Let’s face it: change is difficult. And this is especially true when it comes to changing our behavior. There are lots of reasons why we do many things that don’t contribute to our health. Perhaps they help us deal with stress. Or maybe they’re ingrained habits. It’s possible that we may not even realize the big impact of small routines that are done day after day.
With any holiday season, festive social gatherings can lead to the enjoyment of more food, drinks, and desserts than usual. These, coupled with the onset of a new year, contribute to the culture of making diet-focused New Year’s resolutions a common tradition. And the breaking of these resolutions within a few weeks is a tradition almost as common as making those goals in the first place.
Before we begin, know that there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to improve nutrition, fitness, and health right after the holidays. This is referred to as the “fresh-start effect” where goals center around a time-related milestone—like the start of a new year. I encourage and celebrate health goals at any time of year. But, let me share with you some tips to help you see more success and well-being than the typical New Year’s resolutions.
Why We Should Rethink Diet-Focused New Year’s Resolutions
Research shows that most people who make New Year’s resolutions give up on them before the end of January. It’s not the fault of the person who gives up. Resolutions are often too ambitious, inflexible, framed negatively, and are attempted without support. These are just a few of the reasons they’re difficult to stick with.
I want to propose a different way of making health goals. A way that is more achievable, sustainable, and can more easily become lifelong regular habits.
Fun fact: Out of all of the personal goals that people make New Year’s resolutions about, two out of every three revolve around eating habits, physical health, and weight loss .
There are a few things to think about when considering diet-focused New Year’s resolutions.
Firstly, there is no physiological reason to wait for a specific date to take a step toward better health. You can start eating slower, choosing a fruit or vegetable, and stopping eating when you’re full at your very next meal. You can decide to implement your “fresh start” goal right here and now.
Second, the motivation behind many diet-focused goals may have unhealthy origins. Rather than coming from a place of love, empowerment, and future health, there are many not-so-healthy reasons some people make diet-focused New Year’s resolutions:
- Because others around them (or online) are doing so
- Feeling guilty about the current health status
- As a “free pass” to overindulge during the holidays
Third, diet-focused goals are often unrealistic and unattainable. This means that the problem is the goal itself, not the person. These goals can lead to disappointment, shame, more guilt, and possibly even worse health habits and outcomes. Some experts believe there may be a link between certain diet-focused New Year’s goals and worsened well-being. Plus, unrealistic health goals may spark or contribute to frequent dieting.
A Better Way to Set Health Goals
Making smaller, more sustainable changes can lead to more success. Studies show that certain types of goals are also more likely to contribute to—and not take away from—a sense of well-being. Here are some research-backed strategies to help you make better health goals at any time of the year.
Have More Flexible Goals
A 2021 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that over the course of time, people with New Year’s resolutions that are flexible report greater well-being than those who are less flexible around their goals.
What makes a goal flexible? Researchers define goal flexibility as, “the ability to view setbacks with equanimity and adjust goal pursuit as required.”
This positive impact of having more flexible goals may be because when reaching a goal becomes difficult, adjusting the goal itself may help to maintain a sense of well-being. The ability to respond to challenges and opportunities helps us “to feel more autonomous in relation to the self and the future,” said the study authors.
Have More Flexibility in the Way Goals Can Be Reached
That same 2021 study also looked at the outcome of “goal tenacity,” which is being more persistent when obstacles to reaching goals appear. Perhaps surprisingly, goal tenacity does not help people reach their goals. In fact, the rigidity in how goals are reached was harmful to some because it chipped away at their sense of well-being.
Why are there negative effects of too much goal tenacity? First of all, being more rigid and persistent in how goals are reached can make reaching the goal more difficult because of the inability to adjust and adapt. Tenacity can also lead to an “all-or-nothing” approach where when progress is not felt, some goal-setters abandon the goal altogether, rather than adjust the actions needed to reach the goal. Also, being inflexible in the process of achieving goals is linked to perfectionism, depression, and anxiety.
Set goals around the positive outcomes you’d like to achieve (rather than the negative outcomes you want to avoid)
A 2020 study published in the journal PLoS One found that “participants with approach-oriented goals were significantly more successful than those with avoidance-oriented goals”. An approach-oriented goal is one where your goal is to achieve a positive result. For example, a goal of getting fitter and stronger is a positive, approach-oriented goal that is more likely to be achieved, rather than an avoidance-oriented goal such as to not getting diabetes.
That same 2020 study found that people who had some social support were more likely to reach their goal than those who tried to go at it alone. Having someone, like a friend or family member, to help keep you accountable can have positive effects when it comes to reaching goals.
Examples of Better Health Goals
Here are a few examples of small, flexible health goals that can become sustainable over the long term. Whatever goals you choose to make, set them from a place of self-love.
Snack Smarter (On Most Days)
Small snacks can add up to a big impact over time. Instead of pre-packaged, processed snacks, commit to eating fruit and nuts as snacks three or four times per week. There is overwhelming evidence of the healthful effects of eating fruits and nuts, and most people don’t eat nearly enough.
Choose Water (A Couple of Times a Day)
Water is a great way to hydrate while reducing the amount of sugar (and empty calories) that come from sugary drinks. Being hydrated with less sugar is a win-win for your health.
Some of my favorite ways to enhance the flavor of my water (so I drink more) is to add a slice of lemon and 2 slices of cucumber to my glass or water bottle. I also like to sip on a champagne glass of sparkling water with a Tbsp of peach of elderberry infused vinegar. It’s a refreshing and healthier replacement for an evening cocktail or glass of wine. These are a couple of the many healthy eating tips and meal planning strategies you will learn in my Nourish to Flourish program. Click here to learn more.
Practice Eating More Mindfully (At Least Once a Day)
Beyond what you choose to eat and drink, is how you eat and drink. By slowing down and savoring the aromas, tastes, and textures of food, you can enjoy food even more. Try having your meals at a table (not a desk or in the car), ignoring all devices and screens while eating, chewing the food well, and putting the spoon or fork down to relax a bit between bites. Mindful eating may also help to realize when we’re satisfied with food, preventing unnecessary overindulgence.
Mindful Eating is one of the keys to a healthier you using my VITAL 5-Pillar Approach featured in all my personalized nutrition and wellness programs. Click here to learn about the VITAL 5-Pillar Approach.
Listen to Your Body and Be Kind to Yourself
Part of health and well-being is how you treat yourself and your body. Setting and reaching health goals does not guarantee happiness, nor make you more worthy of love and kindness than you are right now. You are enough and deserve respect. Make self-love, self-care, and kindness—regardless of challenges or discouragement—goals too.
You are the person who is most able to feel gratitude and appreciate yourself every day of the year—whether you reach other goals or not. Don’t be too hard on yourself. You haven’t failed and you don’t have to give up. Keep listening to your body and being kind, no matter what.
How we choose our health goals can make a big difference in how long we’ll stick with them, how they impact our well-being, and how much success we see. It is very common to unknowingly set lofty goals, and it is not your fault. You can learn how to set SMART goals from a dietitian nutritionist like me. SMART goals will help you be much more successful in reaching your goals.
Watch this video clip where I’m giving a talk on goal setting for the new year.
Remember not to be too hard on yourself when challenges arise, because they will. Allowing yourself some flexibility in how you set and reach your goals, opting for positive goals, and enlisting support can help you improve your health and maintain well-being throughout the year.
These can also help you stick to your new healthy lifestyle for longer and be more sustainable so that you are better positioned to achieve those goals.
Remember, attainable goals for healthier lifestyle habits can be made any day of the year, including today.
Do you need help setting yourself up for success when it comes to health or diet-focused goals? As a registered dietitian/nutritionist, I’d love to help. Want support to make more attainable and sustainable health goals? Book a Discovery Call with me today to see if my services can help you.