Group Of Mature Female Friends Building Healthy Habits On a Yoga Retreat

Healthy habits: 5 easy tips to improve your health and wellbeing this year

As we go into a brand-new year, many of us will seize the opportunity for a new start and set goals for the year ahead. Often, these goals will focus on improving our health; be it losing weight, doing more exercise or improving our diet. The temptation can be to jump head-first into a drastic crash diet or gruelling exercise regime, but these are often very restrictive and unsustainable in the long term… and normally cast aside after a few weeks.

If this sounds familiar, and you are tired of making the same resolutions year after year, it might be time to try something new. In this week’s blog, I am proposing 5 healthy habits that you can easily implement and could have lasting benefits to your long-term health and wellbeing.

Easy healthy habits to implement into your routine

  1. Eat a rainbow

While the importance of fruit and vegetables in providing a rich source of micronutrients and fibre in the diet is well recognised, these foods are also the primary source of dietary bioactive compounds known as phytonutrients: endogenous protective substances that often contribute to the vibrant colours in these foods.

Over 5000 of these bioactive compounds have been identified to date, and many now have a substantial body of evidence supporting their health benefits1. Whilst getting the recommended servings of fruit and vegetables daily is very important, we also know that eating a wide variety of different plant foods has been associated with a lower risk of a range of chronic illnesses such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers, as well as improved cognitive function2-4.

Phytonutrients can improve our health through their antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antifungal, antiallergic, chemoprotective, neuroprotective and hypotensive properties5 but despite these unequivocal health benefits, here in the UK less than half of the population are meeting the “5 A Day” fruit and vegetables guidelines6 which is very likely to be leading to a “phytonutrient gap”.

As mentioned, phytonutrients give fruit and vegetables their vibrant colours, therefore different coloured plant foods = different phytonutrients = different health benefits! The more variety of different coloured foods, the broader the spectrum of protection your plate will give you.

Let’s have a closer look at the different coloured fruits and vegetables and just some of the phytonutrients they give us and their wonderful health benefits.

Skip to Key Takeaways

Purple/blue

Blueberries – these nutritional powerhouses are rich in anthocyanins, part of a family of polyphenol antioxidants called flavonoids, which have been shown to be protective against cardiovascular disease, hypertension and type 2 diabetes. Owing to their ability to protect neurons against oxidative damage and suppress neuroinflammation, anthocyanins have also been proposed as a therapeutic strategy against neurodegenerative diseases12.

Other great sources of anthocyanins include blackberries, elderberries, chokeberries, red cabbage, purple carrots, aubergine and purple grapes12.

Red

Tomatoes – (including sundried and cooked tomatoes and tomato ketchup/sauces, just watch the sugar) are a rich source of lycopene, a powerful antioxidant in the carotenoid family. Lycopene has been shown to be protective to cardiovascular health and brain health, support healthy blood pressure and reduce inflammation7. Lycopene can also offer protection from the damaging effects of the sun8 and has been shown to protect against a number of different cancers9,10.

Other great sources of lycopene include watermelon, pink guavas, apricots, pomegranate and pink grapefruit7.

Beetroot – is high in several beneficial phytonutrients, including betanin, which gives them their strong red colour and demonstrates strong antioxidant properties, which can protect the cell membranes of neurons against oxidative damage13. Beetroot is also rich in dietary nitrates, which play an essential role in cardiovascular health, and particularly healthy blood pressure (other fruits and vegetables, particularly green leafy vegetables are also great sources)14.   As a rich source of several other phytonutrients, including ascorbic acid, carotenoids, phenolic acids and flavonoids15, beetroot, or beetroot juice could be a wonderfully nutritious addition to your diet.

Other nutritious red foods to include in your rainbow diet could be red kidney beans, red lentils, raspberries, cherries, grapes, red onions, red peppers….

Orange/yellow

Sweet Potato – is rich in powerful antioxidants known as carotenoids, which give plant foods their vibrant yellow, orange, and red colours. Beta carotene is the dominating carotenoid in sweet potato and has displayed a vital role in diminishing inflammatory responses and oxidative stress and therefore may offer protection against several chronic diseases including several cancers, cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline and osteoporosis16-18. Add a little olive oil or butter to your veggies, as fats can help with the absorption of beta-carotene.

Other great sources include carrots, squash, cantaloupe, apricots, dark leafy greens, broccoli and orange/yellow peppers.

Green

Spinach – is a rich source of the carotenoid lutein, which is concentrated in the human eye, where it protects against oxidative damage, filters blue light, thus protecting photoreceptor cells from damage and reduces inflammation21. Lutein has demonstrated protection against eye diseases such as cataracts and age-related macular degeneration, as well as exhibiting health benefits to other areas such as cognitive function and cardiovascular health20-21.

Other great sources include kale, chard, broccoli, peas, lettuce, basil, parsley and egg yolk19.

Cabbage – and other cruciferous veggies offer a rich source of glucosinolates; sulphur containing compounds that give these foods their unique aromas and bitter taste. They are broken down by the body into several different active substances with wide-reaching health benefits. One example is sulforaphane, which has exhibited numerous health benefits such as supporting healthy blood glucose and cholesterol levels, reducing neuroinflammation, thereby supporting cognitive health, musculoskeletal health and exhibiting protection against numerous types of cancer23.

Other great sources include broccoli, cauliflower, kale, brussels sprouts, rocket, bok choy, watercress and mustard greens22.

Brown/white

Onion – among one of the oldest of all cultivated plants, onion has been used medicinally for thousands of years and provides a wide range of flavanols (at least 52 have been identified); a type of flavonoid whose health benefits are also attributed to their modulatory effects on oxidative stress and inflammation24. One such flavanol particularly rich and bioavailable in onion is quercetin, which can support healthy blood pressure25, has strong anti-inflammatory, immune supportive, anti-proliferative, anti-carcinogenic, anti-diabetic, and anti-viral properties26-27.

Other great members of the allium family include garlic, chives, shallots and leeks and particularly rich sources of quercetin are capers, shallots, apples and tea.

This is just a tiny example of some of the wonderful healthful phytonutrients you can get from a varied diet full of colourful plant foods, and just some of the benefits they can bring to your health and wellbeing.

How to eat the rainbow:

The key here is to be creative and try to add extra portions of colourful fruit and veggies into as many meals and snacks as you can.

Here are a few easy ideas but have fun creating your own!

Try a smoothie

Smoothies are a quick, easy and totally delicious way to up your fruit and veggie intake, and a great option when time is tight – just make sure you add more veggies and less fruit to keep the sugar levels lower. The internet is awash with healthy smoothie recipes so you can have great fun trying out lots of new creations.

Here’s a smoothie recipe idea to get you started:
  • ½ ripe avocado
  • 1 ripe banana (fresh or frozen)
  • Large handful of baby spinach
  • 2 sprigs of mint, leaves only
  • 1 tbsp lime juice
  • 200ml coconut water

Pace all the ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Add the coconut water gradually until the desired thickness is reached. Enjoy!

Swap in some crudites

If you’re partial to crisps and dips as a snack, one easy swap you can make is to swap the crisps for some raw veggies. Think peppers, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, cucumber and courgette – you will get the same satisfying crunch but massively bump up your phytonutrient intake. And when it comes to the dip, why not make your own veggie packed salsa with colourful tomatoes, peppers, red onion, chilli and coriander to really supercharge your snack.

Rethink your veggies

If the thought of filling your plate with the same old boring boiled veggies doesn’t appeal, consider a new technique. Try your veggies raw, steamed, roasted, sauteed, spiralised, carpaccio (yes really!) – there’s no end to what you can do with veggies to keep your meals and snacks interesting, vibrant and chock full of nutrients!

  1. Feed your gut

More than 2000 years ago, Hippocrates suggested that all disease begins in the gut, and modern medicine continues to demonstrate that, very often, this is indeed the case. The gut is home to one of the most densely population microbial communities on the earth – known as our microbiome, which provides metabolic, immune and protective functions that play a crucial role in our overall health3.  However, many factors of modern living such as stress, poor diet, excess alcohol, illness and antibiotic use, can put our microbiome out of balance.

A healthy and diverse gut microflora underlies normal physiology, and an imbalance in our microbiome (dysbiosis) underlies many of the common chronic illnesses we see in our modern world through its effect on inflammation and immune dysfunction1. Just some of the chronic diseases that dysbiosis has been reported to contribute to include neurodegenerative disease such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer disease, obesity, hypertension, diabetes, inflammatory bowel conditions4… the list goes on!

The good news is that our gut microflora is modifiable through lifestyle factors, primarily our diet, and we can all, therefore, improve our future health prospects by focussing on supporting our gut flora:

Focus on wholefoods

Favour vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes at the expense of processed foods containing added sugar, salt and unhealthy fats2. These healthful foods are the sole relevant, naturally occurring source of dietary fibres; carbohydrates which are neither digested nor absorbed, are subjected to fermentation by our gut bacteria.

Some dietary fibres, known as prebiotics, can directly interact with our gut microbes, promote our microbial diversity and enhance the production of key microbial metabolites such as short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that, in turn, promote our overall health and wellbeing1.

The key here (again) is variety! Different types of fibre will stimulate the growth of different strains of beneficial bacteria, so the wider the variety of plant foods, the healthier and more diverse microbiome you are likely to have.

Eat the rainbow

Should even more benefits of eating the rainbow be needed, it can also be fantastically supportive for your gut health. The relationship between phytonutrients and our microbiome is bi-directional; our gut bacteria metabolise phytonutrients, converting them to smaller molecules that can be more easily absorbed by the body and at the same time, phytonutrients can modulate the composition of the gut bacteria, thereby improving our health5.

One particular type of phytonutrient of note are polyphenols, found abundantly in fruits and vegetables such as apples and berries, herbs, spices, green tea, dark chocolate and red wine7. Polyphenols are poorly absorbed in the small intestines and pass to the colon, where they appear to modulate microbial diversity by promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria, and inhibiting potentially pathogenic ones; thus, exhibiting prebiotic mechanisms6. Increasing the intake of polyphenols has been shown to profoundly increase the abundance of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains, which are well known to benefit human health8,9.

Include probiotic foods

Probiotics, commonly known as “friendly bacteria” are live microorganisms that help to keep the digestive system healthy by ameliorating the growth of harmful gut microbes and boosting the number and diversity of beneficial gut microbes which, as we’ve mentioned, can support overall health.

There is an abundance of evidence linking the intake of probiotics to helping with a wide range of health complaints such as poor sleep10, low mood11, skin conditions12, IBS13 and cognitive impairment14, to name but a few!

Fermented foods have been part of the human diet for almost 10,000 years, and there is a growing popular consensus that they can provide positive health benefits. These foods, in general, use raw, unprocessed ingredients, contain little or no preservatives, colours or flavourings and are made using long-established, sustainable technologies. Fermenting foods can not only improve their digestibility and concentrate and improve the bioavailability of their nutrients, but they also contain a diverse range of beneficial microbes, with the foods acting as useful vehicles to carry the probiotics into the gut, where they can positively influence the diversity of the microbiome15.

Some great sources of fermented foods to add into your diet include kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, tempeh, natto, miso and kimchi16.

Foods to avoid

Artificial sweeteners – while these have been suggested as a “healthy alternative” to sugar, emerging evidence suggests that sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin and sucralose can disrupt the gut microbiome and can also adversely affect glycaemic control17.

Too much alcohol – in large amounts, alcohol can promote dysbiosis and bacterial overgrowth which can increase inflammation in the gut and intestinal permeability18.

Food additives – referring to artificial or natural substances added to food to improve the colour, aroma or taste, as well as to preserve shelf life or used in food processing methods can disrupt the homeostasis of the gut and promote an inflammatory response19,20.

In a nutshell… higher intake of animal foods, processed foods, alcohol and sugar, corresponds to a microbial environment that is characteristic of inflammation, and is associated with higher levels of intestinal inflammatory markers – whereas a higher intake of whole plant foods, omega 3 fatty acids and polyphenols (at the expense of animal proteins) can positively module our microbiome and presents a sustainable, long-term dietary plan to support optimal gut health20.

  1. Stay hydrated

Staying well hydrated is one of the best healthy habits you can adopt to support your overall health, and often the one most easily overlooked. Water is essential for life and involved in virtually every function in the human body. It is important in thermoregulation, as a solvent for biochemical reactions, for digestion and is used for transporting nutrients around the body and the removal of waste products1.

The body is constantly losing water through everyday activities such as sweating, bowel movements, urinating, even breathing and if this fluid isn’t replenished, we can become dehydrated.

In the average human adult, water accounts for around 60% of body weight, and someone can become dehydrated if they lose as little as 3% of their body weight from water depletion, but as little as 1-2% loss can impair cognitive performance and memory3.

When dehydration reduces body mass by more than 2%, it has been consistently reported that mood is influenced, fatigue is greater, and alertness is lower4 so you can see that even slight dehydration can affect optimal health and wellness, and keeping well hydrated is pivotal to functioning at your best.

Let’s have a look at some of the areas of health that staying well hydrated can benefit:

Skin Health – upping your water intake has been shown to increase the hydration levels in the skin, reduce clinical signs of dryness and roughness and improve skin elasticity in as little as 30 days2.

Digestive health – low intake of water has been associated with constipation and increasing fluid intake has been proposed as being beneficial for both the prevention and treatment of mild constipation8.

Brain function/mood – even mild dehydration has been shown to reduce cognitive performance, including poor concentration, increased reaction time, and short-term memory problems, as well as moodiness and anxiety – so we can see that adequate daily water intake is essential for maintaining optimal cognitive functioning5.

How to stay hydrated:

While there are different opinions about the optimal amount of water to drink each day, and this will vary from person to person, most of us could benefit from upping our intake. The NHS recommends drinking 6-8 glasses of water per day6 (around 1.2 – 1.5L), which is a great starting point.

  • Swap sugary fizzy drinks, or “sugar free” with artificial sweeteners for infused water you can make at home. Sliced citrus fruit, fresh mint or crushed berries are all great options.
  • Most people will get about 20% of their water intake from foods, so be sure to include plenty of liquid-rich foods in your diet. Great options include fruits, vegetables, soups, broths and plain natural yogurt.
  • Be mindful that in hot weather, after exercising, during a fever and in pregnancy/breastfeeding, our water loss will be greater so we will need to up our intake to replenish our water levels.
  • More concentrated, darker colour of urine is a good indicator of dehydration7, so if you experience this, be sure to increase your water intake.
  1. Introduce moderate exercise

Hippocrates stated that “All parts of the body, if used in moderation and exercised in labors to which each is accustomed, become thereby healthy and well developed and age slowly; but if they are unused and left idle, they become liable to disease, defective in growth and age quickly”8 and, once again, he knew his stuff! However, now in the 21st century, the belief in the value of exercise for health has faded so considerably, that lack of exercise now presents a major public health problem9.

Here in the UK, according to statistics, the population has become less and less active. We are around 20% less active today than in the 1960s, and this is estimated to be 35% less active by 2030.

Half of women and a third of men in England today are not active enough to stay healthy – with around 1 in 4 people doing less than 30 minutes activity per week5!

When considering some of the common chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers, it has been proposed that physical inactivity can increase the risk of developing these conditions by between 20-45%6 and our sedentary lifestyle has been described as a “pandemic” and the fourth leading cause of death globally7.

While these statistics are certainly sobering, there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that increasing physical activity can be one of the cheapest, easiest and most effective ways to support our long-term health.

According to the NHS, adults should aim to1:

  • do strengthening activities that work all the major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms) on at least 2 days a week (this could include yoga, pilates, weightlifting, heavy gardening, working with resistance bands…)
  • do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week (this could include brisk walking, cycling, dancing, hiking, mowing the lawn…)
  • or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity a week (this could include swimming, aerobics, many team sports, fast cycling, running…)
  • spread exercise evenly over 4 to 5 days a week, or every day
  • reduce time spent sitting or lying down and break up long periods of not moving with some activity

Let’s have a look at just some of the wonderful health benefits that regular exercise can provide:

Help to boost mood

There is a wealth of evidence that shows regular exercise can improve mood, with one study demonstrating that as little as 10-30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise is sufficient to improve mood2. The vast number of studies on the subject tend to conclude that exercise ameliorates depressive symptoms, improves self-esteem, and enhances various aspects of quality of life3.

Can support sleep quality

Sleep and physical activity are both intrinsically linked with cognitive function and regular and moderate exercise can improve sleep quality – with people who practice regular exercise sleeping better than those with a sedentary lifestyle. By introducing the appropriate amount of physical activity and the time spent outdoors, we can non-pharmacologically improve the quality of sleep4.

Promote cardiovascular health

Regular exercise is strongly associated with a decrease in cardiovascular mortality as well as the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Physically active individuals have lower blood pressure, improved insulin sensitivity and blood lipid profiles10. Regular exercise can attenuate chronic heart diseases by improving the cardiovascular system (the heart contraction and relaxation is refined with effective blood pumping and circulation) and by increasing lung capacity to facilitate oxygen intake and to improve dilation of blood vessels11.

Support musculoskeletal health

Regular exercise promotes bone density, healthy joints, strong muscles, tendons and ligaments, as well as optimum growth and development. It can also develop functional ability for elderly individuals to lift, carry, climb stairs, etc. and lower the risk of osteoporosis and hip fracture11. There is also evidence of exercise having both a preventative and therapeutic role in conditions such as osteoarthritis12 and sarcopenia13.

Exercise can even induce positive changes in the diversity of our gut microbiome14 so this year, find an exercise you enjoy and implement it into your weekly routine to make the most of this health habit.

  1. Prioritise Sleep

Probably the most often overlooked healthy habit, getting a refreshing night’s sleep is key to our optimal health and wellness. Despite this, a 2023 UK survey, run by Nuffield Health showed that, on average people are getting less than 6 hours sleep a night, which is well below the NHS recommendations of 7-9 hours – and quality of sleep as fallen as well1.

Respondents to the survey reported low mood, lower productivity levels, increased likelihood of becoming unwell, struggling to eat healthily and lack of motivation to exercise or socialise as impacts of a lack of sleep – which really highlights how prioritising sleep should be one of the healthy habits you adopt this year.

Sleep is an essential biological state, influencing nearly all major organ systems, physiological processes and functions within the body. Let’s have a look at just some of the wonderful health benefits that sufficient sleep can give you:

Can support immunity

Sleep and immunity have a bidirectional relationship: immune activation can alter sleep, and sleep in turn affects both our adaptive and innate immunity. Adequate sleep is associated with a reduced risk of infection, improved recovery from infection and also appears to promote inflammatory homeostasis2.

Essential for brain function

In the short term, lack of sleep can lead to impaired memory and attention, whereas disrupted sleep across a lifetime has been linked to neurodegenerative conditions. Sleep plays an essential role in “basic housekeeping” for the brain, such as the removal of waste products and can powerfully modulate several interconnected brain systems, demonstrating its diverse and wide-ranging effects in maintaining cognition and healthy brain function3.

Can support mental health

There is a wealth of evidence that links sleep disturbance to a wide range of mental health difficulties – and a recent meta-analysis concluded that sleep represents a viable treatment target that can confer benefits for mental health. The review showed that improving sleep led to improvements in general mental health, depression, anxiety and stress, and that greater improvements in sleep quality led to greater improvements in mental health.

Can support heart health

Sleep is increasingly being recognised as an integral component of cardiovascular health, and a potential therapeutic target for reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease5, with a duration of 7 hours proposed as the optimal sleep duration6.

In adults, 7-8 hours of sleep per day is associated with the best cognitive, emotional and physical health outcomes7 but if you are struggling to get enough shut-eye, try to implement some of the following lifestyle techniques to support healthy, refreshing sleep:

  • Take a warm/hot Epsom salt (a handful) bath before bed to aid sleep and relaxation. Hot baths bring blood vessels to the surface allowing your core body temperature to cool which helps the body prepare for sleep as body temperature begins to drop during the night
  • Ensure daytime full light exposure as well as activity, take a run or walk during daylight hours to top up on serotonin and vitamin D. Ensure you don’t exercise too late in the evening as this can delay sleep onset
  • Keep noises down (earplugs might help)
  • Keep the room cool. Most people sleep best at around 18oC with adequate ventilation
  • Make sure the bed is comfortable. Waking often with a sore back or neck suggests the mattress or pillow may need changing
  • Create an aesthetic environment that encourages sleep – use serene and restful colours and eliminate clutter and distraction
  • Avoid using screens or watching television in bed
  • Consider using a relaxation, meditation or guided imagery app, any of these may help with getting to sleep and will certainly help with relaxation
  • Cut down on caffeine. Ideally no caffeine after midday – some people take 12 hours to metabolise caffeine.

Key takeaways

  • Fad diets and gruelling exercise regimes are often restrictive and unsustainable, so rarely lead to lasting health improvements.
  • 5 healthy tips to support optimal health and wellbeing include:
  • Eat a rainbow – include a wide variety of brightly coloured plant foods in your daily diet to get the benefits of their phytonutrients
  • Feed your gut – gut health is key to overall health and wellbeing. You can support your microbiome by eating a diet rich in whole plant foods and introducing fermented foods, which are natural probiotics
  • Stay hydrated – water is essential for life and the optimal function of every system in our body, so ensure you stay well hydrated by drinking plenty of water and water containing foods such as fruits and vegetables
  • Introduce moderate exercise – regular exercise can have huge benefit to both body and brain so try to incorporate exercise a few times a week
  • Prioritise sleep – sleep is often overlooked, but is essential for health and wellbeing. You can support refreshing sleep through a number of lifestyle factors

References

Eat a rainbow.

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Feed your gut

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Stay hydrated

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Moderate exercise

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Prioritise sleep

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All of our blogs are written by our team of expert Nutritional Therapists. If you have questions regarding the topics that have been raised, or any other health matters, please do contact them using the details below:

nutrition@cytoplan.co.uk

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Last updated on 11th January 2024 by cytoffice


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