How to make healthy New Year’s resolutions that stick

WATCH: We all start the new year with the best of intentions to live a healthier and happier life, but resolutions can be hard to live up to. Health specialist Dr. Ali Zentner offers a health resolution reality check.

TORONTO – You promise to give up chocolate, go to the gym from Monday to Friday and start a vegetarian lifestyle. With these lofty goals, it’s no wonder you’re giving up on your New Year’s resolutions within weeks.

Health-related goals tend to be the most common resolutions set in a new year, but if they aren’t made with the right intentions, you could be setting yourself up for failure.

“[People] overindulge over the holidays and health tends to be what’s fresh in peoples’ minds in terms of the biggest change they need to make,” according to Dr. Stephanie Cassin, a professor at Ryerson University’s Department of Psychology.
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Cassin is director of the school’s healthy eating and lifestyle lab, which looks at the psychological aspects of eating, from anorexia to extreme obesity.

READ MORE: 5 tips for setting New Year’s fitness goals rather than resolutions

Cassin explains why some resolutions fail and offers her tips for setting positive, attainable New Year’s resolutions.

Remind yourself of your reasons for change

In Cassin’s research, she looks at why people set goals and how their reasoning affects their outcome. Turns out, intention is critical – the more specific you are about why you’re going through the hassle of keeping to these resolutions, the more likely you’ll stay the course.

Cassin uses motivational interviewing – a treatment used on her patients who are ambivalent about maintaining changes. The practice encourages patients to remind themselves why they’re making changes.

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“In regards to eating, people do want to change, say, lose weight, but a part of them doesn’t want to because they get pleasure from food, its comfort, but then they remind themselves of the other side,” Cassin said.

Your reasoning can’t be as simple as wanting to look good in a pair of jeans – Cassin says there will be days where you feel like you’re not making progress and you’ll give up.

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The benefits of changing your eating habits have to outweigh the advantages of keeping old habits. List five key reasons why you want to change your eating habits – better health, more energy, happier mood, confidence boost, for example. Post this list in a visible spot and use it as a frequent reminder.

Focus on positive eating instead of creating forbidden fruit

If your resolutions are centered of giving up something – don’t eat fried food, give up sugar, cut out all carbohydrates, for example – you’re setting yourself up for failure, Cassin warns.

Ask yourself what happens when you forbid yourself from eating something – it only makes you think of the banned food more.

READ MORE: 6 misconceptions about nutrition and healthy eating

“When people to try quit, they go cold turkey but it’s difficult to sustain. It’s restrictive dieting and it’s drastic. It ends up being at the forefront of your mind,” Cassin explains.

Avoid “can’t” and “don’t” goals and create resolutions that you can measure, she suggests. Instead of swearing off of junk food, decide to stock up on fruit as a snack, for example.

Acknowledge your weak spots and address them

When Cassin applies cognitive behavioural therapy to her overeating patients, she looks at how they can reduce their vulnerability to food. Maybe they’re craving unhealthy fare during a stressful workday, or they tend to turn to mindless snacking in front of the TV at night.

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“Look at your [bad] thoughts and patterns contributing to overeating and challenge them. Look at whatever you can in your control to reduce vulnerability,” Cassin said.

Create a routine – make sure you’re eating at regularly scheduled times throughout the day, avoid skipping meals or any other habits that’ll lead you to making unhealthy choices, she suggests.

Pace yourself

You might be eager to start a crash diet right after the holidays, especially if you indulged. But this is a bad start if you want to stick to these goals long-term.

This approach may get you short-term results, but the benefits are short-lived. Instead, take baby steps by incorporating small dietary and exercise changes into your routine.

If you know you still have holiday obligations, you may be better off holding off on turning over a new leaf, Cassin suggests.

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Try to replace old habits with new ones – if you snacked on pretzels while watching your favourite show, you might have to swap that ritual with giving yourself a manicure, for example. If you tended to grocery shop when you’re starving, you’ll be better off stocking up after lunch.

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If your urge to go to the vending machine is highest at 3 p.m., make that the time you take a walk.

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