Originally written for The Washington Post, May 1st, 2017
I can clearly remember being a senior in college and so excited to graduate and enter the “real world.” No more homework, my own money to play with, a new city with full freedom and independence. I can also clearly remember being six months out of school and feeling so overwhelmed, confused and unhealthy. I was shocked! Learning how to eat right, manage a busy social life, get my workouts done and work a full day seemed impossible. It took years and effort to create solid habits. What many don’t realize is that this first exposure to the “real world” is a pivotal time to set the tone for your health and wellness. It can be so tempting to attend every fancy event and happy hour, but it’s also important to take care of yourself. Let’s discuss some habits to set you up for success.
If there’s one habit you should start young and never stop, it’s eating vegetables. So basic, completely unsexy, but it’s the truth. Vegetables are full of nutrients, high in fiber and low in calories. To eat a healthy diet, vegetables must be part of your daily routine.
How do you make it work? First, take notice of how many vegetables you’re eating. Look at your fist and figure out how many fists of vegetables you eat a day. Slowly start adding more, reaching a goal of six to 10 per day.
Consider the following strategies:
● Bring veggies with you everywhere you go. Chopped carrots, peppers, celery, broccoli, cauliflower and radishes are great on the go.
● Always order vegetables when you’re out. It doesn’t have to be a salad, but it could be a side of veggies, or swapping some of your starch for a veggie.
● Keep a bag of greens in your fridge at all times. Throw them in soups or over eggs, or use them as a side for dinner, or a base of a meal. Eat raw, sautéed, steamed or microwaved. Greens go with everything and are so easy to incorporate into your routine. Frozen greens work, too.
● Use fat, spice and acid to make it taste better. Add oils, butter, cheese, any spice you like, vinegars, lemon or lime to get more vegetables into your routine. Over time, you may notice you don’t need as much added flavor, but do what you’ve got to do.
Sugar, fried food and alcohol aren’t going away. Quite frankly, they shouldn’t, as splurges are a wonderful and tasty part of life. When you jump into the working world, you may notice how many treats and cocktails effortlessly enter your daily routine. Work meetings, networking opportunities and social events add up. You might go “all or nothing” with this and have weeks or months where you’re drinking and eating an excessive amount, and then challenge yourself to weeks or months of no sugar or alcohol. Although this can sometimes be successful in the short term, it’s exhausting and likely not going to set you up for long-term success. A smarter move is to accept that these foods are in your world, and be strategic about it.
● If you’re going to a party, eat a balanced meal before you go, so you don’t walk into a splurge-filled situation with a ravenous stomach.
● Set a rule before you go. Give yourself a number of drinks and/or treats you’re going to allow yourself before the event starts. Walk in with a plan to keep you focused.
● Drink water between cocktails. It’ll keep you hydrated and allow you to make better choices throughout the night. When you’ve had too many drinks, food splurges are far more enticing.
● Brush your teeth. If you brush your teeth midday at work, it may be easier to say no to the treats at the office.
● There are scenarios that insist you take the birthday cake, the glass of wine or other splurge. You don’t have to eat it all. You can have a bite or a sip, or even two, and then set the plate or glass down with no one noticing.
This seems strange, but putting yourself first is a skill, a worthy one that takes practice and time to make it a habit. What does that mean? There are countless moments throughout the day when you can decide to put your goals of a healthy lifestyle over following the pack. For example, take the stairs, even if your friends take the elevator. Be the one at work who goes to the gym at lunch hour, even if it’s for a quick 20- to 30-minute workout. Be the one at the office who has vegetables for an afternoon snack, rather than a cookie. Take a walk around the block instead of a smoke break. Your health has to be the priority. Unfortunately, if you just go with the flow, you’ll likely eat too much and not move enough. It requires effort to put a healthy lifestyle before anything else. It doesn’t have to be dramatic, but little changes make all the difference.
● Have a water bottle with you at all times to stay hydrated.
● Do 10 to 20 push-ups and squats in the morning and/or evening if you can’t get longer workouts in your schedule.
● Pack the week’s veggie snacks on Sunday nights.
● When everyone is ordering a heavier meal, instead find a vegetable-rich salad, a veggie side or consider ordering a meal with the dressing, sauce, cheese or fried stuff on the side. That way you can manage your decisions and create a plate that works for you.
● Find a workout that’s convenient to you so it fits with your lifestyle.
● Turn off the TV/computer/screens at a certain time so you go to bed at a reasonable hour.
If you say yes to every social offer that comes your way, and every splurge food that’s put in front of you, you won’t feel so well after a year in the “real world.” It will be a whole new level of the “freshman 15.” Realize the power of saying no. You can do it with a smile on your face and still be a team player. You can go to happy hour and have water. You really can! You can laugh, have fun, build rapport with your team, but not be as intoxicated as the others. If it’s someone’s birthday party, you can sing and celebrate without eating a gigantic piece of cake. You could take a small piece, or have a bite, or simply smile and say “no thank you.”
● When your co-worker wants to take an afternoon walk for a mocha and a cookie, you can join and simply have coffee or tea. If you want something sweet, consider sharing the cookie rather than each buying your own. Ask your co-worker how he’s doing and enjoy the conversation. There’s no need to have a calorie-filled afternoon snack just because your co-worker wants to.
● Smile as you say no. Practice right now: Smile and say no aloud. Avoid judging, saying “ew” or making someone else feel bad for ordering something not in line with your values. Smile first, say “no thank you,” and move on.
Pay attention during this exciting time in your life. Have fun! But take time daily, or hourly, to be sure you’re also prioritizing your health. You can thank yourself later.