“I don’t want any vegetables, thank you.
I paid for the cow to eat them for me.”
— Doug Coupland
There are many mysteries in life, but the ingredients of a healthy lifestyle are not among them. When I first wrote this, it read like an academic journal. It contained mind-numbing statistics on how much sugar, salt, and calories we eat today, along with the inevitable scary lists of diseases and ailments that are linked to the typical American diet. I even added citations for scientific studies to ensure that your eyes would glaze over. In the end, I scrapped all of it. Why? Because we already know what to do. We just choose not to do it.
If you are part of the vast majority of people who fall down in this area, the more interesting question to ask yourself is, “Why do you choose to make bad decisions when it comes to your health?”
First, health is one of those areas where it’s easy to make bad decisions for a long time before we start to notice any negative effects. While the delayed consequences can be severe down the road, in the short term we feel pretty darn good about eating cake for dinner. We may even gobble down a few frosting flowers while we’re at it.
There really isn’t much we can do about the delayed consequences issue. It’s not as if we’ll suddenly gain 10 pounds after eating a cupcake or instantly develop symptoms of cancer after smoking a cigarette. It can take years or even decades for serious issues to develop. The key is to make healthy behaviors a habit—just a normal part of our everyday life.
The second major reason we may fail is the time, inconvenience, and cost of living a healthy lifestyle. With hectic schedules filled to the brim, it’s not easy to carve out time each day for sufficient exercise, healthy eating, and adequate sleep. I have to schedule these things on my calendar each day or else they often don’t happen.
One strategy I use to cut down the time and effort needed for the healthy eating part of the equation is to use a VitaMix blender. I know this sounds like a commercial but, thanks to my blender, I can gulp down insane quantities of green vegetables in under a minute. My daily VitaMix concoctions are green, bitter, vegetable sludges that would make a billy goat pause and reflect before sampling. For me, this prospect is much more appealing compared to chewing my way through a monstrous pile of vegetables. Still, it takes a significant amount of time each day to prep the vegetables for my culinary travesties.
On top of that, the cost can quickly add up. The way I see it, I can either pay now in the form of fresh fruits and vegetables, or I can pay later in the form of medical bills, so I consider it money well spent. The cost also pales in comparison to what I used to spend on wine and beer (I don’t drink alcohol anymore as I wanted to save some for the rest of you) so that serves as a handy reference point as well.
Given that it takes a significant amount of time, money, and effort to create a not-so-tasty product, it’s no wonder that most people avoid doing it. To help keep my mind on track, I like to recall the classic words on the basics of good nutrition from the late fitness and nutrition guru Jack LaLanne: “If man made it, don’t eat it” and “If it tastes good, spit it out.” I often think about these words while chugging my large quantities green sludge as part of my breakfast each morning.
Another important factor in your unhealthy decisions may be “decision fatigue.” You may start your day bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with a healthy breakfast and usually make it through lunch unscathed. But, as the day wears on, you start to feel tired. The vending-machine candy bars and the break-room donuts sing their irresistible, sweet song. But, for the sake of argument, let’s say you manage to hold firm.
You finish work, and then you’re off to the grocery store where you’re rewarded with aisle after aisle of unhealthy temptations, displayed prominently at eye level. You avert your eyes, stick your fingers in your ears, and sing la-la-la as you try to locate boring cans of organic garbanzo beans.
Even if you finally make it back to your car with a grocery cart full of nutritious, whole foods, you’re not out of the woods yet. You arrive at home and enjoy a healthy dinner. Then, at the end of a long day, a cruel member of your family (whom we’ll call Beelzebub, for short) asks if anyone would like a hot fudge sundae. The other princes and princesses of hell scream “Yes!” as they shift their gaze to you: a sad figure sitting on the couch, trying to drink your eighth glass of water.
Your defenses are down. You’ve been saying “no” all day, and you’re tired of it: “Okay. Fine. Give me three scoops, and don’t be chintzy on the hot fudge. Add a Matterhorn of whipped cream while you’re at it. I might as well go down in flames.”
One effective way to avoid this depressing scenario is to incorporate a Get Out of Jail Free day each week, every other week, or every month. I call them “sugar days” since that’s my weakness in the unhealthy food department. On the days when we’re on the ropes, feeling down, or attending a planned event or special occasion, we can simply declare it a “sugar day” with much fanfare, and then it’s anything goes for the rest of the day.
In this way, everybody wins. Our friends and family are happy that we’re joining the fun and not making them feel guilty, yet they’re aware that we’re still meeting our health goals. We’re happy that we can cater to our weaknesses and enjoy some unhealthy treats, and we’re still on track with our overall plan to live a healthy lifestyle.
Misbehaving is part of the fun of life, especially when we have a Get Out of Jail Free card in our pocket. Having said that, I do try to keep it within reason so I don’t undo all of my hard work to keep fit throughout the week. A blowout sugar day can literally add 1000 – 2000 extra calories for the week! So I now “go small” with what I call a “micro-sundae” and I still find it to be very satisfying. On non-sugar days, I find a bowl of mixed berries (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries) to be a great dessert option if I’m dining with others. As a result, I’m often the one bringing mixed berries to a potluck event as it guarantees that I will have that option!
Finally, let’s address the argument that it’s hard to know what we should do to optimize our physical and mental health because there’s so much conflicting information out there. Really? I won’t say anything about this being a lame excuse to justify your bad decisions … whoops, I just did!
Regardless, let’s set the record straight. Here are some basic guidelines that hold true for just about anyone based on what science tells us today. Granted, there is still much research to be done and, of course, you should first consult with your doctor before starting any new diet or exercise program. Blah, blah, blah. Now that I’ve covered my butt with that legal disclaimer, here’s the CliffsNotes version of the key ingredients for a healthy lifestyle that will work for most people. Hint: You already know all of these (with the possible exception of the last one).
Don’t diet. A better option is to be honest with yourself about your bad eating habits, and then replace them with healthy eating habits that you can sustain for the long haul. Healthy eating should be a normal pattern of everyday life rather than a temporary exercise in denial in which you struggle until you meet a particular goal.
Eat whole foods. Avoid processed or refined foods whenever possible. As a bonus, this approach will also help you minimize your sugar and salt intake.
Drink plenty of water. Recommendations vary depending on criteria, such as your age and activity level. If your urine is colorless or light yellow, it’s a good sign that you’re drinking enough water.
Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Studies suggest that seven daily servings of fruits and vegetables are a good target for optimal well-being. Variety is important too. Try for about 20 different kinds each week. If that sounds insane and overwhelming, like it first did for me, you may want to try a VitaMix blender. Tip: I steam my vegetables for 15-20 minutes before putting them in the blender to make it easier on my digestive system.
Prepare healthy snacks that are ready before you need them. Make it easy to choose a healthy snack alternative. I typically have a bag of carrots, celery, and apple slices that are ready to eat as soon as I get the craving for a snack. Bananas are another good option to help you feel satisfied until your next meal. Similarly, I have multiple bottles of my “green sludge” ready to drink throughout the day. It takes a bit of prep in the morning or the previous evening, but it’s well worth the time and effort as it fosters healthy food choices when I’m craving a snack during the day. It takes the thinking out of it, which is important because my eating decisions are not exactly stellar when I feel tired and hungry.
Move around every hour and exercise at least 30 minutes each day, doing something you enjoy. Yes, you should enjoy it! Otherwise, you probably won’t be able to sustain it, and that’s what we’re looking for here: long-term, consistent, moderate exercise. A weekly mix of cardio, strength training, and stretching is ideal. Also ensure that you get off your chair or couch every 30-60 minutes. Studies show that people who sit for prolonged periods of time have a higher risk of dying from all causes, even those who exercise regularly. If you have a Fitbit or similar device, take advantage of the 250 steps per hour functionality as it will give you a 10-minute warning to get off your butt if you haven’t yet completed 250 steps that hour.
Get ~eight hours of sleep each night. Darren Hardy (author, speaker, and former publisher of SUCCESS magazine) asked the well-known cardiothoracic surgeon and TV show host Dr. Mehmet Oz, “What’s the one thing somebody can do to help with their anti-aging and wellness?” His answer? Sleep. Dr. Oz put drinking water and walking as #2 and #3. Seven to nine hours is the sweet spot for most people over the age of 18; youngsters need more sleep. Better yet, don’t worry about the number of hours. Go to bed early enough so you wake up on time without the need for an alarm. Sleep is time well spent. If nothing else, you’ll look and feel better, and your friends, family, and colleagues will thank you for it too.
Go outside. Studies suggest that outdoor exercise improves your mood, reduces stress, gives you a jolt of vitamin D, and contributes to your overall happiness. The fresh air, sights, and smells of nature give your mind and body a rejuvenating break. The Japanese even have a word for it—Shinrin-yoku—that translates as “forest bathing.”
Find a healthcare provider who focuses on prevention. If you have crushing pain in your chest, then our healthcare system is the place to be. In the United States, our physicians are highly trained to respond to acute problems, such as heart attacks or other crises. However, when it comes to preventing heart attacks or managing other chronic conditions, the typical provider tool belt of prescription drugs and invasive procedures is a bad place to start. It’s far better to find an integrative medicine or naturopathic provider who will take a holistic view of your diet, lifestyle, family history, environment, lab results, and symptoms, and then work with you to develop a comprehensive, proactive plan that integrates conventional and alternative therapies designed to keep you healthy and out of the hospital. I also choose a provider who looks healthy and fit as I’m a firm believer in practicing what you preach. I don’t take preventive health and fitness advice from people who are obese and out of shape. If you work with your provider to improve your diet, exercise routines, sleep patterns, lifestyle, and stress management, you’ll prevent 80% of the typical ailments.
As Thomas Edison put it many years ago, “The doctor of the future will no longer treat the human frame with drugs, but rather will cure and prevent disease with nutrition.”
But don’t take my word for any of this. Do your own research. Some people thrive on a carnivore diet, while others thrive on a plant-powered diet. I prefer to simply choose whole foods, avoid processed foods, and avoid sugar (other than the natural sugar found in whole fruit and vegetables) … except on a cherished sugar day. Figure out what works well for you. Consider the ideas I’ve shared as hypotheses to test in your own life.