BY AMBER K. STOTT / PHOTOGRAPHY BY BENJAMIN DELLA ROSA
An estimated 45 million Americans diet annually, spending $33 billion on weight loss products. We're a culture bombarded by processed foods making easy promises of quick fixes and a healthier heart.
Sadly, we can't diet our way to better health. The real solution: Create lasting habits.
A habit is a regular practice that's hard to give up. Like biting your nails or twirling your hair when you're nervous, habits can stick with you for life. Yet habits can be positive, too, like sneezing into your sleeve, or washing your hands before cooking.
When it comes to eating healthy, don't you want a long-term fix, rather than a 30-day purge?
Most health experts agree that eating healthy is a lifetime commitment, not an emergency, short-term shot after a holiday binge. It's not about a one-day cleanse or a spoonful of supplement. It's about eating well, playing well and finding balance.
Here are my tips for creating healthy habits that last. You'll need to hunker down to stick with this. Studies show that forming a habit can take anywhere from 21 days to three months. There are no silver bullets for health—just long-term dedication and persistence.
COOK FROM SCRATCH
Cooking is the only way to control the amount of fat, sugar and salt in your diet. Don't rely on food companies to make these choices for you.
By cooking, I don't mean opening a jar of Ragu. Items like prepared pasta sauces are often loaded with added sugar—and even corn syrup. Instead, opt for canned tomato sauce and add your own spices. You'll save money, and you'll find it's easy to create a delicious meal in very little time.
For breakfast, put down those packaged cereals. Even the "healthy" ones are loaded with sugar. Instead, try oatmeal or oat bran. The latter can be prepared as quickly and easily as instant oatmeal—without the added sugar. Create your own recipes by adding raisins, nuts, diced fruit or a dash of honey.
TRY ONE NEW FRUIT OR VEGGIE EACH WEEK
Americans don't eat enough fruits and veggies, but it's one of the best things you can do for your health. With so many great choices, the options can be overwhelming. Keep things simple by exploring one new fruit or veggie every week. Become a food adventurer!
Don't purchase five vegetables you've never seen before and don't know how to cook. You'll end up frustrated once you're at home, and will probably throw half those veggies away. If you see something new and interesting, purchase just one. You're more likely to use it, and you'll feel more accomplished.
I like to try one new veggie each week: a daikon one week, an opo the next. But you don't have to be exotic about your choices. Try a bell pepper one week and carrots the next. Little by little, you'll start to incorporate them into your everyday meal choices with ease.
EAT A FRUIT OR VEGGIE AT EVERY MEAL
At every meal, ask yourself how you could add a fruit or veggie. Love pizza? Ask for it with a vegetable on top. Can't resist leftover turkey sandwiches? Add some sliced apples. Your body will be getting the vitamins it badly needs, and the fiber will help you feel full. Plus, they add delicious crunch and texture to the foods you already enjoy. As you develop a taste for new favorites, you'll find yourself craving them more often.
Kids are naturally active. Take them to an open playground or park and they need no instruction on running, jumping and dancing. As adults, we train this innate fun out of our lives with our sedentary jobs and favorite TV shows.
I remember gaining the traditional "Freshman 10" pounds in college because I was suddenly living a lifestyle without high school sports. I never played them because I thought it was good "exercise"; I played them because they were fun! In college, I lost this social outlet and it took a toll on my waist.
Add the play back into your life! Join your child on the playground. When was the last time you participated in a good game of tag? Join a local softball league or dust the cobwebs off your bike. Turn up the music after work and have a good dance in the living room.
Don't think of it as exercise. Think of it as allowing yourself to finally have some fun—each and every day!
Amber K. Stott, founding executive director of the nonprofit Food Literacy Center, inspires Kids to eat their vegetables and grows her own groceries in Sacramento, California. She blogs about living la vida locavore at Awake at the Whisk. She's chair of the Sacramento Region Food System Collaborative, a food policy council, and has been named a "Food Revolution Hero" by the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation.