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Stanford University School of Medicine

How to keep New Year’s resolutions to eat healthy

New Year's Day always offers the opportunity to hit pause, reflect on our lives and set goals to improve our health and well-being. For many of us, this year also involved making promises to eat healthier and lose weight. To help you achieve your nutrition goals, I reached out to Stanford health educator Jae Berman. Below she shares how to select New Year's resolutions that you'll actually keep (perhaps you'll have to tweak the ones you made last week!), offers strategies for eating healthy even when you're pressed for time, and explains why cooking for yourself is a key factor in changing nutritional habits.

What are some examples of smaller, more manageable, goals that could help someone make better food choices?

People often jump in too hard, too fast when creating New Year's resolutions. This perfectionist and "all or nothing" attitude tends to result in grand, lofty goals that we quit if we have a setback or don't see immediate results. When considering health and weight loss-related goals make sure they are realistic and sustainable.

Instead, closely examine your routine and note one thing you can improve. This behavior may be something obvious, such as you drinking soda every day and wanting to stop. Or, it could be an aspiration to make healthy habits more sustainable, for example, bringing your lunch to work so you can lose weight and save money. Those who already eat well and exercise regularly may want to adopt a goal on a larger scope and learn to cook or try a new form of exercise.

Pick one thing (just one!) and make sure it is SMART - specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused and time-bound. Pick a resolution that is within reach, yet a bit of a stretch so that it's a challenge. Additionally, goals should lead towards creating a sustainable habit. Some ideas include: Bring your lunch to work Monday-Thursday for the entire month of January; eat five fist-sized servings of vegetables every day; drink coffee only at breakfast; go to sleep at at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning for the month of January; or do 30 minutes of weight training three times a week.

In an effort to slim down in the New Year, some individuals may go on the Atkins diet and other popular weight-loss plans, or decide to do a juice fast, like the Master Cleanse. What's your advice for those considering these approaches?

It's very difficult to change someone's mind when they decide to try these types of weight loss plans. So I usually say, "Go for it!" After a few days, the person often feels miserable and wants to create a long-term plan for managing their weight. I will say the one benefit of these quick fixes and fad diets, which I do not endorse, is that they teach a person what it feels like to be hungry. This may sound strange, but this awareness is an important lesson.

Many people overeat and are used to eating to avoid being hungry. We also tend to mindlessly eat out of boredom, or simply because food is in front of us. Going on a restrictive diet results in some feeling hungry for the first time in long time and, as a result they learn their hunger cues. When you experience a hunger cue, which is right when you think "I could eat," then you should eat just enough food to get through the next three to four hours. You don't need a huge meal to feel stuffed and small; unsatisfying snacks aren't helpful either. Understanding what it feels like to be satiated is very important for long-term success.

Ongoing research at the Stanford Prevention Research Center shows that "one diet really does not fit all."  So I can't tell you exactly what to eat, but I can tell you that creating a long-term sustainable plan is key.

At the beginning of the New Year, our motivation for changing our eating habits is often very strong. But as we get busy it can become difficult to keep our resolutions. What tips can you offer for how to make nutritious eating choices when you're on the move and pressed for time?

Life is busy and it isn't going to stop. That's why it's imperative to create realistic goals and increase your awareness about what you're eating. While I'm a proponent of having a Plan B, or a quick fix when you're on the go, it's important to remember that time is the easiest of excuses.

Sometimes we think we don't have enough time, but if we plan ahead then we can set ourselves up for success. For example, many people eat lunch out and then go out again in the late afternoon for a coffee or snack, which is when they get into trouble. Ideally, we would bring lunch and an afternoon snack with us to the office. Think you don't have enough time to pack a lunch and snack each day? Think again.

On the weekend, go to the grocery store and buy five days worth of snacks -- nuts, yogurt, fruit, vegetables, nut butter, etc. --and take them into work on Monday. Or, if you go out to lunch bring back an afternoon snack so you are prepped. When you're cooking dinner, make two or three extra servings for lunch or dinner the next day. Immediately put the leftovers in a reusable container so the meals are ready to go for when you're too busy to cook.

We are always going to be busy. Brainstorm solutions that will fit your schedule. Stocking your fridge and prepping foods when you have time will make life much easier and make eating healthy a sustainable habit.

A past study found that people who cook at home most of the time consumer generally healthier meals with fewer calories. What small changes can a person make in the New Year that can help them cook more at home?

Cooking is definitely a key factor in weight management. If we all cooked more, the world would be a better place! Seriously. Preparing meals can have an immense impact on our lives. By cooking we are eating whole, real foods, strengthening our relationships with our friends and family by sharing meals, being more mindful about the foods we're eating and developing positive relationships with food as we take ownership of our choices.

Unfortunately, many of us don't realize what we're actually eating. We need to ask ourselves: What is the food I'm eating made of? Is what I'm eating really food? Cooking innately forces us to answer these questions and, as a result, be more mindful of what goes into our mouths. Also, the process of shopping for ingredients and then preparing the meal helps us value each bite more. The flavor, the nutrients, the ritual of cooking and it connects us to food, which is a beautiful thing. This in turn helps us develop a healthy relationship with food.

It's important to keep cooking your own meals does not mean they have to be perfect. In fact, cooking should never be perfect! There is no such thing. Just make it work. Personally, I like to throw all my food in a big bowl - it isn't pretty, but I love it, and it's delish!

Jae Berman, MS, RD, CSSD is a registered dietitian who currently works as a health educator on the "One Diet Does Not Fit All" study at the Stanford Preventative Research Center and in private practice at

Previously: When it comes to weight loss, maintaining a diet is more important than diet type, Early findings show nutrigenomics could make weight loss more efficient, Changing views on dietary fiber's role in weight loss and To meet weight loss goals, start exercise and healthy eating programs at the same time
Photo by muammerokumus

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