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Environmental Nutrition: Being healthy is about more than just eating right

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Learn more about how healthy behaviors occur together.

People who follow a healthy lifestyle do more than just manage their diet and make good food choices. They also tend to get regular exercise, keep alcohol in check, don’t smoke, and manage their weight. In fact, research shows that these health behaviors actually tend to cluster together.

Clustering is a prevalent pattern of health behaviors that affect disease risk. Positive clusters like those mentioned, have a beneficial impact on both physical and mental health, and produce a synergistic effect. But, not all cluster behaviors are good.

Negative actions can also cluster together, which is why people who smoke often tend to drink more heavily, have poor diets, and get little exercise. Being aware of how certain behaviors cluster together and interact can not only help improve your health, they can also have significant effects on your diet.

Recognizing your cluster behavior

Grace Derocha, RD, a private practice dietitian and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics based in Detroit, Michigan, often sees these cluster behaviors in her practice. “On the negative side, it could be that you went to bed too late the night before, then couldn’t wake up in the morning, so you missed your workout. Then you don’t have time to eat breakfast, and you don’t make and pack your lunch,” says Derocha. “Or maybe you’ve had a stressful day and you have a drink, then one drink, turns into two or three, then you go to bed, you are dehydrated and you don’t sleep well. It turns into a cycle.”

On the other hand, creating positive habits and behaviors often starts with one simple change. “When you start exercising even a little, then it’s easier for you to drink more water. From there, maybe you increase your exercise and begin adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet, then add (more) high-fiber foods — and you sleep better too. You begin treating your body right, so you feel better and you want to do more,” notes Derocha. “It takes time, but that’s when the magic happens.”

Get moving

While sleep habits and stress management are certainly important, when it comes to improving your health and diet, studies show the most influential and motivating factor is physical activity. Plenty of data shows regular exercise can help you control when and how much you eat, preventing weight gain, and reducing obesity, but several studies suggest physical activity can impact the type of food you eat too.

Consider this U.S. study published in the International Journal of Obesity which evaluated dietary patterns via a diet questionnaire of over 2,000 sedentary college students before and after a 15-week exercise intervention.

The 15-week program consisted of aerobic exercise training three days per week. Despite being told not to change their dietary patterns, researchers found many participants started eating more nutritious foods, like fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish and nuts, and fewer fried foods, soda and snack foods. In fact, the more they exercised the healthier their diet became.

Other research also shows exercise motivates people to improve their diet. In fact, Derocha has seen this domino effect firsthand. “People who begin to work out and want to see muscle definition or lose weight quickly realize diet does make a difference,” she says. “It’s a matter of nourishing your body and being your best self.”

Being your best self, however, doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, consistency (repetition), and patience. It also means understanding what is important to you and what drives you, and also what’s doable for you. Here are a few other ways to stay on track:

  • Be realistic. Food is part of our family traditions, cultures, and social network. Oftentimes it represents “love,” particularly around the holidays. Enjoy eating and sharing meals with family and friends, but don’t go overboard. Track portion sizes and stay hydrated, especially if drinking alcohol.
  • Make easy swaps. Instead of reaching for a candy bar, try having a handful of nuts or seeds. Choose fruit over a cookie, or consider having one vegetarian or vegan meal a week, in place of meat. When dining out, think about ordering from the mocktail menu and skipping the alcoholic drink.
  • Match the messages. Thinking about changing both your diet and physical activity? Consider matching the actions. A meta-analysis study looking at the health behavior research found people are more likely to achieve their goal if the action is the same. For example, increasing exercise, fruit, and vegetable intake is more effective than increasing exercise and decreasing fat intake.
  • Keep good company. Find a supportive friend or exercise buddy to keep you accountable and help you get through tough times. Health-conscious friends can be inspiring and motivating role models.
  • Give yourself a break. Living a healthy lifestyle doesn’t have to be an all or nothing deal. If you miss an exercise workout or don’t eat right, just make it up the next time. For example, if you eat a high-calorie, high-fat breakfast, don’t give up on the day, have a lighter lunch or dinner of grilled vegetables and salad.

Bottom line

Following a healthy lifestyle is more than just changing your diet. Multiple health behaviors like sleep patterns, physical activity, and stress management, all play a significant role. Understanding how these behaviors interact, influence, and motivate you is key to your success. “Most people know what they should be doing,” says Derocha. “It’s just a matter of motivating them to want to do it and empowering them to apply the knowledge they already have.”

(Environmental Nutrition is the award-winning independent newsletter written by nutrition experts dedicated to providing readers up-to-date, accurate information about health and nutrition in clear, concise English. For more information, visit www.environmentalnutrition.com.)

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