The health world is full of extremists who tout gluten-free, dairy-free, meat-free diets with a side of marathon training as the only path toward a healthier life. Those people are... annoying, to put it kindly.
The truth is that the road to health is bumpy, and you don't have to start drinking green juice for every meal to make positive changes. Healthy living is about balance. And balance is much more achievable than banning mac & cheese from your diet. Here are a few simple changes you can make today to up your health game in the long run.
Eat less meat, and more vegetables
More and more studies are showing that red meat and bacon aren't so great for you (yes, it sucks, get over it), while vegetables are good for your heart, promote weight loss, help you poop, and so on. An easy way to start eating more plants is to follow a meatless Monday schedule, says registered dietitian Emily Harrison -- that means just one day a week without meat. Which you can certainly do. Cuisines that pack in the flavor, like Mexican and Indian, can help satisfy your palate, sans animals.
Take it easy on the caffeine
You don't have to give up your coffee fix. In fact, having a cup can actually enhance your mental and physical performance. But if you're guzzling down more than that -- or worse, having a sugar-loaded energy drink -- you're overdosing. "A lot of caffeinated beverages have 10 times the amount of caffeine than a cup of coffee," according to Harrison. "Jacking up the central nervous system isn't the same thing as having energy. Real energy comes from food." Instead of crushing another can of nuclear-colored sugar water, try switching to black coffee or green tea.
Put down your cellphone
You don't need an expert to tell you that America (along with most other countries) is addicted to cellphones, but that attachment affects nearly every part of your life. Mostly, it screws up your sleep, thanks to the blue light it emits. Power down anything with a screen one hour before bed. You can set a nightly alarm on your phone -- the irony! -- to keep yourself in check.
Limit packaged foods, and read labels carefully when you can't
Packaged and processed foods are convenient, but that convenience comes at a cost, usually in the form of a bunch of added sugar, salt, and fat. "Knowing where your food comes from and what's in it is way more important than knowing how many calories or fat it has," says Harrison. When you can, try to cook from scratch, or at least choose snacks that don't have a laundry list of ingredients.
Actually use your health insurance
There's a reason you took the responsible job with benefits, so don't waste them. Younger people tend to put off regular checkups because they think they're untouchable. Wait, that's not true?! "A screening can find high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, and other issues that can be present without us knowing," says Dr. Alison Amsterdam, a physician at NYU Langone Medical Center, who also emphasizes getting a flu shot every fall.
But the biggest unused insurance perk? "When I speak to patients in their 80s and older, the most common regret I hear is that they didn't take better care of their teeth," Dr. Amsterdam says. "Issues in the mouth can alert us to more serious medical conditions. Floss once a day and brush at least twice."
Get off your ass regularly and move around
Sitting is slowly killing you. Unfortunately, desk life isn't going away anytime soon, at least for most people. You may not be able to change jobs, but it's usually not too hard to add some steps to your day. Walk to work, park your car at the back of the grocery store lot, take the stairs -- whatever it takes to get you moving regularly. And, of course, you should exercise two to three times a week for about 45 minutes, according to Dr. Amsterdam. It doesn't have to be a hardcore CrossFit session -- just something you enjoy that works up a sweat.
Have a "quarter-life crisis" moment
OK, you don't need to seriously freak out or have a breakdown. But go over the basics: do you like your job? Do you have quality friends (not just the boozing kind) who have your back? Are you living a lifestyle that makes you truly happy? "We put so much emphasis on eating and exercise that we forget the importance of our own happiness and how it plays a significant role in our health," says registered dietitian Jessica Norman. In the end, your happiness affects all of the other points we just mentioned, from what you eat to how well you sleep.
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