Diet Culture and New Year’s Resolutions

New Year's campaign flutes
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Hello and happy New Year!

I love New Years because I like a fresh start. I enjoy wondering what the upcoming year will bring, and it’s interesting to speculate about all that could happen around the world and in my own life. With each new year, I also typically set a New Year’s resolution all starry-eyed and optimistic.

New Year’s resolutions can be fun and motivating, but they can also be toxic and defeating if you chose one that aligns with diet culture’s agenda instead of your own. That’s the topic of today’s post: how diet culture wraps itself into the new year, post-holiday time, and how we can choose goals or resolutions that are better for our physical and mental health. We’ll also discuss some legit strategies for sticking with your new goals.

For starters, let’s talk about how typical New Years resolutions progress.

How Typical, Diet Culture New Years Resolutions Go

The clock strikes midnight, and a new year commences. You had spent the entire holiday season trying to enjoy as many desserts and decadent meals as you could, knowing that your fitness/weight loss journey would start on January 1st.

Your goal this year is to lose weight/lose inches/fit into jeans from high school/eat clean/eat keto/eat whole 30/anything else weight or diet centric. This year is going to be your year to “get hot” or “be healthier”, and you can feel it in your bones that you really will achieve your goals this year. You feel highly motivated, and you have a plan all laid out.

Penguin saying motivational phrases in response to diet culture

Maybe you signed up for a gym membership, bought new exercise plans or DVDs (if people still use those), or you ordered a shipment of cold pressed juices that are supposed to “detox your liver” and “rev your metabolism”. Those all seem like a step in the right direction given your goal, and they could help you feel better and even lose a few pounds. At least for a little while.

And then suddenly, you don’t feel like doing it anymore. You fall off the wagon, the bottom drops out, or maybe you just completely forget what you were trying to do. Maybe your financial situation changes, and you can no longer afford the meal plans or special juices you once could. When you realize you have abandoned your goal, you enter the disappointment and disgust phase where you feel terrible about yourself and constantly ask “why am I like this?”

You continue to battle with your relationship with food, exercise, and your body throughout the whole year. At least until Thanksgiving, where you then “live it up” again until next year’s New Years resolution because you know you’ll have to “be good” and restrict yourself due to your fitness or body goals.

Goofy working out for new year's body
Goofy working for a dank backside

Does any of this sound familiar? I believe most of us can relate to at least a portion of this scenario. This pattern doesn’t just occur near the holidays, either. I always felt that summer breaks were times where I could work on myself (mostly my body), and come back to school looking great, and everyone would be in awe of my beauty and fitness. I spent my summers compulsively exercising and trying “clean eating” recipes to shrink my body in hopes that it would give me boundless confidence. Unfortunately, I got boundless insecurity instead.

My summers had some fun stuff intertwined in there, but I mostly used them as personal bootcamps to get back on the wagon and emerge a new, “better” version of myself. And that’s how most of us view the new year too.

Fitness companies love this time of year because they know we are all especially vulnerable after the holiday eating. They know most of us had “the last supper mentality” because we would try to be good after the new year. They know we are suckers, and nothing brings them more joy.

How Diet Culture Capitalize on New Years Resolutions

Juice cleanse gurus, gym owners, diet book sellers, and Chuck Norris (selling the total body gym, of course), all rub their hands together in anticipation of New Year’s resolutions. Their eyes become money signs, and whenever they look at you, they hear the cash register sound effect.

Fitness related New Year’s resolutions are incredible for their business, and they can’t wait for a new year to roll around, so they can take your hard earned cash. Detox pyramid schemers and weight loss advocates know their products don’t work in the long term, which is why people come crawling back year-after-year. If any of these did “work” in the long term, people wouldn’t have to try something new every couple of months or at the start of every year.

Devito saying it's a pyramid scheme in response to supplements and detoxes

This year will probably be even “better” for fitness-related businesses, as they can also point out that this winter will be largely spent at home instead of socializing with friends and family. You’ll “need” their diet supplement because of your “quarantine body”. You’ll be pressured into buying their weird exercise machines and equipment, so that this year “can finally be the year you get into shape” and “emerge from COVID as a new person”. I can see it all now.

These fitness companies don’t care if your finances have been hit by the pandemic, they only care about making you feel less than. When you feel less than, you’ll shell out what little money many of us have in hopes that “looking better” will fix everything about your life.

By the time I was done with college, I was tired of spending my time working to achieve the perfect body. I had learned it wouldn’t fix everything in my life, and it was such a shallow pursuit anyway. Many of us know this consciously, but we attach ourselves to the idea that simply changing our looks will change our lives. We hold onto that thought, however, to avoid dealing with our traumas and scars, and facing our fears about never being good enough. We think “fixing” our outside will fix our inside.

This year, I encourage you to walk away from that.

Fleabag waving to camera and walking away
Make like Fleabag (greatest show of all time) and walk away.

Challenging Typical New Years Resolutions

Most New Years resolutions focus on getting to a specific weight, adhering to a certain eating pattern, sticking to a particular exercise routine, or looking a defined way. But just because everyone else seems to be obsessed with these goals, doesn’t mean you have to go along with it. There are so many areas in life where we could devote our finite focus and time besides our body’s appearance. Let’s go through a few options that aren’t brought to you by diet culture!

Body Love, Positivity, or Neutrality

One of the most obvious alternative resolutions would be to make peace with your body instead of trying to constantly change it. You can shoot for all out body love, moderate body positivity, or even getting to a place where you feel totally neutral about it.

Woman saying she was Switzerland, neutral. How we should be about body image.
Yeah! Work toward being Switzerland about your body at first.

Maybe your resolution could be to find a few body positive or neutral affirmations that you recite X number of times per day or whenever you see yourself in the mirror. Perhaps it’s finding one new outfit per month that makes you feel at peace with your body, so you can slowly build your wardrobe to suit your current body, not the one society tells you that you should strive for.

There are tons of options for this category, but it helps to make your resolutions specific. Anyone who has any kind of health promotion training has heard the term SMART goals before, and we will discuss some legitimate goal setting and habit tips in just a bit.

Proper Work/Life Balance

Another category that has a ton of New Year’s resolution potential could be about spreading yourself thin less and achieving a much more sustainable work/life balance. Many people have expressed that COVID has helped them slow down and spend more time with families, but not everyone has benefitted in that same way.

It’s easy to become a workaholic and claim that you do it all for your family, when really it’s about stroking your own ego. I have seen far too many people outright neglect their families, but assert they are doing it all for their family. It might be time to look inward, sweetie.

Of course, this isn’t the case for many people who are just trying to make ends meet. In their situations, achieving work/life balance is a luxury they cannot necessarily afford. Times are tough right now, and trying to balance the need to work, financial hardships, mental/physical health issues, and kid troubles can be damn near impossible.

Rihanna typing with work, work, work

Even still, take a look at how you currently maintain your work and life, and see if there is any way you could improve it. If you realize that you are a workaholic, investigate that. Ask yourself how you got to be where you are, and why you insist on continuing to do this to yourself and your family. Things of this nature take time, and it’s unlikely anyone will be able to suddenly become more balanced in these ways overnight. But simply pausing to investigate why you insist on working yourself to the bone is a step in the right direction.

One small intervention for this situation could be to have a classic sit-down family dinner X amount of times per week, if you don’t already. Everyone logs off their laptops, turns off their cellphones, and leaves behind their tablets to enjoy a meal together. If you need to block off this time on a work calendar, so be it.

Baby asking to schedule appointment for family dinner
A family dinner appointment?

Friends are just as important as family, so your resolution could be something about reaching out to a different friend once per week to see how they are doing, or getting together with a friend or group virtually or in person at least once a week or month or whatever. Put it on a calendar, in a to-do list, or as a pop-up reminder in your smartphone.

What if work/life balance is hard because you are struggling to put food on the table or provide for yourself or your family? Maybe your resolution starts with asking for help or being totally honest about how you are doing when someone asks. This is so hard, I know. We want to seem like we have our shit together, and it sometimes feels terrible to admit when we are having a hard time.

One thing I have learned over the years is that vulnerability is truly a strength. I credit one of my fave podcasts (Armchair Expert) for teaching me that. But it’s true. When I teach virtual nutrition classes, and parents tell me about their struggles, it’s truly enlightening. It forges a true connection between us. When I tell friends about what I wrestle with, it often leads to incredible conversations, and I feel weight being lifted off my shoulders. I also get that not everyone has a go-to person they can count on and open up to.

Maya Rudolf discussing life-affirming, deep conversations

Those of you that have read this blog frequently know that I highly recommend Crisis Text Line. It’s a free text-based service that pairs you with a trained crisis counselor that can talk you through your issues and give you resources that could help your situation. If you don’t have anyone in your immediate life that you can reach out to when you need a hand, CTL is here for you. Your resolution could be to reach out to someone or a service like CTL whenever you feel like you’re drowning and you need to have a chat.

More Time on New or Existing Hobbies

Sadly, many people lose their hobbies as they age. Or they just don’t spend time doing them any more. Or they don’t actually have any. Some convince themselves that if they give up fun now, they can really enjoy their retirement. That might make sense to some, but what if you get hit by a bus the day before you retire? You toiled all that time to never get to the fun part.

Older woman raising glass and saying let the good times roll

Hobbies can be the first things to go as soon as life begins to pile up, but I’d argue hobbies and other fun activities should be something everyone holds onto tightly when facing adversity or difficult times.

Take a moment to think about what activities you genuinely enjoy doing. Now think about the last time you did any of those activities for more than a few minutes. If you typically go days or weeks without engaging in something that you whole-heartedly enjoy, this could be an excellent opportunity to make it your New Year’s resolution!

Now I don’t mean mindlessly watching TV or scrolling on Instagram. They may feel like fun activities, but they don’t have the same effects on your wellbeing that legit hobbies do. Legit hobbies could be things like video games, I suppose, but I think the key here is that your hobbies allow you to hit a flow state. You know flow state. It’s the feeling where time isn’t a thing, and your mind isn’t focusing on anything but the task at hand.

Forrest Gump running because he genuinely enjoys him
I think Forrest was doing it because he enjoyed it

I personally achieve flow state when I’m walking in nature, reading, and writing. I used to get it from long runs, but injuries have sadly taken that away from me. It’s a truly joyous and fulfilling state, and I’d be willing to bet that most people go much too long without getting lost in something they truly enjoy. Flow state is where I do my best work or achieve peak performance. It came to me rarely during my high school golf career, but when it did, it was the most fun I have ever had with the sport.

Maybe you already have an activity in mind that allows you to get to this state. If so, awesome! Make more time for it, as much as you possibly can. Getting to flow state won’t occur every time you do an activity, but that shouldn’t be the goal anyway. The goal is to let go and have fun, flow state is just a bonus when it does show up.

If you don’t currently have any activities that you really enjoy, you could make it your resolution to try new activities each month until you find something that resonates with you. I have always wanted to give archery a try, probably because I was (and still am, let’s be honest) a huge Hunger Games nerd. I have never actually made a plan to go try it though, which is why I sill haven’t done it after all these years. Don’t be like me. If you want this to be your resolution, pick however many new activities you want to try and make a plan to give them a whirl.

Katniess from the hunger games shooting arrows

It can be scary, especially for us perfectionists, to try something new. But being good isn’t the point. Having a good time is. Make more time for that this year if this is something you struggle with.

The Pursuit of Knowledge

Is there anything you have ever wanted to learn more about but haven’t made the time to do so? Maybe you have always been curious about astronomy, geology, psychology, grammar, or anything else, but that’s where the story ends.

One of my favorite sensations in the world is having my mind blown open and my previous perceptions shaken to their core. I don’t mean conspiracy theories. Those are fun to explore at a distance, but they can be incredibly dangerous and damaging when taken too far. No, I mean the feeling of reading a book about psychology, science, or history, and suddenly understanding something about myself or the world that I hadn’t considered before.

Books have the power to teach you things you might never have thought you’d be curious about, but they aren’t the only vehicle for learning cool stuff. Youtube is full of horrendous stuff, but it’s also full of awesome educational videos about unlimited topics. CrashCourse is one of my favorite channels, as the videos vary in subject, and the information is presented in a fun, fast-paced way. They have short and sweet courses on biology (which saved my buns in college), history, economics, astronomy, and even data literacy. It’s an awesome resource to learn the basics of just about anything. As I looked to see their offerings, I got sucked into the astronomy class for about a half hour, they’re that compelling!

As always, be sure to get your information from reliable Youtube channels or other online video websites. Even then, take everything with a grain of salt, and do your own further research if something baffles you or piques your interest! Stay vigilant, and avoid bad science.

Another fantastic, free way to learn cool stuff is through a website called Coursera. Coursera courses are taught by college professors, and many of them are completely free. Coursera now offers online degrees, but those sadly aren’t free. You can also pay to get a certificate when you finish a course to brag about it on your resume if you want to, but I enjoy taking courses just for the heck of it. It’s like sitting in on college classes without having to pay for tuition or parking passes on campus!

Sophia from golden girls with sunglasses, feeling cool learning on Coursera
How it feels when you log on to Coursera a know you’re about to learn something new!

The acquisition of knowledge also means that you will have to get out of your comfort zone once in awhile. Choose books, podcasts, or educational videos from genres outside of your go-to one once in awhile. Another awesome resolution would be to read a book outside of your preferred subjects at least three times this year, or something along those lines.

Some Legit Goal-Setting Advice

Okay, now we have covered some alternative types of resolutions that aren’t diet culturey or weight-centric. If you didn’t find any ideas that you liked above, take some time to think about it. Just be sure it isn’t about your body looking a certain way, or that it doesn’t involve any crash diets.

If you have found a resolution that resonates you, and you really want to be sure you’ll stick with it this year, you’re in luck. There are plenty of things you can do to make sure you reach nearly anything you are setting out to do!

Start Small…. Like Really Small

It’s so easy to have a goal of going to the gym for at least 30 minutes every weekday at the start of the year. But then the logistical issues come up. Your gym is a 15 minute drive away, you have to pack a gym back every night, yada yada. These little barriers add up over time, making it difficult to adhere to our goals in the long term.

What if you made your goal so small, so stupidly small, that you almost had to try to fail to do it? For example, what if instead of setting out to get 30 minutes of exercise every week day, make a goal to do 5 pushups? Or 1 minute of yoga? Or even just rolling out your yoga mat?

Rolling out yoga mat
I’m not kidding when I say you can be done after this step.

I understand that lowering the bar to these minuscule goals seems lazy and stupid. But come on, you have no excuse for not doing 1 minute of yoga or rolling out the mat, right?

Teaching myself piano is something I have wanted to do for a long time. The problem was that I thought my best course of action was to play for 30 minutes each day. Guess how many minutes this prospective goal led me to play each day? Exactly 0 minutes on average for years. 30 minutes felt like a hearty commitment, and I accomplished this approximately once every other month. Not exactly often enough to see a real improvement.

My goal has shifted to sitting on the piano bench for at least 5 minutes a day. That’s it, no playing required. I kid you not, I usually play for at least 20-25 minutes per day once my buns hit the bench. Some days, I do only play around for 5 minutes, but even that is still beyond my goal. This method makes it feel more like a choice instead of a chore.

I don’t have to play piano. I just have to sit there. But I choose to play piano once I am sitting there. I can’t overstate the importance of that feeling of autonomy when it comes to achieving goals and creating habits.

Man playing piano enthusastically

The tricky part about this, especially if you are an overachiever, is being okay with the fact that every once in awhile, you will just do the first tiny step and stop there. You may roll out your yoga mat, but don’t have the motivation to do anything beyond that. This seems silly, but even this act is shaping you into the type of person that at least shows up consistently. That’s invaluable.

So think back to the New Year’s resolution you have set for yourself, and now try to break it down into the most simple habit ever that will get you closer to your goal every day. Want to write a book? Make it a habit to sit in front of your computer with a blank document for at least 5 minutes. Some days you’ll stare blankly at the cursor, other days you’ll spend hours in writing flow state. Pretty soon you will start viewing yourself as a writer, motivating you to continue.

Want to save more money? Transfer $1 from checking to savings via online banking every day, or put $1 into a savings jar each morning. Pretty soon, you’ll start thinking of yourself as a saver. By the end of the year, you’ll have $365 saved up. That might not sound like much, but it’s $365 more that you could have saved without this stupid easy saving habit.

Want to improve your relationship? Make your partner a cup of coffee or tea each morning, or start every day a lengthy, warm embrace. Pretty soon, you’ll view yourself as a partner or spouse that takes time to show your loved one how much you care about them. Bonus points if you make your habit revolving around their love language.

Of course, I’m not naive enough to think that making your partner a warm bevy everyday is enough to fix major marital problems. Or that saving $1 a day can get anyone out of financial ruin. But, these small actions add up over time, and eventually change your perception of who you are as a person. In turn, you become much more likely to take bigger steps in those directions in the future.

Woman saying this changes everything

Once you have a tiny habit picked out that will help you achieve your resolution, pick a time each day that you will do your habit. One of the best times you could pick is immediately after a habit you already do consistently.

Habit Stacking

What is something you already do every day? For me, I make a pot of tea, specifically Bangkok tea from Harney & Sons (they’re not a sponsor, I just love it so much) almost immediately after waking up. The little slot of time directly after I make a pot of tea is the perfect spot to incorporate a new habit. Why? Because your old habit can serve as a cue or reminder to do your next habit. You can create a whole step-by-step routine based off of one thing that occurs every day anyway!

Here’s an example: let’s say your goal for this year is to become more grateful. If you want to notice and appreciate the good stuff in your life, make it a habit to list five things you’re grateful for immediately after you turn on the coffee pot. Or immediately after you finish breakfast. Or immediately after a morning shower.

BJ Fogg, an expert on building habits, created a routine where he did 2 pushups after every time he used the bathroom at home before washing his hands. 2 pushups? Most of us can either do 2 pushups or another small type of exercise a few times per day.

Motivation penguin doing pushups

The thing about 2 pushups after a pee sesh is that it adds up a ton by the end of the day. If you hit the pot or urinal 10 times a day like I do, you’re at 20 daily pushups. And if after a few weeks you feel stronger, you might up it to 5 pushups each time. 10 bathroom sessions then translates to 50 pushups in a day! That’s far from nothing. If you then have a day where you feel less motivated, simply go back to the 2 pushup rule.

If you can get yourself to add a habit to an existing routine, you are much more likely to stick with it in the long term! But what if you keep forgetting to do this new habit after the old one? You could always put a sticky note or sticker wherever you do your existing one to remind you to continue with the next habit.

Another weird strategy, but one that works, is to walk through your habit stack several times until it’s automatic. Like a rehearsal. If it’s your goal to carve time out to be grateful immediately after you turn on your coffee pot, act out this scenario several times. Flip on your coffee pot (or pretend to), say or think your gratitude list, and repeat this at least five or ten times in a row. This routine becomes more solid and engrained in your mind, leading you to need fewer prompts as it proceeds more automatically. Eventually, the second you turn on your coffee pot one morning, your mind will jump toward all that you are grateful for.

Man saying gratitude with hand on heart

Don’t Let a Miss Derail You

So you have stuck to your goals for a few weeks now, and flawlessly. You’re feeling great about the progress you have made and the changes you have undergone since the strike of midnight on January 1st! Congrats, there is almost no better feeling than making meaningful changes in life.

Or maybe you haven’t. Maybe you have fallen off the wagon several times, and you are starting to feel like a failure again. DON’T!

Easier said than done to not feel that way, I know. But do not let one or two misses lead you to throwing your hands in the air and saying “oh well, I’ll try again next year”. NO. If you get off track once or twice, or you miss an entire week, do your best to avoid completely giving up. It’s 100% okay to not be perfect with habits and goals, but continue to be the type of person that shows up as often as you possibly can.

Hannah Montana singing nobody's perfect

A crumbled resolution or goal doesn’t come from missing a habit a few times. It comes from missing a few times and then not getting back on board. Momentum is a real thing in the world of physics, but I think psychological momentum is a real thing too.

The real power in life, and in improving ones habits or sticking to ones goals, is to follow the famous zen quote, “fall down 7 times, get up 8”.

In Conclusion

New Year’s resolutions aren’t a new concept, but I challenge you to shoot for goals that do not simply adhere to diet culture’s agenda. Go for resolutions that will genuinely improve your life, and utilize some of the above tips to make sure you achieve whatever you have set out to do. You’ve got this.

As Always, a Book Recommendation

I have recommended Atomic Habits before, and I recommend it again because it has fundamentally changed the way that I view my habits. Before reading this book, I always sought to change my life with big, sweeping changes instead of small tweaks to my habits. Now that I have read this book a few times, and have implemented many of its teachings, I can say for certain that starting small is the way to go.

Wanting to make changes in your life at the start of the new year is perfectly fine, and it can be an admirable endeavor depending upon which goals you set your sights on. Atomic Habits provides a framework for helping you make changes in your life that are actually sustainable by starting with tiny baby steps that compound over time. Since reading this book, I have learned that starting small is much better than having a large goal that I’m too overwhelmed to even start. It sounds obvious, but it’s a lesson I had to learn hundreds of times.

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I will say that Atomic Habits isn’t a perfect book in my view. It has some diet culture-esq parts about changing your diet or getting a better body. Perhaps avoid this book unless you truly feel like you can handle those parts, and they won’t sway you back into trying to change your body. Despite this rather large caveat, this book is truly incredible. Any time I want to make a change in my life, I read it again and ignore the diet/exercise advice.

As a proud Indie Bound affiliate, I get a small commission on books and products sold using the links on my website. It doesn’t cost you anything extra! I only recommend books that I truly love and believe in, and your purchases on Indie Bound through my website support both my work and small bookstores. Thanks!

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