Start Your New Year Right: 7 Science-Backed Tips

With the new year around the corner, resolutions are on the minds of many. Every year, millions of people commit to getting in shape; gyms become packed for the first few months, and by spring, they fall back into their old ways. Diets start the same way, but even when we lose weight, it often returns and in some cases with larger numbers.

Key takeaways:
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    Achieving a goal of weight loss involves eating a healthy diet combined with regular exercise.
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    Weight transformation includes more than just diet and exercise, but a complete lifestyle change. This implies stress and hydration levels, smoking, sleep, and most importantly, not over-exercising or crash-dieting.
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    These tips are not an all-or-nothing plan: You can do as little or as much as you want to slowly transition into a healthier lifestyle, as it will take time to adjust.

Whether your goal is to lose weight or simply live a healthier lifestyle, these tips will put you on the right path.

Eat a well-balanced diet

Eating a well-balanced diet is made up of several factors that, when working together, can help you lose weight. Unfortunately, many Americans overeat, eat for convenience, and do not get the nutrients they need. This can easily be fixed by making a few simple changes:

Meal prepping. While it might take a few hours out of your weekend, meal prepping is worth it so you're not scrambling to make lunch before work or too tired to cook when you get home. Meal prepping also makes you more likely to eat fresh produce, as it's cut up and read for you, rather than having to do work every time you want a snack.

Don't skip meals. Skipping meals can cause you to overeat the next time you eat, as well as binge on unhealthy foods.

Eat enough protein. Protein is a vital macronutrient in your diet, as it keeps you feeling full and gives you energy throughout the day. A protein deficiency can cause several problems. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. Use this U.S. Department of Agriculture calculator to determine how much protein your body needs.

Eat more fiber. Eating approximately 30 grams of fiber daily can also keep you fuller longer. It also helps you lose weight, lower your blood pressure, and improve your body's response to insulin.

Exercise regularly

Regular participation in physical activities is just as important as eating a nutritious diet. According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, the CDC recommends adults get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week and two days of resistance training (to build lean muscle). When you break it down, it's just 30 minutes per day, five days a week. You can start by taking walks or finding exercise classes, programs, or videos you enjoy. Exercise should be something you look forward to and can use as a healthy stress reliever.

Drink enough water

75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated, and many don't realize that this can lead to weight gain. Consistently drinking enough water throughout the day can help the body fight off hunger, stay full longer, increase metabolism, and give you more energy. A study of 173 women over 12 months showed a correlation between increased water intake and weight loss.

While not everyone likes the taste of water, there are other ways to still get your fluids in. Try adding fruit to your water, drinking seltzer water, or even some tea (as long as it doesn't contain sugar). The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine suggests women get approximately 11 cups (88 ounces) of fluid daily, and men get about 16 cups (128 ounces). These amounts might feel overwhelming to someone who doesn't drink regularly throughout the day, but breaking it up throughout your day, keeping a water bottle with you at all times, and setting reminders on your phone will make the process much easier.

Avoid processed food/sugar

One of the worst things you can do to your body (especially when trying to lose weight) is to eat highly processed foods and sugar. We all know it's terrible for us, yet we can't stop. While we make our own food choices, it's not entirely our fault. Highly processed foods meet the criteria of being labeled as addictive substances.

When we consume sugar, for example, it activates the same pleasure centers in the brain as cocaine and heroin, releasing opioids and dopamine. Unfortunately, too much sugar can cause cognitive impairment and deficits in memory and attention, in addition to diabetes and other severe conditions. While the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting added sugars to less than 10% of your total daily calories (about 12 teaspoons), the American Heart Association (AHA) takes it one step further, recommending only six teaspoons for women and nine teaspoons for men. This doesn't mean you can't still enjoy the things you love, but consume them in moderation or, better yet, find a healthier replacement that fits into your new lifestyle.

Get enough sleep

You can be following all the tips and hacks in the world, but don't forget that sleep quality is a significant factor in losing or gaining weight. A recent study looked at the effects of sleep deprivation in correlation to eating habits. They found that those who slept less than usual (approximately 5.5 hours compared to their regular 8.5 hours) had an increase in cravings for higher carbohydrate snacks. The higher carbohydrate intake results in more overall energy, reducing the rate of weight loss. When you're tired, you do anything and everything to make your day easier. Grabbing a quick bite (even if it's loaded with carbs, sugar, and fat) combined with skipping your workout and eating more because you're awake for longer than usual, are all common habits.

"Getting adequate sleep directly correlates to weight loss and healthy living,... Without 7-8, quality zzzs, your body can't recover and regenerate damaged cells. Your immune system is hard at work while you sleep, and your brain flushes out toxins. Without adequate deep and REM sleep, your health will suffer."

Linda Stephens, M.S. Nutritionist

Eat slowly and mindfully

A huge cause of our obesity and overweight problems is a non-stop lifestyle. Working long hours, skipping lunch to run errands, and driving the kids from one place to another — there's rarely enough time to sit down and have a nutritious meal without multitasking these days. Being too busy to stop also means being too busy (or distracted) to notice when you're full. Before you know it, you've overeaten.

Mindful eating is about having uninterrupted meals, slowly chewing each bite, enjoying the process, and stopping when you're satisfied (not full). Your stomach fills up before you feel full, but it takes approximately 20 minutes before your body can sense it. Portion sizes are also a cause of obesity. One of the most common (and most successful) tips? Use smaller dishes. It tricks the brain into thinking you're still getting the same amount of food (even though you're not).

Don't drink your calories

Being wrapped up in the foods you're consuming, you forget about the calories in beverages you consume. Even if you cut out the obvious soda, there are still things like juice, energy drinks, and sweetened coffees. And not only do the calories add up, but so do the carbs and sugar. For example, a couple of specialty coffees from your favorite coffee shop can easily add 400 or 500 calories and approximately 30 grams of sugar. Another beverage that many forget about is alcohol. While a few drinks now and then won't affect your weight loss goals, it's still important to be aware of what you're consuming. Like coffee, most cocktails can set you back a few hundred calories and pack on the sugar. Shots of liquor alone are around 90 calories each, so it's something to consider when deciding what and how much you want to drink. Try to stick mostly to plain water, seltzer water, coffee with minimal sugar and dairy, and tea.

Focus on being YOUR best self

At the end of the day, no one is perfect. We all have slip-ups, splurges, and routines that sometimes get in the way. Don't obsess over things like counting every calorie or a slight increase on the scale. Instead, enjoy the little things and create healthy habits along the way. Eventually, you won't even notice doing them but your body will.

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