Making changes to improve your health

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Greg Nieckula, D.O., internal medicine physician with CHI Memorial Internal Medicine Associates – Signal Mountain

It’s January, and if you’re like most people, the thought of dieting has crossed your mind. After an indulgent holiday season, it common to want to clean up your eating habits, drink more water and add exercise to your daily and weekly routine. We all know these behaviors help us feel better but knowing where to start can also be overwhelming.

For decades, fad diets have come and gone – Slim Fast, Weight Watchers and Atkins come to mind. Now it’s whole30, paleo and keto. At times, certain eating programs can be effective in the short term. People naturally gravitate toward something that promises immediate results. That’s why they these diets are popular. But any eating plan that restricts specific foods or combinations of foods entirely is very difficult to maintain for the rest of your life. I’ll concede that they can play a role in helping jumpstart weight loss or when individuals want to make significant changes in their eating and exercise habits – but they aren’t designed for a life-long commitment.  

So what’s the better approach? Making small changes to your habits – eating or otherwise – is the most effective way to see lasting change. A total overhaul is nearly impossible for even the most disciplined person, so consistency is key to a healthy lifestyle. If you’re looking for some ideas, here are a few suggestions that I use personally to keep me on the right track:  

Keep it balanced – A well balanced diet can mean different things for different people. My simplistic version is to not eat too much of any one category of food – protein, dairy or carbohydrates. Within this suggestion, choose a variety of fruits and vegetables with every meal. The brighter colors you choose, the better. Fruits and veggies are loaded with fiber and the micronutrients we need for a healthy body and mind.

Choose the right fats – At one time, fat was considered the enemy of a healthy diet. No more! We know that trans fats play a role in raising your bad (LDL) cholesterol, lowering your good (HDL) cholesterol, and increase your risk of developing heart disease and stroke. High concentrations of trans fats are found in fast food, vegetable shortening, coffee creamer and refrigerated dough products like biscuits and cinnamon rolls. Limit these foods as much as you can.

The good news is that polyunsaturated fats have been shown to reduce the risk for heart disease. Fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6) are essential building blocks the body needs for optimal brain function and cell growth. Walnuts, sunflower seeds, flax seeds and fish like salmon, tuna and trout are all excellent sources – and they are delicious, too!

Put down the processed foods – We all lead busy lives. Reaching for a quick dinner of takeout or a boxed meal kit that you know the kids will love is definitely the easier path after a long day. Any time you eat food from a box, it increases your sodium, fat and chemical intake – all enemies of a healthy lifestyle. If you make your food at home, it’s likely to be lower in salt, sugar and fat and higher in the nutrients your body craves. 

Count your calories – This tip is simple but effective. By keeping track of what you eat each day is a powerful tool for effective and long-term weight loss. The act of recording what and how much you’re eating can help you identify your areas of weakness (like indulging too often on office treats) and where you need to add more of the good stuff back in (like filling up on an extra side of grilled vegetables at dinner). There are plenty of free apps like My Fitness Pal or Lose It! that make keeping a food diary easier than ever before. 

Keep in mind that these suggestions are just that – suggestions that can serve as a starting point for new habits. People with specific health concerns, allergies or conditions like diabetes or heart disease do need to be more selective about the quality and quantity of carbohydrates in their diet. That’s why it’s critical work with your personal physician to develop a plan that meets your specific dietary and health needs. Best wishes for a happier and healthier you in 2019!

If you’d like to learn more about ways to make changes that improve your health, schedule an appointment with Dr. Nieckula by calling (423) 886-2004. 

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