Habits and Will Power

‘Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going’ – Jim Rohn

It is the beginning of February and I’ve just returned from my local gym. The place was much less busy than it was around 2 / 3 weeks ago. This happens every year. We’re about a month away from when people were declaring their New Year’s resolutions, many of which were a full life overhaul with regular workouts, healthy diets and self improvement across the board. I also find the predictability of this a little depressing – people really do think ‘it’ll be different this year’ but rarely do their proposed radical life changes stick. It’s been well researched and the reality is that willpower and motivation are finite, so to make lasting changes you need to make things habit and you can’t change all your habits overnight.

In my personal experience I’ve had the most success with new diets, exercise and ways of living by making small changes and gradually introducing new behaviours. Firstly on the point of a ‘diet’ I don’t mean some temporary fad that will make you weight yo-yo but a permanent change to what you eat. I thought it might be useful to highlight some small changes people tend to find they can benefit from. These will obviously depend on what you currently eat, drink and how you exercise (if you exercise!).

So, for example, if you have a terrible diet a plan to improve things could be:

Month 1: Stop drinking calories: No sodas, no juice. Stick to water, tea and coffee (ideally without milk) should be the aim. Sodas don’t satiate you at all but do provide a dose of sugar and calories. Even Diet Sodas with zero calories can trigger an insulin response and also the sweeteners themselves are typically bad news. If you’re used to sweet drinks then drinking something like Green Tea can be an acquired taste. However, once acquired most people enjoy it and the long term heath benefits are significant. This small change may seem easy to some but require a lot of willpower for others – make this one change for 30 days before looking at other areas…………

Month 2: Improve your breakfast: Most people don’t eat enough vegetables and the 5 a day UK government guidelines I think is way too low. I typically have eggs and veg for breakfast – the veg being mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes, red onions, chilli and spinach (try to include something green) all cooked in coconut oil. Delicious and satiating. You can vary this up with other veg once you’re in the swing of things and have the taste for it. If you still crave carbs in the morning try the eggs and veg with a piece of toast – preferable a gluten free options like rye bread – or add some sweet potatoes into the veg mix. Of all the meals breakfast is fairly easy to control for most people as they can have it in the home. If prepping all that veg everyday seems like a lot of work you can cut the raw veg up at a weekend so it is ready to cook and pre-roast sweet potatoes. Or you can make a large vegetable frittata which can last a few days in the fridge. The frittata option also works well if you are eating breakfast away from home as you can cut a slice or two before you head out. Try it for 30 days to get it to stick – I’ve been eating breakfast like this now for around 4 years.

Month 3: Improve your lunch: Sandwiches seem to be the go to lunch in the UK. I’m not an advocate of the food pyramid and think that most grains aren’t great news. If you disagree with that breads can still contain a lot of salt and sugar so do be careful about your intake. I also find that I get hungry again fairly quickly after eating sandwiches so want looks like a low-calorie option gets me snacking later on. Lunch on the go can be a minefield and if I’m forced to eat something quick when I’m out and about I try to go for something like sushi at Itsu but I realise this may not be possible for most people . An cheaper alternative would be to make something at home to take with you to work, college etc….. I like to have some carbs at lunchtime so will make a salad at home with some sweet potato cut into cubes and roasted, plenty of leaves, tomatoes, cucumber, home made coleslaw (just cabbage, carrot,  olive oil, salt and pepper – no mayo) and some protein – this can be some quality organic ham, tinned fish like tuna, mackerel – whatever you feel like. The only cooking is the sweet potato cubes but these can be roasted in a big batch at a weekend and kept in the fridge.

Month 4: You guessed it – improving your dinner. Dinner is a meal that some people are fairly good with and others are just used to grabbing something convenient or having a take-away. If time is a problem batch cooking so you can reheat can work well. As with other meals include plenty of vegetables. I typically stick to rice and sweet potatoes for my carbs but occasionally have regular potatoes or rice noodles. For my protein – over the course of a week I’ll have a couple of dinners with beef (sometimes mince – stick to grass fed) a couple with fish (a white fish and a salmon) a chicken dish and then some variety like goat, duck, ostrich steaks….. Think quality and variety when choosing protein options. If you typically buy the cheapest possible options in every field meat and dairy is one area I’d encourage you to buy organic and naturally reared options. Organic grass-fed beef is very different in nutritional value and taste than standard commercially farmed stuff. With vegetables it is arguably less important as an organic courgette, for example, may not be distinguishable in taste or nutritional value from a non-organic one.

Month 5: Read ingredients and fine tune your choices. There are a few areas that will probably still be far from optimal if you are only 5 months into a new way of eating. Such as the fat you cook with – some people are scared of fats like butter and choose vegetable oils like sunflower oil to cook with instead. Firstly from a calorie point-of-view they’re all the same – 1 gram of fat is 9 calories regardless of whether it is lard, butter, sunflower oil, extra virgin olive oil or  coconut oil. However, a lot of research has been done that suggests that vegetable oils can be carcinogenic (Google or read books like the Perfect Health Diet). Also the saturated fats in coconut oil and butter are now becoming less of a concern. Coconut oil tends to be my ‘go to’ cooking oil as it is stable at high temperatures and full of Medium Chain Fatty Acids. I’ll look at different fats in another post another time as I don’t want to go off topic here! When it comes to food labels I try to avoid anything with vegetable oils, soya, added sugar and other sweeteners like high fructose syrups. Unfortunately these three things are probably in 90% of items in your local supermarket!

Month 6: Track and tweak your calories. I don’t think minimising calories and fat is a smart long term strategy. Most people who limit calories in the short term as part of a rapid weight loss diet end up failing as they aren’t eating a sustainable diet. For many that can happen all in one day – a low calorie / no breakfast followed by a light lunch tends to result in late night feasting. I don’t advocate measuring and writing down everything you eat forever but doing it for 2 or 3 days can give you an appreciation of the calories and nutrients you’re eating.

You might think 6 months is a long time to implement changes but not starting won’t make it any quicker! You’ll also start seeing gradual improvements as you go and more importantly you’ll improve your habits and the changes will be lasting.

This gradual change approach can be applied to other areas of life improvement. So if you’re already getting your nutrition right then there might be other areas that need focus and applying this thinking may help you make lasting positive changes.

But I don’t have time! This is a common excuse we all have used, I know I have. I’ve changed my view on this in recent years – we all have the same number of hours in a day so it isn’t about time it’s about priorities. Make eating well a higher enough priority and you’ll have time for it.