Adopting a healthy lifestyle - it's never too late

We all share a vital interest in our health and well-being. We want to feel good, look physically attractive, be able to work, play and have fun.

Yet most of us are uncertain about what it takes to live a "healthy" life. The standards for fitness and beauty set by the media and health industries usually amount to little more than fashion statements.

Even the medical profession offers us confusing and sometimes contradictory messages. What is the right kind of food? Are we natural meat eaters or should we embrace vegetarianism? What's the proper ratio of fat, carbs and protein? Should we drink alcohol? How much exercise is enough?

One would think that we have been on this planet long enough to master the most basic survival skills, such as feeding ourselves. Not so! More often than not, we reach for food to feed our emotions as much as our bodies. Besides being needed to still our hunger, food can serve as a tranquilizer or a stimulant, a comforter or a thrill, a source of joy or destruction.

The need for health

Good health includes far more than the absence of disease or pain. As human beings we need more than just being physically intact. Besides feeding our bodies, our minds require stimulation, our emotions want to be nurtured, and we have to work constantly on our relationships with others. We also know that if we are negligent in one area, it has a negative impact on all the others.

A healthy lifestyle, therefore, should not only be concerned with good nutrition, physical exercise, avoidance of alcohol and drug abuse, but also with the satisfaction of our intellectual, emotional and social needs - in other words, with the whole person.

Breaking the habit

Since most lifestyle habits form insidiously and over extended periods of time, we are usually not aware of the role they play in our lives. We develop them as they give us pleasure or save us from discomfort and pain. Obviously, our habits themselves don't provide us with satisfaction.

For example, we don't eat a candy bar because it tastes sweet, but because the taste of sweetness gives us pleasure. We don't light a cigarette or have a drink because we want to smoke or get drunk, but because we need to relax or find a way to cope with stress. These needs remain, even when we try to deal with them in better ways.

Because we are mostly naive about the nature of our habits and the power they have over us, we expect that we can alter them at will. However, breaking habits is never a simple matter. One of the reasons our efforts may fail is that even bad habits serve a purpose and can be too important for us to let them go. Only by understanding our habits and how they provide what is attractive for us can we hope to change them.

Back to basics

Adopting a healthier lifestyle does not have to be complicated. However, for starters it helps to understand three fundamental principles:

First: It takes commitment and stamina. You probably knew that already. Instead of going for a quick fix, you may succeed by taking an approach of little steps. In the long run, they work better than radical "diet solutions."

Second: Counting calories, limiting portion sizes and regular exercise are all essential components of a healthy lifestyle. But equally as important is the nutritional quality of the foods you eat. While cutting back on "empty calories" as much as possible, it is absolutely necessary that you give your body all the nutrients it needs.

Third: No diet program can succeed if it is not right for you. Understanding who you are, what makes you tick, and what turns you off is important when you try to achieve lasting lifestyle changes.

When it comes to making lifestyle changes, people often tend to be overconfident, hoping for overnight success by attempting radical solutions. A healthy lifestyle, however, does not require clear-cut distinctions between dos and don'ts. The importance lies in variety, balance and moderation. Nothing is forbidden, but everything counts.

Timi Gustafson, a Kirkland resident, is a registered dietitian and author of "The Healthy Diner - How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun," available at[[In-content Ad]]