A new year means many are looking to improve their health by embracing a new lifestyle, but not all strategies for changing up your habits are created equal.
Fad diets and expensive fitness programs often become popular in January but are hard to keep up and can even pose risks to your health. Still, according to experts, some trends can actually help you get healthier.
And there are plenty of other long-term changes you can make in your life that won’t break the bank and will help you feel better in your daily life.
Here are some tips for creating a sustainable diet and fitness plan to get healthy in 2023:
Eat ‘real food’
Dr. Shami Hariharan, an integrative medicine doctor with Atrium Health in Charlotte, recommends to patients constructing a healthy diet around one of her favorite quotes from author Michael Pollan: “Eat real food, mostly plants, not too much.”
“Real food,” she explains, includes “whole foods, fruits, vegetables, legumes and other proteins.”
Within that framework, Hariharan added, it’s important to find meals that still bring you “joy.”
“If we don’t like how we’re eating or it’s hard, then that affects maybe even how we process our nutrients,” she said.
Farmer’s markets are a great place to find healthy foods at a reasonable price, Hariharan notes, while also supporting local businesses. Nonprofits such as The Bulb help bring healthy foods to food desserts around Charlotte at little to no cost, she added.
Avoid ‘extreme’ fad diets
While some fad diets may have “helpful components,” Hariharan said, most end up getting “skewed.”
“Keto, for example, is actually a very extreme diet where it puts our body into this whole different type of metabolism that it’s not used to,” she said. “The way that Keto has kind of gotten skewed over time is that people will end up eating a lot of saturated fat and animal products. Some of those things in moderation are just fine, but to that level are not.”
And while a fad diet may help you shed weight in the short term, they’re hard to maintain and there’s often “little to no evidence on the long-term effects.”
“What I see very consistently with fad diets, people gain it right back as soon as they’re not able to maintain this very strict regimen and may even gain weight back even more than they started with,” she said.
“And so that kind of up and down with our bodies can be not healthy on the inside as well.”
Consider ‘Dry January’
One New Year’s health trend that can be productive, Hariharan advises, is “Dry January,” abstaining from alcohol for the first month of the year.
“Alcohol is one of those things where there’s a very fine line between where it’s helpful and where it starts to become harmful and create inflammation or cause us to have weight gain or more seriously affect our detoxing organs,” she said. “And it doesn’t take a whole lot for that to happen, especially when it’s small amounts over time.”
Dry January can then be an opportunity to “reflect on our drinking habits,” Hariharan explained.
“Taking those breaks can have an impact on health, not just the physical health of not consuming alcohol for a month, but also maybe getting a little perspective and redefining our relationship with” alcohol, she said.
Find a safe, enjoyable exercise regimen
Like with diet, Hariharan noted, it’s important to find a fitness routine you actually enjoy so that you’ll stick with it throughout the year and beyond.
“There’s so many great resources out there, online and in-person, so finding something we enjoy is good. And we don’t need to shoot for the moon every time,” she said.
Setting specific and attainable goals will help you get where you want, Hariharan added.
“For example, if I say, ‘I’m going to exercise more in 2023’ versus ‘I’m going to walk for 20 minutes on my lunch break on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for all of January,’ I’m much more likely to do the second thing than I am the first,” she said.
And if you have “chronic medical problems” — such as heart disease, joint pain or arthritis — Hariharan recommends reaching out to your doctor for help crafting an exercise plan that’s both “safe and beneficial.”
Manage your stress levels
Our health is affected not just by what we eat and how much we exercise but also by our mindset, Hariharan said. So, she advises, it’s important to find a “meaningful outlet” for dealing with stress.
“I believe that stress, even low levels of chronic stress, is probably one of the most prevalent diseases in our society,” she said.
That outlet can take many forms depending on what works best for you, she added.
“People get intimidated,” she said. “They think, ‘I can’t do, like, meditation.’ Or they think about somebody sitting quietly for 30 minutes, and that sounds like torture. It doesn’t need to be something like that. It can be a breathing practice, it can be prayer, it can be sitting outside in nature and can be listening to meaningful music.”
As little as five minutes a day “of some mindful type of practice” can “create measurable changes in the mind and the body,” according to Hariharan.
“For example, if I was to lift weights for five minutes every day for a month, I would notice that I could maybe pick something up more easily or do other things about my day with more ease. It’s the same with mind-body practices,” she said. “If we do that for five minutes today, we don’t just feel better for those five minutes. The benefits start to kind of diffuse out into the rest of our day, and the benefits grow.”