As a former therapist and current trainer and coach I have always been keenly interested in how people change.  I ‘ve learned a lot in my profession,  through research and study, and just by trying it in various areas of my own life.  What I know is that change is hard and does not happen all at once.  Instead, it occurs in fits and starts over a period of time. Humans do not easily abandon long-established behavior patterns (no matter how unhealthy) even inthe face of rational evidence that we should!  It’s almost always a complete waste of time to try to force radical, uncomfortable change on people.  It doesn’t work.  We just aren’t built that way.

What does work is making small incremental behavior changes and evolving them into new habits.  Take one area and make a change.  Give time for that change to become more natural by repeating it and experiencing the rewards.  In time it will take less effort and thought to do the behavior.  It will eventually become a habit rather than something that feels forced from the outside.

This paradigm of creating habits rather than attempting radical change in one fell swoop is very powerful when applied to weight loss and creating a healthy lifestyle.  We all know diets don’t work. In fact, repeatedly attempting them often results in weight gain over the long term. Creating healthy habits that sustain a lean bodyweight is what works.  Here I have  identified 7 powerful and transformational habits you want to develop. These habits have been well researched and scientifically proven to aid fat loss and improve general health.  Let’s get started!

DITCH SUGAR.  You may have noticed a proliferation of stories about sugar in the media lately.  I recently heard the phrase, “sugar is the new smoking.”  After years of fat being the vilian in our diet the focus has now shifted to the sweet white stuff.  This is because the low-fat diet revolution failed miserably and statistics show Americans are more overweight than ever.  The calories in and calories out theory has also been debunked. What gives?

Scientists now believe the true cause of obesity is insulin resistance which is driven in large part by the consumption of refined sugars.  The more sugars consumed the more insulin our body produces.  Insulin is responsible for fat storage. The more insulin we have hanging around the more likely we are to develop insulin resistance, store fat, and gain weight.

Sugar is a special problem for health and weight loss because it increases insulin both in the short term and long term.  It also happens to be present in many of the foods included in the Standard American Diet.  A good place to start kicking the sugar habit is at home.  Get rid of the your sugar bowl and refraining from adding the stuff to your drinks when you are out and about. Perhaps a little raw, unfiltered,  honey can be used for sweetness if some foods are completely inpalatable for you without otherwise.  But, the idea is to change your taste preferences away from the overly sweet.  Next, learn to read labels and don’t buy items that mention sugar in the first five ingredients (it’s even better not to eat any items that have that many ingredients).  Be aware that sugar can be given other names in the ingredients list on packaged foods.  Some clever labels for sugar you will find are sucrose, maltose, dextrose, high fructose corn syrup,  corn sweetener,  cane sugar, maple syrup,   brown sugar, molasses,  and agave nectar.  In terms of beverages avoid soda, sweetened iced teas, and coffee drinks.  Alcoholic mixed drinks also contain a lot of added sugar.  Your best bet for drinks are water, sparkling water with some squeezed fruit juice,  unsweetened teas (especially green tea), and organic coffee in moderation. Slowly reducing sugar in your diet will help to retrain your palate and set you on the road to a lifestyle that will support a lean body and help  avoid type 2 diabetes and other disease. It’s a simple, very powerful step to take for your good health.

REDUCE REFINED GRAINS.  The main dietary sources of carbohydrates in the Standard American Diet are refined sugar and grains. Refined grains are white flour, white bread, white rice, pasta, baked sweets, snack  bars, and processed cereals.  Grains are supposed to be healthy, right? The problem is that refined grains have been stripped of all nutritional value and turned into rapidly digested starch.  Starch in this form causes blood sugar to rise quickly which contributes to insulin resistance (the major cause of obesity) and can stimulate overeating (a cause of weight gain). Some other excellent reasons to avoid refined grains are that they have been shown to cause damaging inflammation in the body and their overconsumption  has been linked to significantly increased risk for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

How can we create a good carb habit and reduce the refined grains in our diet?  First, it helps to know which carbohydrates are healthy.  Some of the healthiest carbs are kale, spinach, carrots, broccoli, peppers, brussel sprouts, avocados, beets, lettuce, cucumbers, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, kidney beans, chickpeas,  rolled oats (not quick), apples, and blueberries.  Quinoa is also a great choice.  It’s actually a nutrient dense seed that is a potent source offiber, minerals , and protein and cooks up into texture like rice.  Start creating your own good carb habit by making small alterations in your diet.  Perhaps pick one meal of the day and substitute in a healthy carbohydrate for refined grains.  For example, substitute some sweet potato  for toast with your eggs in the morning.  Try eating rolled oats, nut milk and fruit instead of a bagel.  Be creative and experiment to find healthy choices you enjoy.

BECOME A WHOLE FOODIE: This “habit” or practice follows naturally from the two above.  If we aren’teating as much processed food then we are going to consume more whole food. Whole foods are simply those foods that don’t have a list of ingredients.  Eggs, bananas,  walnuts,  beef, and spinach are some yummy examples.  Whole foods are what the body was meant to consume.  No chemical processes have stripped their nutritional value.  No toxic additives have been introduced.  The body recognizes whole foods and knows how to digest and metabolize them for energy.  They are a part of a healthy lifestyle and aid in weight loss because they naturally contain the vitamins, minerals, nutrients, and fiber the body craves and needs to function in an optimal manner. Whole foods are desirable because they are rarely overconsumed and do not spike the blood sugar like processed foods. Think about it. When is the last time someone got fat eating too much broccoli?  Have you ever heard someone complain they couldn’t just eat one apple? Fresh, local, and organic produce are best.  Grass-fed and organic meats are the most healthy.  In terms of seafood, choose wild-caught versus farm-raised.  Bottom line: the less you eat from boxes and bags the better!

ADDRESS YOUR STRESS:  The health and wellness literature is rife with studies and articles relating the link between stress, weight,  and health.  A simple summaryis chronic unresolved stress leads to weight gain (especially around the waist) and adversely impacts health.  There are two main ways in which stress impacts weight.  Chronic stress leads to elevated cortisoi(the fight or flight hormone) levels which cause weight gain.  Second,  prolonged stress encourages overeating.  In particular, studies show that stressed people tend to crave foods high in sugar, fat, and calories.  In terms of general health. long-term unresolved stress increases risk for a plethora of health problems including; depression, digestive problems, heart disease, headaches, and memory issues.  The upside is that stress can be mitigated. But action must be taken.   Stress reduction is not passive. Resting and avoiding life don’t help much.

Finding stress-busting acitivities that work will take some trial and error for most.  Those people who exercise regularly already have a great method.  Physical exercise is a very effective outlet for stress and has numerous other benefits for health.  Other options to try to alleviate stress are meditation,  deep breathing,  yoga, music, journaling, and active hobbies that induce physical relaxation and mental respite.   The key is to find an activity you enjoy and can realistically engage in on a consistent basis.  Make the time in your schedule for yourself to de-stress. Try to approach it as a necessity not an indulgence.  As you feel better, start to drop weight, and experience other benefits this positive habit will take hold and transform your health.

LISTEN TO YOUR BODY: Now more than ever it’s hard to tune into ourselves.  Social media keeps us connected and ever vigilant about what everyone else is doing and thinking.  If you are looking to lose weight or improve your health the information out there is available and beyond abundant.   We hear about the latest diets,  fitness  craze , health expert opinions, and scientific discoveries on a daily basis.  Often the information is contradictory, confusing, and even  overwhelming.  Who do we believe?  Who do we follow? 

In this blog post I have made an effort to distill some of the most sound science-based research on weight loss and, to a lesser extent,  generalhealth.  This information is scientifically supported and few would argue the sound principles of nutrition and health I’ve been discussing. You have probably even heard or read about them before and can tell hey are sensible and will work.  But, my point here is not about these specifics.  My message is focused on the importance to paying attention to how your body uniquely responds to the nutrition, stress management, sleep practices, and movement you choose.  I don’tbelieve people succeed in the long term on cookie-cutter programs (of which there are hundreds on line now) for weight loss and wellness.  People succeed when they take responsibility and implement those healthy behaviors that work for them!  How do you know if something is working?  You know by tuning into how you feel in your body and your performance in important parts of your life.  How is your energy level?  Do you feel satisfied or hungry all the time?  Are you obsessed with your next meal?  Do you get lots of cravings? Are you choking down food you hate because it’s a part of the hottestand latest diet? Are you gaining weight?  Are you having a lot of difficulty losing weight? Do you have digestive problems?  Do you feel deprived and angry because you can’t eat what you want? If the program or diet you are on leaves you lacking in these areas then it’s not for you.  Take what is generally healthy and appeals to you then tweak it until you get it right.  If this process seems too difficult you can enlist the help of a professional such as a Nutritionist or Health Coach (I know a good one).  The point is not to continue with behaviors and/or programs that don’t work.  Don’t follow anyone.  Lead yourself down your own individual path to health and success.

MOVE:  The human body is designed to move. Movement  helps alleviate stress, maintains flexibility, keeps muscles strong,  alleviates stress,  promotes circulation and digestion, aids in weight maintenance,  and just plain feels good.  Movement is not an effective primary method of weight loss.  Weight loss is about hormonal balance.  Movementis  just one of the outputs in the metabolic equation.  Using exercise to burn unhealthy calories always fails in the long term.

Creating a healthy habit of movement means giving your body the movement it needs to function at it’sbest.  Developing this habit is easier for some than others.  There are those who love to run the trails and chomp at the bit to hit the gym every day.  You can’t get those types to stop moving sometimes!  I definitely fall into this category but realize that most people do not.  So what are the options for those who don’t naturally gravitate to fitness or feel awkward being physcial?  The answer is whatever type of movement they will do.  It doesn’t have to be “working out” in the gym (although I highly recommend it). A daily movement habit can be basketball pick-up games at the local high school,  tennis lessons,  cycling,  bodyweight circuits,  hip-hop dancing,   martial arts and so much more.  For a movement practice to be positively impact health it does need to raise the heart rate, tax the muscles, and generate some sweat.  But beyond that the door wide open for individualization and creativity.

SLEEP TIGHT: The subject of sleep may not be very sexy but it is getting increasing attention lately in the media and in the health and wellness space.  This is because so many people are sleep-deprived. Getting a sufficient amount of quality sleep each night can be transformative of overall health and a huge ally in game of weight loss and management.  It’s an area of health that deserves as much care and attention as  nutrition.  After all, it’s how we spend a third of our time!  Important things happen while we sleep.

The connection between sleep ,  weight, and health is hormonal  balance.  When a person is sleep-deprived their hormonal balance is disrupted.  This disregulation leads to food cravings (for the bad stuff like candy and chips), overeating, reduced movement, and slowed metabolism.  These effects can cause weight gain or totally stall weight loss efforts.  Sleep deprivation also makes us feel sluggish,  mentally foggy, and impairs concentration and memory. This translates into sub par work performance and  can disruptrelationships.  In the long-term,  prolonged periods of poor quality sleep can lead to serious health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, and even early mortality.

To improve sleep it is important to look at both the quality and quantity.  A general guideline for quantity is 7 to 9 hours per night but that varies person to person.  Sleep quality relates to minimal sleep interruptions, achieving all stages of sleep, and feeling rested the next day.  In order to create a healthy sleep habit it is very useful to develop a positive bedtime routine each night. Shut down electronics an hour before bed.  Read or take a warm bath.  Get on your pajamas.  Then hop in bed for a great nights rest.  Avoid eating or exercising right before bed as this can set off internal processes that make sleep difficult. Dosleep  in a dark and slightly cool room to improve slumber.  Treat sleep as a healthy healing period of your day to relish and enjoy.  Many good things happen while you rest!