By Aliza Baker

Healthier living. Let’s face it, that’s been a goal for all of us at some point in our lives, but maintaining that healthy lifestyle isn’t always easy. What makes it so difficult, and what can we do to be more successful in achieving our goals? We chatted with Vestavia Hills resident and UAB Weight Loss and Nutrition Specialist Dr. Gareth Dutton to find out as we start off 2021.

Dr. Gareth Dutton

What do you think most people generally struggle with the most about maintaining a healthy diet?

There are three major things that come into play that people struggle with the most.

  1. First of all, there is the biology of it. When you try to cut back on your calories or change what you eat, sometimes that is unpleasant. You are hungry, so your body is telling you, “Hey, I’m hungry and I’m not getting the same amount of fuel that I am used to getting. I want more.” And in that way, the body is sort of fighting against the behavioral changes you’re trying to make.
  2. Psychologically, it is hard because these behavioral changes are incredibly difficult. Something a lot of people relate to while trying to lose weight is that early on, they are really motivated, and it is super rewarding because they are noticing changes; they are losing a few pounds and clothes are fitting better. Over time, though, all the hard work maybe gets a little less rewarding. People are wired to focus more on the short-term benefits rather than the long-term benefits, but you have to really push through the short-term costs like fatigue and hunger to really benefit in the long term.
  3. The third thing that makes it tricky is the environment. It has even been called a toxic environment that we live in. What I mean by that is we are surrounded by all of these really energy dense foods. They are convenient and accessible and all around us, but those convenient foods aren’t necessarily the healthiest options for us. Culture also comes into play here. We live in the South and we think that macaroni and cheese is a vegetable just because it’s a side dish. People laugh when I say that, but it’s kind of true. We can deep fry anything, so that environmental cultural piece makes it hard to stick with the healthier lifestyle changes.

What should people avoid when trying to have healthier eating habits?

I think that a lot of people are too rigid with themselves. For instance, when people are trying to change their diets, they group their world into good foods and bad foods. They think: here are the things I can eat, and here are the things I can never have again. This is really problematic, and it’s setting them up for failure because life is somewhere in the middle and not really in these extremes. Don’t worry so much about having a slip up; the bigger issue is how you respond to it.

How do you feel about counting calories and regularly weighing yourself? Do you think that helps, or does it create added stress?

With our programs, we encourage people to self-monitor and keep journals on their phones to track their food and calorie intake while weighing themselves pretty regularly. I do try to practice what I preach, so I have a digital scale in my office at home and at work. I weigh myself every morning, and I also track all of my food. I know from our research that it’s a really important part for people that are trying to manage their weight—whether they are trying to lose it or gain it or maintain it. It’s a powerful tool and it is definitely something I have tried to incorporate into my routine as well.

Do you have any tips on how people can stay healthy and active while being at home more than usual?

I think that we are all influenced by our physical environment: our routines, our schedules. For a lot of us, that has been totally thrown up into the air as COVID came onto the scene. During the weekdays, people can do really well because they have that schedule and routine. On the weekends, they struggle because they’re home more and have less of those scheduled activities. There are snacks readily available, and it is easier to be sedentary. And in some ways, right now, we are all living in this extended weekend. However, being at home more has given people more time, and that can be a good thing. There’s more of an opportunity to exercise, take walks and maybe do physical activities with families. So just taking advantage of the free time and staying active however you can is important. As for healthier eating, a lot of it depends on what is available to you at home. If you have less healthy food options surrounding you and you’re around them all day, it’s hard to resist those. So just making that effort to surround yourself with health-conscious options can make a real difference.

So, what are the big takeaways? Any general advice that you can give the Vestavia community about maintaining a healthy lifestyle?

The mindset that healthy living is a marathon and not a sprint is so important. We often shoot ourselves in the foot by thinking of it as a diet rather than a lifestyle change. We all want to be healthy for the long term, not temporarily, so it’s a journey. One of the quotes we use sometimes with some of our programs is, “A path is made by walking on it.” and I think that is so true for these healthy lifestyle changes. Baby steps are okay— you just have to start. Put one foot in front of the other and decide that you want to make these healthy changes. And the more you do those things, the more that becomes your new habit and lifestyle.

Eat Out, Eat Right

Gareth says you can make better choices just about anywhere you go, whether it’s a sit-down restaurant or even a fast food restaurant. Here are his tips for how to eat healthy when eating out.

1. Skip tempting restaurants.

If it’s a place you think you are going to have a hard time picking the healthier option, then maybe it’s not a good place to go if you know that you’ll be tempted to order that deep fried or slathered-in-chocolate option.

2. Cut down on portions.

Wherever you go, the portion sizes that are served are more than recommended. So, being mindful of the portion sizes, some people instantly get a to-go box and cut that meal in half so that they can save the other half for later.

3. Look at the menu in advance.

Quality matters, so thinking and really planning ahead about what they are going to order is something that I recommend doing. Look at the online menus and nutrition information before going in to eat and decide in advance what you are going to have, and then when you go in there, you don’t really even need to look at the menu. You aren’t tempted by the other items you see or smell, and you have already made an informed decision.