5 Steps to a Healthier New Year

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A lot of people resolve to get healthier in the New Year but, as I can attest from my own attempts in the past, this can be a hard resolution to stick with.  Even as a seasoned vegan, there are so many tempting treats out there (read: vegan bakery three blocks from the farmer’s market) that before you know it, you’re sitting in a pile of donuts, wiping sprinkles off your face and wondering what the heck happened to your daily kale smoothie.

But the past doesn’t have to be predictive of the future!  Even if you spent the holidays mainlining raw truffles and frosted sugar cookies, you can start 2015 off right with better habits and see a healthier you in no time.  To help, I’ve amassed five tips to get you started.

(Need a little help sticking with your plant-based resolutions?  Check out my wellness consulting services!)

Quantum Vegan’s 5 Tips for a Healthy Plant-Based New Year

Healthy Greens by Wong Mei Teng full

Photo by Wong Mei Teng

1) Eat More Plants!

Whether or not you’re already vegan, it can never hurt to incorporate more plant foods into your diet.  While eating predominantly plant-based was once considered extremely weird, the world is starting to wake up.  Study after study is emerging showing that people who eat more plants have a lower rate and risk of most Western diseases including heart disease, diabetes and cancer.  Plant-based options are popping up in grocery stores, on restaurant menus and even in school cafeterias.

If you’re not vegan yet, there are many resources such as the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine, VegWeb and Veganuary to help you get started and take the mystery out of eating plant-centered meals.

The easiest way to start putting more plants on your plate is to enjoy a big salad every day!  I recommend this to clients as a tasty opportunity to experiment with veggies they’ve never tried before.  Start with a base of mixed greens and add whatever strikes your fancy.  Carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, summer squash, beets, parsnips, bell peppers, mushrooms–the possibilities are endless!

2) Go Unprocessed

Though it’s possible to be vegan while sucking down Boca burgers and Swedish fish, that kind of diet isn’t going to promote health in the New Year–or any time, for that matter.  Processed foods contain high concentrations of sugar, salt and fat, a trio used by the food industry to keep us snacking. Not only can these foods be addictive, but they’re also full of ingredients that can cause long-term damage to our health.  Chemical additives from colorings to preservatives aren’t recognized by the body and may contribute to the metabolic stress that paves the way for disease.  Hydrogenated oils are damaging and wreak havoc on the cardiovascular system through the production of free radicals.

The solution to this problem?  Focus on whole foods.  Choose fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains such as brown rice and quinoa, legumes and raw nuts and seeds instead of packaged convenience foods whenever possible.  You’ll avoid potentially harmful additives while enjoying the benefits of a wealth of plant-specific nutrients–called phytonutrients–that aren’t available from any other types of food.  These same nutrients work to heal damage in your body while protecting it from further harm.  Now that’s what I call plant power!

3) Incorporate Regular Exercise

Exercising more is a common New Year’s resolution, usually in the hopes of losing weight.  However, the benefits of exercise go far beyond weight management.  A regular exercise routine:

  • Lowers blood pressure and resting heart rate
  • Increase basal (resting) metabolic rate (BMR)
  • Decreases body fat and increases muscle mass
  • Improves insulin sensitivity for better blood sugar control

For adults, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity per week along with at least two days of strength training that targets all major muscle groups.  Double that amount offers even more benefits.

The trick, though, is to start small, especially if you’ve never followed a structured exercise regimen before or it’s a been a while since you last worked out.  Overdoing it at the start is a recipe for injury, which will put a stop to your routine before it even starts.  Begin with about 1/2 an hour per day, three days a week and work your way up from there.  Even small changes like taking a 10-minute walk on your lunch break help to increase your fitness level.

If you already exercise, consider changing up your routine.  Doing the same workouts over and over decreases the benefit as your muscles acclimate to the movements.  Challenge yourself with new strength and cardiovascular exercises and incorporate at least one day of restful stretching exercise such as yoga to give your body a break.

4) Reduce Stress

Eating well and exercising more are only part of the picture.  To be truly healthy in 2015, you’ve got to lower your stress levels.  While some stress can be positive, too much is detrimental to your body.  Stressors of all kinds trigger the release of cortisol, the hormone responsible for the “fight or flight” response.  Cortisol causes your heart rate to increase and prompts your body to release stored glycogen from the liver to give you a quick burst of energy.  This in turn raises blood sugar, triggering an insulin response to get that energy into your cells.

In a true “fight or flight” situation, the cortisol response is a good one since it provides the energy and alertness you need to respond to potential danger.  Long-term stress, however, keeps cortisol production high.  This stresses the body physically and can lead to hypertension, insulin resistance and weight gain or difficulty losing weight.  The high demand for cortisol can also cause adrenal fatigue, a condition where the glands that produce the hormone can no longer keep up with demands and effectively shut down.

How can you cut down on the stressors that trigger cortisol?  Assess your schedule to see where you can slow down a bit.  Learn to say no when you already have a lot on your plate.  Make time every day to relax, unwind and do something you love.  Read a book, enjoy a cup of tea, play a game with your family, work on a hobby–whatever makes you feel calm and focused.  Aim to create balance between work and pleasure that allows you to be productive without feeling overwhelmed.

5) Pray!

An active spiritual life, and prayer in particular, has been shown to exhibit positive effects on both mental and physical health.  People who participate in a regular religious practice enjoy a more positive outlook, better relationships, less stress and, according to some evidence, a lower incidence of illness.  Taking time to stop and pray in difficult situations calms your mind and connects you with something bigger than yourself–and much bigger than your problems.

Turning to God allows you to refocus and offers strength to face the day no matter what happens.  The Bible encourages us to “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) and to “Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.” (Philippians 4:6)  With this mindset, it’s possible to handle anything that the New Year throws at you–including the challenge of maintaining a healthier lifestyle.

What advice would you share with someone committing to (or re-committing to) a plant-based lifestyle in the New Year?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

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About the Author:

Sam has been a vegan since summer of 2009 and has spent the subsequent years experimenting with all manner of vegan food. She holds a Certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies and is a graduate of the Bauman College Nutrition Consultant Program. She is a member of Toastmasters International and currently serves as part of the Capital View Toastmasters club. When she's not blogging or cooking, Sam likes to read and study the Bible, play silly card games and knit socks.
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