Have a healthy new year — learn how to realistically navigate nutrition

Health and fitness goals regularly top New Year's resolutions, but the key to long-term success is making nutrition an achievable goal.

If the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas marks the holiday season, January and a new year mean resolutions.

Some Americans vow to cut back on drinking, travel more, or set better financial goals. But resolutions at the top of mind for most people, according to a survey by Statistica, involve living healthier and losing weight. 

No wonder gyms sign up the most members in January, just as those resolutions with promises of exercise and diets take hold.

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Anna Powolny Ventura applauds the healthier living effort but sees flaws in the approach. You can’t simply jump into a significant life change without reasonable goals and a clear-eyed view of goals and potential outcomes.

“We have ingrained habits that are tough to change and want to do everything all at once,” Ventura, who teaches a course on nutrition in the biology department at HBCU Spelman College, told theGrio. “In my opinion, that’s not realistic.”

Ventura discussed why it’s hard for people to maintain healthy eating habits, how they can be successful, and how a little forgiveness goes a long way.

Portions of this conversation have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Why is it so difficult to eat healthily?

One of them is pretty simple: Behaviors are tough to change, especially when you want to change them in a more permanent way. It’s tough because we like to do certain things in certain ways, and changing that takes a long time.

Secondly, I think we often want to jump on this health bandwagon with no support of any kind, and that’s a bit unrealistic. We’re saying, ‘I’m going to go to the gym five times a week. I’m going to quit eating all the stuff I’m not supposed to eat.’ This is one of the reasons you see a lot of folks signing up for gym memberships early in the year. But as the months progress, the ability to persist in these changes meets the reality of our daily lives, and it doesn’t fare well. 

Basically, you have a lot of things competing for your time. You have ingrained habits that are tough to change.

What’s the best method for success?

Try to make gradual changes that you can complete slowly and progressively. Eat fruits or vegetables with one meal for a week and see how you fare. Maybe, after two weeks, if you can do that consistently, add another layer. Let’s make that two meals every single day.  And then progressively, you can incorporate more of the fruits and vegetables that maybe are not your favorite thing on the menu.

This needs to be sustainable. Making the changes gradually over time makes it a little bit easier. When gradually incorporating new foods or routines, I like to incorporate a mini-reward, not a food reward. I can go out and do something fun or go to a show or do something as my reward. 

Does eating healthier mean depriving yourself of the foods you love?

We need to give ourselves permission to have that food in small portions, let’s say once a week or once a month. We can indulge in a small portion and a bite or two so we feel that we’re not depriving ourselves of the things we love. I think that’s unfair when it comes to eating. The changes you’re making should be something you want for the rest of your life. And you need to see the benefit of those and understand that. These are the things that will keep me healthy and keep me around longer for my family and my friends. 

Why do we perceive dieting and eating healthy as inherently painful?

Whenever we think about diet, people think about deprivation and that food is supposed to be fun. If you have a little bit of time and enjoy cooking, it makes it easier because the kitchen is your playground. 

What if you’re not meeting your goals?

I’m going to evaluate why I’m not able to reach my goals. What are the barriers that I’m meeting? How can I overcome these barriers? What can I do differently? Then, give yourself grace because you know life is full of different obstacles and surprises, and sometimes it just doesn’t go your way. That’s OK. Just give yourself a minute to regroup and then get back at it because it’s worth it. I mean, nutrition is one of the ways to maintain health and longevity. You’ll get there.

Ray Marcano

Ray Marcano is a longtime, award-winning journalist who has written and edited for some of the country’s most prominent media brands. He’s a former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, a two-time Pulitzer juror, and a Fulbright Fellow.

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