When I was 19, my older brother bet me that I couldn’t go three months without consuming added sugar. My stubborn adolescent self began the challenge immediately.
For the next three months, I watched wistfully as my family ate perfectly ordinary things like spaghetti and cheese toasties (added sugar in the spaghetti), my mum’s homemade baking, and BLT sandwiches (the packet of bacon listed sugar as an ingredient). I couldn’t get my mind off of everything that was now off-limits. I dreamt about bacon sandwiches. I had to leave the room if there was chocolate present. I got light-headed while working as a checkout operator, wandering the aisles on my lunchbreak, trying to find something to eat without added sugar, thoroughly sick of roasted unsalted cashews and fruit.
The day the bet ended was my mother’s birthday. I gorged myself on cake, lollies, lemon meringue pie. I feasted on her birthday dinner like it was my last meal. Then I headed off to ballet class and you can imagine how queasy I felt spinning in circles doing pirouettes. I think I managed to hold the vomit back, but it was a close call.
You’d think I’d have been proud of myself for going the full three months, for winning the bet my brother had probably forgotten all about by then, but I wasn’t. My overwhelming feeling was of waste. Three months of my life, wasted. Three months thinking about food and nothing else. Three months depriving myself of things I enjoy for no good reason at all. The only positive thing I got out of that awful three months was the life lesson it taught me: depriving yourself of nice food for a bet isn’t worth it.
Which brings me to New Years resolutions. What are they if not essentially a bet with yourself? That you can go the whole year without meat, that you can lose 10 kilos, that you’ll go to the gym four days a week, that you will *insert ridiculously far-fetched idea here*. New Years resolutions are almost never sensible, thought-out, realistic goals that allow for you to screw up a bit and keep going. And they almost never work out. And even if they do, will it really be worth it in the end? Or will you be like me at 19, horrified at the time and energy you’ve wasted on something that only made you feel bad?
I’m a fan of small, positive changes. I get that sometimes people want to completely kickstart themselves into a healthy way of living by making big, drastic changes to their lives. But, in my experience, that very rarely works out in the long run. What does seem to work is the small stuff. Things that take very little effort, that you hardly notice. Like parking a block further away from work, switching to a grainy bread, adding one extra vegetable to your evening meal. By themselves, each change is almost effortless and it’s inserted easily into your daily routine. After a week or two, you don’t even think about it anymore. Keep adding more small changes and you’ll soon see how they add up.
There was a study a few years back that gave young adults an exercise program for 15 weeks. Researchers found that by making that one healthy change (exercising regularly), these young adults began to change what they ate without being asked to. They started to eat in a more healthy way. What this study demonstrated was the snowball effect of healthy changes. When you make one healthy change to your lifestyle, it begets another change.
Perhaps this year, we should all stop promising ourselves that we will lose x amount of weight, or go the whole year without chocolate, etc. Instead, let’s think about a small change we can make that we won’t notice too much. Packing a piece of fruit in our lunchbox, putting our phones on silent after 5 o’clock, going to bed 15 minutes earlier. Hopefully, our one small change will prompt another and soon the small things will all start adding up. And, this time, we won’t feel utterly deprived in the process.
Happy New Year!