|Books and magazines always have some handy, easy-to-follow advice to keep you healthy. “Just 5 minutes face yoga per day prevents wrinkles”, “get a flat tummy in just 10 minutes a day” or “a simple 30-minute walk at dawn ensures better sleep at night” … That’s 45 minutes before you have even started looking after the rest of your life or even cooked a meal. If you’re not a celebrity and cannot afford a chef, a personal trainer, and a housekeeper, it can be difficult to find the time!
Add to that the restrictiveness and conflicting nutrition advice you may hear around which is leaving you feeling confused and inclined to not even start… Getting healthier can sometimes seem like an impossible task.
So does it always have to be all or nothing? Can you, perhaps, be “healthy in the middle”?
We inherently know what is and isn’t good for us, and having a healthy, real food diet, cooking from scratch as much as possible rather than relying on convenience foods, putting in some regular exercise, getting out into fresh air, taking time for relaxation, scheduling me-time and prioritising sleep does increase your chances of living a long and healthy life.
Having said that, you can also benefit from – even small – diet and lifestyle changes if you are not able to stick to all of the above at all times. And here’s why:
The Pareto Principle – aka the 80/20 Rule
The Pareto principle states that for many outcomes, roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes. For instance, 20% of computer bugs cause 80% of the crashes or 20% of the clothes in people’s wardrobes are worn 80% of the time.
Applied to health, this could mean: 20% of your lifestyle choices are responsible for 80% of your health outcomes. That would mean that small changes, or even a single one, could have a significant impact.
If you drink alcohol most days and too much of it on many of those days, cutting back or – ideally – going sober would make a difference in how well you sleep, how much you weigh, how likely you are to suffer from heart disease, cancer, dementia or liver disease later in life.
If your life revolves around sugar, removing just that one substance from your diet could reduce pain and inflammation, put an end to cravings and binges, improve your mood and protect you from type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, dementia and depression.
I’m not saying that either of those changes would be easy, but you don’t have to turn your whole life around to be healthier in the future than you are now. If you decided today to become a health saint from tomorrow and were actually able to do that, then, yes, you may become 100% healthy. But how realistic is that? According to the Pareto principle, however, chances are (and it is not a law) that you may become a lot healthier with a lot less effort.
So, pick the one thing that bothers you the most, the one thing that you suspect has the strongest impact on your wellbeing and focus on that for now. It’s a place to start. Once you have truly conquered that, you can, if you want, move on and tackle the next thing – one step at a time.
Another 80/20 Rule
One of the first things I tell my clients about when they start working with me is the 80/20 rule (not the Pareto principle this time): “If you eat healthily 80% of the time, you can afford to go off track 20% of the time.” Note that “healthily” can be different for each client.
When you first make changes to your diet, it can feel like you are “on a diet”. You’re not!!! You’re learning to eat differently for life in order to benefit from your new way of eating for life.
Does that mean that you’ll never have another slice of cake? Never another pizza? No more Chinese takeaways? Ever? With that prospect (kill me now!), you may never start.
This is where the other 80/20 rule comes in. A slice of cake or a couple of scoops of ice cream now and then are not going to kill you. Just make sure you drop the guilt (this is a wasted emotion) and enjoy every mouthful and simply resume your new way of eating again at the next meal.
This does NOT mean that you have fallen off the wagon because there is NO wagon, unless you are on a diet (!!!) rather than a permanent and sustainable lifestyle change…
There is just one caveat to this if you are an all-or-nothing person: if you know that having had your favourite ‘junk’ food once, you may never be able to get off it again, then perhaps don’t tempt fate.
Once you have followed your new way of eating for some time, once you have seen and felt the benefits, once your tastebuds have adapted, you may find that you no longer like the foods you couldn’t resist in the past. Cravings subside and processed, sweet or junk foods become a lot less appealing. When you get there, you may not even need the 80/20 rule anymore.
Create new habits
Forming a new habit takes anything between 18 and 254 days, on average and depends to some extent on the type of person you are, but what researchers say is most important when trying to form a new habit is consistency. Do that thing you want to get into every day, and you are much more likely to make it a habit.
If you can’t do it every day, perhaps you’ve bitten off more than you can chew at once. Did you plan on going for a 30-minute run every day, but find it is not happening? Then how about a 10-minute walk? Chances are that, once you’re out there, you’ll walk for longer, now that you’ve put your shoes on and got yourself out of the house, you might as well. But if 10 minutes each day seems a lot more feasible than 30, start there. Baby steps!
Do you want to cut back on refined (white) carbs and sugar from your diet? Depending on where you are in the process, you could start by switching from refined starchy carbs to unrefined (wholegrain) versions e.g. steel-cut, rolled oats instead of instant or wholegrain bread instead of white. Next, you could reduce portions sizes. Or, if you are feeling up to it, you could start by just reducing or quitting sugar, leaving the other starchy carbs alone for now.
Any step – even baby step – you take will take you in the right direction and closer to where you want to be. But only if you take it.
The importance of being accountable
There are very few people who are able to make a decision to change a habit and then just do it. The vast majority of us needs help with that, ideally with an accountability partner. Often, people who decide to quit smoking or run a marathon will announce their intention to friends, family or even on Facebook or Instagram.
There are many good reasons to choose a coach to be your accountability partner. A trained coach can help you define your priorities, set your goals, cheer you on, guide you over humps and lulls, and generally has your back. As well as being a Nutritional Therapist, I am also a certified health coach and would be delighted to do that for you. If you would like to have a chat about how I can help you get to where you want to be, contact me by booking your free health call today!