When we find ourselves wanting or needing to make a change for better health, it is easy to be overwhelmed with the flood of diet books, cookbooks, and health magazines out there, each claiming to have the right answer. For many, it feels like a world full of unfamiliar routines and unattainable habits. We read a few articles and start feeling like we need to change everything about our lives. It feels overwhelming. And so we continue on with what is normal for us, since doing that is easier than failing at a series of new habits and food choices.
To break down that barrier, here are six simple steps you can take to build a more vibrant life — starting today. You can ease into these habit changes, starting with step one. Work on one step until it begins to feel attainable, more normal, and even enjoyable. Then work to incorporate another step.
Step by step, your routines will shift. You may find you have more energy and wake up before your alarm goes off each morning!
1) Eat an earlier, lighter dinner.
Eating earlier allows your body time to digest before you go to sleep. During sleep our bodies are programmed to repair and reset. If we are still digesting our dinner at bedtime, we lose valuable time for repairing and rebuilding. Eat your last meal of the day by 6 or 7 p.m., at least three hours before bed. If you have kids, you might even want to shoot for a 5:30 p.m. dinner time. I found that my kids (and often me too) always wanted snacks at this time of day…so I figured we should just eat dinner!
As far as the ‘lighter’ part of this habit, dinner doesn’t need to be a big event. I often use a simple formula of a protein source plus two veggies. This might look like salmon, broccoli, and salad or a salad with roast veggies and some protein on top. Eat off of smaller plates to reduce overeating. After dinner, close your kitchen and don’t snack. Brush your teeth to really drive it home that you’re done eating for the day. If you need something else, have a cup of (herbal) tea.
2) Go to bed.
Our bodies are designed to align with circadian rhythms. We are programmed to sleep when it is dark and get up in the morning when the sun rises. When we stay up late we borrow energy from the following day and risk relying on stimulants, such as caffeine, to get us through the next day. Most individuals perform best with 7-8 hours of sleep each night, and some need even more than that. Reverse engineer your bedtime based on when you need to be up and active each day. Then work your bedtime back to that time. For many of us this would be a 10 pm bedtime and a 6 am wake up. Remember that our bodies need sleep for maintenance and repair.
Bonus strategies for solid sleep include keeping your bedtime regular, turning off screens for at least an hour before bed, and minimizing sources of blue light (this includes most household lights) which can stimulate cortisol production and interfere with circadian rhythms. As tempting as it can be to read the next chapter, watch one more show, or scroll social media, adhere to your set bedtime and set your body up for success the next day.
3) Start your day with water.
This simple habit is one of the kindest routines you can implement for your liver and colon. Water helps your body to gently detoxify at the start of each day by supporting your liver and relaxing your bowels to promote elimination. For an added boost, squeeze lemon in your water; the 200+ enzymes in an organic lemon help to promote proper digestion and support the liver, while its concentration of vitamin C and potassium boosts immunity. However, plain water still does the trick. Additionally, this helps you jumpstart hydration for the day. Proper hydration reduces inflammation, helps control weight, and boosts your mood and mental clarity. Even mild dehydration prevents your kidneys from effectively purifying the blood, leaving your body and skin with unwanted toxins.
How to include this: First thing upon waking, pour at least an 8 ounce cup of water and squeeze in the juice of ½ lemon. More than 8 ounces is great. Water can be room temperature or warm, depending on the season. You don’t want boiling water, as this will negatively impact the lemon’s valuable enzymes and vitamins. Drink it as you are getting ready for the day, about 15-30 minutes before breakfast for maximum benefit.
4) Eat breakfast.
Eating a balanced meal within an hour of waking up has been shown to set the metabolism for the day. Dr. Alan Christianson writes in The Adrenal Reset Diet that; “A breakfast and lunch that are higher in protein can support a healthy morning spike of cortisol. This gives you energy for both your muscles and your brain. It also allows you to burn fat for fuel and keep your blood sugar levels stable throughout the day.”
Keeping blood sugar levels stable is one of the most important things you can do to support your overall health and longevity. Since fat and protein are slower-burning fuels, eating them in combination with carbohydrate sources will slow the digestion and absorption of the carbs, keeping blood sugar levels stable between meals. You will experience this as the ability to go longer without eating between meals, while still maintaining sustained focus and energy.
I recall learning at a young age that breakfast was the most important meal of the day. While each meal you eat plays an important role in energy and overall nutrition, it turns out that eating a good breakfast just might be one of the most important things you do each day.
5) Put vegetables at the base of your food pyramid.
Vegetables, specifically leafy greens, are, calorie-for-calorie, among the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. Packed with a huge array of enzymes, minerals, vitamins, and fiber, these powerhouses reign supreme in promoting optimum weight, vibrant energy, and glowing skin. Rather than limiting vegetables to a salad or side dish, try using them for the base of your meals, aiming for veggies to fill at least half of your plate. The greater the diversity of vegetables you consume, the happier your gut microbes will be. The beneficial bacteria in our guts feed off of the fiber found in fruits, vegetables and grains, so we want to feed them well!
Two simple meal ideas: marinara sauce over a plate of roasted zucchini and roasted bell peppers topped with organic ground beef; or, half a head of shredded and steamed cabbage with a drizzle of toasted sesame oil and Bragg’s Liquid Aminos (a healthy soy sauce substitute) topped with organic chicken.
In my food journey, I’ve spent many years grounded in a grain-free style of eating. While my food choices have expanded to include some grains and legumes occasionally, I still trend towards my grain-free years as eliminating grains forced me to include so many more vegetables.
6) Do your eating at a table.
Rule #58 from Michael Pollan’s book Food Rules is “Do all your eating at a table.” Pollan says a desk does not count as a table. This rule has been a hard one for me to adhere to (and I imagine some of you would agree). There is simply too much to do in a day to spare time to eat three times and to only focus on eating instead of working, talking on the phone, catching up on emails.
The science of digestion tells us that our brains need to be in rest and digest mode in order to effectively start the complex process of breaking down the food we eat and assimilating it into our bodies. Rest and digest mode (or parasympathetic mode) is the opposite of go mode (sympathetic mode) when our bodies are primed for action such as physical exercise and response to other stimuli, including meeting a work deadline.
So what to do? Amelia Nagoski and Emily Nagoski write in their book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle that eating a meal can and should be one of the ~10 hours during a day when we are resting. So eat a relaxing meal with family or friends, take your food away from your desk, or if you must multitask, listen to a podcast or audiobook (ideally one that will not elicit a stress response due to suspense or a challenging topic).
Incorporating these 6 steps into your daily routine will support a healthier immune system, help restore natural sleep cycles, and give you a foundation for improved digestion that ensures you get the most out of what you eat. Which step resonates most with you right now? Listen to that gut intuition and give it a try!
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