51 Healthy Habits to Start Building Today
We oftentimes look to change health habits by removing “bad” ones, but there is an inherent problem with this. The brain has habituated these behaviors for a reason, and it is going to hold onto them pretty tightly until it’s able to relearn new behaviors. So, by simply trying to “stop” doing something the brain is hardwired to make you do, you only pull harder on a system that’s designed to snap back equally hard.
Cut out all sugar for a month? You’ll be binge-consuming it in no time. Try to intermittently fast despite feeling really hungry at breakfast? Sooner or later you’ll cave, and now not only will you be eating breakfast, but you’ll be eating it with an underlying sense of guilt and shame.
We can counteract this by instead working to form so many healthy habits, that the less productive ones are simply pushed out. The next time you experience boredom, rather than jumping straight to “eating cookies,” your brain will have a whole list of possible behaviors it’s okay with you doing. Now no longer is it a challenge to respond to boredom with something positive, like meditation.
As such, what follows is 51 of the healthiest non-restrictive habits you can build:
1. Tracking your hunger and fullness
How hungry are you when you start eating? And how full are you when you finish? We so often dive into all sorts of intricate diet and health goals without ever stopping to take inventory of something as basic as this. Remember, your brain isn’t “working against you.” It’s a powerful tool you can get to work for you, but you first have to slow down and listen to what it’s telling you.
Still not convinced of the futility of dieting? Good thing I wrote this list of 43 Reasons Not to Diet!
2. Checking in with non-food feelings
Beyond tracking biological hunger and satiety, it’s also important to pay attention to your non-food feelings and emotions. Tune into how you’re feeling to ensure you’re not eating out of boredom or sadness (or out of mania).
3. Eliminating food/body/diet talk at the table
This is especially important for anyone suffering through an eating disorder, but even for others, this kind of talk is wholly unproductive and negative. Best to stick to how your day went, any jokes you’ve heard recently, and the weather!
4. Slow eating
Take a bite. Enjoy that bite. Take another bite. Enjoy that one. Don’t rush the meal; give your fullness cues some time to catch up.
Along the same lines, you can help realign your body’s appetite cues by simply pausing halfway through the meal, if for even just a few deep breaths. It will still be there by the time you’re done.
6. Eating to 80% full
This comes from the Okinawan expression Hara hachi bu (literally “eating to 80% full”). The Japanese have known the importance of stopping at comfortable fullness, and it’s something we could all afford to adopt.
7. Preemptive box ordering at restaurants
You know when you get to the end of a big meal at a restaurant, start feeling really full, and immediately try to convince yourself you’re not totally full, just so you can eat the rest of that delicious chicken alfredo? In keeping with the aforementioned fullness and awareness habits, prevent this unhealthy phenomenon by ordering a box in advance of your meal, so you can store the rest without any remorse.
8. Distraction-free eating
The famous “popcorn paradox” came from studies showing that when a group of movie theatre attendees was given buckets of stale versus fresh popcorn, they both ate about the same amount, despite stale popcorn being - let’s be honest - pretty awful. The reason is that when we pay too much attention to cues outside of the meal, we become distracted and our appetitive cues aren’t given time to catch up, leading to overeating. Counteract this by eating at least one meal a day without any electronic stimulation present.
9. Eating with family
The family who eats together stays together, but beyond this, there is something to be said about maintaining a positive social atmosphere around meals. Humans have done this for all of history, and polyvagal theory tells us this could have profound benefits via stimulating the “social engagement system.”
10. Having breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily
Continuing with the “so simple we often forget about it” brand of habits, having breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day can sometimes be enough of a healthy habit on its own to fix everything else. Eliminate the decision fatigue and decide now you’ll have those three meals - at least - each day.
11. Eating protein at every meal
Protein is the most important macronutrient in foods. It helps maintain immune health, skeletal muscle growth or retention, natural satiety cues, and even blood glucose levels. Have at least one protein source at each meal.
12. Eating a vegetable at every meal
There’s no getting around it: vegetables are an unavoidable component to any health-promoting diet. Don’t get caught up thinking they have to be boring, however. Roasted brussel sprouts with butter? Freshly steamed and salted broccoli? A mix of sauteed spinach, kale, and collard greens? Sign me up!
13. Eating a healthy fat at every meal
Fats are proving to be much healthier than we had ever realized. They help promote healthy hormone levels, provide long-lasting energy, and can even help with insulin sensitivity (by preventing an unchecked flooding of the body with glucose). Healthy fat sources like fatty fish, nuts, olive and coconut oil, and avocado not only make for a healthy body but a delicious diet.
14. Drinking 16 oz water in the morning
While regular water intake throughout the day is crucial, the morning is an especially important time to ensure you’re getting enough. This staves off the tiredness- and false hunger-inducing effects of low-grade dehydration. Plus, it gives you some natural energy you’d otherwise feel “dependent” on caffeine to achieve!
15. Drinking water in between alcoholic beverages
Here’s another oft-forgotten benefit of water: It kills hangovers before they can even start. While drinking enough to feel hungover the next day is its own problem, the least you can do now is to stagger those sips of beer with a nice, tall glass of ice water.
16. Cooking a meal at home
Michael Pollan argues we could see significant population-wide health benefits if we were to all start cooking at least one meal a day at home. Not only does this give you control over what goes into your meals, but it also allows you to become intimately involved with the meal creation process, effectively adding to the “mindful appreciation” element of mindful eating. In other words, you’re less likely to overeat your homemade mac n’ cheese than you might be with microwaveable, convenience store-bought mac n’ cheese.
17. Developing a food preparation ritual
This doesn’t have to mean the cliche weekly Sunday prep routine. It could just mean packing a lunch for work each morning, or cooking two days’ worth of meat and vegetables every other day.
18. Trying a new food every week
As simple as picking out a food you’ve never tried at every grocery store visit, this habit alone can boost what’s arguably the most important aspect of a healthy diet: variety. Plus, it helps you love what you eat and discover a whole bunch of new tastes you didn’t even know existed.
19. Trying a new cooking method every week
And while you’re expanding your taste palate, why not try a new cooking method as well? This doesn’t have to mean getting fancy. It could just mean that if you’re used to pan-frying your fish, you could try baking or broiling it instead.
20. Eating sustainable, humane, and healthy sources
This one is primarily for the others who occupy this planet, but it could also have some health implications for you. For example, meat from grass-fed (versus grain-fed) cows is higher in omega 3 fatty acids, which are largely anti-inflammatory. Win-win!
21. Pre-planning your snacks
As a nutrition coach, I can’t begin to tell you how often a client will tell me they feel like their eating starts feeling more and more out-of-control once they hit the vending machine at work. Stop this in its tracks by planning out your snacks ahead of time, and possibly even packing and bringing some to work or school. Failing to plan is planning to fail.
22. Taking fish oil
Since the modern Western diet is notoriously low in its omega 3:6 ratio (meaning we don’t get enough omega 3 fatty acids from our foods compared to the less-than-healthy omega 6 variety), fish oil supplements can do us a world of good. Ensure whichever you’re buying lists out its EPA and DHA amounts, so you know you’re not getting suckered into buying saturated fat pills with trace amounts of fish oil.
23. Taking vitamin D
Even if your daily sunlight exposure is somewhat adequate, most humans could afford to take in way more vitamin D than we already are. And the toxic upper limit (UL) of this vitamin seems to be constantly increasing, proving that the benefits of it far outweigh the potential toxicity concerns. However, most people don’t need to take any more than 20,000 iU a day, maximum.
24. Taking creatine
Creatine monohydrate is a largely misunderstood yet hugely beneficial little powerhouse of health. This is arguably the most “effective” supplement you can buy. It effectively replenishes what’s known as the body’s PCr-ATP fuel system (“phosphocreatine - adenosine triphosphate”), which fuels maximal power output. In other words, when you’re sprinting a short distance or lifting a heavy weight, the body needs to pull as much ATP as it can in as little time as possible. Creatine allows you to do this.
25. Strength training
While you’re supplementing with all these healthy nutrients, why not adopt another one of the healthiest possible habits out there, and strength train 3 or more times a week? Smart, intense strength training (with a focus on proper form execution and appropriate progression) has so many health benefits, you could write a book on it. And surely others have. Read The Barbell Prescription by Andy Baker and Jonathon Sullivan for more.
26. Stretching or doing mobility drills
To increase blood flow to your muscles and prevent unnecessary pains or injuries, do some basic stretching and mobility around your training efforts.
27. Making a healthy smoothie
Eating healthy does not have to be boring. One great way to “shake” things up is to create a healthy smoothie concoction once a day. What goes in this? You could put in some protein powder (anything vanilla-flavored will allow you to be a lot more versatile with what else you want to add in), milk or water, frozen fruits, flaxseed, kefir or Greek yogurt… the world is your oyster.
28. Having prebiotics and probiotics
Prebiotics largely refer to fermentable fibers (like pectins, inulin, and oligofructose). These help feed the healthy bacteria in your gut. You can get them by eating more yams, legumes, beans, artichokes, bananas, etc. Probiotics denote the actual healthy bacteria cultures themselves. You can get probiotics from kefir, kombucha, pickles, olives, and even dark chocolate.
29. Standing instead of sitting
“Sitting is the new smoking” might just be the hyperbole of the year, but there is truth behind just how important it is to regularly stand and walk around. When we sit too long, our hip flexors tighten, our colons assume odd angles that could lead to constipation or diverticula, and we fall into other unhealthy postural issues (like excessive internal rotation of the shoulders). All it takes to bust out of this is a little bit more of an effort to stand up and walk around. And, depending on the rules where you work, maybe a standing desk could be your savior.
There are so many health benefits to some form of daily meditation, this is a hard one to overlook. Just by regularly having you ground yourself and practice being aware in the present moment (without judgment), you are taking an active step towards managing stress and boosting your mood. This also just sets an amazing tone for the rest of your day, and its barrier to entry is unbelievably small.
Journaling does not receive nearly the level of credit it deserves as a fundamental health-promoting habit. By getting all of those racing thoughts out of your head and onto the paper (or online word processor), you are mindfully processing and filtering the “junk” on your mind. This can lead to less stress, better sleep, and more mental clarity throughout the day.
READ: Binge-Writing: The Role of Narrative in My Eating Disorder Recovery (My guest post up on June Alexander’s The Diary Healer!)
32. Developing a sleep ritual
If your pre-bed ritual doesn’t involve some sort of relaxation activity and a plan to shut off blue light stimulation at least 30 minutes before lights-out, this could be a vital area to prioritize. Even just a small amount of barely-visible blue light can be enough to distort melatonin levels, effectively ruining your sleep pattern. Make sure before bed your body is totally ready for sleep.
33. Developing a morning ritual
Just as it’s important to avoid blue light before sleeping, getting access to natural sunlight upon waking is an important habit to develop as well. If you can stack this onto your sleep ritual, meditation habit, and vitamin D-supplementation habit, you can be pretty sure your mood will skyrocket and your stress will plummet. And you can quote me on that!
34. Gratitude journaling
With so much focus on what to improve in your life, it can be easy to fall into the negative pattern of disproportionately perceiving self-inadequacy. Sometimes the question is not “How do I improve?” but rather “What am I already excelling at?”
35. Reframing negative thoughts
In this same vein, we all run into the same old thoughts time and time again. Sometimes this can be helpful (i.e. the brain knows when you touch something piping hot to stimulate the necessary motor units to pull back), but sometimes it can be pretty unhelpful (i.e. when a friend doesn’t return your text and your mind goes to thoughts of “What if it’s because they don’t like me?”). Challenging these thoughts on a routine basis can actually change those “paths of least resistance” your brain takes, such that over time you start having more appropriate and healthy responses to these situations.
36. Hiring a nutrition coach
Having someone help you with your nutrition can be a crucial piece of healthy habit-building. This not only gives you constant access to an expert voice but also keeps you accountable and out of your head.
Check out my recovery coaching rates here… Become one of my success stories!
37. Scheduling your health exams
This is less of a habit and more of an important checkpoint activity, but consider how few people actually take care to schedule their appropriate physicals and check-ups. This is such an easy thing to do, and by scheduling them now, you can ensure you are staying on top of any potential health issues that would otherwise go unnoticed.
38. Reading books on habit-building and self-development
While there is definitely a lot of filler, feel-good material out there, there’s also a lot of highly useful books out there. If you’re looking to improve your conversation techniques, Crucial Conversations by Switzler, Grenny, and McMillan is a must-read. If you’re working on your mindfulness practice, Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn is a wonderfully in-depth yet fun piece.
And if you’re going through recovery from your eating disorder, my book 100 Days of Food Freedom details a simple day-by-day strategy to do so. There are so many books out there with so much valuable information to reap, so don’t let the stereotypes of “self-help” books get in your way.
39. Listening to podcasts on the way to work
I love listening to music as much as the next commuter, but sometimes listening to an informative podcast can be an even more rewarding habit. By doing this, you’re taking time you would have otherwise spent not getting much done and are now using it to learn helpful material.
If you can’t think of any to listen to, here’s 3 totally unbiased podcast episode recommendations for ya!
Bodybuilding, gyms, and eating disorders: A guy’s perspective (on Tabitha Farrar’s Eating Disorder Recovery Podcast)
Anorexia Nervosa, Refeeding Syndrome & Potential Refeeding Strategies (on Danny Lennon’s Sigma Nutrition Radio)
Eating Disorder Recovery, Body Positivity & Intuitive Eating (on Sigma Nutrition Radio)
40. Dressing well
How we dress often influences how we feel. Try going to class for a week in nothing but sweats and torn hoodies, and then spend the next week wearing only button-downs and khakis (or, for the ladies, business casual dresses or shirt/pants combos). The difference is jarring.
These Diets Don’t Work tees (in both men’s and women’s styles/sizes and 2 colors) work perfectly here ;) - Plus all proceeds go to a good cause!
This one’s fairly self-explanatory. Did you know it’s arguably easier for germs to spread if you have cracked hands and feet than if you don’t wash your hands? By moisturizing daily (or even just biweekly), you prevent this from being an issue and maintain nice, smooth skin!
42. Brushing your teeth and flossing
Back to the category of “habits so simple you might’ve forgotten them,” a twice-daily routine of brushing your teeth and flossing can have a much bigger payoff than you’d think. Not only can you impress your dentist, but you can boast better breath, prettier teeth, and less money spent on unnecessary dental procedures.
43. Conquering a fear
In Eleanor Roosevelt’s book You Learn By Living, the former First Lady and social justice giant left us with this gem:
“Do one thing every day that scares you.”
Such profound implications in such a short sentence. Imagine the possibilities here, once you free yourself from the mental prison of perceived inability. There’s no better way to boost confidence than showing yourself you’re capable of way more than you previously thought.
44. Committing random acts of kindness
You know that feeling deep in your heart when you help a smaller elderly person reach something on a high shelf? Or that feeling when you donate to a charity and tell nobody? That’s more than just a burst of self-serving ecstasy; it’s a deep-seated instinct that’s telling you you’re doing something right. Do more of that!
45. Deleting friends who cause you stress
Both in terms of literal deletion on social media platforms and logistical removal of toxic people from your life, there’s nothing quite like getting rid of so-called “energy vampires.” You deserve to enjoy each and every day of your life, without being berated or weighed down by others. It might hurt now, but cutting these people out is not unlike tearing off a band-aid. Get it over with, and it’ll be so worth it in the end.
46. Instituting a Sunday reflection
While this of course doesn’t actually have to land on a Sunday, having some sort of weekly reflection serves to help you orient your efforts for the week ahead. What do you want to achieve this week? What are you behind on that needs to be prioritized? What didn’t go well last week that you’d like to improve on now?
47. Creating a 30-day buy list
The next time you want to impulse-buy something, try this. Put it on a “30-day buy list.” Next to the item you want to buy, write down what day it will be 30 days from now. On that day, you can return to the list and decide whether you still want to buy it. I can guarantee you’ll spend just a fraction of what you would’ve spent, and you’ll be making more mindful decisions!
48. Organizing one desk or room a day
An empty room is an empty mind. This can also be a great opportunity to practice applying the mindfulness you cultivate in your seated meditation practice.
49. Doing your Most Important Things
Rather than rigidly abiding by a to-do list, why not start the day by deciding your Most Important Things for the day? As long as you get these one to three things accomplished during the day, you can say you’ve been successful. And, as Leo Babauta teaches in his book The Power of Less, it’s helpful to make at least one of these related to a project you’re trying to get done.
50. Batching your tasks
Have a bunch of phone calls you need to make today? Try getting them all done in one predetermined block of time. Need to send out a good amount of emails? Do this all at once. This way, your mind isn’t constantly darting back and forth between various menial tasks, and you’re able to focus on one thing at a time.
51. Telling yourself “I am enough”
This is a habit I’ve been a huge believer in for a while. The simple expression “I am enough” carries with it meaning that is more profound than you might think. Unlike most other self-affirmations, it does not purport to “make you better” or help you become more “productive.” This expression only states that you, as you are right now, are all the universe will ever need from you. Even if you made no improvements today, there is still nothing wrong with you, and you are just as deserving of peace and contentment as anyone else. If you’re stuck and can’t think of a habit to pick from this list, this is a great place to start.
WATCH: You Are Enough.
How to build these
Of course, it would be an exercise in futility to try to build all of these habits at once. Start with just one - whichever stands out to you most - and work your way from there. Not all of these habits will be the best choice for everyone, so make sure to consider your own personal situation and which of these seem most realistic.
As a final note, remember that no habit is too small but most habits are too big. Feel no shame in scaling the habit you choose down so much that it almost seems silly. The amount of people who set goals like “meditate 30 minutes a morning” or go from never meditating to doing a week-long silent meditation retreat is pretty high, while the amount of people who set goals like “meditate at least one minute a morning” is incredibly small. Be part of the minority of habit-setters that actually set realistic goals and then execute!
For more on habit-building, check out Mini Habits by Stephen Guise. It’s an amazing book that has totally changed how I build habits and the manner in which I instruct clients to build habits!
And if you’re currently fighting through an eating disorder yourself, and you feel trapped in the cycle, without any hope of recovery…
I’ve got some good news for you.
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