A new year always brings about reflection on ways to prioritize the most important thing: our health! Focusing on a healthy diet is typically at the top of the list, but there are so many other foundational things that help our body to be metabolically healthy. As a nutritionist, these are the tips I often share with my nutrition college students or my nutrition clients. We can start incorporating this list of healthy habits now so we can feel our best and promote a lifestyle of wellness!
Staying hydrated keeps our immune systems healthy, our organs functioning properly, our skin looking better, and helps us to properly digest our food. A good rule of thumb is half of your body weight in ounces. So a 200 lb person should be consuming around 100 oz of water. You can also up your water intake by eating hydrating foods! Soup is fantastic way to do this. My Vegetable Detox Soup is loaded with anti-inflammatory vegetables and water.
Hydration is also important during colder months. We tend to not drink as much, but by starting your day with 16 oz of water, warm water, or herbal tea is a fantastic way to hydrate and prepare your organs for digestion. If you sweat a lot, drinking an electrolyte drink is a good idea. My 2 favorites are LMNT and Ultima. Ultima is great option for those that don’t love to drink water and a yummy way to flavor water without adding sugar!
2. Prioritize Protein
Eating more protein has plenty of benefits to the body. First, protein is the most satiating macronutrient and makes us feel fuller longer. Protein stimulates our fullness hormones such as Glucagon-like Peptide-1 (also known as GLP-1 and yes this is the same GLP-1 found in weight loss drugs). This helps to prevent unnecessary cravings! In fact, starting the day with a high protein breakfast like eggs is the best way to avoid mindless sugar cravings or afternoon crashes. Most complete proteins are also loaded with essential vitamins and minerals for bone health, blood health, and immune fighting cells.
Increasing protein intake is one way to increase your resting metabolic rate (RMR). After consuming a meal high in protein, our body actually burns a higher amount of calories compared to the other macros (carbs and fat). Protein is also essential to building muscle and strength, another factor in increasing our RMR! Individuals who are trying to lose weight should focus attention on increasing their RMR as opposed to counting calories.
3. Eat more Complex Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are the main source of fuel for our bodies. Some popular diets or weight loss programs will encourage people to eliminate carbs from the diet. Instead of eliminating, the key is to increase the right kind of carbohydrates: complex carbohydrates that give our bodies plenty of fiber! Some of my favorite recipes loaded with fiber include chia pudding, smoothies, or delicious slaw salad.
Complex carbohydrates are digested more slowly and release glucose into the bloodstream at a consistent rate, and make us feel fuller longer (similar to protein). Compared to simple carbohydrates like bread, pasta, and sugar that are digested quickly and spike our blood sugar. When looking at a meal, we should prioritize complex carbohydrates like vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
For long term health, complex carbohydrates help us to maintain weight and protect us against common chronic illnesses such as Type 2 Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease.
4. Focus on your Gut Health
Speaking of fiber….. Recipes that are high in fiber and contain these gut-friendly nutrients can help to create a healthy microbiome! A healthy gut microbiome is the foundation to overall good health. The microbiome aids in digesting our food, absorbing nutrients, and using these nutrients to create hormones, neurotransmitters, and our immune system. When your microbiome is unbalanced it can cause all kinds of problems from a weakened immune system, to poor digestion, weight gain, lack of sleep, and even depression or anxiety.
This is exactly why a healthy gut should be a high priority! Almost every client I see as a nutritionist comes to me with a problem that stems from an unhealthy gut. I wrote a comprehensive post on ways to improve the balance between good and bad gut bacteria here. The good news is that it’s one of the parts of our body we can change in as little as a week!
5. Incorporate the 4 Main Components to a Meal
Tying it altogether, my favorite nutrition advice to give to others is to incorporate 4 components into every meal: protein, fiber, a healthy fat, and antioxidants. We’ve already covered the first 2, but a healthy fat and antioxidants are also important to a balanced meal.
Healthy fats such as olive oil, avocado oil, nuts, seeds, olives, avocados, and nut butters also help us to feel satisfied and fuller longer. They also release satiating hormones to help control our appetite. In addition, dietary fat is a fantastic source of energy and great fuel for our brain. Especially Omega 3-Fatty Acids that we find in foods like salmon.
Antioxidants such as those found in spices, herbs, and vibrant vegetables and fruits are protective against daily damage to our body. They also increase our daily intake of vitamins and minerals.
6. Plan and Prep your meals in advance
Creating a meal plan for the week has been something I’ve been doing for years! It helps me to diversify the nutrients I feed myself and my family, and creates more well rounded meals. Plus, it saves me both time and money!
I recommend to just about everyone to set aside about 30 minutes on the weekend to plan out your week and menu. Consider which days are busier and may require leftovers or make ahead meals. Write out your grocery list and plan for the week. If you’re in a rut, this 2-Week Healthy Meal Plan with Grocery List might be exactly what you need!
7. Movement and Exercise
Prioritizing any kind of movement is so helpful for both our physical and mental health! Exercise helps to build strength and muscle, which I mentioned above is critical to improving our resting metabolic rate. Exercise also helps to release endorphins and make us feel good throughout the day. Finally, exercise has an insulin effect on the body. This means that anytime we move after eating a meal, it can help move glucose immediately to muscle to be used for energy. This helps to keep our blood sugar stable! A walk or even doing chores around the house after a meal is a good way to make this happen.
Any movement is great, even if it’s a quick walk! Strength training with weights or body weight does have extra benefits to both bones and muscles. This can also include exercises like yoga or pilates. Also, morning exercise seems to have the greatest benefit for reducing stress and improving our sleep/wake cycles.
8. Get Outside!
Fresh air is good for the mind, body, and soul! Yes, even when it’s cold outside. Scientific research shows that more time spent outside helps to relieve anxiety and stress. Spending at least 15 minutes outdoors also helps to improve our sleep and stimulates our “wake” hormones. Anytime we can get outside in the sunshine, especially in the morning, it boosts our energy levels and sets us up for the day.
9. Prioritize a Good Night’s Sleep
Speaking of sleep…… If there was one thing we should prioritize for overall health, it’s improving our quality of sleep! This has more of an impact than diet or exercise. However, a good night’s rest is directly related to our overall diet and exercise routine. So they all work together!
Here are just a few tips to improve your quality of sleep:
- Unplug 1 – 2 hours before going to bed
- Avoid eating a large meal or snack before bedtime. In fact, not eating for 3 hours before bedtime helps us to avoid an insulin spike after falling asleep that could disrupt sleep. If consuming food before bedtime, it should be a high protein food. Also, NO ALCOHOL!
- A balanced gut microbiome helps us to sleep better! Prioritize complex carbohydrates and fiber throughout the day over sugar
- Consider sleep nutrients in supplement form before bedtime. Some nutrients that are specifically helpful for improving sleep are magnesium, L-Arginine, L-Tryptophan, melatonin, ashwaganda, and lemon balm. I swear by this supplement before I go to bed as it helps me get really deep sleep every night! This is crucial to creating more Human Growth Hormone that helps with metabolism and muscle growth/repair.
- Create a routine before bedtime to help your body wind down.
10. Enjoy Your Food, Try New Foods!
Finally, take the time to really enjoy your food. Incorporate all of your senses with every bite! Enjoy a meal with loved ones so you are more relaxed. Eating should be the highlight of your day. Often times we do this with distraction in front of a phone, tablet, or TV. This mindless eating actually negatively affects our digestion and doesn’t allow us to listen to our body’s cues. It takes 20 minutes for your stomach to tell your brain that you are full!
Trying out new foods each week is also a way to incorporate more nutrients into your diet. One of the many benefits of new foods is that you can diversify your gut bacteria! They all thrive off of different foods and nutrients. Having a more diverse and variety of bacteria is what ultimately creates a balanced microbiome.