sugary treats, smaller portions or more meals prepared at home. All good ideas. Remember, improving healthy choices is a process, not something that happens overnight. Eventually the healthy choices become the norm, which makes healthy eating much easier.