One of the great things about functional medicine doctors is that they don’t simply prescribe you a pill to treat your symptoms and send you on your way. Instead, they are focused on treating the root cause of your ailments (determined by specialized testing of the microbiome) and often suggest that you make dietary and lifestyle changes to lead a healthier life. In addition, they may recommend you take supplements to support your nutrition.
And while that may sound a lot better than being on medication for the rest of your life, making real, lasting dietary and lifestyle changes isn’t easy. After all, you’re probably spent your entire life eating what you eat and living the way you live, and changing your every day routines can be hard.
Anyone whose ever tried a diet and failed knows that just having the knowledge that something is good for you isn’t always enough to make new habits stick.
So how can you really make a change that will last? Here are a few important steps to creating new habits that really stick:
- Believe you can do it
In the book, The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg says the most important factor in making any kind of change is believing we can actually change. “If you believe you can change – if you make it a habit – the change becomes real. This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be.” So believe in yourself – you can do this!
- Think positively
When your doctor tells you to get off of gluten, dairy, and sugar and start exercising regularly, are you filled with dread? Do you immediately start thinking of ways that you’re going to fail? Instead, Nora Aisenberg, a psychologist with the Center for Holistic Medicine, says it’s important to stay positive. To stay motivated, think of all of the good things you are doing for your body by making these changes. Embrace your new diet as a fun challenge, rather than a punishment. Have fun trying new recipes, and come up with some (non-sugar related) rewards for yourself for sticking to your goals, such as watching your favorite show, buying yourself a new book, or booking a massage for yourself as a treat.
- Do it with a friend
Getting a lot of support from your family and friends is key to making lasting changes. One of the best ways to do that is to find someone who can make these changes with you. Try asking your spouse if he or she would be willing to make similar dietary changes, so you can make recipes together. Or see if you can find a friend who would be willing to sign up for an exercise class or meditation class with you. “There are clear factors that facilitate change, for example, social engagement, positive affect and praise,” Aisenberg says. “This is evident when people sign up for personal training, an exercise class, join weight loss groups or have an exercise buddy.”
- Bring your own food
Headed to a kid’s birthday party, Cubs game, or neighbor’s backyard barbecue? Instead of indulging in the pizza and cake, or hot dogs and cheese fries, pack yourself a healthy meal to take with you. Don’t worry about being rude – remember, this is necessary for your health! And if you think the temptation will be too strong, you might want to avoid these kinds of triggering events in general for a while until your cravings are under control.
- Work with a therapist
Usually, people assume you only need to see a therapist if you are feeling depressed or anxious. But in fact, working with a therapist while you are embracing new dietary and lifestyle changes can be a great way of getting the support you need to commit to your new way of life. “When people endeavor to make change, a therapist can create a positive mindset that frames attempts at change that don’t succeed as ‘trials,’ ‘practice,’ and ‘prep,’” Aisenberg says. “In looking at change this way, mistakes are seen as learning opportunities and the client is rewarded for effort and a willingness to take risks without labeling them as failure.”
- Think about the reward you get from your bad habit
In order to change a bad habit, we need to understand why we were doing the bad habit in the first place. Usually, there was something that we got out of our habit, even if it wasn’t helping us. For example, if you usually reach for a cookie around 3 p.m., are you doing it because you’re tired? Or lonely? If the underlying cause is that you’re tired, try taking a quick nap instead. If it’s that you’re having feelings you want to avoid, such as loneliness, try making a phone call to a friend. Once you realize what the reward is that you get from your bad habit, you can find other ways to get the same reward through different behaviors.
- Start small
Sometimes, trying to make a million changes all at once is a set up for failure. Instead, you may want to start small, conquering one new habit first before embarking on another new change. For example, if your doctor recommends that you eat a plant-based diet, you could start by eliminating meat and cheese three days a week, and then gradually increase it to every day. Or if you are supposed to get off of caffeine, you could start by cutting back to one cup a day, then switching to green tea before you ween yourself off completely.
- Be patient with yourself
Remember, changing your eating and exercising habits isn’t easy, so be patient with yourself. If you fall off the wagon, don’t give up entirely. Just try to do better again the next day. It’s all a process. “People are fallible. No one is perfect and temptation is always there. The key is balancing pleasure and indulgence with health, well-being and mindfulness,” Aisenberg says. “Many changes take place incrementally, so we encourage patience, promote mindfulness and an awareness of the power of small changes over time making a bigger impact over the span of our life.”
Remember, changing your diet and lifestyle can be hard at first, but if you make a commitment to embracing this new way of life, you’ll be rewarded with reduced symptoms and better health your whole life through!