5 nutrition goals that are better than weight loss
These tricks are more sustainable than restricting food—and healthier, too.
For many people, ushering in a new year means ushering in a new diet. One study found that 20% of participants resolved to shed pounds beginning January 1, making weight loss the second most common category of resolutions after physical health. But study after study has found that diets don’t work long-term—the vast majority of people eventually gain back the weight they lose, if not even more—and that lower body weight isn’t a reliable indicator of better health anyway.
Trying to change your diet in the name of losing weight is, generally speaking, misguided at best, and can do your mind and body real harm. But that doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from eating differently.
If, come New Years, you’re not feeling physically well or your relationship with food feels off, it’s not a bad idea to change the way you eat, says Blair Burnette, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at the University of Minnesota. Maybe you’re uncomfortably bloated or feeling low on energy. Maybe you notice yourself getting take-out more often than you’d like, or eating whenever you’re bored and sad. It’s possible to improve your physical and mental health by being more mindful about what you eat. Doing so may even lead to changes in your body composition. The key is to shed the misconception that losing weight should be your driving goal.
Here are five diet resolutions to consider if you’re hoping to start the new year with a healthier relationship with food—no scales required.
Add, don’t subtract
People are more likely to maintain resolutions that involve an addition to their routine, rather than goals that require avoiding something tempting, according to a 2020 study published in PLOS One. Instead of resolving to limit treats, set a goal to eat a greater variety of nutrient-dense foods. Try adding a vegetable to every meal, signing up to receive a Community Supported Agriculture box, or eating a piece of fruit for your afternoon snack each day.
Tracking each day that you complete your habit using an app or a simple notebook can make the goal feel measurable. Start out small, says Vivienne Hazzard, who is also a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at the University of Minnesota. “rather than saying, I’m going to do this thing every single day, say, maybe I’m going to do it two or three times a week.”
The idea of adding instead of subtracting can guide you to make any meal more nutrient-dense without restricting the things you love. Instead of banishing chips and cookies from the house, aim to pair them with other foods that help you feel satiated—a side of guacamole or a scoop of nut butter, for instance. Mix leafy greens into your mac and cheese or meatloaf. Throw a handful of frozen spinach into your morning eggs.
Drink more water
Water is a simple addition that can make a big difference for your health. Mild dehydration (water loss equal to less than three percent of your body’s weight) is associated with fatigue, lowered motivation, and gastrointestinal problems like constipation, according to a 2010 review article published in the journal Nutrition Reviews. Chronic mild dehydration might even contribute to a higher risk of developing urinary tract infections, high blood pressure, heart disease, and strokes. Aim for between 2.5 and 3.5 liters (84.5 and 101.4 ounces) of water per day, more if you work out. To remind yourself to guzzle a glass, tie it to another part of your routine—leave a water bottle by your bedside and take a few sips as soon as you wake up, make a cup of herbal tea for when you sit down at your desk, drink a glass whenever you brush your teeth. There are dozens of apps to help you track how much water you drink and send you helpful reminders. If drinking plain water feels like a chore, try adding in something more interesting like cucumbers, lemon juice, or flavored electrolytes.
[Related: Don’t punish yourself for eating ‘unhealthy’ foods]
Sneak in more fiber
Fiber is the material in plant-based foods that our body’s can’t digest. For a long time, scientists thought of it as junk, says Beth Olson, a professor of nutrition at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Today, we know that it’s essential. Fiber feeds the bacteria in our guts, which could have an indirect effect on everything from our mood to our immune systems, Olson says. In plants, fiber acts like a capsule for the nutrients the body does use, like sugar and fat, making it harder for our body to absorb them. So when we eat fiber-rich brown rice or beans, our body doesn’t actually absorb all the carbohydrates they contain. We also absorb those nutrients more slowly and feel full for longer. Plus, fiber-rich foods are often rich in other nutrients. “Fiber keeps good company,” Olson says. The Mayo Clinic recommends that women aim for between 21 and 25 grams of fiber a day, while men should aim for between 30 and 38 grams. (For reference, an apple contains about five grams of fiber; a cup of black beans contains 15.)
Cook one new recipe each week
I’m biased here, because I made this resolution in 2018 and have hardly missed a week since. It’s easy, fun and, as an added bonus, may even have health benefits. People who cook at home tend to have better overall health, closer personal relationships, and a stronger sense of cultural identity, according to a 2017 review published in the journal Appetite.
To maximize the positive effects, take the time to sit down and enjoy the meal you’ve cooked. This might mean savoring the food with friends or family, but it can also be as simple as turning off Netflix, lighting a candle, and relishing in the nourishment you’ve prepared for yourself. “It’s a way to take care of your mental health,” Burnette says, “It can connect you to meaning and joy in life.” Plus, you’ll save the money you’d otherwise spend on take-out.
Start a hunger log
Rather than counting calories, start keeping track of how your food makes you feel. Jot down what you eat at each meal—not macronutrients and exact portions, as you would on a strict diet, but simple summaries of what went on your plate—how hungry you were beforehand, and how you felt afterward.
Paying attention to hunger is an important element of intuitive eating, a diet paradigm that encourages eating based on internal, not external cues. Adults who practice intuitive eating are less likely to stress eat and are happier with their bodies overall.
“Pay attention to when you’re hungry when you’re full. And eat accordingly,” Hazard says, “And that might sound simple, but I think because of diet culture, so many people have just gotten so off base with those cues.” It’s important, however, that you don’t pay attention to calories or measure portion sizes—and don’t stress if you notice that you’re eating when you’re not hungry, or eating past the point of satiety, Burnette says. “It’s not the hunger and fullness diet.”
Enjoy your food
Ultimately, any changes you make to your diet should be tweaks that are pretty easy for you to maintain, and ones that make you feel good, Olson says. Otherwise, they won’t be sustainable. Don’t force yourself to start eating a vegetable you don’t like; don’t expect yourself to cook elaborate meals on weeknights if you regularly come home exhausted; don’t furiously chug water every time you crave a soda. If the way you’re eating leaves you irritable, tired, or stressed, well—it’s not very good for your health, is it? Focusing only on the nutritional value of food, rather than the pleasurable aspects, isn’t helpful for our health in the long run, Olson emphasizes. “Food is an important part of our culture,” Olson says, “It’s celebratory, it’s nourishment.”