Even the most health-conscious consumers aren’t immune. You may buy organic, do yoga or meditate regularly, and dutifully take your fish oil. And compared to the large pool of fast-food-eating, sedentary Americans, you are living an exceptionally healthy life. But chances are you have blind spots that keep you from optimum wellness. Maybe you still succumb to your after-dinner sugar fix, power through the same monotonous workout day after day, or allow the latest extreme diet trend to seduce you—whatever your weak link, you may be unwittingly shortchanging your health.
Well, here’s your reality check. Take a look at the following eight mistakes, misperceptions, and myths to see whether you’ve been fooled, too; then use our experts’ tips to start making easy, doable changes today. Don’t sweat it: Nobody’s asking for a radical overhaul—you’ve already built a strong foundation of wellness—but avoiding these common pitfalls will ensure a healthier life starting right now. And isn’t that what matters most?
Hiding behind a health halo
You likely know someone who’s vegetarian but lives on potato chips or gluten-intolerant but snacks obsessively on sugary gluten-free treats. When you adopt a restrictive, single-focus diet—no matter how healthy it appears to be—it’s easy to lose sight of the larger goal: eating nutrient-dense foods in appropriate amounts. Taking such a myopic approach is “almost its own kind of eating disorder,” says integrative physician Tieraona Low Dog, MD, faculty member of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. Over time, too-narrow food choices can lead to deficiencies, she warns.
Likewise, consuming only organic or vegan can make you feel virtuous, but that doesn’t give you license to reward yourself with oversized portions or calorie-dense treats. “Often people are so focused on what they’re eating that they lose sight of how much they’re eating,” explains Holly Lucille, ND, RN, of West Hollywood, California. “I’m a big fan of getting back to calories; the bottom line is, if you take in more energy than you expend, you’re going to have trouble losing weight. An organic blue corn chip is still a corn chip.”
In general, labeling foods as good or bad creates a detrimental dichotomy. People tend to overeat when eating “good” foods, explains Maryann Jacobsen, RD, creator of the Raise Healthy Eaters blog. (Indeed, in a recent study, people thought cookies labeled organic were lower in calories than identical cookies without the label.) Similarly, labeling something as a “bad” food can create a scarcity mentality, or the feeling that there’s not enough to go around, and lead to bingeing. “We’ve lost a sense of our internal cues,” she explains, citing a study from the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab comparing Parisians to their counterparts in Chicago: The French stopped eating when they felt full; the Chicagoans used external cues and kept going until their plates were empty—yet another reason why the French are skinnier!
Solution: Build a balanced, holistic, and positive diet by putting your energy into focusing more on what you should eat rather than what you shouldn’t. “You know you’re on the right track if you’re getting plenty of fruits and veggies, whole grains, lean meats, fish, and low-fat dairy,” advises Jacobsen. Tune into your body’s signals and stop eating when you’re 80 percent full. Track your caloric intake in a food diary for two weeks. (To calculate your target caloric intake, multiply your weight by 15; you can brush up on caloric values for common foods at nutrition.gov.) Simply writing down everything you eat “is a big wake-up call,” says Lucille.
Whether to boost the immune system, improve moods, or strengthen bones, Americans love their supplements: Last year, industry sales topped $29 billion. "Healthy people are avid readers and researchers; they know what’s new and exciting," says Low Dog. "However, what sometimes ends up happening is that they keep adding supplements, seldom ever taking any away." The temptation, she says: Treating a battery of supplements as a Band-Aid for a poor or unbalanced diet.
Solution: Dissect your diet. Take an unflinching look at what you eat to figure out what you might be missing. Try to get most nutrients from whole, unprocessed foods first, says Lucille. Use supplements to fill gaps with nutrients that are tough to get enough of through diet alone. The USDA lists basic recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) online as well as a guide to understanding serving sizes. For more help, check out eatright.org to find a registered dietician (RD) in your area. Try to choose one that specializes in holistic nutrition.
Then supplement wisely. Most people can benefit from a good multivitamin, to cover any dietary gaps and compensate for stress, which can deplete nutrients such as B vitamins. Beyond that—unless you have specific ailments—about three supplements daily should do the trick: omega-3 fish oil, a probiotic for gut health (an estimated 70 percent of your immune system is in your gastrointestinal tract), and, depending on your levels, extra vitamin D (many Americans are deficient in this bone-strengthening, immunity-boosting vitamin; ask your doctor for a blood test).
Sacrificing sleep for exercise
You stay up late answering emails, only to set your alarm for 5 a.m. so you can straggle into the gym or squeeze in a run before work. Sound familiar? In America’s go-go-go culture, too many people burn the proverbial candle at both ends, and in most cases, it’s not worth it. “When you’re over 30, the benefits of more sleep generally outweigh those of more exercise,” says Lucille. That’s because by choosing exercise over sleep, you’re breaking down muscle tissues without allowing ample time for anabolic rejuvenation, crucial for tissue repair, immune function, and healthy aging, she explains.
If you need another excuse to snooze rather than sweat, consider this: A good night’s sleep has been shown to stave off unhealthy binge eating. According to recent Harvard Medical School sleep studies, chronic lack of good sleep increases levels of cortisol and ghrelin, hormones that make you crave fat and sugar. It also lowers levels of leptin, a hormone that alerts the brain when you’ve had enough food. All this, in turn, raises your risk of insulin resistance, inflammation, heart disease, diabetes, and depression.
Solution: Don’t become a layabout; just get creative. Instead of waking before dawn, work out at lunch instead. (Avoid after-dinner exercise; the endorphins produced can keep you awake.) If time is an issue—and these days, when isn’t it?—think in terms of “activity units” rather than prolonged, vigorous exercise: Incorporate movement into your whole day by walking as much as possible, taking the stairs, and playing outside with your kids.
If you’ve tweaked your fitness routine and still aren’t getting seven to nine hours of sleep a night, it’s time to get serious. (One Harvard study found that people who slept eight hours a night had the lowest body mass index.) Low Dog recommends cutting back on or eliminating caffeine, installing blackout curtains in your bedroom, lowering your thermostat to 65 degrees, and limiting your alcohol intake at dinner to one drink. Set and keep a regular bedtime and wake-up time. If this fails, says Low Dog, supplements may be in order. “If you are having problems falling asleep, try taking 3 milligrams of melatonin about 45 minutes before your scheduled bedtime. If you have a hard time staying asleep, consider an herbal supplement containing soothing valerian, hops, or lemon balm.”
With a bull’s-eye on beef, many health-minded consumers turn to chicken instead, assuming that because it’s white and not marbled with gristle, it must be low fat and healthy. Guess again. Although a 3-ounce serving of organic, skinless, free-range chicken breast is the leanest meat you can buy, it still contains 20 percent fat, nearly a third of which is saturated fat, and 73 mg of cholesterol.
In fact, concerns about protein may be a red herring. According to the American Heart Association, most people in the United States already consume more protein than their bodies need, much of which comes from animal-based foods that are high in saturated fats and increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and certain cancers. The RDA for women ages 31 to 50 who aren’t pregnant or nursing is 46 grams; most adults consume about 100 grams. “It’s a misconception that you need so much protein,” says Kathy Freston, author of Veganist (Weinstein, 2011). “Animal proteins can be tough to digest, and there are so many alternatives.”
Solution: Replace chicken with plant-based proteins like beans, legumes, soy, and ancient grains including quinoa (a complete protein) and amaranth. “People think that to be vegetarian or vegan, it’s all or nothing,” says Freston, “but it’s more about setting your intentions and leaning into a plant-based diet.” How? Try reducing meat gradually, starting with one day a week. Over time you may find you crave meat less, and the added fiber and phytonutrients will move you toward “profoundly better health,” says Freston.
Making exercise a chore
You know fitness has an image problem when Americans call it “working out.” “We’re conditioned to think we have to do it ‘till it burns’ or break a sweat,” says Michelle Segar, PhD, a motivation and behavior scientist at the University of Michigan. “This just makes exercise a stressor.” Indeed, for the perennially time-crunched, fitness has become an all-or-nothing proposition: If they can’t cram in 30 minutes of vigorous exercise, they assume it’s not worth it.
But research suggests otherwise: When it comes to lowering risk of heart disease, depression, certain cancers, and high blood pressure, little chunks of activity throughout the day really do add up. A recently published study from Qatar makes the case in more worrisome terms, linking rigorous endurance running with a higher chance of heart damage in lifelong male athletes.
And motivation is at least as important as duration: In Segar’s own research on women in midlife, those who exercised for well-being and stress reduction got more exercise than those who cited weight loss as their biggest goal.
Solution: Fitness should be an opportunity to play. Consider it a means to achieve many goals: getting fresh air, being with your family, learning a new sport. And loosen up: Moving more freely gets lymph nodes flowing and uses a variety of muscles, says Jenny Nelson, a holistic health coach based in Maine. Try jumps, skips, balancing, cleaning the house, wrestling with kids, and dancing around the house.
Give yourself permission to exercise sporadically. A 20-minute power walk after dinner or a 10-minute strength session at the gym is much better than nothing. Above all, cut yourself some slack: Life can be unbearably busy, and sometimes that’s all you can squeeze in.
According to a 2010 study by research firm Mintel, nearly two-thirds of Americans consider high-fiber the most important health claim a food label can carry—yet most eat an average of 15 grams daily instead of the recommended 25 to 38 grams. So what’s the problem? Even among healthy eaters, fiber can be an overlooked and misunderstood nutrient (there’s not even an official RDA for fiber). In the same study, 25 percent of participants thought fiber was only necessary for people with constipation and 27 percent said they thought food with fiber had an unpleasant taste.
But fiber—found in whole grains, beans, legumes, veggies, and fruit—is a workhorse that keeps the GI tract healthy and protects against heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and colon cancer. Researchers believe fiber decreases estrogen associated with breast cancer, lowering risks. Plus, fiber-rich foods help you feel full sooner and longer.
Solutions: Not all fiber is created equal. In a recent National Cancer Institute study, people who ate the most fiber (particularly from whole grains) were 22 percent less likely to die during the nine-year study period than people who ate the least. According to the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI), created by Eat Right America with Joel Fuhrman, MD, some of the most nutritious fiber-rich foods include old-fashioned oats; whole-grain barley; sunflower seeds; flaxseeds; lentils; and mustard, turnip, kale, and collard greens.
To get creative with your fiber intake, start the day with a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal and berries, sprinkle sunflower seeds on your stir-fry or salad, and shoot for 3 cups of beans a week. For portable snacks, toss chopped kale with olive oil and salt and bake into chips; or dry canned or soaked garbanzo beans, toss in olive oil and salt, and bake at low heat until crunchy.
Taking it too seriously
As with everything in life, there’s a tipping point when being too focused on your wellness can backfire. “When you make health the goal rather than viewing it as a resource, it’s easy to get stressed out, rigid, and narrow-minded,” cautions Low Dog. “Health is what helps you live the life you want—it’s a resource, not a destination.” Negative thoughts can be toxic, too. “It’s more important for our health to find meaning in our lives than to obsess over whether we’re eating the right foods all the time,” says Lipman.
Solution: When in doubt, be gentle on yourself. “It's OK to have a piece of cake or an ice cream cone once in a while,” says Low Dog. “It's OK to take a day off from exercising. Life is to be lived and enjoyed.”