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Going 100% vegan, cutting carbs or attempting to lose 30 pounds quickly is daunting, drastic and difficult to sustain. And such lofty goals may not be healthy choices for you.
Instead, try setting weekly mini-goals, which can help make intentions such as losing weight, lowering your cholesterol or adopting a more plant-based diet less intimidating – and achievable.
It’s how I have always worked with clients: I teach them about slow, gradual behavior changes that, when combined, result in significant health improvements over time.
The nice thing about setting small goals – and what makes them doable – is that they don’t require major shifts to your daily routine. To be successful, such goals should be realistic and specific, with measurable outcomes.
Here’s a sample of a simple week-by-week guide on eating well and becoming your healthiest self:
Week 1: Upgrade your breakfast by making it protein-rich
If you are eating a carb-rich breakfast and are struggling with midmorning hunger and energy slumps, add some protein to your morning meal. Protein will help keep your blood sugar levels stable and make you feel satiated.
Healthy breakfasts that incorporate protein include Greek yogurt with flaxseed and berries; egg white and spinach omelet; a tofu scramble; smoked salmon with reduced fat cream cheese on Wasa bread; cottage cheese with cantaloupe slices or other fruit; almond butter with banana slices on whole-wheat toast, drizzled with honey; raspberry walnut breakfast quinoa; or chocolate cherry chia pudding.
Week 2: Add a vegetable at lunch and dinner
This is a simple way to make your plate more plant-based while boosting fiber. Here are some creative ways to add vegetables to your daily diet.
Include spinach leaves in a sandwich; grab baby carrots and hummus as a snack; add a mixed green salad as part of dinner; enjoy a cauliflower mash in place of baked potatoes; roast brussels sprouts, rainbow carrots or eggplant cubes for a side dish; add broccoli, mushrooms or cherry tomatoes to pasta; make a stir-fry with peppers, kale or hearts of palm; or enjoy ripe tomato slices or sliced cucumber with a small amount of olive oil and a pinch of salt.
Week 3: Add two fruits each day
Adding fruit to your diet will boost vitamins, antioxidants and fiber, and is a great way to satisfy a sweet tooth without consuming added sugars. It’s easy to do as a snack on the go or added to a meal.
Add strawberries or blueberries to breakfast cereal or yogurt; grab a clementine for a snack; eat a banana with almond or peanut butter to ease midday hunger; slice a kiwi in half and eat it with a spoon; have berries with whipped cream for dessert, or peaches with fat-free whipped topping; or enjoy apple chips or mango chips as a portable snack.
Week 4: Add an 8-ounce glass of water with each meal
This is an easy way to remember to hydrate. Substituting water for higher calorie beverages can also help you slash added sugars from your diet and help limit your alcohol intake. To jazz up water, add lemon or orange slices to still water or seltzer.
Week 5: Take a tea break
Green and black tea are rich in anti-aging polyphenols and contain theanine, an amino acid that promotes relaxation. Tea in general can contribute to your daily fluid intake; plus, all teas – herbal included – can be helpful in taking the edge off hunger. Try picking the tea you enjoy most and take time out during your busy day to sip and rejuvenate.
Week 6: Cut your portions in half
One of the simplest ways to cut back on calories without having to measure or weigh foods is simply to cut your portion sizes in half.
For example, eyeballing can make an 8-ounce serving of chicken, fish or meat become 4 ounces; similarly, a 2-cup bowl of pasta divided in half becomes 1 cup. Pick your biggest portions of proteins and starches each day and downsize by dividing them into two halves.
Week 7: Find 20 minutes for fitness daily
Fitting in fitness can be challenging, especially with a busy schedule. Start small by carving out 20 minutes of cardio, stretching, weights or whatever activity makes your body feel good. Exercise can boost circulation and lift your mood and can help you eat and sleep better, too.
Week 8: Switch refined grains to whole grains
Try eating a sandwich with whole-wheat bread instead of white bread, enjoying oatmeal for breakfast, choosing whole-wheat pasta or crackers instead of refined versions, and opting for brown rice (including with sushi) instead of white rice.
Whole grains have more fiber and vitamins and have been associated with health benefits, including a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes.
Week 9: Add one ‘meatless meal’ per week
Vegetarian diets are associated with many health benefits, including a decreased risk of obesity, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Plus, plant-based diets are better for the planet, too. To eat more plants in your diet, designate one dinner each week as a “meatless meal.”
Some options include tempeh tacos instead of beef tacos, mushroom Bolognese, eggplant meatballs or a veggie burger instead of a beef burger. For other ideas, check out “The Meatless Monday Family Cookbook.”
Week 10: Swap a high-sugar food for a lower-sugar version
Pick a food that you frequently eat that is high in sugar and swap it for something healthier.
Examples include sliced fruit instead of sugary jam on toast, salsa in place of ketchup or frozen banana “nice” cream instead of ice cream. You can also use cinnamon instead of sugar as a spice for cereal, oatmeal and baked goods.
Week 11: Stop buying trigger foods and beverages
It can be difficult to resist tempting foods and sweets when they take up prime real estate in your kitchen. There’s much to be said for out of sight, out of mind. Make it easier to stick to your goals by avoiding your trigger foods. Don’t bring home cookies, chips, sweets, high-calorie beverages or other such foods from the supermarket.
Week 12: Get more shut-eye
Getting more sleep is not only important for focus and concentration during the day, it can also translate to slight weight loss over time. In one recent randomized trial, overweight adults who increased their sleep time from 6½ hours to 8½ hours over a two-week period decreased their calorie intake by an average of 270 calories per day – an amount that translates to a 26-pound weight loss over three years.
To enhance your sleep, put away devices that emit blue light such as cell phones, laptops, iPads and televisions at least 45 minutes before bedtime. The light can interfere with the production of melatonin, a hormone that plays a role in the timing of circadian rhythms.
By making these changes to your daily diet, you will naturally crowd out unhealthy foods and beverages while creating a healthier lifestyle one week at a time.
Lisa Drayer is a nutritionist, an author and a CNN health and nutrition contributor.