Six simple tricks to improve your eating habits in 2022 and beyond
After a month of overindulgence it can be tempting, come January, to go cold turkey on sugar, carbs or alcohol, or to set yourself a big weight loss challenge. It’s a noble (maybe even a necessary) aim, but it can feel as if you’re dragging yourself up a very steep hill, and that’s even when there isn’t a pandemic raging in the background. Increasingly research shows that looking at how and why we eat is just as important as what we eat when it comes to making a meaningful long term change.
Rather than beating yourself up for a Christmas filled with treats, why not think of January as a month to reset your relationship with food?
The food psychologist Jane Ogden notes that in the past two years, food has come to mean something different to many of us. “In some ways [it] has taken on an even more important role in people’s lives because we’ve been trying to manage our emotions and look after ourselves in the midst of a pandemic,” says Ogden, a professor in health psychology at the University of Surrey and author of The Psychology of Dieting.
“Food is always a part of emotional regulation but because we’ve been limited in so many different ways, food has gone up the ladder even further.
The “job of January”, she says, is to prompt you to reassess your eating habits. But while some years that might involve a weight loss goal, this new year could be the moment to “reset the role that food plays in your life and try to get it back to being just a part of what you do in your day; more about sustenance or hunger.”
So, how to approach a January food reset?
1. Don’t diet – make tweaks
Nutritionist Sam Rice, Telegraph columnist and author of The Midlife Method, recommends coming up with a set of food strategies tailored to you. “Look at the area you want to address and come up with a food strategy for that particular thing,” says Rice. “So if it’s snacking you might say: I’m not going to completely stop snacking but I am going to focus on having just two snacks a day when I know my energy’s at its lowest, and I’m going to have good fibre-rich snacks and have those available to me.”
A targeted approach like this can be more helpful than trying to make a whole host of changes that will be hard to keep. “The problem is that if you then veer off track there’s a tendency to throw in the towel and say, well I’ve messed up and therefore I’ve failed,” says Rice.
It’s all about tweaks rather than wholesale change, she says. “You can make changes relatively easily within the lifestyle that you have. Rather than saying I’m going to go on a keto diet and do dry January, which is quite a lot to commit to for a whole month, you might just say ok well actually I’m going to focus on having a really good breakfast and cutting out snacks.”
2. Plan your meals
Food which has been planned tends to be healthier than food which is grabbed without much forethought, says Prof Ogden. “It’s about planning and organising what you’re going to eat during the day rather than relying on yourself to make spontaneous bad decisions. Building those better routines into the system, taking temptation away.”
An overhaul of your biscuit tin and store cupboard could be a good place to start. “One of the reasons we eat is because food is just there. Removing those triggers, and not bringing things into the house that you don’t want to eat, give you the opportunity [to eat well]. Buy healthy food and then that’s all that’s available to you.”
It’s the simplest way to avoid getting into a “cycle of denial and indulgence” that leaves you feeling guilty every time you reach for the chocolate or crisps, says Ogden.
Just as the best exercise choice is the one we’re likely to enjoy, Rice particularly wants us to root out healthy things we “really love”. “When you’re doing your weekly shop just think, what are the healthy foods that I really do enjoy eating? Try and focus on those for a few weeks. Look for some recipes that include those things.”
3. Get your first meal of the day right
Breakfast tends to go out the window at this time of year - something to do with the loss of structure and the unwritten rule that it’s acceptable to have trifle for breakfast at Christmas. Getting breakfast back on track could, the experts say, be a helpful way to reset the rest of the day too. Sam Rice advises not to worry too much about when you eat your first meal of the day – perhaps you’re trying intermittent fasting, find you wake up ravenous or don’t get hungry until late morning. “Whether it’s at 6am or 10am, try and focus on packing as much nutrition into that [first] meal as possible,” says Rice, who recommends porridge and eggs and overnight oats - “things that you can be fairly organised about”.
“If you can get off the day on the right track, it usually does have a knock on effect on the rest of the day, whereas if you don’t start off on the right foot it can quite quickly go downhill.”
4. Cut out liquid calories
Rice recommends identifying small things you could easily ditch from your daily routine, with drinks being the most common culprit for accidental excess calories. “If you said to yourself I’m just going to get my liquid from water, tea and coffee with a splash of milk, you’d be making quite big gains,” says Rice, who suggests it’s helpful to address “the low hanging fruit first”, like alcohol or high calorie soft drinks and milky coffees.
“If you’re somebody who has two lattes a day and likes a smoothie from the chiller, you’d actually find making that simple change would have quite a big impact.
“If you do two or three of those things then you might find there’s not really much need to go onto that faddy diet.”
With alcohol, Rice says, taking a month off can be a great way to give your liver a break, but it’s important to give yourself a realistic goal - trying damp January, for example, and having four days off drinking a week, if dry January feels too much.
5. Keep a food diary
Noting down what you eat and why can be a helpful way to keep asking yourself those questions, says nutritionist Jane Clarke, founder of Nourish.
“Ask yourself the question, before you put anything in your mouth, is this going to nourish me? Do I really want it? Do I really need it? It’s that little question that just puts a barrier between needless eating and eating when your body actually does need the fuel.”
“If you say to someone ‘keep a food diary’ they think, ‘Oh gosh that’s going to make me feel guilty - it’s not, it’s there to help you see the patterns you fall into and give you the opportunity to change those behaviours.”
6. How to kick your snacking habit
For Clarke, a simple but effective area to address is snacking.
If you’re “needlessly nibbling” while watching TV, she says you’re probably “not concentrating on the food”.
“So put a nice platter of fresh fruit out, if you’re not really savouring it that much but you know you’re one of those people who always has to have a munch. Then save the popcorn for when you’re actually able to savour it.”
She recommends making a nutrient-packed vegetable soup that you could have a mug of mid-afternoon rather than reaching for toast or biscuits.
This article is kept updated with the latest advice.