5 Ways to Improve Your Health in 2022by Amylee Amos MS, RDN, IFMCPNutrition
Welcome, 2022! We have a beautiful new year in front of us, full of opportunity and potential. When you took time to contemplate new year’s resolutions, improving your health may have been on your list. However despite our best intentions, “getting healthier” and other similar nebulous goals are often hard to achieve. We have put together five simple, specific, and attainable interventions that will have the most dramatic impact on your health in 2022. Whether you choose to implement one of these or all of these this year, we promise that these changes will have a positive impact on your health, both in terms of biochemistry and how you feel.
1. Start Fasting
One of the absolute best things that you can do for health is to fast. Fasting has become trendy in the last few years and there are a lot of different types- intermittent fasting, time restricted feeding, and fasting mimicking diets to name a few. All of these types of fasting can have a positive impact on your health when implemented appropriately. However, research shows the most simple and easy to implement type of fasting is time restricted feeding (TRF). This type of fasting consists of a specified eating window, with no intentional calorie restriction.
The reason this is so helpful is because food can disrupt our peripheral circadian clocks, the body’s natural timing system. Every cell in our body has its own clock- all interconnected to the master circadian clock in the brain. Each organ system is active at a certain time and needs to “sleep” at another time during the day. Our digestive organs are meant to work optimally during the day and rejuvenate at night. When we eat according to this rhythm we set the body up for health. When we eat out of sync with this rhythm, we promote disease. And we can see this in research. Research done in mice shows that when we eat is equally important, possibly even more important, than what we eat. Studies have been conducted that look at mice on isocaloric diets (so they eat the same amount of calories and the same foods), but one group of mice ate whenever they wanted to and one group of mice ate in a specified eating window, following the TRF model. The mice that were restricted to eating within an 8-10 hour window were completely protected from diseases including obesity, type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, cardiovascular disease, and high cholesterol. The group of mice eating those same foods and same amount of calories but whenever they wanted, became obese and developed all of those diseases (1). The researchers were able to reverse the diseased mice by putting them on TRF. And the incredible benefits of TRF don’t stop with research in mice. In human trials, researchers have found that when people follow a 10 hour eating window, they can experience weight loss and general improved health including better sleep, improved mood, more energy, and decreased incidence of disease (2).
The beauty of time restricted feeding is that you can start tonight. You don’t need to buy any fancy equipment and you don’t need to restrict what you eat. Just change when you eat and you can enjoy unbelievable benefits that you will literally start feeling tomorrow morning. After practicing TRF for weeks or months, you can expect to see positive changes in your blood chemistry too. If you’re new to fasting, start with just a 12 hour fast overnight, ideally with the first three hours taking place before you go to bed. So for example, if you stopped eating and drinking at 7pm, you wouldn’t go to sleep until 10pm and then you wouldn’t eat or drink again the following morning until 7am. You can extend your fast as needed, but make sure to check with your doctor if you have any health conditions or take medications.
2. Eat the Rainbow
“Eat the Rainbow” has become a catchphrase of sorts and like all catchphrases gets easily glossed over. It’s one of those things that seems too simple to be important. Yet eating a rainbow of plant foods is one of the best things you can do for your health. Many diseases and conditions, including neurodegenerative diseases are the cause of mitochondrial dysfunction. The mitochondria are an organelle found within our cells that are responsible for creating energy. When our mitochondria don’t function properly, the result is cellular damage and disease. One of the primary causes of mitochondrial dysfunction is micronutrient deficiencies and insufficiencies (3). We need a vast array of micronutrients including vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients in order to maintain optimal health.
Eating the rainbow, or aiming to eat a wide range of different colored plant foods allows you to consume a diet that is rich in micronutrients including vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Countless studies show that not only do they provide anti-inflammatory and antioxidative benefits, they can protect against disease pathogenesis through multiple mechanisms (4). So we want the phytonutrients from red foods, orange foods, yellow, green, blue, and purple! Not only is a colorful plate of food appetizing and appealing, it provides the necessary diversity of micronutrients.
Again, it sounds simple, but currently 90% of our food intake is made up of only 15 different crops. Two-thirds of our calories come from conventional wheat, corn, and rice. Our early human ancestors consumed over 800 varieties of plant foods, so we evolved to get huge diversity in plant foods. The fact that we now get so little diversity takes a serious toll on our health. We can counteract that by striving to increase the diversity of plant foods that make it onto our plate.
Unlike so many diet resolutions, “eat the rainbow” should be fun and freeing. Try to get the whole family involved. How many different colored plant foods can you get on your plate? How many can you eat in a day? Have fun with trying different colors of common foods. Try purple and yellow cauliflower, green tomatoes, or blue corn. Remember, you’re getting different nutrients with each color, and we need them all!
3. Give Yourself an Oil Change
Not all dietary fats are created equally. Different types of oils can either contribute to inflammation and drive the disease process, or they can promote healthspan and longevity. But like your car, most of us need an oil change. Our intake of dietary fats has a direct influence on our health. Fats are a major component of our cellular membranes and the types of fats we eat influence the fluidity of those membranes (5). That means that when we eat the right types of fats we improve the ability of our cells to function and communicate properly.
Fats get so much attention. For decades we were taught to fear fat, and more recently we were taught to fully embrace fat. What’s the right answer? The truth is, the health implications of fat have everything to do with what kind of fats we’re talking about. Like all other macronutrients, it’s not about the quantity as it is about the quality. Give yourself an oil change by swapping out fats that contribute to inflammation and disease and swap them in for fats that promote healthspan.
The fats to take out of your diet include canola oil, soybean oil, corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil, and vegetable oil. Reducing consumption of these fats inadvertently means that you will reduce consumption of processed foods, as these are the fats nearly always used in the processed food industry. The best fat that you can choose is extra virgin olive oil. Consuming extra virgin olive oil every day has been shown to stabilize blood glucose, improve insulin sensitivity, and prevent cardiovascular disease (6). The cultures with the best longevity include liberal amounts of extra virgin olive oil in their diet, further evidence that olive oil promotes good health. However, even in the case of olive oil, the source and type of olive oil you consume matters. It’s best to choose extra virgin olive that is cold-pressed, stored in a dark glass bottle with a known, recent harvest date and a high polyphenol count. Avocado oil is another great choice of oil to use when cooking at higher temperatures. Though olive oil is suitable for cooking at lower temperatures, it is best consumed without heating in order to obtain the beneficial properties of the oil. Go through your pantry and toss any oils that contribute to inflammation. Instead invest in a high quality extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil.
4. Feed Your Gut
Our gut health, and more specifically the health of our gut microbiota, or the approximately 100 trillion bacteria and other microbes that live in the gastrointestinal tract (7), have been shown to impact our overall health in a variety of ways. Without getting into too much detail, we cannot be healthy if our gut is not healthy. While there is no one perfect microbiome, we know that a healthy microbiome is characterized by an abundance of diverse beneficial microorganisms.
There are many ways that we can work to maintain gut health, including nourishing and protecting those beneficial microorganisms. Two of those ways include eating prebiotic and probiotic rich foods. Prebiotic foods include those with fibers that the body cannot digest and absorb, thus they are fermented by our gut bacteria. Some great sources of this prebiotic fiber include asparagus, endive, radicchio, sunchokes, jicama, onions, and garlic. Probiotic foods include those that contain live, active cultures. Choose foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh, and kefir. Eating a diet rich in prebiotic and probiotic foods creates an environment in which the healthy bacteria of our gut can flourish.
While feeding your gut will improve your overall health, it will also have a massive impact on your brain health, including your cognitive health and your mental health. A bidirectional pathway exists between our gut and our brain, which is known as the gut brain axis. Through the nerves and hormones involved in the gut brain axis, the brain controls intestinal activity, and the intestinal cells, under the influence of the gut microbiota, can influence emotional and cognitive functions in the brain (8). This is incredible news because it means that when we make changes to our diet, including small changes such as eating prebiotic and probiotic foods (as well as consuming healthier oils and eating a rainbow of plant foods) we can directly improve our brain health- improving cognitive function and mental health.
5. Keep Calm and Carry On
After what we’ve all experienced in 2020 and 2021, it may be particularly difficult to keep calm and carry on as we enter 2022. However, practicing mindfulness while we eat can do wonders to improve our health. There are many components of mindful eating, but if this is a new concept, start by simply sitting down to eat and taking three cleansing deep breaths before you take your first bite. By sitting down and taking those deep breaths, you help your body transition out of the “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system that most of us live in, and into the “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system that we should be in while we eat so that our food can be properly digested and absorbed.
If you want to take it one step further, while you are eating, try to tune into the experience of eating your meal. Look at all of those colors and textures on your plate. Smell the aromas of the dish, Savor the mouthfeel and flavor of each bite. Trying to get yourself in the moment and engaging in a mindful practice will help you enjoy your meals and improve your digestion.
So there you have it! Five simple ways to dramatically improve your health in 2022. Getting healthier doesn't need to be a massive overhaul of your life (though it can be if that works for you!). But if you’re like most of us and massive nutrition and lifestyle changes just feel overwhelming, choose one or two of the interventions mentioned above. Any one of these can make a huge difference in your health. Wishing you a happy and healthy new year!
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