For many of us, January is all about giving things up: Maybe we’re going to stop eating meat and embrace a plant-based diet. Or we’re ready to kick excess sugar to the curb after a holiday season awash in sweets. Or we’re committed to avoiding fast food.
Starting the year with noble goals for eating well is a modern rite of passage. But it’s just as common to ditch those grand plans within just a few weeks.
This year, how can we do it right? If we’re pledging to make better food choices, which strategies can help us stick with them?
The consensus among experts is clear: It’s tempting to begin with dramatic gestures, but the key to achieving lasting change is setting goals that are small enough that we won’t scrap them by Valentine’s Day.
Manageable, measurable goals can create long-term change, says Laila Azarbad, associate professor of psychology at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois.
When people set lofty goals, they can get discouraged after a couple weeks.
“Our self-efficacy, that belief in our own ability, tanks,” she says. “And that’s a huge predictor: If you don’t feel confident in your ability to make the change, you’re going to discontinue trying.”
Picture this, says Dana White, a sports dietitian and clinical associate professor at Quinnipiac University: You want to lose 20 pounds and you know that every afternoon you visit the office vending machine for a snack to boost your energy. So, begin packing a healthy afternoon snack — not something punitive, but something healthier that you’ll enjoy — and have that instead of a vending machine candy bar.
It’s a measurable, specific change that won’t be unpleasant. Once that new behaviour is in place, you can add another small but meaningful change.
The same thinking works if you’re eliminating animal products: Rather than going cold turkey (cold tofu?), begin by replacing one dinner per week with a vegetarian meal. Plan it for a night when you won’t be rushed and can make an appealing recipe, or budget for going out once a week to a vegetarian restaurant.
Then track that change for three weeks, says Anna Baker, assistant professor of psychology at Bucknell University, who researches the connection between behavioural factors such as self-management and health outcomes.
“You hear that it takes 21 days to create habit. There’s debate about whether it’s 21 exactly, but you need a certain amount of time of continuing to do something before it becomes a habit,” Baker says.
“Once you do kind of get used to that change and you’re doing it regularly, then you can add in another thing.”
If you make that one good shift for three weeks, congratulate yourself. Then maintain that behaviour and add another small change, like drinking more water.
It’s tempting to try making a half-dozen changes all at once, White says. But by focusing on individual, small, unhealthy behaviours and “really identifying what the triggers are that lead to those behaviours,” she says, people “can have a tremendous amount of success without torturing themselves.”
Don’t be too hard on yourself
Accept that mistakes are a normal part of building a new habit. If you know an event is coming up where you’ll want to divert from your eating goals, accept that you may slip a bit.
Aim for “consistency, not perfection,” says Baker. “You have to plan in advance that you’re going to screw up. We’re not perfect.”
Lastly, “tell everybody you know that you’re doing this because social support is huge,” Azerbad says.
“If you’re going out to eat and they know you’re trying to change your diet, they can help choose a restaurant that will accommodate you,” she says.
And the need to save face may keep you on track.
“Once you put it out there on social media and you tell everybody that ‘I’m going to do this… you feel that people are watching,” Azerbad says.
“We don’t want other people to see us fail.”