Authors: Dr Ayesha & Dr Dean Sherzai
As we begin a new decade, it’s natural to reflect on the accomplishments and successes of the past year and set new goals for the coming year. For many people, this involves beginning a fresh diet or exercise regime to kickstart or elevate their health. Unfortunately with the latest fad diets and quick fat loss schemes, we often focus on the bigger picture (i.e. “I want to lose 20 pounds in three weeks”) without carefully considering how our everyday habits affect our long-term goals.
Health and fitness goals are usually at the top of the list, but your goals may also include getting a promotion, going back to school, entering a new career, or completing a long standing personal project that you’re passionate about. We often approach these goals with an ‘all or nothing’ tactic – that is, we try to commit ourselves entirely to it with one overarching direct method, or, we don’t bother at all.
This way of creating and following goals is extreme and becomes difficult to manage, especially considering how much of our everyday lives are affected by outside influences at work, at home, and within our social circles. External influences impact how we can, and ultimately will, stay devoted to these resolutions.
In order for New Year’s resolutions, especially health resolutions, to actually work, it’s important to look at goals as an opportunity to build lifelong behaviors. These are behaviors which naturally turn into habits and infuse into your entire life, right down to the core of your family culture. Our approach to this at Brain Initiative revolves around feeling your successes incrementally increase throughout the year, so that by the six month mark you have developed a completely different way of living that is not a forced model, but a natural baseline of living overall.
Here is an approach that is built around the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-bound) goal model and starts with gradual, small changes to the following main dietary areas:
- Meat: Start by limiting red meat and focusing on poultry and omega-3 fatty acid fish like salmon, adding beans, lentils and soybeans as good substitutes for protein and fiber. Eventually introduce meat-free days and eating meat only a few times a week.
- Cheese: Reduce cheese intake to once or twice a week and replace with fat free and plant based or nut based cheeses such as zucchini cheese and cashew cheese.
- Oil: Switch to unprocessed and/or minimal Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) as your main cooking oil instead of butter or margarine.
- Salt: Drastically reduce your salt intake by switching to herbs and spices like oregano, cayenne, and allspice which can enhance everything from meat to vegetables to sauces.
- Sugar: This one can be a bit more tricky as sugar is hidden in many foods and snacks otherwise deemed healthy, which is why it’s good to take a closer look at nutritional labels and be more mindful of sugar substitutes. Start by eliminating most processed foods and desserts and limit consumption to no more than two or three times a week, eventually weaning off of sugar altogether.
For each of these nutritional areas, we target one small behavior at a time and help people succeed in a time bound, specific way to build daily habits. This is an often overlooked, but much more strategic approach to habit change that is easier to maintain with coaching to keep you accountable.
We see the struggle to shift to this mindset often in our practice, with patients who find it difficult to make changes because they are so huge and drastic, or who have embarked on different changes and fad diets throughout their lives but have found it difficult to maintain long term. This was the case for one of our patients who experimented with diet after diet over the course of several decades without seeing the results she wanted. She had started experiencing significant memory problems and her head constantly felt cloudy, which resulted in a series of critical mistakes at work. We discovered that the Keto diet she was trying out was actually having an adverse effect, leaving her worse off than when she had started, including giving her high cholesterol, pre-diabetes, and high blood pressure. It simply wasn’t working for her.
So, we started to focus on each of her individual habits, creating a strategic and time-bound plan to modify her food choices and apply the SMART approach. While she was initially hesitant, as this was a vast departure from the usual diet model where she was used to adding and removing options, she was thrilled when she started to see the weight drop and her health biomarkers (blood pressure, glucose and lipids) return to normal levels. She no longer viewed her diet as a restricting force but an incredible benefit to her overall health and lifestyle that she was able to maintain, both for herself and her family. In the end, her brain fog cleared, her memory improved, and she became more energetic and much happier – the ultimate changes so many of us strive for, and are quite attainable.
In order to see effective results and encourage long-term brain health, we feel it’s very important to start a new movement around behavioral change models rather than New Year resolutions. By shifting your mindset to one that encompasses more of the SMART model and creates small measurable milestones, you are much more likely to commit to a healthier lifestyle that results in huge benefits for the rest of your life.