This article was written by one of our contributors; Registered Associate Nutritionist – Kimberley Neve.
Healthy lifestyle changes are a goal for many of us – who doesn’t want better sleep, more activity, more nutritious food and a decent work life balance? The problem is when the focus is solely on food and exercise, which for many people, means the pursuit of weight loss. Diet companies have latched onto the term ‘lifestyle change’ and away from the potentially negative associations of ‘dieting’; yet their plans are still diets . This article will outline the difference between a healthy lifestyle change and a diet with tips for making your own positive changes.
What is a healthy lifestyle?
Taking a holistic approach, a healthy lifestyle involves not only food and exercise, but also sleep, stress management, mental health and overall happiness. When people talk about (un)healthy habits, they tend to focus on nutrition and exercise. These can both make a huge difference to your life; however, there is a fine line between healthy lifestyle changes and diets. The former has a positive effect on your life and overall well-being; the latter can often have a negative effect on you.
What is the issue with diets?
Traditionally, a diet is just a way of eating. However, it is more often understood as a way to lose weight via a set meal plan, the exclusion of certain food groups like carbohydrates, or a list of rules around food which, if followed, will mean you lose x amount of weight in x amount of time. Such diets include the possibility to ‘fail’ or ‘cheat’, which can lead to feelings of shame, guilt and self-blame.
One of the issues with dieting and diet culture is that the emphasis on losing weight in a short amount of time requires a large reduction in energy intake, which is unsustainable long-term as the body starts to compensate for considerable weight loss. This means that at some point, you are likely to feel too hungry, unhappy or restricted to continue with the diet and return to the eating patterns you had before starting. For most people, this leads to regaining not only the weight lost, but even more. Psychologically, the rules and narrow focus of these diets can lead to disordered eating patterns.
The other issue with diets is that they often downplay or even contradict simple, effective advice for managing your weight:
- Prioritise fruit and veg in your meals where you can
- Include high-fibre foods like whole grains, beans and lentils
- Stay hydrated
- Limit alcohol intake
- Avoid eating lots of foods high in saturated fats, salt and/ or sugar (biscuits, cakes, crisps etc.)
- Get more sleep to help manage energy and hunger levels better
- Explore ways to manage stress more effectively
The point is, diets that make companies a lot of money are not supposed to work long-term, despite their marketing. If they were, people would only ever need to do them once, which would make for a poor business model. They aren’t a real lifestyle change because they are too difficult to follow for life. You can’t count calories round a friend’s house – so do you never go anymore? Reducing carbohydrates (unless medically advised to do so) could lead to reduced fibre intake and related gut health issues – so is a low-carb diet really a healthy change?
If a ‘healthy lifestyle change’ comes with rules around what, when or how much to eat, how many calories you need to ‘burn off’ or a way of eating that you can’t see yourself following forever, it’s probably a diet in disguise.
Tips for healthy lifestyle changes
If you are looking to lose weight, the best way is not to ‘go on a diet’, but to focus on small changes that you can implement consistently into your daily routine. Here are some tips for healthy lifestyle changes that aren’t diet culture in disguise and are great to include regardless of whether or not weight loss is a goal.
➡️ See what you can add into your meals and snacks, rather than take away. For instance, an extra portion of veg, or beans, lentil, nuts or seeds for added fibre.
➡️ Choose foods you enjoy, experiment with flavours and recipes and savour the taste of your meals to make them more satisfying. Eating more mindfully can improve digestion, make you feel fuller for longer and help you control your portion sizes more intuitively.
➡️ Same with exercise – don’t start running if you hate it! Choose something you enjoy and want to do regularly. If budget is an issue, there are many free or less expensive classes online, or options that are free after an initial spend like rollerblading and cycling.
➡️ Move more throughout the day. This is more about general movement like walking around so that you’re not sat down for long periods of time, and less about focused exercise activities. Consider converting some of your commute by getting off the bus a stop early or cycling instead, or fitting a 10-minute walk into your lunch break. Every bit of movement helps!
➡️ Set an earlier bedtime for more sleep, with a night-time routine that limits exposure to light and screens.
➡️ Consider ways to manage stress more effectively each day, rather than when you feel close to burnout. Anything that counts as ‘me-time’ can help, as well as focused mindfulness, meditation or breath work.
➡️ To create changes that last, make your goals incremental – start small and track your progress. Focus on goals that are nothing to do with the number on the scales, like your progression with weights at the gym, or how many times in a week you managed to get eight hours of sleep. You can use our free habit tracker template here to stay accountable to yourself. For more insights into how to create healthy habits, check out our podcast with James Clear on how to make habits stick.
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