Some of the things you do—or don’t do—every day might be sabotaging your efforts to be healthier. As you read the list of daily habits, don’t be too hard on yourself and expect that you’ll change all of these at once. The key to success is to slowly integrate change into your life. And if you fall off the wagon occasionally, don’t fret—it’s more important that you get back on.
—Brierley Wright, Nutrition Editor
Water accounts for 60 percent of our body so it’s not too surprising that drinking water benefits your total body health. Staying hydrated helps to keep your memory sharp, your mood stable and your motivation intact. Keeping up with your fluids helps your skin stay supple, your body cool down when it’s hot, allows your muscles and joints to work better and helps clean toxins from your body via your kidneys. So, how much water should you be drinking? The Institute of Medicine says adult men need about 13 cups per day of fluid; adult women need about 9. (You get about an additional 2 1/2 cups of fluid from foods.) But because one size doesn’t fit all, the best way to know if you’re adequately hydrated is to monitor your urine color: if it’s light yellow (the color of lemonade), that means you’re drinking enough.
There are a couple of reasons why you should think about moving your dinner hour earlier: a recent study in Cell Metabolism found that mice who ate an early dinner and then fasted for 16 hours were slimmer than those who ate the same amount of calories but snacked around the clock. In fact, even the mice fed a high-fat diet gained less weight when they fasted. Researchers suspect that the longer lapse between meals allows the body to process the food more efficiently. Another reason is that you may sleep better: according to the National Institutes of Health, late-night meals can cause indigestion that interferes with sleep.
If in a previous phase of your life you were an exerciser, you’re familiar with the positive impact physical activity has on you: not only does it keep you looking and feeling great, but exercising regularly can help you lose weight and boost your energy. Exercising regularly also has bigger benefits. It may help you live longer! According to the Framingham Heart Study, people with moderate or high levels of activity may live longer; study participants with that activity level lived 1.3 to 3.7 years longer. Additionally, exercise keeps your heart healthy; lowers your risk of some types of chronic disease, such as breast cancer and some aggressive forms of prostate cancer; improves blood flow to your brain, keeping you sharp; and helps with blood sugar control. The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity, such as brisk walking, each week, plus 2 or more days of muscle-strengthening activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity (e.g., running) and 2 or more days of resistance training.
You know that falling short on sleep is a major no-no, but why—what’s the big deal? Research shows that not getting enough shut-eye can impact a whole slew of things: it can compromise your immune system, your judgment and ability to make decisions (you are also more likely to make mistakes) and your heart health. Being sleep-deprived may fuel depression and make it harder for you to lose weight if you’re dieting—and more likely that you’ll give in to that sweet temptation tomorrow. Aim to get around 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night, although there is no magic number, says the National Sleep Foundation, so listen to your body and try to get the amount of sleep that your body needs to function at its best.
Americans, on average, eat about 1,000 mg more sodium each day than we should. According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, if we cut that much out of our daily diets, we'd lower our risk of heart disease by up to 9 percent. One of the easiest ways to cut your sodium intake is to cook at home using fresh ingredients. Restaurant foods and processed foods both tend to be very high in sodium. To trim your sodium intake even further, try boosting the flavor of food cooked at home with herbs and spices rather than salt. Find more easy ways to cut sodium here.
More and more food labels are sporting health benefits on their labels. Think: fat-free, trans-fat-free, gluten-free, etc. If such claims lure you in, know that just because a product lacks fat or gluten doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthier. For example, fat-free products sometimes deliver more sugar than their fat-containing counterparts. And eating certain fat-free foods may even cause you to gain weight: in a Purdue University study, rats fed potato chips containing Olean (a no-calorie, fat-free fat substitute) put on more weight than rats fed regular chips. More research is needed, but experts think fat substitutes may interfere with your body’s natural ability to regulate how much food is enough, causing you to eat more. The nutrients in gluten-free products can vary greatly. Some gluten-free breads have up to 13 times more fat and 16 times more protein than others, according to a recent study that compared 11 different gluten-free breads. So if you don’t have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, you may want to think twice before ditching gluten. Avoid being duped by a healthy-sounding label claim by comparing the Nutrition Facts Panels and ingredient lists across brands of the same food category.
It’s all too easy to munch on your midday meal desk-side, but according to a recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, you’ll feel more satisfied and will rein in that temptation to binge midafternoon if you turn your attention toward your meal. Study participants who ate lunch without distractions felt fuller 30 minutes after eating, and ate less when they snacked later, than people who played solitaire on a computer during their midday meal.
Even though olive oil is packed with heart-healthy antioxidants (called polyphenols) and monounsaturated fats, which can help lower “bad” LDL cholesterol and raise “good” HDL cholesterol levels, there are times when it’s not the best choice for cooking. Why? Because olive oil has a lower smoke point than some other oils (that’s the point at which an oil literally begins to smoke and olive oil’s is between 365° and 420°F). When you heat olive oil to its smoke point, the beneficial compounds in oil start to degrade, and potentially health-harming compounds form. So if you’re cooking over high heat, skip it. However, olive oil is a great choice for making salad dressing or sautéing vegetables over medium heat.
You may think you’re doing a good thing by banishing sweet treats. But studies suggest that feeling deprived—even if you are consuming plenty of calories—can trigger overeating. And making any food off-limits just increases its allure. So if it’s something sweet you’re craving, go for it: a small treat won’t break your diet! Two squares of dark chocolate or ½ cup of (nonpremium) ice cream clock in at under 150 calories.
This might not be something you think about regularly, but your kitchen sponge can harbor 150 times more bacteria, mold and yeast than your toothbrush holder. Ick! According to a study from NSF International (an independent public health organization), most of the germs they found won’t make you sick, but some could. So, if you’re the person who diligently cleans the kitchen counter, sink and refrigerator shelves, but fails to disinfect your sponge afterwards, try this to keep germs at bay: microwave a wet sponge for two minutes daily and replace it every two weeks.