I hate to rain on anyone’s parade, but health and wellness goals that focus on weight loss rarely work as intended. Decades of research shows that while most diets lead to initial weight loss (and some lowered risk of heart disease), those effects tend to go away by 12 months. What does tend to last are the negative health effects of yo-yo dieting, with a side of disrupted, oftentimes disordered eating patterns. I personally have wasted precious mental energy on “toning” my body and reducing fat…and found all it did was mess up my relationship with food.
- Caroline Young, MS, RD, RYT, owner of Whole Self Nutrition
- Courtney Pelitera, RDN, CNSC, a sports and wellness dietitian with Top Nutrition Coaching
- Dalina Soto, MA, RD, LDN, anti-diet dietitian based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- Eden Davis, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and co-owner of Pearl Wellness
- Esther Tambe, MS, RD, CDN, CDCES, owner and founder of Esther Tambe Nutrition
- Lori Barrett, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist with Top Nutrition Coaching
- Mandy Tyler, RD, CSSD, LD, registered dietitian
- Michelle Routhenstein, RN, CDN, RD, CDN, a preventive cardiology dietitian and owner of Entirely Nourished
- Roxana Ehsani, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, Miami-based registered dietitian nutritionist and National Media Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
- Taylor Johnson, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist
Years ago, I traded in my calorie-counting app for intuitive eating—a framework that helps you cultivate a positive relationship with food and your body—and haven’t looked back. I can’t explain how much peace that has given me, and I want others to feel that same way. Our diet does not exclusively dictate our health. Restriction and “willpower” are not what makes us well. Wellness is multi-faceted and encompasses so many things besides calories, carbs, or pounds.
One of the most common times for people to commit to potentially harmful weight-loss goals: January 1st. (Hashtag new year, new year!) Similar to a birthday, or the start of a new job or school year, the changing of the calendar often motivates folks to reinvent themselves. Whether you want to prioritize building relationships, purge your closet, or take up a new hobby, a temporal milestone like January 1st is usually just the thing to get you going.
However, that "fresh start" energy can only take you so far if your goal is unsustainable. You could easily grow anxious about these New Year’s changes if you were planning to deny yourself foods you love. The same goes for a new body-punishing workout routine. Kind of hard to get pumped up if you are overwhelmed with dread, or if you are forcing yourself to do something you hate (like me on an exercise bike…ugh).
Here's the thing: Your well-being is essentially a never-ending DIY project. It’s like a house that needs regular maintenance and attention. Rather than imposing daunting restrictions and unrealistic goals on yourself, think small and manageable. Adding in doable, new habits can be exciting—especially if you can still indulge in life’s pleasures.
Dietitians share their non-diet health and wellness goals
There are limitless ways you can contribute to your health without dieting. But when dieting and weight loss goals are all you know, it may be difficult to think outside the box. To discover ways to capitalize on the desire for a fresh start without restriction and physical punishment, I asked dietitians to share their plans for the upcoming year. And let me tell you, the non-restrictive goals they shared are a breath of fresh air.
1. Set those boundaries
Weight-inclusive dietitian, Esther Tambe, RDN, CDN, is working on setting better boundaries for herself. “My goal is to be okay with saying NO to what doesn’t serve me," she says. “I must be mindful of keeping a work-life balance to prevent burnout and decrease stress. Saying NO also allows me to engage in more activities and experiences that provide me joy.”
Dalina Soto, RD, LDN, bilingual dietitian and founder of Nutritiously Yours and Your Latina Nutritionist, also wants to set boundaries and be more intentional with her time. “Social media sucks a lot of time from us and I always want to be on it less. I think I am going to pay for one of those apps that manage time. And I am going to focus on saying NO more so that I can really focus on finishing my book.”
“Social media sucks a lot of time from us and I always want to be on it less. I think I am going to pay for one of those apps that manage time. And I am going to focus on saying NO more so that I can really focus on finishing my book.”
—Dalina Soto, RD, LDN
We know that stress wreaks havoc on the mind and body. Creating healthy boundaries can help alleviate that potential harm and can free up valuable mental energy. What can you do with that liberated time? The possibilities are endless!
2. Prioritizing environmentally friendly or sustainable foods
A restriction-free New Year’s goal can look like adding in behaviors, rather than being confined by rules. One of those additions could be sustainable foods.
That’s the aim of Roxana Ehsani, RD, CSSD, LDN. Her biggest goal this year is to eat more sustainably (i.e. better for the environment). “Eating sustainable foods not only makes me feel better health-wise but helps me feel good about what I’m eating," she says.
There is no universal definition of what makes a sustainable food, but as Ehsani sees it, sustainable foods are produced in a way that supports the local community, minimizes environmental impact, and promotes balance in the ecosystem. Examples are foods that are organic and seasonal, and harvested without depleting the population or supply.
“I believe in everything in moderation, so while I’m not cutting out anything completely, an easy shift I’ll be making is to eat sustainable seafood in place of meat at least once or twice a week," says Ehsani as a start.
How do you know when something has been sustainably harvested? You can get a sense from the label (although beware of common greenwashing terms like "natural"). Look for the following certifications to help guide your purchasing—as these prove the products went through a rigorous process to meet specific environmental, labor, or sustainability standards:
- Fair Trade
- Certified Organic
- Rainforest Alliance
- Certified Humane
- Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) Blue Fish Label
3. Adding more plant-based meals
Similar to adding sustainable foods, you can further boost your nutrition by incorporating more plant-based meals into your week. That’s what Taylor Johnson, RDN, is doing this year. Her goal? "Aiming for two to three plant-based dinners per week, without being restrictive or eliminating any specific food groups [overall]," she says.
Why plants? Well, it can’t be denied that veggies and fruits are loaded with phytonutrients and antioxidants, and have been repeatedly proven to improve your health. “A more plant-forward, flexitarian focus still allows me to incorporate all foods and some of my favorite meals into my diet while promoting cardiovascular health, improved digestion...and contributing to a more positive impact on the environment," Johnson says.
If you’ve been stuck in diet culture, you may associate plant-based meals with starvation. However, if the only thing you do this year is add in more plants to your meals, you’ll still be decreasing your risk for disease. Look at eating fruits, veggies, and legumes as a complement to your health instead of as a way to reduce calories.
4. Journaling for improved mindfulness
Trying to be more grateful? Need to work through some difficult emotions? Want to keep track of your goals? Enter journaling—the regular recording of your intentions, thoughts, emotions, experiences, tasks, and more. “I find journaling to be a great way to reduce stress, keep life in perspective, and boost my mental well-being," says Mandy Tyler, RD, CSSD, about why she’s committing to daily journaling this year. “I use journaling for setting goals and tracking my daily progress towards those goals. In addition, I find gratitude journaling to be a great way to help me keep a positive outlook on the day ahead.” Here are some timeless prompts to help you get started.
5. Meditation, mindfulness, and rest
Caroline Young, RD, LD, RYT, owner of Whole Self Nutrition, shares that her non-restrictive goals in 2024 are incorporating meditation, nature, breathing practices, and rest into her daily life. “These all help me to feel more peaceful, grounded, and alive," she says. "I find that when I am able to spend more time living in a regulated and embodied state, my nervous system feels safe enough for me to access presence and get relief from rumination and anxiety—which happens when I live too much in my head,” she says. And the above-mentioned mindfulness practices help her be more regulated and grounded.
If you too want to finally commit to reaping the benefits of mindfulness this year (or level up your existing efforts), try using a meditation app to guide you through some self-awareness activities (it works, even on work stress!). Or you could try belly breathing to ease anxiety.
6. Enjoyable movement
Committing to exercise is a fairly common New Year's resolution—but typically as a means to lose weight. But you can enjoy all of the cardiovascular and strengthening benefits of exercise without centering calorie burn or a smaller body size. In fact, physical activity is much more sustainable when it's enjoyable. What is an activity that you’ve been wanting to try? Dancing, kickboxing, hot yoga, Pilates, barre, spinning, or weight training are just a sampling of the ways you can move your body.
For her part, Soto is hoping to do more strength training in the new year. “I want to focus more on lifting. I love to feel strong and I want to try heavier weights.”
7. Meal planning
Michelle Routhenstein, RD, CDN, a preventive cardiology dietitian at EntirelyNourished.com, is going to focus on leveling up her meal-prep game this year. "Feeding a family of six, my meal planning routine is pretty down pat," she says. But she says she could work on her variety (in terms of what ingredients are used and the types of meals that she makes.) “Variety is important for diversity of the gut microbiome which is tied with improved health, and it also brings more excitement to meal times," she says. To help shake things up, Routhenstein says she plans to get her family involved with the brainstorming to "add in another vegetable, grain, protein, or dish into our rotation." (I personally also love looking online for new recipes to try and incorporate into my meal plan rotation before I hit the grocery store.)
Not the most experienced with meal prep? Here's how to cook up an entire week of lunches (or dinners) in just 90 minutes.
8. Growing a garden
This year, Lori Barrett, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist with Top Nutrition Coaching, plans to continue growing and expanding her garden with a variety of veggies and herbs. “There is something so peaceful about going to a garden!" Barrett says. "It's so rewarding to see the seeds you planted popping up and growing strong. The vegetables taste so good freshly picked from ‘farm to table’. And I love saving some money.”
9. Exploring new-to-you cuisines
Trying different types of cuisines is top of the list for Eden Davis, RDN, LDN, co-founder of Pearl Wellness Practice. “I plan on spending more time cooking homemade meals from different ethnicities," Davis says. "I've had the opportunity to travel to various places this year and have thoroughly enjoyed connecting with others while learning about their diverse culture, traditions, and cuisines.”
New food means more variety in that meal plan of yours. Furthermore, there are other reasons to recreate your favorite dishes. “I've noticed that when cooking from home, I'm able to increase high-quality nutrients, experiment with different ingredients, and practice mindfulness with meals,” Davis adds.
Courtney Pelitera, RD, CNSC, a dietitian with Top Nutrition Coaching who specializes in sports and wellness nutrition, is devoting herself to reading before bed in the new year. “Like many people and many clients with whom I work, I tend to fall into the nightly doom scroll habit very quickly. I know reading, even just a few pages, is better for my actual sleep but also so much better for my nervous system,” she observes.
Whether you commit to swapping out your screen habit daily, or just a few nights a week, adding in reading can be a positive habit. Pelitera’s action plan: ”I've read seven books total this past year and my goal is to increase that to 12 by reading a book each month.”
Pick something that excites you
These ideas are just a fraction of the possibilities. Additional pursuits could be learning a new hobby, fostering an existing relationship, or volunteering. I sincerely hope you realize that you are so much more than your body size or the food you eat.
Ultimately, you can be liberated from rigid health and wellness goals this year. If you’re itching for renewal this year, find something that inspires you and lifts your spirits. For me, it’s breaking up sedentary time and setting boundaries. What will you be able to accomplish when you embrace a non-restrictive mindset?
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- Yip, Cynthia Sau Chun et al. “The Associations of Fruit and Vegetable Intakes with Burden of Diseases: A Systematic Review of Meta-Analyses.” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics vol. 119,3 (2019): 464-481. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2018.11.007
- Bostock, Sophie et al. “Mindfulness on-the-go: Effects of a mindfulness meditation app on work stress and well-being.” Journal of occupational health psychology vol. 24,1 (2019): 127-138. doi:10.1037/ocp0000118
- Yan, Wenjing et al. “Association between enjoyment, physical activity, and physical literacy among college students: a mediation analysis.” Frontiers in public health vol. 11 1156160. 15 Jun. 2023, doi:10.3389/fpubh.2023.1156160
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