During the thick of the holiday season and its festivities, people are more likely than at any other time of year to set aside their health resolves and indulge in sweet and savory seasonal favorites. The season is often marked by frequent gatherings with family and friends that inevitably center around food and, in many parts of North America (especially where it’s very cold), sedentary behavior that does a great impersonation of hibernation. For many people, the consequences of these holiday habits lead to guilt as the season ends, fueling resolutions for healthier habits when the new year begins.
Making health resolutions is easy, but keeping them is the hard part. Could this difficulty be driven in part by making too many resolutions or making them just a little too ambitious? Are they complicated and intimidating? Do they take too much time to accomplish or require major dietary and lifestyle overhauls? Do night owls hope to magically turn themselves into larks? Does someone who’s on a first-name basis with the people at the fast food drive-thru window vow to start cooking dinner at home every night?
People are more likely to stick to a resolution for the long term when the goals are realistic, rather than unattainable. There are a few foundational changes that can make a tremendous impact on an individual’s overall wellbeing. The majority of chronic health issues are rooted in just a few practices that sabotage physical, mental, and emotional health. Focusing on these practices and making them habits – lifelong practices – can have a significant influence.
Ditch the Sugar
Healthcare practitioners continue to try and stop the runaway train and inevitable wreckage of unbridled sugar consumption. The uncontrolled consumption of refined sugar exacerbates most of the issues topping the list of chronic health problems plaguing the industrialized world. It’s the main cause of dental caries and overall poor oral health, and is also closely linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart, liver and kidney disease, hypertension, obesity-related cancers, common mental disorders, and depression.
The American Heart Association recommends that women limit their sugar consumption to no more than 6 teaspoons a day, and for men, no more than 9 teaspoons a day. Few people realize that this limit can easily be reached with just one peanut butter and jelly sandwich. According to research from 2012 regarding sugar consumption in the US, the average American consumed 19 teaspoons of sugar a day!
The metabolic mechanisms by which sugar contributes to disease are both direct and indirect. They include dysregulation of lipid and carbohydrate metabolism leading to dyslipidemia, reduced beta oxidation (metabolism of fats), and insulin resistance. Other mechanisms include positive energy balance, hyperuricemia, oxidative stress, and chronic inflammation. Making a choice to eliminate added sugar from the diet can result in a massive shift toward better health.
Adequately Hydrate with Water
Dehydration is a common but under-recognized condition in many individuals. Chronic dehydration begins in childhood and continues throughout the lifespan. It is estimated that over 54 percent of the population lives in a state of chronic dehydration. The human body is nearly 85 percent water, which hints at why dehydration can be so problematic. Dehydration goes way beyond simply feeling thirsty. Mild dehydration may impair concentration, reaction responses, productivity, executive functions, cognition, mood, learning and can even affect interpersonal relationships. Prolonged exposure to highly concentrated urine has been associated with more dangerous conditions such as bladder, colorectal, and breast cancers, and urolithiasis. Hydration status is also directly linked to increased body mass index and obesity, which makes hydration a potential indirect contributor to obesity-related health conditions.
A good general rule for people to maintain adequate hydration is to drink half their body weight in ounces of water. (For example, a 150-pound person would drink 75oz of water.) This is a simple, easy, and free health resolution people can make, yet it brings a powerful impact.
Consume a Protein-rich Breakfast
Another foundational health resolution that can have a significant positive impact on health is consuming a protein-rich breakfast. Two breakfast habits seem to prevail in North America: either skipping breakfast altogether, or consuming a breakfast high in refined carbohydrates. Both of these are associated with obesity and related comorbidities. In contrast, a protein-rich breakfast has been shown to reduce appetite, increase satiety, and is associated with a healthier energy intake over the remainder of the day. Collectively, these positive effects result in a lower prevalence of overweight and obesity, potentially reducing the risks for obesity-related health conditions. A protein-rich breakfast produces favorable changes to blood lipids and blood pressure, lowers postprandial glucose and insulin responses, reducing the risk of metabolic syndrome and chronically elevated insulin, which often precede type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
As the new year rolls around and people are motivated to make positive changes, healthcare professionals can encourage simple yet highly effective changes. New Year’s resolutions don’t have to be complicated and unattainable. These three basic changes – eliminating sugar, drinking more water, and eating a protein-rich breakfast – can have a powerful impact on someone’s total health.