New Year's Resolution to Eat Healthy: How to Make It Stick

Last Updated Jan 4, 2011 6:44 PM EST

If one of your New Year's resolutions is to improve your health and lose weight by eating better, you've got a lot of company. According to a recent poll taken by the Society of Actuaries, about 80 percent of respondents said that taking care of their health was their top strategy for managing their medical bills, well ahead of buying medical insurance.

But can you really stick to this resolution month after month and year after year? You bet! My last post discussed how you can increase your odds of New Year's resolution success when it comes to saving more, and those same tips and fancy words from the field of behavioral finance can be applied when it comes to improving your diet and your health. Let me show you how.

Framing helps you make better day-to-day decisions by putting things in proper perspective. Narrow framing means you tell yourself that today, just eating one candy bar or cookie won't be all that bad. But if you use broad framing, you tell yourself that if you keep eating like this, you'll be eating more than one hundred pounds of candy bars and cookies during the year, and by the end of the year, you'll be ten pounds heavier as a result. As you think about eating that one cookie, put an image in your mind of what you'll look like after eating 365 cookies!

Visceral emotions influence your decisions at a gut level. You can use this technique to your advantage when it comes to modifying your diet. Here's one way: When you're tempted to eat some type of unhealthy food, visualize an older friend or relative who isn't doing well due to a lifetime of unhealthy eating and think, "That could be me." When you see healthy food, on the other hand, think of someone you know who had eaten right and is doing well at an older age and think "That could be me, too!" Then keep those visuals in mind whenever you're tempted to take the unhealthy route.

Anecdotal evidence influences us to behave like people we see or read about. Use this to your advantage by paying attention to people who seem to eat well and stay fit, and by reading articles about how people have changed their lives through eating better. Ignore advertisements that encourage you to eat fast food and other enemies of your health.

Ambiguity aversion and competence means that if you're confused about a topic, you tend to do nothing at all about it. For instance, don't know which foods are healthy or not? That's not surprising. After all, experts told us to avoid eggs and take Vitamin D and E supplements, and now they're changing their minds on both these topics. Just don't let that stop you from changing your eating habits. There's no doubt we're all eating too much food in total and too much fatty meat, and we're not eating enough healthy fruits and vegetables. While you may not know all the facts, you can go ahead and make these simple, healthy changes to your diet.

Also, recognize that you need to overcome status quo bias -- the tendency to continue doing what you're doing now. Tell yourself that continuing your unhealthy eating habits is really about making a choice for heart disease, diabetes, and strained joints in your sixties and beyond.

Now that you're motivated, here are some practical ideas to help you eat better and still enjoy what you eat:
  • Eat your favorite fruit and vegetables -- apples, tangerines, or carrots, for instance -- for snacks. These all can give you an energy jolt and provide healthy nutrients.
  • Replace unhealthy sugar and salt with any of the myriad of healthy spices that can literally "spice up" your food and improve your health. Examples include curries, chilies, and cinnamon.
  • Simply eat less through portion control. Commit to eating just one serving on a plate that's smaller than a hubcap. If you're at a restaurant that serves large portions, ask for a doggie bag as soon as you order your meal, and before you start eating, put half the meal into the bag to save for tomorrow.
  • Cut your portion sizes of meat in half, and double the portion sizes of your vegetables. This way, you eat the same amount of food you normally eat; you've just changed the proportions.
  • Stop drinking unhealthy sodas cold turkey -- and we mean all of them, diet or not -- and replace them with free tap water. If you want some flavor, squeeze a lemon or lime into your glass, or drink tea that you've made.
I'm sure you have your own ideas about how to eat better. Please help our readers by offering your ideas in the comment section below.

Take just a few steps in January to establish good nutrition habits, and you'll be well on your way to improving your health and increasing your lifespan. You'll probably end up saving money on food and medical bills, money you can put away for retirement. Take it one step at a time, and I'm sure you'll see significant progress.

Image from iStockphoto contributor PICSUNV
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    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.

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