We all know the statistics about how many people set New Year's resolutions, only to never achieve them. Yet, year after year something about a fresh start entices us to still set new goals and try again. Perhaps our inability to consistently follow through on New Year's resolutions is because we let our ambitions get the better of us by setting the bar too high or being too rigid and unrealistic with our expectations. Whatever the case, choosing something that's either hyper-limiting or totally unattainable can be a recipe for picking an unhealthy New Year's resolution.
Unhealthy New Year's resolutions often include making extreme diet changes, drastically cutting calories, fixating on a number on the scale, and many more. One major sign that you've chosen an unhealthy New Year's resolution is that it can feel like a drastic departure from your existing lifestyle once you begin proactively incorporating steps toward making this goal a tangible reality into your daily routine. While it is exciting to think about how much could change in a year, experts agree that you should start small when changing habits for your health.
"Make sure that any changes you undertake in the pursuit of weight loss are behaviors you can realistically continue long-term. Otherwise, you can find yourself caught up in a cycle of yo-yo dieting and weight cycling, which actually leads to worse health outcomes," Alissa Palladino MS, RDN, LD, CPT, tells Eat This, Not That!
Although many New Year's resolutions might seem doomed from the start, this does not always have to be the case. Plenty of people have been able to successfully stick to their goals and follow through with these personal commitments set at the top of each new year. To find out more about how to best avoid making an unhealthy New Year's resolution, we sought the advice of a few nutrition experts. Using these tips, you can ensure that you set healthy, smart, realistic goals that have a better chance of coming to fruition in 2023.
Giving up a food group
The keto diet, Atkins, and the vegan diet are all great examples of diets that eliminate food groups. But whether you're eliminating carbs, fat, or protein, experts agree that extreme restriction all at once tends to be unsustainable.
"Going vegan tops my list of least healthy New Year's resolutions. This may come as a surprise, but few people anticipate the sheer dedication one must have to create a well-rounded diet when following a vegan diet," notes Sharon Puello, MA, RD, CDN, CDCES. "Often, people lack the nutrition knowledge to prevent nutrient deficiencies. Veganism is often marketed as an easy change—'just cut out animal products.' However, few will seek out a certified nutrition professional to help guide them in this process, and that's what makes this resolution a particularly hazardous one."
Similarly, Kelsey Lorencz, RDN, registered dietitian at Graciously Nourished, thinks that diets based on extreme restriction are are harder to stick to in the long run.
"One of the unhealthiest New Years resolutions to make is to give up foods or food groups to be 'healthier.' Restricting foods increases the likelihood that once February rolls around, you'll be binge eating these foods and creating an unhealthy relationship with them," explains Lorencz. "Instead of giving up and cutting out foods, focus on adding more healthful foods to your diet."
Setting extreme weight loss goals
Most people don't know this, but one to two pounds of weight loss per a week is considered significant progress. Sometimes, when we venture out on a new diet, we lose a lot of weight quickly in the beginning stages. This helps tremendously with motivation levels, but may set you up for believing that this rate of weight loss will continue forever. Thus, when it inevitably slows down, you may start to feel like giving up.
"People feel discouraged and often give up when their New Year's resolution is unattainable—for example, losing 20 pounds in a month," says Brittany Scanniello, RDN, owner of Eat Simply Nutrition. "Instead, opt for more short-term, attainable goals to ultimately meet your long-term goal of weight loss. Examples would be, eliminate soda and other sugary drinks [from your diet], incorporating more exercise at least five days a week, and limit fast food to no more than once a week."
Fixating on a specific number on the scale
While having a healthy goal weight may give you a sense of direction, it's unrealistic to aim to drop a significant amount of weight in accordance with a tight timeline. Weight loss is a doable goal, but to get the results you really want and have them last, you need to be practical, patient, strategic, and committed to maintaining your overall health. This means that crash dieting just won't cut it.
"One unhealthy New Year's resolution I commonly see is setting an unrealistic weight loss goal for the upcoming year," says Mandy Tyler, M.Ed., RD, CSSD, LD, a sports nutritionist. "This can lead to individuals taking extreme measures to cut calories or following fad diets that are difficult to maintain, and an excessive fixation to the number on the scale."
Neglecting to realize this sets the groundwork for a lose-lose situation: Either you give up on keeping this New Year's resolution, leaving you with a sense of defeat, or you go to extreme measures that will inevitably put your health at risk just to hit your target. Instead of making an unhealthy New Year's resolution based on unrealistic weight loss targets, consider focusing on making smaller positive lifestyle changes that can result in gradual weight loss able to be maintained over time.
Going from no exercise to daily exercise
Exercise may be a great new habit for you to focus on in the new year if you currently do not include much physical activity in your daily routine. At the same time, many people get overzealous with their exercise goals and decide to go every day or as often as they can. This can quickly lead to burn out and giving up before you've built a consistent habit around exercise.
If this sounds like you, you might be struggling with an all-or-nothing mindset; you're either going to the gym every day, or if you miss one day you scrapped the whole week because you've already "failed." However, taking a moderate approach to exercise and gradually accelerating your frequency of workouts over time can help keep this resolution.
Choosing to overhaul too many habits at once
Nutrition and exercise habits are a huge undertaking. Many clients often tell myself and my colleagues that focusing on both nutrition and exercise at the same time feels incredibly overwhelming. We recommend choosing a handful of habits to get started—typically three or less at one time is the sweet spot. Slow and steady wins the race here, so don't be afraid to start small and add to your plate once you're ready. Build your habits sustainably for your best goal-setting outcomes, and remember that it's more rewarding to feel like you set your goal and achieved it then to set the bar too high and feel like you failed.
"Making too many diet changes all at once can lead to feeling frustrated and deprived," advises Kim Kulp, RDN, owner of the Gut Health Connection. "Instead, focus on one small change at a time. Do you want to eat more plants? Try adding one new plant food a week. Once this feels like a regular eating habit, you can add another. Trying to cut back on sugar? Instead of avoiding all of it, allow yourself a small dessert once or twice a week. This way you're less likely to crave it to the point of overindulging, making long-term resolutions more attainable."
Fasting or cleanses
Intermittent fasting and juice cleanses have gained popularity in recent years, and they certainly might work for some folks. However, the research shows that fasting is not necessarily superior to other forms of calorie restriction. It certainly won't work for everybody, and it's not a magic bullet for weight loss. Many people feel lightheaded, have low energy, and get extra hungry when they attempt fasting or a cleanse. Pushing your body past the point of hunger typically never bodes well long-term. It's going to be really hard to maintain a diet that keeps you feeling hungry day after day.
"One of the worst resolutions I see is participating in a juice cleanse. Juice cleanses are not only unsustainable, but they can be dangerous. Common side effects of juicing include electrolyte losses, fatigue, headaches, and nausea," explains Jess DeGore RD, CDCES, a dietitian and diabetes educator. "Juice cleanses can also disrupt your digestion, because they're high in sugar and low in fiber, protein, and fat. So unless your New Year's resolution includes spending more time in the bathroom or stomach pain, this is not a great resolution."
Striving to look like a celebrity or even just someone you know
If someone you look up to has recently gone through a huge transformation, it's easy to idolize them and want to emulate their lifestyle. While drawing on others' success can offer inspiration, if you're striving to look exactly like them or a specific body type, you'll likely just end up feeling disappointed.
"Appearance related goals are the worst! Body size goals may not be physically attainable based on a person's genetics. Bodies come in different shapes and sizes along with various health conditions like hypothyroidism, PCOS, and chronic stress, which can make weight loss extremely challenging," says Dani Lebovitz, MS, RDN, CSSD, CDCES, founder of Kid Food Explorers and author of Where Does Broccoli Come From? A Book of Vegetables. "Instead of aiming for a specific weight loss goal or size, work on habits to look and feel your best like adding a strength training day to your weekly routine to boost your metabolism, eating three consistent meals and two snacks to manage your blood sugar, or incorporating a daily meditation moment to manage your stress."
Recycling last year's resolutions
It's totally normal to feel regret over getting sidetracked from last year's goals, and it's OK to want a do-over for last year's failed New Year's resolution commitment. However, before you jump right into recommitting to your goals from the previous year, take a moment to meditate on why these goals did not come to fruition in the first place. Some reflection here will allow you to acknowledge the challenges and roadblocks that popped up and prevented you from achieving the goals.
After giving this more thought, you may decide that you still would like to attempt the same goal. After all, you have another year of wisdom behind you, equipping yourself with new knowledge that can maybe help you overcome similar challenges in the year ahead. At the same time, you also don't want to fall into the trappings of history potentially repeating itself. So to avoid this and fully embrace the opportunity to restart in the new year, you should challenge yourself with a fresh set of attainable, healthy New Year's resolutions.