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3 Factors that Will Make or Break Your Health Goals

A successful diet is about way more than what you put on your plate.

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Generally speaking, most of us know the type of foods we should be eating. We may even have a good idea of the nutrients we need. And we might even be pretty good at avoiding mindlessly noshing. But the reality is, our ability to eat a healthy diet and remain active day in and day out, and thus our ability to meet our diet goals, is affected by other facets of our lifestyle. If you get everything right but get these three things wrong, you could easily fall back into mindless eating, plate envy, or choosing the couch over the gym.

So if you want to move confidently toward your diet goals, you have to better manage your support, sleep, and stress. All the time and energy you put into working out and eating well will be leveraged by these three crucial factors.

Support from friends can help you meet your diet goals.
Photo: Getty Images

Factor 1: Support

Let’s be completely honest: Support makes the journey infinitely more enjoyable. You’re going to need someone to pat you on the back, tell you to stay the course, and exclaim that your calves look amazing in those shoes! When you decide to embark upon on a new habit of eating or otherwise choose to create healthier habits, it’s crucial that you get some buy-in from those who matter to you—be it your partner in crime, your family, your coworkers, or whomever. But how to get everyone on board? And how do you follow your own way of eating but balance the requests of others in your household?

Share your goal.

Begin by explaining your why. Your reason for seeking something better. Dig deep for this one, make your “why” compelling and passionate and rock-solid, and then have a conversation. These changes are not selfishly motivated; they are for everyone’s benefit. Remind yourself and others in the room that as you sail toward better, the wake you leave behind makes for smoother sailing for everyone on board. By improving yourself, you improve your attitude, your interactions, and your impact on others’ health and performance. You become a model of what’s possible with better health.

People are aid stations.

At this face-to-face, map out the changes you’d like to make and even the intricacies of your approach. Stop being a one-person show and a martyr and instead be upfront about the help you’ll need and why support is critical. As evidence of this, a study among women undergoing a 12-week weight loss program found that 74 percent of them maintained their weight loss or went on to lose more in the three years after the program ended thanks to having a support system around eating well.

Articulate what it is you need for support. Do you need your partner to handle morning mayhem while you train for your first-ever race? Discuss the help you’ll provide in return. Maybe you’ve identified that you simply cannot have certain trigger foods in the house. Together, identify better choices, the middle ground that will work for everyone.

Take a test run.

Ease everyone into your new way of eating by making a meal that fully meets your needs yet incorporates what they are familiar with too. For example, if you are going on a keto diet, not everyone needs to go full fat. In fact, some lifestyles are not designed to support the needs of everyone in your household. No matter the nutritional lifestyle you choose to follow, there’s a strong likelihood that something on the menu will speak to everyone. In the case of keto, it’s likely bacon, avocado, or sirloin steak. And there’s really no harm in cutting out simple sugars and meals consisting solely of refined grains and empty calories. To help with the transition, include a side dish that they enjoy. This thoughtful act will let your tribe see that even though you are eating differently, you can continue to eat together without anyone feeling ostracized.

Lean into your why.

You’re striving to create a new outlook and a new outcome, and at times that will feel like a lonely road. You might hear complaints that you’re no longer making everyone’s favorite. You might have friends who whine about how you no longer binge-drink or bury your sorrows in sweet indulgences. Don’t let these vibes bring you down. Change the tone or distance yourself where possible.

Patiently continue to share your diet goals or fitness goals and invite others along. Some will join; others will choose to carry on with their lives as usual. Accept that and move on. Channel your energy into being stronger than those who attempt to drag you back into old habits. There’s a reason you want to leave the old you behind—let it drive you forward.

Photo: Getty Images

Factor 2: Sleep

Chasing better fitness or a better diet or better health is fruitless if you don’t incorporate better sleep habits as well. Swapping sleep for time in the gym, in the kitchen, or practicing wellness is like trying to get rich by stepping over $100 bills to pick up all the pennies. It’s a futile pursuit. So why do 9 in 10 Americans prioritize just about any other aspect of daily life over precious sleep? Experts, such as those at the National Sleep Foundation, which uncovered this alarming finding, know that the value of sleep can’t be overstated. Reduced sleep can amp up cravings and hunger and rob you of the energy needed to work out.

Research studying the association between self-reported typical sleep duration and subsequent weight gain found that over time, a chronically shorter night’s sleep can lead to weight gain. The data, from the Nurses’ Health Study, included more than 68,000 RNs and a span of 16 years. The subjects who reported sleeping less gained more weight than those who reported sleeping more. In fact, getting even one additional hour of sleep per night made a significant impact: Over the course of the study, women who slept five hours or less a night gained 2.5 pounds more than did those who slept seven hours, while women who slept six hours a night gained 1.5 pounds more. Interestingly, these associations were not affected by amount of time spent working out or by diet, suggesting that shorter sleep durations alone (rather than the fact that you’re too tired to work out or that you’re chronically snacking) impact the rate of weight gain. Other studies have found similar results, going so far as to suggest that adults sleeping less than seven hours per night are more likely to be obese. However, in these studies, it could be a question of the chicken versus the egg—battling excess weight can lead to sleep apnea and arthritis, and these two conditions alone can make it difficult to sleep. While it’s not certain which came first, lack of sleep or excess weight, what you need to know is that it’s crucial that you get your zzz’s.

Maybe your problem is that you can’t sleep even if you make the time. If you’re tracking your sleep and realize that you routinely come up short of seven or eight hours, it’s time to get serious about your bedtime ritual. Here are four tried-and-true strategies for better sleep.

Prioritize sleep.

Just as you would set aside time for a workout or a tour of the health food store, set aside time for sleep. Make it habitual, starting your turndown ritual at the same time each day, and make it a goal to do this Monday through Sunday, especially if you’ve got a huge health or performance goal on your radar. More activity calls for more rest and recovery.

Tired? Make a plan.

Shorter sleep duration can lead to decreased levels of leptin (a protein hormone that signals satiety) and increased levels of ghrelin (a gut peptide associated with the sensation of hunger). Not only will you be hungrier, but you’ll also crave high-calorie, higher-carb choices. There’s no undoing last night’s late night, but you can go into a tired day knowing that you’re more inclined to indulge. Taking a few minutes to set a plan in place can help before too many late nights cause you to you collapse into the office donuts.

Choose your drink wisely.

Caffeine and alcohol can totally ruin a good night’s sleep. Cut off caffeine before one or two in the afternoon; the more sensitive you are to caffeine’s effects, the earlier you should shut it down. And grab a relaxing beverage like chamomile tea or casein-rich warm milk instead of alcohol if you need help getting to bed. Alcohol may make you sleepy, but this dangerous habit produces short-lived effects with poor sleep quality and a lethargic and dehydrated morning to follow. Keep the quantity of any extracurricular beverages reasonable and be sure to use the bathroom before you tuck in for the night.

Shut down your devices.

You hopefully already know that the blue light of the phone and tablet are distracting and that the content can be stressful. Avoid being irked and irritated right before bed, and if you like to unwind by reading something, choose something other than your social feed. Instead, grab a relaxing magazine or novel. And if you simply cannot shut down your system and relax, find yourself an old textbook. Just like in your college days, it’s sure to put you to sleep in no time.

Dealing with stress can help your diet goals.
Photo: Getty Images

Factor 3: Stress

When it comes to the dynamic of diet and stress, there’s the rare individual who deals with stress by shutting down all intake and not stomaching anything, and there’s the far more common individual who eats to deal with whatever hand they’ve been dealt. And if you seek out food as a coping mechanism, you can thank your physiology. Stress naturally increases the levels of cortisol circulating in your body and simultaneously drives your will to eat. Extended or excessive bouts of stress can lead to accumulation of fat tissue, increased hunger, periods of binge-eating, an inability to make good food choices, and sometimes a loss of control when faced with indulgences.

A large study of 457 individuals resulted in similar findings. The study, involving normal to overweight women between the ages of 20 and 56 years old, assessed the relationship between stress (perceived and chronic), drive to eat, and reported food frequency intake (nutritious food versus tasty but non-nutritious food) and found that greater levels of reported stress were associated with indices of greater drive to eat. This increased drive included feelings of disinhibited eating, binge-eating, hunger, and ineffective attempts to control eating. For those of us battling chronic stress—the feeling of being under the gun and run-down for months at a time—there’s a high probability of seeing higher numbers on the scale if something doesn’t change. But even acute stress can lead us toward a path riddled with excessive intake of poor choices. Research suggests that acute stress alters food preferences toward sugary and fatty foods, increases eating frequency, and impacts the number of calories we consume.

You can’t hide from the stress of life, but you can deal with it…or so I’ve been told. With practice, a relationship with stress can be simplified to you versus your stressor alone, without getting linked to your diet and eating habits. Where to begin? Choose one of these healthy habits. (And then keep track when you implement them! You’ll likely find patterns of which stress-relievers help in which specific circumstances.)

Sweat it out.

Your most powerful ally in the fight against stress is exercise. Exercise has the power to reduce levels of cortisol as well as increase feel-good hormones. You know that runner’s high or those happy vibes you get after a solid workout? The feeling is real. So work out those problems over a few miles or a few reps.

Relax already!

Whether you seek out meditation, a calming series of deep breaths, or repose through yoga, relaxation techniques allow a moment to pause and perhaps find a fresh perspective to bring your stress back into balance.

Talk it out.

Find a friend who’s removed from whatever is ailing you and spill. Explain what you’re going through and ask for help. Whether you need advice, intercession, or a shoulder to cry on, a human being is the best listener.

Sleep it off.

Everything seems more clear and bright in the morning, doesn’t it? That’s because sleep affords you time to relax, reduce your levels of stress hormones, lower your body temperature, and start anew. Sleep provides a way to reflect, relax, and map out a plan for tackling the issue with a clear mind.

Adapted from Sweat. Eat. Repeat: The 90-Day Playbook to Change Your Food Habits, Improve Your Energy, and Reach Your Goals by Pamela Nisevich Bede with permission from VeloPress.