As the holiday season comes upon us, so do the festive social gatherings that can lead to the enjoyment of more food, drinks, and desserts than usual. This, coupled with the onset of a new year, contributes to the culture of making health & diet-focused New Year’s resolutions a common tradition. And then turning around and breaking those resolutions within a few weeks is also a tradition most of us can, unfortunately, relate to.
I am here to tell you this may not be all your fault! But, before we begin, know that there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to improve nutrition, fitness, and health right after the holidays. This is referred to as the “fresh-start effect” where goals center around a time-related milestone—like the start of a new year (1). I encourage and celebrate health goals at any time of year. But, let me share with you some tips to help you see more success and well-being than the typical New Year’s resolutions.
Maybe we should rethink diet-focused New Year’s resolutins
Research shows that most people who make
New Year’s resolutions give up on them before the end of January (2,3). It’s not necessarily the fault of the person who gives up. Resolutions are often too ambitious, inflexible, framed negatively, and are often attempted without support. These are just a few of the reasons they’re difficult to stick with.
I want to propose a different way of making health goals. A way that is more achievable, sustainable, and can more easily become lifelong regular habits.
**Fun fact: Out of all of the personal goals that people make New Year’s resolutions about, two out of every three revolve around eating habits, physical health, and weight loss (1).
There are a few things to think about when considering diet-focused New Year’s resolutions.
Firstly, there is no physiological reason to wait for a specific date to take a step toward better health. You can start eating slower, choosing more fruit and vegetables, or practicing stopping eating when you're full at your very next meal. You can decide to implement your “fresh start” goal right here and now.
Secondly, the motivation behind many diet-focused goals may have unhealthy origins. Rather than coming from a place of love, empowerment, and future health, there are many not-so-healthy reasons some people make diet-focused New Year’s resolutions:
Because others around them (or online) are doing so
Feeling guilty about the current health status
As a “free pass” to overindulge during the holidays (2)
Thirdly, diet-focused goals are often unrealistic and unattainable. These goals can lead to disappointment, shame, guilt, and possibly even worse health habits and outcomes. Some experts believe there may be a link between certain diet-focused New Year’s goals and worsened well-being (3). Plus, unrealistic health goals may spark or contribute to on-again/off-again dieting habits.
Let's focus on a better way to set health goals
Making smaller, more sustainable changes can lead to more success. Studies show that certain types of goals are also more likely to contribute to—and not take away from—a sense of well-being. Here are some research-backed strategies to help you make better health goals at any time of the year.
1.Have more flexible goals
A 2021 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that over the course of time, people with New Year’s resolutions that are flexible report greater well-being than those who are less flexible around their goals (3).
What makes a goal flexible? Researchers define goal flexibility as, “the ability to view setbacks with equanimity and adjust goal pursuit as required.”
This positive impact of having more flexible goals may be because when reaching a goal becomes difficult, adjusting the goal itself may help to maintain a sense of well-being. The ability to respond to challenges and opportunities helps us “to feel more autonomous in relation to the self and the future,” said the study authors (3).
2. Have more flexibility in the way goals can be reached
That same 2021 study also looked at the outcome of “goal tenacity,” which is being more persistent when obstacles to reaching goals appear. Perhaps surprisingly, goal tenacity does not help people reach their goals. In fact, the rigidity in how goals are reached was harmful to some because it chipped away at their sense of well-being (3).
Why are there negative effects of too much goal tenacity? First of all, being more rigid and persistent in how goals are reached can make reaching the goal more difficult because of the inability to adjust and adapt. Tenacity can also lead to an “all-or-nothing” approach where when progress is not felt, some goal-setters abandon the goal altogether, rather than adjust the actions needed to reach the goal. Also, being inflexible in the process of achieving goals is linked to perfectionism, depression, and anxiety (3).
3. Set goals around the positive outcomes you’d like to achieve (rather than the negative outcomes you want to avoid)
A 2020 study published in the journal PLoS One found that “participants with approach-oriented goals were significantly more successful than those with avoidance-oriented goals” (1). An approach-oriented goal is one where your goal is to achieve a positive result (4). For example, a goal of getting fitter and stronger is a positive, approach-oriented goal that is more likely to be achieved, rather than an avoidance-oriented goal such as to not get diabetes.
4. Enlist support
That same 2020 study found that people who had some social support were more likely to reach their goal than those who tried to go at it alone (4). Having someone, like a friend or family member, can have positive effects when it comes to reaching goals.
Examples of flexible health goals
Here are a few examples of small, flexible health goals that can become sustainable over the long term. Whatever goals you choose to make, set them from a place of self-love.
5. Snack smarter (on most days)
Small snacks can add up to a big impact over time. Instead of pre-packaged, processed snacks, commit to eating fruit and nuts as snacks three or four times per week. There is overwhelming evidence of the healthful effects of eating fruits and nuts, and most people don’t eat nearly enough.
5. Choose water more often
Water is a great way to hydrate while reducing the amount of sugar (and empty calories) that come from sugary drinks. Being hydrated with less sugar is a win-win for your health.
Check out my Hydration Guide for some pointers!
6. Practice eating more mindfully (Start with once per day)
Beyond what you choose to eat and drink, is how you eat and drink. By slowing down and savoring the aromas, tastes, and textures of food, you can enjoy food even more. Try having your meals at a table (not a desk or in the car), ignoring all devices and screens while eating, chewing the food well, and putting the spoon or fork down to relax a bit between bites. Mindful eating may also help to realize when we’re satisfied with food, preventing unnecessary overindulgence (2).
7. Listen to your body and be kind to yourself
Part of health and well-being is how you treat yourself and your body. Setting and reaching health goals does not guarantee happiness, nor make you more worthy of love and kindness than you are right now. You are enough and deserve respect. Make self-love, self-care, and kindness—regardless of challenges or discouragement—goals too (5,6).
You are the person who is most able to feel gratitude and appreciate yourself every day of the year—whether you reach other goals or not. Don’t be too hard on yourself. You haven’t failed and you don’t have to give up. Keep listening to your body and being kind, no matter what (5,6).
8. Now is the time to discover what is actually healthy for YOU!
This may be one of the most novelle and important points. By looking at your genes we can dive into your unique biochemistry to truly unveil if those resolutions you are creating and those habits you are trying to make are truly working in your favor. Check out some of the top ways looking at your genes can support your health goals.
Let’s take all this into consideration!
How we choose our health goals can make a big difference in how long we’ll stick with them, how they impact our well-being, and how much success we see. This is very common and is not your fault.
Remember, don’t be too hard on yourself when challenges arise because they will. Allowing yourself some flexibility in how you set and reach your goals, opting for positive goals, and enlisting support can help you improve your health and maintain well-being throughout the year. These can also help you stick to your new healthy lifestyle for longer and be more sustainable so that you are better positioned to achieve those goals.
Remember, attainable goals for healthier lifestyle habits can be made any day of the year, including today.
Are you interested in diving into your genes? Do you need help setting yourself up for success when it comes to health- or diet-focused goals? As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer with a specialty in Nutrition and Genetics, I can help you reach your resolutions now and achieve your goals all year round!
Want support to make more attainable and sustainable health goals? Need quick tips and strategies to reach your health goals with ease and grace? Want someone to cheer you on and help you celebrate your successes? Book an appointment with me today to see if my philosophies can help you.
(1) Oscarsson, M., Carlbring, P., Andersson, G., & Rozental, A. (2020). A large-scale experiment on New Year's resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals. PloS one, 15(12), e0234097. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0234097
(2) Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. (2019, January). Re-thinking your New Year’s resolutions. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/2013/12/20/re-thinking-your-new-years-resolutions/
(3) Dickson, J. M., Moberly, N. J., Preece, D., Dodd, A., & Huntley, C. D. (2021). Self-Regulatory Goal Motivational Processes in Sustained New Year Resolution Pursuit and Mental Wellbeing. International journal of environmental research and public health, 18(6), 3084. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18063084
(4) Pychyl, T. (2009, February 8). Approaching Success, Avoiding the Undesired: Does Goal Type Matter? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/dont-delay/200902/approaching-success-avoiding-the-undesired-does-goal-type-matter
(5) Canadian Mental Health Association. (2022, December 7). Rethinking your New Year’s resolutions. https://cmha.ca/news/rethinking-resolutions/
(6) Bradley, G. (n.d.). 7 New Year's Resolutions That Will Actually Make You Feel Good. National Eating Disorders Association. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/7-new-years-resolutions-will-actually-make-you-feel-good