Reviewed by: Krystle Zuniga, PhD, RD, LD
Written by: Ashley Lawrence
As spring nears, promising warmer weather and clearer skies, an uptick in physical activity will occur. Maybe you’ve recently made a fitness commitment to a friend, joined a local gym, or even registered for the upcoming 11th annual virtual Longhorn Run. Whether you’re looking to shed that winter weight in time for summer or simply trying to make some changes to your day-to-day health, you’ve likely noticed that what you eat throughout the day has a major impact on your body’s performance.
Poor diet and physical inactivity are linked to increased risk of diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes, that have become leading causes of death in the United States. There are even relationships between cognitive health and poor diet and lack of exercise, which are believed to contribute to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
We know making changes to your diet and daily exercise can seem overwhelming, which is why UT Health Austin dietitian Krystle Zuniga, PhD, RD, LD, wants you to know that you don’t have to do everything all at once. Start by following these 7 recommended tips:
1. Choose healthy food options that you like
Eat the fruits and vegetables that you like. If you don’t like broccoli, don’t eat broccoli. Instead, opt for zucchini, asparagus, or maybe even kale. There are hundreds of edible fruits and vegetables at your disposal, so don’t feel as if you’re limited to certain ones.
“Every single cell in the body is made up of the nutrients that we take in, which impacts the body’s function. In order for our bodies to perform well, we need to provide our bodies with the right fuel and building blocks. While most of what you’re getting from your diet likely fuels your usual activity, incorporating healthy food options into your diet can help with your performance and recovery,” explains Dr. Zuniga.
2. Practice mindful eating and moderation
Start listening to your body by eating only when you’re hungry. Mindful eating takes practice, especially in today’s fast-paced environment where it’s easy to get distracted. Your body will tell you what it wants, but it’s important to pay attention to the “why,” making sure you’re not partaking in eating because of something else that’s going on. It also isn’t necessary to give up all of the things you like, such as red meat or that freshly baked chocolate chip cookie. Just remember, moderation is key. You can treat yourself from time to time while still pursuing health goals.
“You can honor your hunger and honor your cravings without guilt,” suggests Dr. Zuniga. “And the great thing about UT Health Austin is that if there is some underlying anxiety or stress related to emotional eating, UT Health Austin offers mental health services to help manage that anxiety or stress.”
3. Pick a physical activity that you enjoy doing
Find a form of exercise that you enjoy. Maybe you’re not a runner, but you like to take walks in the evening after dinner. Maybe your partner is a CrossFit fanatic, while you prefer to engage in meditation practices in the form of yoga. Exercise does not have to be hard, and there are many benefits to participating in light to moderate activities. The bottom line is: if you don’t like the activity you choose, you’re not going to do it, causing you to gain zero benefits from it.
“There is this irrational notion that exercise has to be hard, it needs to be high intensity, and you have to get sweaty to benefit from it. However, the best form of exercise is engaging in an activity that you enjoy, because then you know you’re actually going to do it,” says Dr. Zuniga.
4. Acknowledge small victories
Create and celebrate small milestones. There are plenty of other benefits associated with living a healthier lifestyle than weight loss or weight management. Healthier eating habits make exercising more enjoyable, and exercising gives you more energy, helps you sleep better, and reduces your stress levels. These small wins are worth celebrating.
“People have a general idea of what a healthy diet looks like and know they should be exercising,” shares Dr. Zuniga. “Where people run into a lot of barriers is when they tell themselves they have to make a huge overhaul in their lifestyle overnight in order to benefit their health, which is simply not the case. Small changes over time can lead to sustainable health habits and long-term benefits.”
5. Allow yourself to fail
At some point, you are going to fail, and it’s okay to fail. Not all goals will be obtainable all of the time. You may want to meal prep five days a week, but later find that to be too ambitious of a goal and need to cut it back to three days a week. Or, you may have to abandon your workout plan for an extended period of time to accommodate a life change. We get it, life happens. Rather than be down on yourself, acknowledge what will and won’t work and make adjustments where possible.
“Sometimes you fall off track because you went on vacation or you had a bad week. That’s okay. Reassess and reevaluate your situation to determine where to pick back up or make a change,” encourages Dr. Zuniga.
6. Avoid crash diets
Stay away from crash, fad, and cleanse diets. These short-term diets encourage you to restrict your eating habits in exchange for rapid weight loss. While you may see some immediate changes to your body, the reality is that those changes are fleeting. Once you return to your former habits, you’re soon to be back at square one. Restrictive diets are more difficult and challenging than a healthy lifestyle needs to be. Rather than counting down the days until the diet is over, you can gradually incorporate changes that you will benefit from long-term.
“Crash diets create a lot of restrictions, and whenever you restrict something, you tend to hyper focus your energy on that item. If you’re going 30 days without eating your favorite dessert, at the completion of those 30 days, you may find yourself overindulging,” explains Dr. Zuniga.
7. Be accountable
Take accountability for your diet and exercise goals. You may have an idea of where you can start making changes to your diet and daily activity, but you have to find a way to execute and monitor that change. Keep a food journal, make an exercise calendar, join a workout program, use a fitness tracker, or find a workout buddy.
“When it comes to diet and exercise,” says Dr. Zuniga, “there is no one-size-fits-all. As a dietitian, I work to empower patients by providing them with knowledge to help them make healthy choices. I help them identify the skills they have, the goals they want to meet, and ways to accomplish those goals, setting a foundation that they are able to build upon.”
Depending on your specific healthcare needs, a dietitian may be a part of your healthcare journey at UT Health Austin. You can make an appointment with UT Health Austin by calling 1-833-UT-CARES (1-833-882-2737) or by visiting online here.