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How to stick to your New Year health resolutions

How often have you made New Year’s resolutions to get healthy, only to give up mid January? Georgia Rickard finds out how to make them stick – without personal trainers, weight-loss programmes or life coaches.

I want to lose weight

Keep a diary

You may not think writing could cause much of a sweat, but according to a 2008 study, keeping a food diary is one of the most important exercises you can include in your weight-loss routine – helping you lose up to twice as much weight.

The study found that people who kept a food diary lost eight kilos after 20 weeks – double the four kilos lost by those who did not keep a food diary.

Melanie McGrice, weight-loss counsellor and dietitian, explains how something so simple can have such a profound impact.

“Writing down your food intake can make you aware of habits you didn’t even notice you had, like non-hungry eating,” McGrice explains. You don’t even need a special notebook to get started; simply scribble down what you have eaten on a post-it note or send yourself a summary email after each meal, says McGrice. “After all,” she says, “it’s not the record itself that’s important – it is the act of reflection.”

Believe in yourself

How many times have you told yourself it doesn’t matter if you have that second piece of cake, because you are already overweight? You’re not alone.

“How you speak to yourself is the first thing dietitians assess when you walk through the door,” says McGrice. That’s because the biggest determining factor to weight-loss success is a positive attitude.

A study published in the Cognitive Therapy and Research journal looked at 62 overweight women who volunteered for a weight-loss programme and asked them to rank their chances of success. Those who rated themselves as ‘confident’ about their weight-loss abilities were much more likely to stick to their six month commitment – and to achieve their weight-loss goals.

If you’re in a weight-loss rut, get back to basics by setting some realistic goals. “That means giving yourself a weight-loss goal of five kilos, even if you have 25 to lose,” says McGrice.

Achieve a smaller goal and you will feel a great sense of achievement, getting the positive momentum you need to lose the next five kilos, and the next.

Focus on food

The food you can have, that is.

“When a dietitian helps you eat for weight-loss, they will tell you to focus on what to eat, instead of what not to eat,” McGrice reveals. That means instead of thinking about the potato chips and biscuits you are avoiding, you need to concentrate on how you can feed yourself at least five serves of veges and two serves of fruit each day.

“When you focus on what you can have you are less likely to feel deprived – keeping you on track,” says McGrice.

There is no doubt that this strategy works. When researchers at Pennsylvania State University gathered a group of 97 obese women who were avoiding fat in their diets, they asked half the women to focus on adding more vegetables and fruit to their diet, while the other women just kept on avoiding fat. After a year of monitoring, the vege-munchers reported much greater success – losing 20 per cent more weight on average, with the added benefit of reporting less hunger.

Swap old tastes for new

Can’t stomach certain vegetables? It could be that you are objecting to more than the taste, says dietitian Catherine Saxelby. If you spent hours being force-fed mushrooms at the dinner table as a child, “you’re probably reacting to the negative experience you associate with them, as much as you are the taste,” says Saxelby.

If that’s the case, you could try mixing them with your favourite foods, “or you could research which foods have a similar nutritional profile and eat them instead.”

And if you just don’t like the taste of vegetables in general? Saxelby says: “Studies show that people don’t like the unfamiliar, so you might need to keep persisting until they become familiar. With time, anyone can learn to like veges.”

If you are still not convinced (or trying to convert a fussy eater) get smart and include more veges in your usual meals. For example, add finely chopped carrots, celery and courgettes to bolognese sauce, and try starting every meal with an interesting varied salad of different vegetables.

Eat with your ears

If getting the whole family to eat more vegetables is challenging, you are probably missing one vital ingredient: adjectives.

When researcher Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab in the US, offered six different foods to cafeteria diners over a period of six weeks, they found a few extra words added greatly to the taste.

One dish was described at times as ‘Red beans and rice’ and at other times was labelled ‘Traditional Cajun red beans with rice’. Similarly, another dish was called ‘Seafood fillet’ on some occasions and ‘Succulent Italian seafood fillet’ on others. The diners were then asked to assess which tasted better, and though the dishes were identical, the adjective-laden dishes were considered much tastier!

Try dressing the names up with gourmet words for older family members, and use ‘fun’ words for the kids’ meals, suggests Saxelby.

“A few select words can make all the difference, whether that’s changing ‘Steak and veg’ to ‘Juicy rump steak with Italian-style roasted vegetables’ or renaming ‘broccoli’ to ‘Dinosaur trees’,” says Saxelby. You could always remove some words, too, she points out: “‘Forget’ to mention the rice you’re eating is brown and they probably won’t even notice!”

Hire a new therapist – you

If you have ever dreamed about paying an expert to solve your health problems, you will be happy to learn that the most effective treatment experts use to overcome binges is something you can do yourself – and it’s free. Called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), this involves challenging the negative thought patterns involved in your binge cycle and replacing them with more positive self-speak.

If you binge whenever you are worried or upset, for example, replace the ‘I am upset, but bingeing will make me feel better’ thought pattern with a sentence which directly challenges that concept, such as, ‘I’m upset, but the problem isn’t going to go away if I binge’.

Psychology-trained dietitian Susie Burrell explains how you can do this yourself. “Start by diarising all your thought processes before and after a binge,” she says. “Once you understand why you are bingeing, you can start to challenge those thoughts with new ones.” It may take time, but keep at it. Retraining your thought processes is a critical step in overcoming bad eating habits, and there’s plenty of evidence to prove that it works.

Clear the dinner table

Reducing the frequency of your binges can be as simple as turning the TV off when you eat. Researchers at Indiana State University taught 18 female binge eaters to focus on their meals (instead of watching TV) and without any other significant change, the women managed to reduce their weekly binges from an average of four, to only one-and-a-half binges each week.

Burrell believes that being mindful of your food makes a big difference because “it teaches you how to observe hunger and fullness cues, so you can learn how to listen to your body’s needs,” she says.

You will do more than cut your binges, too. Studies have proven mindful eaters are more likely to be a healthy weight and meet nutritional requirements, and they are less stressed and less depressed.

Nourish yourself regularly

If you were enlisting the help of an expert to kick your bingeing habit, they would instil the importance of establishing a regular eating pattern, with three meals and two to three snacks each day. “Having a routine gives you structure, helps establish good habits and ensures you eat good-sized amounts,” says Burrell.

To beat the ‘urge to splurge,’ plan your week’s meals in advance and pre-prepare them whenever possible. This not only reduces the likelihood of hunger getting the better of you, it also gives you a sense of control over your eating – just what you need to banish the habit.

Start with something you’re good at

If you know you’re good at something, you are much more likely to enjoy it. So why would exercise be any different?

“If you’re about to get back into exercise, you are much more likely to stick to your routine if you’re doing something you really enjoy,” says Robyn Brass, certified psychologist and weight-loss counsellor. The more you enjoy yourself, the more confident you will be in your abilities, too – and greater confidence equals a greater chance of success.

Start with something you know you can do, like walking or cycling along a path if you are just getting back into exercise. There is no sense in setting off for a run only to find it so difficult and unenjoyable that you never go again.


Let’s say you’d like to trim down and feel more relaxed. It sounds good in theory, but “if you don’t set specific goals, you will never achieve them,” says Brass. If you really want to start an exercise programme and stick to it, “it’s important that you work out some SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-specific),” she says.

If it all seems a little too ambitious for you, consider this: setting specific goals increases your chances of sticking to your resolutions and goals.

A 2002 study that looked at members of a fitness centre found that people were more than twice as likely to stay with an exercise programme if a goal was set. Only 30 per cent of the goal-setters dropped out of their exercise programme, as opposed to 74 per cent of the non-goal setters – so give yourself a head start by specifying when, where, how long for and how often you are going to exercise.

Forget about the gym

It is unorthodox advice, but if you can’t stand gyms, you are just not going to stick with a vow to go every day, long-term.

“It’s just not sustainable,” says Brass. If you find yourself renewing your resolve to visit the treadmill every few months only to stop going after two sessions, it’s time to consider doing something else.

The good news is, as long as you are raising your heart rate you’re being physically active, so activities such as dancing, playing with the children and walking are all beneficial. Just make sure your exercise routine has structure to it and a moderate level of exertion.

“Otherwise you’re not going to see any results, and you may leave yourself too little time to exercise, both of which will affect your motivation,” says Brass.

See The 20-minute workout for an exercise plan to get you started!


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