Nutrition Counseling

Setting Health Goals That Last a Lifetime

We’re almost four weeks into the new year, and we probably already have encountered many clients who have made lists of resolutions they hope to keep. Most clients begin January with statements such as: “This year I will make sure I … [fill in the blank].” Unfortunately, these declarations usually are no more than a list of wishes they repeat year after year.

To turn clients’ wish lists into actions that produce long-term results, it’s important for them to consider what’s realistically possible to achieve. For example, if a client says, “I want to lose 50 lbs,” he or she must ask, “How can I achieve this and avoid another short-term crash diet?” If a client wants to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into his diet each day, he needs to ask, “What steps do I need to take to achieve this?” If a client wants to become a vegetarian, she must ask, “What foods should I eat in place of meat, fish, and dairy, and how can I work them into my diet?” She may need to make gradual instead of drastic changes to her diet to succeed long term. Knowing where and how to start making healthful lifestyle changes is key. To begin, dietitians can discuss the following steps with clients to help them achieve long-term results from their list of New Year’s resolutions.

Step 1: Self-evaluate. Clients need to know how much time they can realistically dedicate to meeting their goals. One way they can do this is to determine what their priorities are in life. Suggest they fold a piece of paper in half, and on the left hand side list aspects of life they value most in order of importance; they may list health, family, recreation, money. Are any categories related to their New Year’s resolutions on the left hand side of the paper? If not, they should consider whether a resolution is truly a priority. On the right hand side of the paper, suggest they list all of the things they do with their time each day and calculate how much time they may have available after they complete their daily list. Their list may include shopping, work, household chores, appointments. Were any of their important items on this list? Does the list on the left hand side of the paper line up with how they spend their time each day? Are there ways to cut some of the time spent from the right hand side of the paper to do the things that are most important to them? Before they can develop a plan that works, they need to set aside time for the goals they want to achieve.

Step 2: Choose a goal. From the left hand side of the paper (the priorities side) suggest clients choose what aspect of life they’d like to start working towards, whittling this down to a concrete resolution. Look at the right hand side of the paper to determine what time may be available to achieve this, and choose a simple way to start. For example, if your client wants to spend more leisure time with her kids, she can dedicate half-hour increments throughout the week and a few hours in a row on a day she isn’t busy. Making these goals realistic by breaking them up into small steps enables them to happen.

Step 3: Turn the habit into a routine. It isn’t enough to start a habit; a client must keep it going until it becomes part of their routine. This will make it last a lifetime. Think back to when you were young and your parents kept reminding you to brush your teeth or to take a bath; you were reminded over and over again. Now, as an adult, you do these things automatically often without thinking about them. This internal programming is what makes it possible for clients to establish permanent change.

Let’s say a client’s goal is to lose 25 lbs this year by exercising one hour each day. After evaluating her priorities and schedule, she realizes she usually doesn’t have one hour each day to spare. Instead, her goal could be to lose 25 lbs using exercise as a tool, aspiring to exercise one hour each day but committing to a minimum of 10 minutes a day. She decides to complete the 10 minutes either in the morning or at night around the time she brushes her teeth, but she’ll work in more exercise throughout the day if she finds she has the time to spare. Once she locks those 10 minutes in, she’s on her way to establishing a lifetime habit.

Step 4: Reevaluate and update. Every three months, ask clients to reevaluate their goals, assess the progress they’ve made, and determine once again what’s most important to them. As the smaller goals become a habit, suggest they build onto the goals they’ve met so they can work on meeting subsequent goals. Furthermore, at least once a year, recommend clients evaluate all of their written goals and achievements and start again if they’ve experienced setbacks.

Breaking down resolutions into these four realistic steps will help clients make health-related changes that last a lifetime.

— Marlisa Brown, MS, RD, CDE, CDN, is an award-winning dietitian, chef, and public speaker. She’s president of Total Wellness, a private nutrition consulting company specializing in diabetes, CVD, gastrointestinal disorders, gluten-free diets, culinary programs, corporate wellness, and medical nutrition therapies, in Bayshore, New York, and is author of Gluten-Free, Hassle Free and Easy Gluten-Free. Marlisa blogs at and

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