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Every new year, we make lists of resolutions with big, ambitious plans for diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes—and by February, most of us are back on the couch with a bag of chips and the latest Netflix binge opportunity. Can you relate? Try a more manageable approach. We asked Mark Hyman, MD, bestselling author and founder and director of The UltraWellness Center, for a dozen simple, specific, science-based changes to make. You don’t have to make all of these changes at once! Implement over the course of the year. By the time everyone else is breaking their 2021 resolutions, you’ll have created lasting habits—and a total health transformation.
1. Be less refined
One of the best things you can do for your health: dramatically reduce or eliminate refined sugars and flours, and limit all things sweet. “Sugar and flour aren’t doing our health any favors, especially considering how they wreak havoc on our blood sugar—blood glucose is one major predictor of longevity,” says Hyman. Studies have linked blood sugar levels to increased longevity, and a high-sugar diet may increase the risk of heart disease, even in healthy people. [Editor’s note: read more about this The Inulin / Heart Connection]
While certain sweeteners are safer than others (like maple syrup instead of aspartame), your body still produces insulin in response—so save the sweet treats for special occasions. For everyday desserts, ditch the cookies and pastries for berries, pomegranates, pears, and other high-fiber fruits: they’re linked with a reduced risk of heart disease.
2. Up the veggies—a lot
Fill 75 percent of your plate with non-starchy, colorful vegetables at every meal (including breakfast), to support digestion and up the nutrient density of your diet. “This helps your health in numerous ways, like providing fiber for satiation and digestive support—fiber feeds good gut bugs,” says Hyman. “And the colors in plant foods signal potent phytonutrients like antioxidants that fight inflammation and keep us youthful.” Some vegetables, like broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage, are also high in compounds that protect against cancer. Overall, studies have linked increased fruit and vegetable consumption with lower risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and all-cause mortality.
Include more vegetables in every meal— have a baked sweet potato instead of a bagel for breakfast, loaded with scrambled eggs, chopped greens, and tomatoes; have a big salad with lean protein for lunch; add two veggie sides to dinner; and snack on kale chips or sliced veggies with hummus. Bonus: you can eat as much as you want of non-starchy vegetables such as artichokes and celery—they won’t impact your blood sugar the way starchy ones can.
3. Broaden your horizons
It’s hard to get enthusiastic about healthy eating if you’re stuck in a boring-food rut. Expand your culinary horizons with unfamiliar ingredients. “Buy one new, real-food ingredient or one ‘weird’ food at the market every week to spice up your meals,” says Hyman. “This is a fun challenge to add variety to your diet, which means new flavors and new nutrients.”
Try interesting fruits and vegetables, like broccoli Romanesco, kalettes, kabocha squash, bok choy, dragon fruit, kumquats, kohlrabi, or watermelon radish. Experiment with herbs and spices, such as ras-el-hanout, tarragon, Thai basil, or saffron. Don’t forget the legumes: interesting options like fava beans, cranberry beans, or black lentils add interest to any meal. Check out farmers’ markets or international grocery stores for even more inspiration.
4. Zen out
A number of studies link a regular mindfulness practice with improved health. “Meditation is overflowing with benefits, and even just a short practice each day can lead to reduced stress, less inflammation, lower blood pressure, better sleep, and easier aging,” says Hyman. You don’t have to sit on a cushion for two hours a day: even a few minutes of meditation elicits the body’s relaxation response and can affect genes involved in the inflammatory response and longevity. Immediate effects include lower stress, reduced blood pressure, increased attention, and the ability to regulate stress.
Get started now: set aside 5–10 minutes in the morning for meditation and deep breathing, and check out apps such as Headspace, Calm, or 10% Happier for easy, guided meditation practices.
5. Eat in
Tie on your apron, break out the pots and pans, and get cooking! Making five meals a week at home can reduce your risk of chronic disease and improve overall health. “Cooking at home is associated with many health benefits, like decreased risk for type 2 diabetes and obesity and an overall healthier diet,” says Hyman. And studies suggest people who cook at home more often have a lower intake of sugar, fat, and calories.
New to the kitchen? Try a beginner’s cooking class, stock up on inexpensive tools that make food prep easier, and enlist a friend to cook with you. And check out Hyman’s cookbook, Food: What the Heck Should I Cook?, for a guide to making healthy, home-cooked meals. [Editor’s note: see p. 36 for a recipe from Hyman’s book.]
6. Move more
Regular exercise reduces the risk of heart disease and cancer, eases anxiety and depression, and may improve cognitive function and self-esteem. “Get moving at least 30 minutes a day,” says Hyman. “Choose something you actually enjoy so that it feels like play and not a chore.” Dancing, tennis, swimming, and cycling are good options, and even a brisk walk is beneficial. And it doesn’t have to be continuous. Some studies suggest that three 10-minute walks may be as beneficial as one 30-minute walk.
Strong relationships and social engagement are critical for health. “Loneliness is the new smoking,” says Hyman. “So be sure to keep yourself supported with people you can trust and reach out to those you think may be isolated.” Studies suggest that social isolation increases the risk of premature death, while regular interaction improves self-worth and overall health. Plan an activity with friends or family once a week, and widen your social circle. Look for groups or clubs geared toward your favorite hobbies, volunteer for an organization you believe in, or join a class or faith community.
8. Get more green
Jump off the treadmill and take your daily walk outside. Studies show that spending more time in nature can reduce your risk for type 2 diabetes, stress, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and early death, says Hyman. Exposing yourself to sunshine and bright light during the day improves sleep at night and boosts mood and alertness during the day. The most benefits come from green spaces, says Hyman —so even if you live or work in a city, make an effort to spend time in the nearest park.
9. Boost your brain
Learning new skills improves memory and cognition, enhances brain health, and protects against cognitive decline. One of the most powerful: learning to play a musical instrument, which engages multiple brain functions and can improve cognition and protect against decline. Ballroom dancing and other kinds of dance also require the brain to learn new patterns and steps; helps sharpen memory; and increases neural activity. Even games, crossword puzzles, or jigsaw puzzles can boost cognition.
And don’t forget to feed your head. Whole foods such as leafy greens, vegetables, berries, nuts, and fish can help protect against cognitive decline and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s—in some research, by as much as 53 percent.
10. Ban the blue light
Flat-screen TVs, computers, electronic notebooks, smartphones, and other digital devices emit blue light—wavelengths that can disrupt slumber and suppress the production of melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep. Other studies suggest a link between melatonin suppression and obesity, heart disease, and other health conditions. Turn off electronics two to three hours before bed or wear blue light blocking glasses for optimal melatonin production and deeper sleep, says Hyman. Other tips: install an app on your devices that filters blue light at night, and use dim red lights for night lights. They’re less likely to suppress melatonin.
11. Eat mindfully
“To get more enjoyment and satiation out of less food, slow down,” says Hyman. “Pay attention to each bite, acknowledge your environment, and experience the tastes and textures fully.” Studies show that eating mindfully—slowly and without distractions, while focusing on your food—can promote weight loss and manage chronic disease. Instead of scarfing down a bagel in the car, wake up 10 minutes early and have a sit-down breakfast at home. Skip the sandwich at your computer and go to lunch with friends or co-workers. You’ll eat more slowly, and it’s another opportunity to socialize.
12. Stabilize your sleep
We know deep, restful sleep is linked with improved mood, overall health, and longevity. Creating a rhythm around your sleep time can help. “Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day to support the body’s natural circadian rhythm,” Says Hyman. “This helps you fall asleep fast, improves sleep quality, and can even boost brain function.”
Some studies also suggest that stabilizing circadian rhythms can improve mood and ease depression.
Be consistent with sleep: choose a bedtime and wake-up time, and stick with it. Before bed, dim lights and create a simple routine, such as having a cup of chamomile tea or writing in a journal. Move your alarm clock across the room, so you can’t roll over and hit the snooze button in the morning. And make small, gradual adjustments. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to change overnight, so shift bedtime and wake-up time by 10 minutes a day until you reach your ideal.
Meet Dr. Hyman
Mark Hyman, MD, is the director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, president of clinical affairs on the board of the Institute for Functional Medicine, and founder of the UltraWellness Center. He is an 11-time New York Times bestselling author whose books include Eat Fat, Get Thin; and The Blood Sugar Solution 10-Day Detox Diet. His latest book is Food: What the Heck Should I Cook?
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