First, congratulations on making the decision to be healthier. It takes a lot of courage to change. If you aren’t sure how to start, here’s a list of thirteen things you can do right now to improve your health (plus a few more for the ladies).
1. Choose USDA Certified Organic
When you buy certified organic, you help reduce the amount of toxic chemicals sprayed on our food and environment. You protect bees and support the humane treatment of animals. You also avoid GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and unhealthy artificial ingredients. Large-scale conventional farmers rely on farming practices that are unsustainable, degrade soil health, and contribute to climate change. Support your local organic farmer who is doing it right and buy USDA certified organic.
2. Read Labels
There’s no way to know exactly what you’re eating without reading ingredient labels. If you’re not sure what to look for, keep this simple rule in mind: If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it. If enough people stop buying food with unhealthy ingredients, it might encourage food manufacturers to make simpler (and healthier) food.
3. Make Your Own Food
Cooking may take some practice, but it is the best way to know exactly what you’re eating.
4. Give Up or Limit Sugar
Sugar is extremely unhealthy. It’s also highly addictive, which is why food manufacturers put so much of it in their products. If you can’t give sugar up completely, try limiting your intake to just a few desserts a week. And whenever possible, use raw honey as a natural sweetener (click here to learn how to find the healthiest honey) and eat fruit because it has antioxidants that help your body fight disease.
Also, be aware of sugar hiding out in every day foods, like soup, chicken stock, salad dressing, peanut butter, energy bars, and prepared food.
Click here if you need help weaning yourself off sugar.
Exercise helps every system in your body, including your brain. It can be as effective as medication for any number of health issues, including depression. A good workout gives you energy, strengthens your body, and helps you lose weight. That alone should be reason enough to get off the couch!
If you’re already working out, get out of your exercise rut and try something new that challenges your mind as well as your body. A workout doesn’t have to happen in the gym. Try a dance class (the best exercise for brain health), kayak, surf, swim, learn how to play tennis, or try a boxing class. Take a long walk, hike, or ride a bike. There are tons of workouts online (I really like this one for arms) that don’t cost a dime, so no excuses!
6. Eat a Simple Diet
The American diet contains a lot of fat, salt, and sugar and tends to be highly processed and loaded with artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives. If you’re looking for a healthier diet, consider the Mediterranean Diet. It has been shown to reduce the risk of cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s disease, Type 2 Diabetes, and heart disease.
Need more help finding a simple diet? Click here.
“The ultimate lifestyle ‘detox’ is not smoking, exercising and enjoying a healthy balanced diet like the Mediterranean diet” – Catherine Collins, an NHS dietitian at St. George’s Hospital, London
7. Get some lab tests done
The only way to know what’s going on under your skin is to order lab tests and find out. Why wait until you have a serious health crisis to get tested? Be proactive. Getting lab results early can help you and your doctor develop simple strategies to optimize your health. You may discover things that are easy to fix, like anemia or low vitamin D levels. If you eat a lot of seafood, especially tuna, ask your doctor to check your mercury levels. Here are a few important tests you may want to ask your doctor to order. Click here for a few more.
8. Drink More Water, But Not Out of Plastic
Your kidneys, liver, skin, and even lungs detoxify your body. There’s no need for expensive juice cleanses; water flushes toxins out of your vital organs, and it’s a lot less expensive.
“There’s no known way – certainly not through detox treatments – to make something that works perfectly well in a healthy body work better.” – Edzard Ernst, Emeritus Professor of Complementary Medicine at Exeter University
Did you know that your blood gets thicker when you’re dehydrated and it makes your heart work harder? It’s true. Not sure if you’re drinking enough water? Check your pee. If it’s light yellow or clear, you’re drinking enough. If it’s dark yellow, you need to drink more.
Always drink water out of glass and ditch those ubiquitous plastic bottles. They contain chemicals that aren’t good for our bodies or the environment.
Stress is an extremely destructive force on the body. Scientific research has shown that meditation and/or mindfulness effectively reduces stress and anxiety. According to the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center it can also “improve attention, boost the immune system, reduce emotional reactivity, and promote a general sense of health and well-being.” Yoga and Qigong have also been shown to reduce stress, as has “forest bathing,” or spending time in nature.
10. Get enough ZZZs
Adults need 7-9 hours of sleep a night. You may think you can function well on less, but according to Matthew Walker, the director of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab at the University of California, Berkeley:
You don’t know you are sleep deprived when you’re sleep deprived.
A lack of sleep can make you less productive because your brain’s ability to function declines when you’re tired. Sleep also plays a critical role in cleaning beta-amyloids (a toxic protein that can lead to Alzheimer’s disease) out of the brain. Plus, the body tends to crave more calories when it’s tired and that can lead to weight gain.
11. Avoid using plastic, especially BPA and BPS
Bisphenol A (BPA) is a synthetic compound found in plastic. You should avoid BPA because it’s an endocrine disruptor, which means it can interfere with your body’s ability to regulate hormones.
The nightmare scenario is that we one day find out that a lot more of our current disorders, including infertility and cancer, may be due to bisphenol A and only show up after cumulative exposure. But by then, we all have accumulated so much exposure that it’s too late to reverse the effects. – Karin Michels, Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard T.H. Chan
Be warned: “BPA-free” can be just as unhealthy as BPA. Bisphenol S, or BPS, is commonly used as a substitute for BPA, but it’s also an endocrine disruptor and has been shown to increase the aggressiveness of breast cancer. – Science Daily, “Exposure to BPA Substitute, BPS, Multiplies Breast Cancer Cells”
If you buy canned food, make sure it’s not lined with BPA (Bisphenol A). And replace your plastic water bottle with a reusable one made out of glass.
12. Avoid Harmful Chemicals in Personal Care Products and Cosmetics
It’s likely that you’re exposed to over 100 chemicals in your personal care and cosmetics products everyday. Unfortunately, many of these chemicals are extremely unhealthy. If you want to limit the number of chemicals you’re exposed to, use the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database to check the toxicity levels of your favorite products. If your product isn’t listed, you can search for the toxicity level of the chemicals on the ingredient label instead.
This “Red List” from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics names the most unhealthy chemicals in your shampoo, conditioner, moisturizers, sunscreens, makeup, hair color, and skin lighteners. Why buy brands that contain harmful chemicals? Instead, support companies making safer products.
13. Grow Your Own Food
There are so many reasons to start a garden. You save money on groceries, reduce your environmental impact, promote biodiversity by growing heirloom varieties you won’t get at a traditional grocery store, produce better tasting and more nutritious food, and keep chemicals off your plate!
Gardening is cheaper than therapy . . .
and, you get tomatoes! – Unknown
Invest in a raised bed or put a pot of herbs on your kitchen windowsill. Strawberries are really easy to grow and taste so much better than the ones they sell at the store. Creating a garden is a really fun project for kids, too. Some cities, like Los Angeles, will even allow you to grow a garden in your parkway (that area between the street and your house). So buy some organic soil and heirloom seeds and get started. Seed Savers Exchange is a good resource for heirloom seeds.
BONUS: A few more tips for the ladies
14. Buy 5-free, 7-free, or 9-Free Nail Polish
Who wants unhealthy chemicals stuck to their nails all day? No thanks! Buy 5-free, 7-free, or 9-free nail polish and avoid exposing yourself to 5, 7, or 9 of the most harmful chemicals in nail polish, including formaldehyde, triphenyl phosphate (triphenyl phosphate, or TPHP), dibutyl phthalate (DBP), toluene, and camphor. These chemicals can do everything from trigger allergies to disrupt your hormones. A Duke University and EWG (Environmental Working Group) study found that women had high levels of a harmful chemical (TPHP) in their bodies just 10-14 hours after painting their nails. Some of the most popular brands, including OPI, contain these chemicals. Need some help finding a 5-free polish? Click here for a few options.
15. Switch to Organic Tampons
Cotton is considered the world’s dirtiest crop. Many tampons on the market are made from rayon or GMO cotton laced with harmful chemical pesticides. A tampon sits in your body for hours, so be safe and opt for tampons made from organic (chemical-free) cotton. Here’s a place to find some.
If you feel a little overwhelmed with the list, take your time. Change doesn’t have to happen overnight. Choose one or two steps that matter the most to you and slowly add more when you feel comfortable. You’ve got this!
Chris Kresser – “Which Lab Tests are Essential”
New York Times – “If Sugar Is Harmless, Prove It”
Time – “Sugar Is Definitely Toxic, a New Study Says”
NIH Research Matters – “How Sleep Clears the Brain”
Popular Science – “How many hours of sleep do you actually need?”
Harvard News – “Plastic: Danger where we least expect it”
World Economic Forum – “The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics”
World Economic Forum – “How much plastic is there in the ocean?”
Environmental Working Group – “Duke-EWG Study Finds Toxic Nail Polish Chemical in Women’s Bodies”
The New York Times – “Closest Thing to a Wonder Drug? Try Exercise”
Newswise – “Mindfulness Meditation Training Lowers Biomarkers of Stress Response in Anxiety Disorder”
The Boston Globe – “Mindful movement makes its way into the office”
Curious about some unexpected health effects associated with under eating? Read this article by Chris Kresser: “Are You An Under-Eater? 8 Signs You’re Not Eating Enough”
The Guardian – “You can’t detox your body. It’s a myth. So how do you get healthy?”
Feature image Mihtiander@iStock