Our docs answer your questions to help you achieve a happy, healthy year.
Q: I’m determined to eat better this year, but I’m confused about carbs and fats—it seems like every month a study comes out saying that one is good and the other is bad, and then they switch! What food rules can I rely on, regardless of what the headlines suggest?
A: When it comes to food, if a buzzy diet sounds too good to be true (“All bacon all the time!”), it probably is. That’s why, as you’ve guessed, rather than trying to keep up with the latest nutrition fad, it’s better to set up smart, sustainable food rules that will help you eat a healthy and balanced diet no matter what the latest fad may be. And the key word here is balanced: You need both carbohydrates and fats to live, move and think at your best, so you can go ahead and ignore any diet that tells you to cut either group out completely.
That said, there are certainly ingredients that—because they contribute to weight gain, inflammation or other health problems—you should avoid whenever possible. We call them the Five Food Felons: trans fats, saturated fat, added sugars, sugar syrups and non-whole grains (aka refined or processed carbs).
So what should you eat? Whole grains, lean proteins, fruits, vegetables and healthy fats (such as nuts, avocados and olive oil). To get customized amounts tailored to your age, size and activity level, check out ChooseMyPlate.gov. And balance it all out with physical activity and stress management, both of which will help ensure that your weight stays at a healthy level.
Q: I want this to be the year I get in shape for good. I enjoy working out but can never find the time. How can I make it a priority when work and family need to come first?
A: Think about it this way: Without the energy, vitality and longevity that come from good health, you can’t truly be present for your family and career. Taking care of yourself actually shows great love for those you care about the most because it means you’ll have the strength to care for them rather than them having to care for you.
So why not make it a family affair? Find something active that you all enjoy doing together, whether it’s playing soccer, signing up for a fun run or hitting a local bike trail. Of course, not everyone enjoys the same activities—if that’s the case for your family, at least set up a time or place when you can all be active simultaneously. Maybe you can all visit the park after dinner so that you can perform a high-intensity interval training circuit while your wife takes a jog and the kids toss a football around. It’s a matter of finding what works for you and your family, and setting an example for everyone that staying active is an important part of a healthy life.
If that sounds too good to be true, consider some other ways to squeeze fitness into a busy day. For example, purchasing a pedometer (or if you always have your smartphone handy, downloading a step-counting app) can help nudge you to be more active throughout your day. If you notice that you aren’t getting close to the recommended 10,000-daily-steps mark, consider parking your car farther from the office door or getting off the train one stop early, conducting “walking meetings” instead of sitting around a conference table, and going to pick up your (healthy, we hope!) lunch in person rather than ordering delivery. It doesn’t quite count as a daily workout, but achieving a healthy minimum activity level will go a long way.
Finally, consider that for many people, first thing in the morning is the most reliable time to make sure you stick to a workout because excuses pile on as the clock ticks. Set the alarm a little earlier and head to the gym—and notice how much more energy, and less stress, you feel all day.
Q: When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, what does science say? Is it better to have one big goal or a bunch of smaller goals?
A: It’s actually not about the size of the goal; it’s about the specificity. Consider this: About 45 percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, according to research from the University of Scranton, yet only about 8 percent of us actually achieve them. Many experts say that those who succeed in goal-setting tend to state their objectives in specific, achievable terms, and to break them down into clear steps. Let’s say your goal is “Lose weight”: It’s better to say, “Lose 65 pounds” and even better to say, “Take 10,000 steps per day and eat more vegetables.”
Another tip: Try to reframe your resolutions in positive terms. For example, if you want to stop having so many late nights at work, reframe it this way: “Get home by 7 every night to spend more time with my family.” Focusing on the positive outcome instead of the negative thing that you’re trying to avoid will help keep you motivated.
Q: I want to set up all my big health screenings this month so that I know where I’m starting the year healthwise. What do I absolutely need to get?
A: We’re glad you asked! Here’s a list of the folks you need to see and the tests they’re likely to recommend.
General practitioner: Your GP should check you yearly for weight, waist, height, BMI (body mass index), blood pressure and the other elements of an annual physical. At least every five years (more if you’re male and as you age), he should check your cholesterol. Every few years, he may check levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone. Once in your 40s and again around menopause for women, he’ll test your bone mineral density. Men should receive a digital rectal exam each year after 40 (yes, really) as well as a PSA (prostate-specific antigen) blood test. Finally, you should receive a tetanus shot every 10 years, a whooping cough revaccination one time as an adult and a yearly flu shot.
Dentist: Have an oral exam (including any recommended X-rays) at least yearly.
Gynecologist: Ask your gynecologist how often you should have a Pap smear. You should have yearly pelvic exams, and we believe yearly breast exams are warranted as well, although opinions vary on these.
Mammography: Women should get a baseline mammogram—done by a radiologist or tech at a center that specializes in mammography—between ages 35 and 40, and repeat yearly beginning at 40. Despite conflicting recommendations, we do not suggest cutting back to every other year in older women. If you are at a higher risk, your doctor may suggest MRI screening; if you have dense breasts, she may recommend a sonogram in addition to your mammogram.
Ophthalmologist: Once every two years, get your vision and eye health checked.
Dermatologist: You should have a yearly skin cancer check, and any new or changing moles should be seen immediately.
Gastroenterologist: Starting at age 50, men and women at average risk for colon cancer should have a colonoscopy every 10 years. The recommendations for people at higher risk vary, so they should check with their GPs to determine a specific testing plan.