Most of us in the realm of nutrition, fitness, and health are not big fan of New Year’s resolutions. They are generally unrealistic, overly strict, easily abandoned, and perpetuate the all-or-nothing thinking that can make healthy living seem extreme, restrictive, and oppressive to so many.
There are nevertheless improvements and tweaks that can always be made to dietary habits. And, while goals like â€œeating more whole foodsâ€ or â€œeating fewer highly processed foodsâ€ are worth pursuing, it can be hard for some to understand how that translates to actual habits.
For that purpose, I compiled twelve measurable and realistic nutrition goals you can tackle throughout this coming year. The idea is to spend one month working on each goal and the maintain that goal as you make your way down the list. You can work on these in any order you want.
Since all change matters, I offer you two choices for each goal â€“ â€œall inâ€ if you want to make the full commitment and â€œdipping your toesâ€ if you’re looking to take it more slowly.
1.Â â€œAll-Inâ€: Eliminate Liquid Sources of Sugar
â€œDip Your Toesâ€: Cut Back on Liquid Sources of Sugar
While most people equate liquid sugar with soda, this also means fruit juice (yes, even fresh squeezed at home), sugary coffee drinks (i.e.: mocha java caramel chip frozen lattes), chocolate milk, and sweetened non-dairy milks (even â€œplainâ€ varieties contain added sugar; you always want to go for â€œunsweetenedâ€).
And, yes, this also refers to the sugar (whether it’s white table sugar, ‘sugar in the raw’, agave nectar, or coconut nectar) you add to your morning coffee or tea. One more important detail: the goal here is not to replace caloric sweeteners with zero-calorie artificial varieties.
Why is this important? Added sugars contribute empty calories that do not satiate and offer zero nutrition. Furthermore, they keep our tastebuds used to concentrated sweet flavors.
If you’re not ready to eliminate liquid sugars, work on cutting back. What does â€œcutting backâ€ mean? To determine that, first figure out how many grams of sugar you drink each day (tally it up over the course of three days to get an average) and slash that figure by at least fifty percent (ideally seventy-five).
Let’s say you take in 30 grams of sugar in liquid form every day. Your goal, then, would be to cap your liquid sugar intake at 15 grams (ideally, 8 grams).
2.Â â€œAll-Inâ€: Buy a (Healthy) Cookbook You’ll Use
â€œDip Your Toesâ€: Find â€“ and Make â€“ 4 Healthy Recipes
If I could summarize dietary advice in two words, they would be â€œjust cook!â€.
The more you cook at home, the more of a say you have over what goes into your food â€“ and what doesn’t. Remember, the vast majority of restaurants are in the business of making food taste good, which means liberal amounts of oils, salt, and sugar. And that’s fine â€“ when eating out is the exception to the rule.
A good cookbook is key to making more meals at home. For the purposes of this goal, look for a cookbook that is health-oriented (browse through suggested titles here). I highly recommend you leaf through a possible purchase first to make sure the recipes are ones you can actually see yourself making!
The specific goal this month is to make three recipes from your new cookbook each week, for a total of twelve recipes this month.
For a lower-commitment alternative, find four healthy recipes online (either on Pinterest or a health-focused cooking blog, such as Oh She Glows, Plant-Powered Kitchen, or Claudia’s many terrific recipes) and make one recipe a week.
3.Â â€œAll-Inâ€: Minimize Oils & Use Whole Food Fats
â€œDip Your Toesâ€: Use Healthier Oils
When you eat whole foods that contain healthy fats â€“ think nuts, seeds, avocados, and coconuts â€“ you also get the benefits of fiber, vitamins, and minerals (oils, meanwhile, only offer healthful fatty acids).
This month, your goal is to use oils sparingly and get most of your fat from whole foods. So, for example, drizzle this garlic-tahini dressing over steamed vegetables (as opposed to an oil-based salad dressing). Add avocado and sunflower seeds to a salad that you dress with your favorite vinegar, flavored/infused salt, and some lemon juice.
If you’re not quite ready for that leap, focus on making healthier oil selections. Dump corn, cottonseed, and soybean oils. Instead, use extra virgin olive oil, coconut, avocado, walnut, flax, and hempseed oils (refer to this post for more information).
4.Â â€œAll-Inâ€: Eat Beans 4 Times a Week
â€œDip Your Toesâ€: Eat Beans 2 Times a Week
Beans and legumes offer plentiful protein, fiber, and many of the minerals most Americans don’t eat enough of (magnesium, potassium, manganese). And, there is a good body of evidence that supports eating beans several times a week for better heart health. Try bean-based chilis, roasted chickpeas, bean soups, bean dips, and lentil curries.
If you need to ease into it (i.e.: you can’t remember the last time you ate beans), go for two servings a week. If you have digestive concerns, keep in mind that lentils are easier to digest, and you can add kombu, a seaweed, to home-cooked beans to make them more digestible.
5.Â â€œAll-Inâ€: Ditch Breakfast Cereals
â€œDip Your Toesâ€: Choose Better Cereals
By and large, breakfast cereals offer minimal nutrition (don’t be fooled by the long list of vitamins and minerals; most of those are tacked on during processing). Instead, start your mornings with more nutritious offerings like smoothies, chia pudding, overnight oats, avocado on whole/sprouted grain toast, or homemade granola.
If cereal is an absolute â€œmust,â€ then have some guidelines in mind. Look for a sugar to fiber ratio of at least 1:2 (at the very least, you want fiber grams to be higher than sugar grams). Only a small handful of cereals fit this criteria: Uncle Sam, Engine 2, and Food for Life Ezekiel cereals are available nationwide.
6.Â â€œAll-Inâ€: Eat Greens 5 Times a Week
â€œDip Your Toesâ€: Eat Greens 3 Times a Week
From a nutritional standpoint, you can’t get much better than leafy greens, which include kale, collards, mustard greens, beet greens, brussels sprouts, broccoli, bok choy, and arugula. Full of fiber, minerals, and phytonutrients, they pack a nutrient punch that is out of this world. Incorporate them into your diet five days a week. If your current intake of greens consists of a few pieces of lettuce on a sandwich, start off with three times a week.
Don’t just think salads, either (although there are some that are innovative and well worth making). You can also add greens to smoothies, soups, pilafs, stir fries, and pasta dishes. Greens also make for wonderful side dishes.
7.Â â€œAll-Inâ€: Try A New Vegetable
â€œDip Your Toesâ€: Try Your Favorite Vegetable in a New Way
It can be easy to get into a food rut. If you can walk through the supermarket and make your usual purchases blindfolded, then it’s time to switch things up. Choose a vegetable you have never tried before (i.e.: celery root, Jerusalem artichokes, kohlrabi, bok choy, nopales, chayote squash) and that is available in your area, look up a handful of recipes, and make at least one during a one-month period.
If you’re not quite as adventurous â€“ or you live in an area where less-common vegetables are hard to come across â€“ then find a way to cook your favorite vegetable differently. Do you usually have red pepper strips dipped in hummus? Try making a red pepper tapenade. Is steamed cauliflower your go-to side dish? Try a roasted version.
8.Â â€œAll-Inâ€: Fermented Foods
â€œDip Your Toesâ€: Take a Probiotic Supplement
A healthy intestinal tract is the key to health, and fermented foods go a long way toward helping our digestive tracts remain healthy. Plenty of foods and beverages â€œcountâ€ â€“ kimchi, yogurt (dairy or otherwise; look for plain varieties with no added sweeteners), kefir (dairy or otherwise; great as a smoothie base), miso (which you can use to make dips, sauces, and dressings), kombucha, rejuvelac, and sauerkraut. Aim to eat one serving of these foods three times a week.
If your palate for fermented foods isn’t quite there yet, start by taking a probiotic supplement daily.
9. â€œAll-Inâ€: Make Your Own Salad Dressings
â€œDip Your Toesâ€: Simple Bottled Dressings
Most store-bought salad dressings use unhealthy oils and can often contribute hefty amounts of sodium or added sugar. Start making your own. Keeping in line with the earlier goal of eating more whole-food fats, check out this extensive list of oil-free dressings! If you’re going the â€œhealthier oilâ€ route, here are some good recipes.
Alternatively, you can continue to buy bottled dressings, but you must be an ingredient list detective. You ideally want flax, hemp, or olive oil as the base, and you want no more than two grams of sugar â€“ and 200 milligrams of sodium â€“ per serving.
10. â€œAll-Inâ€: Go 100% Plant-Based 3 Times A week
â€œDip Your Toesâ€: Vegan Until 6 PM 3 Times a Week
Whole-food, plant-based/plant-strong/plant-centric diets continue to make headlines for their various health benefits. Try to make three entire days of the week entirely meat and dairy-free. This FAQ on plant-based eating from Kaiser Permanente answers basic questions and lists various helpful resources.
If that seems intimidating, then make three days of the week â€œflexitarianâ€ ones, where you are 100% plant-based until 6 PM. If you need some help with that, check out Mark Bittman’s best-selling book, VB6.
11. â€œAll-Inâ€: Hardcore Herbs
â€œDip Your Toesâ€: Softer Spices
Some of the healthiest herbs leave an unmistakeable mark in our mouths â€“ either by heating them up or staying on our breath for hours. Ginger, garlic, turmeric, and cayenne’s powerful flavors are just as powerful as their phytonutrients (â€œplant nutrientsâ€) and antioxidants. This month’s goal is to eat one of these spices at least three times a week. Some examples: add cayenne to roasted root vegetables, add a nub of ginger to your favorite smoothie, and grate some turmeric into your favorite soup recipe.
If you need to build up slowly, start by incorporating fresh or dried herbs (think oregano, rosemary, dill, marjoram, parsley, and thyme) into your cooking at least three times a week.
12. All-Inâ€ & â€œDip Your Toesâ€: Review and reflect
Take this last month of the year to reflect on what you have learned, how you have grown, and to take stock of how you feel. And, if there is one goal that you lost track of as the year went on, use this month to give it another shot.
Whether you incorporated one, four, or all eleven habits over the past twelve months, you stepped outside of your comfort zone and took active steps to improve your health. That is nothing short of commendable.
Andy Bellatti, MS, RD is a Las Vegas-based nutritionist with a plant-centric and whole-food focus who takes an interest in food politics, deceptive food marketing, sustainability, and social justice. His work has been published in Grist, The Huffington Post, Todayâ€™s Dietitian, Food Safety News, and Civil Eats, among others. He is also the Strategic Director of Dietitians for Professional Integrity, a group that advocates for ethical and socially responsible partnerships within the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. You can read more of his work on his Small Bites blogÂ and can also follow him on Twitter and Facebook.