New Year’s Resolutions – Awesome or Terrible? Or Both?

The debate around New Year’s Resolutions has gone on for ages.  Sometimes they work and allow us to make big changes, sometimes they don’t and leave us feeling discouraged.  Unfortunately, often they don’t – studies show the success rate to be somewhere around 8% - yikes! But there may be some value to this age old tradition!

Why is it that these resolutions are often unsuccessful? There’s a FANTASTIC video that talks a bit about one challenge with New Year’s Resolutions (Click Here to watch it).  In short, humans are capable of change; however, often times it’s not in the form of one huge permanent change.  It’s more likely to be a series of small changes, a mixture of small successes and failures and a gradual progression in the right direction until substantial change is made.  I see this often in my clinical practice – people gradually increase the number of vegetables they are eating, decrease the amount of junk food, increase water intake and physical activity, practice medication more often and cope with stress in healthier ways.  There are set-backs and regressions but they are followed by getting back on track and continuing to improve.  And it’s important that these set backs are not seen as failures, just bumps on the road to success.

That being said, there are times when a dramatic change is hugely beneficial! Last year I was interviewed for a documentary on mental health and contributed to a few segments on the role of nutrition. Click Here to see the first segment.  In this clip, I speak with film maker Bryce Sage about the role of sugar in mental health, particularly the harmful effects of having too much.  Bryce decides to do a 30-day Sugar Detox to start the new year.  When he suggested this to me I had mixed feelings.  On one hand, this is a challenging thing for someone to do and not being able to complete it might be very discouraging.  But on the other hand, sometimes dramatic diet experiments can be very useful.  When we gradually decrease something, it’s much harder to notice the impact.  If you ate 10% less sugar every week, you would likely feel better gradually but week-to-week you might not notice much.  On the other hand, taking a 4 week break from sugar all together, you will clearly see how you feel in the absence of sugar in your diet and be able to clearly compare it to how you felt when you were eating the white stuff.  This can be very motivating and empowering to understand the impact and make an informed choice! Also, for some people, having a little bit less each week takes a lot of self control.  Some patients tell me that having cookies in the house and limiting themselves to one occasionally is nearly impossible – they end up eating the whole box.  In these case, cutting it out all together (and cleaning out the cupboard) can be helpful.  Lastly, and this one is somewhat unique to refined sugar which is known to have addictive-like properties, I’ve seen many times that the less sugar people are eating, the less they crave (this has to do with improved regulation of blood sugar!)  So, a significant decrease in intake results in less craving and an increase likelihood of success. 

How do we reconcile these two arguments? On one hand, making change gradually is more likely to result in long term success, but on the other, big changes have their benefits too.  In my practice, I often ask patients to experiment with removing certain foods entirely from their diet but the key is that it’s for a discrete amount of time, such as a few weeks or a month.  This is doable and gives them a lot of information about the impact of these foods on various aspects of their health.  After that time period, its up to the individual how to use this information long term.  In the case of a rheumatoid arthritis patient who got complete relief from his symptoms by cutting out gluten, I couldn’t have paid him to go back to eating it! Others might decide to avoid the food 6 days a week and feel great.  Others might work to gradually decrease intake and find a balance that works for them.  And this can apply to any lifestyle change – dive into exercise or meditation and see how you feel and then find the balance that will work for you long term.  Overall, I would say that big changes can be useful for short term experiments but probably aren’t the key to long term change.  In the long run, small steps and progressive healthy choices (mixed with the inevitable slip-up) might be the way to go.  If you’d like to work with either of these strategies to make healthy changes, I’d be happy to help.

Wishing you and yours a happy and healthy 2017!