Week Twelve: In a Nutshell…

This program is named “Just 12 Weeks to Perfect Health and Fitness.” Of course, what you are able to read and learn in this relatively short period of time can only be the beginning of a journey that will ideally continue for a lifetime. Hopefully, the information you have gathered and the knowledge you have acquired here will allow you to make better informed choices for the benefit of your health and well-being from hereon in.

Having a healthy lifestyle is not a matter of following strict rules. Rather, your guidelines should be variety, balance and moderation. I tell all my patients that “nothing is forbidden, but everything counts.” In a nutshell, healthy living is all about enhancing our awareness and making health and wellness promoting choices – not about guilt or deprivation.

Know your habits and tendencies
I always begin working with new patients by asking them about their lifestyle habits. Most don’t really know right away, because they pay little or no attention to their actions. As we have discussed earlier in this series, most of our habits develop gradually and insidiously over long periods of time. Even “bad” habits establish themselves for some reason and serve a purpose. Some give us pleasure, others ease our pain, help us to cope with stress, or they are simply a part of our social environment. Problems arise when we lose control or become addicted.

In order to break with bad habits, we have to replace them with better ones. Mere deprivation will only leave an empty void that needs to be filled in one way or another. It is also crucial that we understand why we have acquired our habits in the first place. For example, if eating or drinking gives us comfort and pleasure, or numbs us when we are overwhelmed with stress, we cannot simply resist or ignore our urges. We must first find healthier alternatives.

Maintain a positive, but realistic attitude
Positive lifestyle changes don’t just happen. They demand hard work and sometimes a great deal of determination. That includes coping with set-backs. An all-or-nothing attitude won’t suffice. Whether your goal is to lose weight, get in shape, recover from an illness or overcome an addiction, your efforts require patients, persistence and the ability to deal constructively with failure.

Maintaining a good attitude towards these simple facts is crucial for the success of the entire process. Failure is nothing but another chance to start over. The only thing that counts is to get back on track as quickly as possible.

Evaluate your health status
A thorough evaluation of your health status is always a good starting point. I’m not necessarily talking about a visit at your doctor’s office for a medical examination, although you should schedule those on a regular basis anyway.

There are a number of “tests” you can perform by yourself in the privacy of your home. For example, you can determine your healthy weight range by identifying your “Body Mass Index.” The BMI is a formula commonly used to assess weight-related health risks, like heart disease, hypertension and diabetes. It is only a guideline and does not necessarily apply to women during pregnancy and lactation or athletes whose BMI is elevated due to added muscle mass. Your ideal BMI value is in the lowest risk category or close to it, which is between 19 and 25.

Keep a food diary
A good way to analyze your eating habits is keeping a “food diary.” Any notebook, computer or smart phone will do.

Begin with a survey of your day. Make a list of questions you can answer right away: When did I eat? How did I eat? Why did I eat? Do I eat when I’m upset, under stress, lonely or bored? Do I eat although I’m not hungry or keep eating when I’m already full? You may also consider your typical eating style: Do I eat quickly and absentmindedly? Do I have a mealtime schedule, or do I snack whenever there’s food around?

Always be brutally honest with yourself. Review your food diary regularly. This will help you better understand your “eating patterns.” For successful weight management it is especially important that you compare your food intake with your energy expenditure.

Control your hunger (yes, you can)
Different people respond differently to hunger. Some react to the slightest twinge of appetite and have to eat without delay. Others wait until they are nearly starved. Neither is desirable. Filling up as soon as you can eat tells your body to increase consumption. Ignoring hunger signals for too long can result in binge eating.

As a rule, it is best to eat when you are not yet ravenous but somewhat hungry. Don’t “wolf” your food down, even when you feel like starving. Stop when you are satisfied and not yet quite full. Always eat slowly, since it takes about 20 minutes for the stomach to signal to the brain when it has had enough.

Also, make the effort to observe your “natural inclinations” and ask yourself what makes you typically reach for food when you are not especially hungry. Food serves many needs besides nutrition. Perhaps you have something to eat every time you are stressed, bored or tired. Or you think you are hungry when you are actually dehydrated. The more aware you become of your tendencies, the better you will be able to manage them.

Learn the facts about the food you eat
No foods are “forbidden,” but some are clearly preferable to others. Foods that are naturally low in fat, high in fiber and dense in nutrients should build the foundation of any health-conscious diet plan. Animal fats, refined flour products and sweets should make rare appearances on your plate. You also want to watch your oil consumption via cooking ingredients and salad dressings. Because of their high content of monounsaturated and omega-3 fatty acids, olive and canola oil may be used more liberally. All others, especially tropical oils (palm and coconut), should be applied only sparingly.

Even items that are widely considered to be healthy, such as white rice and pasta, can have significant downsides because of their so-called “glycemic effect.” What this refers to is the speed and degree at which food raises the blood sugar. Refined foods have an especially high glycemic effect. Consuming large quantities of these may result in rapid blood sugar changes. Elevated blood sugar levels can cause an increased secretion of insulin, which may result in a sudden drop of blood sugar – a kind of rebound effect that makes you soon feel hungry again.

For the same reasons, you should not indulge too often in refined and processed snacks between meals, especially the sugary kind, like pastries, sweets, sodas and fruit juices. Excess sugar gets converted into fat and stored in fat cells.

To avoid negative health effects, it is advisable to counterbalance high-glycemic foods with low-glycemic ones. For instance, mixed meals that include protein, fat and carbohydrate produce a lower glycemic effect. Black beans in combination with rice or kidney beans with pasta can help stabilizing the blood sugar. For similar reasons, I recommend eating fresh vegetables, grains and fruits in their natural form. Whole foods have a lower glycemic effect than processed, refined or juiced ones.

Portion sizes everyone can understand
Understanding portion sizes can be a challenge, particularly since food labels are often more confusing than helpful in this regard. I find it easier to compare serving sizes to items we are all familiar with. For example, a piece of meat should be no larger than a deck of cards. A medium-size potato should be the size of a computer mouse. A serving of pasta should be roughly equivalent to the size of a tennis ball, and so on.

Make a shopping list and stick to it
Healthy eating begins in the grocery store. You can only make healthy meals from healthy ingredients. Try to find fresh foods whenever possible. Foods from a can or a box are not fresh and many are nutritionally inferior. Ideally, packaged foods should be reserved for emergency situations only.

Choose quality over quantity. Certified “organic” produce, of course, is preferable, but the price difference to the regular version may be a consideration. Don’t get seduced into buying in “bulk,” because you are getting a better deal. All too often, you only end up consuming more than you really want or need.

Don’t make spontaneous decisions while you are in the store. Instead, compile a shopping list at home and stick to it. If you have your kids with you, don’t fall for any nagging. Also, don’t arrive at the supermarket hungry. Hunger can make you buy all sorts of things you would not have chosen otherwise.

Stock up with healthy staples
Keeping your kitchen or pantry stocked with healthy staples is a good way to avoid bad choices when you prepare a meal in a hurry or have no time to shop. Stock up on non-perishable ingredients you can use for many meals and work from there. Take inventory from time to time and maintain a spreadsheet (or something to that effect) to help you keep track as items get used up and need to be replaced.


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