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Week 1: Diet & Exercise: The Dynamic Duo
Start your Small Changes for Health journey off right by combining diet and exercise to achieve lasting results. Focusing on diet alone or racking up the miles on the treadmill without regard for what you’re eating won’t give you the results you’re looking for. The formula for weight loss is pretty simple – you have to burn off more calories than you take in - and exercise is the key to burning those calories. If you’re looking to revamp your exercise routine in 2017 and need a jump start, check out these tips and videos from AARP Wellness Ambassador Denise Austin.
Don’t have time to spend hours at the gym? That’s okay! Start with just 30 minutes a day. Not looking to shed pounds? Weight loss is certainly not the only benefit of regular exercise. Those who exercise regularly sleep about 65% better than non-exercisers. Research has also shown that exercise helps to boost memory, lift your spirits, enhance creativity and reduce the risk of chronic diseases like diabetes, Alzheimer’s and certain cancers as well. AARP hosts a variety of active living events in St. Louis each year – we invite you to join us later this year for Boomers & Bikes or Trail Trekkers! For more information on these and other AARP activities in your community, visit aarp.org/stlouis. We look forward to connecting with you!
Week 2: Eat the Good Fat
Concerned about excess fat in your diet? Some people mistakenly assume that cutting fat completely out of their diets is the healthiest way to shed excess weight. But not all fats are created equal – some fats are actually good for you. Researchers have long established that monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, like those found in avocados, olive oils, and nuts are good for your heart. But more recent research also suggests that these fats can help boost your brain power too. A 4 1/2 year study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that the more saturated fat people ate – for example, fatty beef, lamb, cheese, and butter – the worse they did on cognitive and memory testing. In contrast, the more unsaturated fats people ate, the better they did.
So what does that mean for you? Make a small change - maybe try olive oil instead of butter the next time you need to sauté some vegetables. Establishing a good habit of eating healthy fats now could pay off in cognitive dividends in your later years.
And if you’re looking for other ways to improve cognition and memory, check out the AARP Staying Sharp program. Take our Brain Health Assessment and get recommendations for a brain-healthy lifestyle, including nutrition tips and brain-healthy recipes.
Week 3: Protein Power: Finding the Balance
If you follow popular diet trends, you’ll likely hear a lot about the role of protein in your diet. Protein has made a good name for itself, convincing many dieters to cut out carbs completely. Is protein critical to your diet? Absolutely! But there are a few facts you should know before hopping on the protein diet bandwagon.
- It’s not how much protein you eat, but when you eat it. You don’t need to consume massive amounts of protein to see health improvements. Balancing your protein consumption throughout the day is a healthier option because protein has a satiating effect. That is, it makes you feel full. Most of us consume most of our daily protein at dinner when balancing your protein intake over the course of day is actually a healthier option.
- Not all protein is considered equal. Eating more protein doesn’t have to mean eating more fat. Upping your protein intake can be accomplished by selecting healthier protein packed foods like egg whites, lean beef and salmon.
- Don’t forget the carbs. Carbohydrates get a bad rap, but your body needs carbs to function at its optimal level. In fact, Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that carbs make up 45-65% of your total daily calories. The trick is to pick the right kind of carbs. Focus on fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low fat dairy products and limit added sugars.
Bottom line: Protein AND carbs are critical to a well-balanced diet. If you’re looking to give your recipe book an update, check out the AARP recipe finder to search for recipes that fit your lifestyle and preferences.
Week 4: The Great Steak Debate: Ribeye or Sirloin?
Protein is a critical component of a well-balanced diet. In fact, dietary guidelines suggest that you should get 10-35% of your daily calorie intake from protein. That amounts to about 50 grams of protein per day.
Why is protein so important? Protein helps to build muscle and muscle plays a key role in balance, posture, your energy level and your body’s metabolism. Conversely, muscle loss can lead to a lack of energy, making normal activities like carrying groceries or playing a game of golf more difficult. Our bodies naturally start to lose up to 8% of muscle each decade starting at 40 years old and that increases to 15% each decade at age 70. That’s why increasing your protein intake as you get older is so important.
But not all proteins are created equal. Selecting lean proteins like skinless chicken, 90% (or leaner) ground beef, beans and lentils, and low-fat dairy products like yogurt and eggs are a healthy way to increase your protein intake. Craving a good steak? That’s fine! Just consider opting for a leaner cut of beef like sirloin or round steak instead of a fattier cut like a ribeye or t-bone.
Need a little help figuring out where to get your daily protein? Check out this handy chart from AARP that can help you increase your protein intake.
Week 5: Carb Craving?
Who doesn’t love a big bowl of pasta with a side of garlic bread? Most Americans do – and our love of carbs has, unfortunately, helped contribute to an obesity epidemic in our country. The low-fat diet we all assumed was the key to weight loss isn’t necessarily helpful because many of those low-fat foods (e.g. skim milk, low-fat cream cheese, etc.) simply replace the fat with carbs.
So why do carbs make us fat? It has to do with insulin. Insulin makes your body store calories as fat. When you eat carbs, your blood sugar goes up triggering a release of insulin which, in turn, tells your cells to burn the blood sugar first, storing the fat for later. As your insulin level comes down, that stored fat should be the next to be burned off. But if your insulin level stays elevated from eating a lot of high-carb foods, your body never gets the chance to burn the fat.
Carbohydrates are important in your diet – they give you energy. But it’s important to choose healthy carbs – that is, those that are bound with fiber and take longer to digest like broccoli, spinach, kale and whole grains. Try to avoid the easily digestible starches and refined sugars that are found in pastas, chips and sweets.
If you’re looking for a new low-carb recipe to try, visit the AARP Recipe Database where you can search for new recipes using a variety of filters, including the quantity of fat and carbs per serving.
Week 6: Feed Your Bones
“Got milk?...” does that sound familiar? Or maybe, “Milk. It does a body good...” does that ring a bell? Many of you likely remember these ad campaigns from your childhood, or maybe you had parents who constantly reminded you that drinking more milk would give you stronger bones. Regardless, you likely grew up knowing that calcium is important for bone health and that dairy foods are a good source of calcium. But there’s more to the story.
Obviously, dairy foods like milk, cheese and yogurt are good sources of calcium, but there are also many nondairy foods like almonds, dark green vegetables, tofu and canned salmon that contain this important nutrient. For all you dairy fans, keep in mind that too much calcium in your diet isn’t good either – it can put adults at higher risk of kidney stones. So how much calcium should you be getting? Women over age 50 should be getting about 1,200 milligrams of calcium per day and men need about 1,000 milligrams a day up to age 70, and 1,200 per day starting at age 71.
Don’t forget the D! Vitamin D, that is. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium so make sure you’re pairing your calcium intake with foods that are rich in vitamin D like salmon or tuna – or consuming foods that have been fortified with vitamin D like milk, cereal and orange juice. Want to know more about vitamins? Check out the AARP’s Vitamins from A to Z.
Week 7: Is 8x8 All That Great?
How much water do you need each day? It’s a simple question….without an easy answer. Most of you have probably heard the “rule” that drinking eight 8-ounce glasses of water each day is good for your health. That amounts to about 1.9 liters of water each day and, while that number isn’t too far off from what the Institute of Medicine recommends, it isn’t supported by hard evidence – 8x8 is just easy to remember.
Is water critical to your body’s overall functioning? Absolutely! But the problem with adhering to the 8x8 rule is that it doesn’t take into account individual needs, environment or level of activity. The best way to figure out how much water you should be drinking is to listen to your body and let thirst be your guide. While there is research evidence to suggest that increasing your daily water intake will help you consume fewer calories, too many people have interpreted that evidence to mean that more water is always better – which has resulted in an increase in rates of hyponatremia, a serious health condition that results from there being too little sodium in the body.
Bottom line: Don’t go overboard. Drink when you’re thirsty – and choose water over juices and soft drinks which only increase your calorie intake. Need something more concrete? The Institute of Medicine recommends 2.7 liters (91 ounces) of fluid per day for women and 3.7 liters (125 ounces) per day for men. That number includes all fluids, including the fluid you get from food which accounts for about 20% of our daily fluid intake. How’s that for a complex answer to a simple question?
Week 8: NA is good for your BMI
For every research study about the negative effects of alcohol on your health, there seems to be another study touting the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption - it can lower your blood pressure, reduce the risk of blood clots, and even raise HDL cholesterol. But when it comes to weight management and body fat, the message is clear: just say no.
So why is alcohol so bad? In addition to adding extra calories in your diet, alcohol disrupts normal metabolic pathways in your body which can lead to fat accumulation. Alcohol temporarily prevents our bodies from burning fat. Instead of burning fat, alcohol becomes the body’s preferred fuel source and the body must first burn the calories from alcohol before it can burn calories from the food we eat.
How many times have you craved a late-night pizza after having a few drinks with friends? Alcohol tends to increase your feeling of satisfaction after eating and your desire for high-calorie foods. Let’s face it – most people don’t crave a spinach salad after an evening of drinks. Not only does your body have to burn the extra calories associated with the alcoholic beverage itself, but now you’ve piled on additional calories from food that you might not have otherwise consumed.
Bottom line: If you’re looking to reduce body fat or watching your BMI (Body Mass Index), you may want to stick with nonalcoholic (NA) drinks. Or, an even better idea...avoid the extra calories altogether and opt for water!
If you are concerned that a loved one might have an alcohol or drug misuse issue, check out Not As Prescribed, a comprehensive guide for people who are struggling with drugs or alcohol and their loved ones.
Week 9: Carbs, Fats and Proteins... oh my!
Part of the secret to a healthy lifestyle is just knowing what you’re putting into your body – and understanding how to balance what you eat to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Every cell in your body is impacted by the food you eat, including macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fats) as well as micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). We’re going to take a closer look at the macronutrients.
Your body needs carbs, protein and fat to function at its best. The key is to eat the best kinds of these macronutrients. Select complex carbohydrates like those found in brown rice and oatmeal that give you sustained energy over simple carbs like sugar that give you a quick burst of energy and then leave you hungry again. Select foods that have unsaturated fats like those found in nuts, avocados and fish and avoid foods chocked full of saturated fats like those found in chips, butter and processed meats. Opt for complete protein sources (i.e. those that contain all 8 essential amino acids) like those found in poultry, eggs and milk.
Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends the following breakdown:
- Carbohydrates: 45-65% of calories
- Fat: 20-35% of calories
- Protein: 10-35% of calories
Bottom line: when you’re contemplating a healthier diet, diversity is key! Looking for more information about what to include in your diet? Check out Eat Well to Live Well, a well-being program offered by AARP through Life Reimagined.
Week 10: It’s not all about the scale
Congratulations! You’ve reached the end of the Small Changes for Health journey. Now it’s time to talk about how to check your progress. Numbers are important, but it’s not all about the scale. Experts say that paying attention to just four numbers can help you better track your own progress towards a healthier you.
- Body Mass Index (BMI): This is a simple calculation based on the ratio of height to weight. It doesn’t differentiate between muscle mass and fat, but it’s a better health metric than just stepping on the scale. The normal BMI range is 18.5 – 24.9. You can calculate your BMI here.
- Blood Pressure: This is a good indicator of overall health and can be easily tracked. About 80 million people in the U.S. have high blood pressure – and the good news is that it can be controlled with medication if necessary. If you haven’t been monitoring your blood pressure on a regular basis, you should know that anything higher than 120/80 puts you in the danger zone. Click here to understand more about your blood pressure reading.
- Cholesterol: The goal here is to have a total cholesterol level less than 200. If it’s higher than 200, your doctor may want to dig a bit deeper into the components that make up your total cholesterol level (i.e. HDL “good” cholesterol, LDL “bad” cholesterol and triglycerides).
- Blood Glucose: This test measures the amount of sugar in the blood and allows doctors to assess your risk of diabetes. A reading of less than 5.7% is considered normal, while 5.7-6.4 is considered pre-diabetic. Anything higher results in a diagnosis of diabetes.
Visit your doctor annually, keep track of these numbers and you’ll be well on your way to a healthier you. Congratulations on taking the first step by joining us on the Small Changes for Health journey! For more information and support on sustaining a healthier you, visit the AARP website or join AARP in St. Louis for an upcoming active living event!
For more information and resources about healthy behaviors and active lifestyles, visit aarp.org/health.