Healthy habits for young people

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This article is part of a series aimed at helping you navigate life’s opportunities and challenges.

Staying healthy in your 20s is strongly associated with a lower risk for heart disease in middle age, according to research from Northwestern University. That study showed that most people who adopted five healthy habits in their 20s – a lean body mass index, moderate alcohol consumption, no smoking, a healthy diet and regular physical activity – stayed healthy well into middle age.

Weigh yourself often.

Buy a bathroom scale or use one at the gym and weigh yourself regularly. There is nothing more harmful to long-term health than carrying excess pounds, and weight tends to creep up starting in the 20s. It is pretty easy for most people to get rid of three to five pounds and much harder to get rid of 20. If you keep an eye on your weight you can catch it quickly.

Learn to cook.

Learning to cook will save you money and help you to eat healthy. Your focus should be on tasty ways to add variety to your diet and to boost intake of veggies and fruits and other nutrient-rich ingredients. As you experiment with herbs and spices and new cooking techniques, you will find that you can cut down on the unhealthy fats, sugar and salt, as well as the excess calories found in many prepared convenience foods. Your goal should be to develop a nutritious and enjoyable eating pattern that is sustainable and that will help you not only to be well, but also to manage your weight.

Cut back on sugar.

I suggest that young people try to avoid excessive simple sugar by eliminating the most common sources of consumption: 1) sugared soft drinks 2) breakfast cereals with added sugar and 3) adding table sugar to foods. Excessive sugar intake has been linked to obesity and diabetes, both of which contribute to heart disease. Sugar represents “empty calories” with none of the important nutrients needed in a balanced diet. Conversely, the traditional dietary villains, fat, particularly saturated fat, and salt, have undergone re-examination by many thoughtful nutrition experts. In both cases, the available scientific evidence does not clearly show a link to heart disease.

Live an active life.

While many people can’t find time for a scheduled exercise routine, that doesn’t mean you can’t find time to be active. Build physical activity into your daily life. Find a way to get 20 or 30 minutes of activity each day, including riding a bike or briskly walking to work.

​​Eat your veggies.

Nutrition science is complicated and debated endlessly, but the basics are well established: Eat plenty of plant foods, go easy on junk foods, and stay active. The trick is to enjoy your meals, but not to eat too much or too often.

Practice portion control.

My tip would be to not to ban entire food groups but to practice portion control. Portion control doesn’t mean tiny portions of all foods – quite the opposite. It’s okay to eat larger portions of healthy foods like vegetables and fruit. No one got fat from eating carrots or bananas. Choose smaller portions of unhealthy foods such as sweets, alcohol and processed foods. When eating out, let your hand be your guide. A serving of protein like chicken or fish should be the size of your palm. (Think 1-2 palms of protein.) A serving of starch, preferably a whole grain such as brown rice or quinoa should be the size of your fist. Limit high-fat condiments like salad dressing to a few tablespoons – a tablespoon is about the size of your thumb tip.

Adopt a post-party exercise routine.

If you engage in a lot of drinking and snacking, ensure you exercise a lot to offset all those extra calories from Friday to Sunday that come with extra drinking and eating. We found in a study that on Friday through Sunday young adults consumed about 115 more calories than on other days, mainly from fat and alcohol.

I hope you like these tips.

Thank you.

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