How to make New Year’s resolutions stick
Welcome to 2023! Whether you partied last night or went to bed early, we’re all in the same boat: A new year means thinking about New Year’s resolutions.
This tradition is far older than you might guess. It dates back to the Babylonians, who lived 4,000 years ago in the Middle East. They made promises to their gods, and if they kept their word, the gods would favor them. If they broke their promises, the gods would be angry.
New Year’s resolutions have certainly stood the test of time. But are they a good idea? Or are we simply setting ourselves up to fail?
Perhaps science has something to say about this that the Babylonians didn’t know.
In this episode, Jonathan speaks with Tara Swart and Sarah Berry, who share techniques that will give you the best chance of sticking to your New Year’s resolutions. They also discuss whether these promises tend to be a good idea in the first place.
Tara Swart is a medical doctor, a neuroscientist, and the author of The Source: Open Your Mind, Change Your Life. She also has her own podcast, called Reinvent Yourself.
Sarah Berry is one of the world's leading experts on human nutrition. She has personally run more than 20 randomized clinical trials looking at how humans respond to different fats.
If you want to uncover the right foods for your body, head to joinZOE.com/podcast and get 10% off your personalized nutrition program.
Episode transcripts are available here.
Get Tara’s book here.
Follow Tara on Instagram.
Follow Sarah on Instagram.
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This podcast was produced by Fascinate Productions.
[00:00:00] Jonathan Wolf: Welcome to ZOE Science & Nutrition, where world-leading scientists explain how their research can improve your health.
Welcome to 2023. Whether you partied last night away or went to bed early, we're all in the same boat. A new year means thinking about New Year's resolutions. This tradition is far older than you might guess. It goes all the way back to the Babylonians who lived 4,000 years ago in the Middle East. The Babylonians were an inventive lot.
In a few years, they invented the wheel, the sailboat, and writing itself. But they also invented the New Year's resolution. They would start each year by making promises to their gods. If they kept their word, their gods would favor them. If they broke their promises, their gods would be angry. A place no one wanted to be.
So New Year's resolutions have certainly stood the test of time, but are they a good idea, or are we simply setting ourselves up to fail? Perhaps science has something to say about this that the Babylonians didn't know.
Today I'm joined by Medical Doctor and neuroscientist Tara Swart, author of The Source, Open Your Mind and Change Your Life, who also runs her own podcast called Reinvent Yourself. I'm also joined by Nutritional scientist and ZOE regular Sarah Berry. Before you commit to a New Year's resolution that might fail before February, I'd encourage you to listen to their tools and techniques to give you the best chance of sticking to your goals and find out whether we should be setting New Year's resolutions in the first place.
Tara and Sarah, thank you for joining me today. Why don't we start with our usual quick-fire round of questions from our listeners, as always, we'd like you to say yes or no or a one-sentence answer if you absolutely have to. And if I start with Tara, if we want to adopt a new habit, are there scientifically based methods to help us succeed?
[00:02:13] Tara Swart: Yes.
[00:02:14] Jonathan Wolf: Sarah, is a new year weight loss diet a good idea?
[00:02:18] Sarah Berry: No.
[00:02:20] Jonathan Wolf: Is giving up alcohol completely for January a good idea?
[00:02:24] Sarah Berry: Oh, I'm gonna do a sentence for this. Cutting down is a good idea. Depends on your starting point.
[00:02:31] Jonathan Wolf: Tara, we have a question from Rachel on social media and she wants to know how she can make good life choices in the new year about food, exercise, and relaxation without it feeling like hard work.
[00:02:43] Tara Swart: Sure. So I think the answer to that is something that I tried a few years ago, which was to set two or three micro habits. So really small things that are so easy to do that you are likely to be able to sustain them for the first quarter of the year. So again, that's also taking off the pressure of I have to do this all year.
And if that goes well, which it should, if you've chosen small enough things, then after the first three months of the year, you could pick two or three new things and start to incorporate those into your habits. And if you do that, then I found that at the end of the year, I had 10 new little habits that I didn't even think about, you know, I should do this or that. They were just what I did now.
[00:03:28] Jonathan Wolf: Thank you, Tara.
Why don't we start with the whole idea of New Year's resolutions we did a little research actually before we started this podcast, and apparently we have been making New Year's resolutions since at least the time of the ancient Babylonians, which is 4,000 years ago.
So this is not a new idea, and they might have maybe had a sort of podcast 4,000 years ago talking about what your New Year's resolution should be and whether would you stick with it. We also actually asked our own ZOE members about whether they were going to do New Year's resolution, and so we did a poll on Instagram and 40% of our community said that they will make a New Year's resolution this year. So both of you may not be, but many people listening are planning to, and apparently, most of those resolutions were around weight loss, exercise, eating a better diet, alcohol, and smoking. So I think that's what people are thinking about. You know, as they listen to this on January the first, and of course, we're recording a few weeks before.
So Tara, why do people pick New Year's resolutions? Why do they do it at this time of year? And is it a good idea?
[00:04:35] Tara Swart: I think the time of year is because it's just so symbolic, isn't it? It's a fresh start. It's the first day of the first month of the first year, so it feels like a good day to sort of pin your hopes on, and I think that's why I said that good New Year's resolutions aren't a good idea and I wouldn't be doing one because of a few reasons.
One is that if there's something you need to change then why have you waited until the 1st of January? As soon as you knew that there was something that would be better for your health, if you changed it, ideally you would've started straight away. So the reasons that it's been put off can sometimes be the reasons that it doesn't work out.
And the second one is that people tend to pick very lofty goals that it's really difficult to sustain and I think there are so many statistics that show that most people have not managed to maintain their New Year's resolution by February. And you can see how that would be very disheartening. And then you just give up. So, That's why I talk about micro habits and just doing two or three small things for the first quarter of the year.
[00:05:41] Jonathan Wolf: And Tara, by the way, I feel you're just talking about me. Interestingly, I have also basically given up New Year's resolutions, but it's just because I'm so burnt by my previous experience that I choose some incredibly ambitious goals. You know, I'm going to exercise every day, and then by about day 10, I've totally failed to keep up with this. I feel full of self-loathing because I set this thing. It sounded like a really good idea. I haven't been able to keep it. And I'm 47 now. I think I finally figured out a couple of years ago that I was a sort of a hiding to nothing.
So I've said like, Hey, you know what? I'm actually gonna try and avoid doing this at the beginning of January. So it sounds like my experience is a common one?
[00:06:23] Tara Swart: And it's my experience too. So it took me, you know, till my 40s to work that out as well. So this isn't judging people who've been on that journey, but it's about saying, okay, what can you do differently that is going to help you to achieve good health habits and be able to sustain them?
Because that's really the most important point.
[00:06:39] Jonathan Wolf: And is it sustainability that is the key issue or is it that you are making a resolution that itself just sort of isn't a good resolution?
[00:06:47] Tara Swart: Personally, from the scientific point of view, I would say that sustainability is the issue because that's the most desired outcome, that you bring these habits into your life and they become, so natural that you don't have to think about doing them.
I wouldn't like to say that it's about picking a bad resolution. I don't think that people set out to pick a bad resolution, but it's probably just too big.
[00:07:07] Jonathan Wolf: So tell us a bit more about that. Because I'm sure lots of people are thinking and saying, you know what? I really do feel I want to make changes. I want to improve my health.
I want to improve my diet. I want to cut down, you know, my alcohol, or stop smoking. Like these are things they know are important. And then I think they're probably listening to this and saying, oh, Well, are you telling me that I'm sort of bound to fail because that's a bit depressing also. Maybe I should just, you know, give up and go straight to whatever the habit was.
How is there a path to actually achieving what they're looking to do through resolutions?
[00:07:38] Tara Swart: So some of the things that you said were really specific, like, stop drinking alcohol, stop smoking, or cut down. But some of them are quite vague and that's the first problem. So I want to be healthier or I want to lose weight are quite big and vague goals. So let's pick on the weight loss one, cause I think that's quite a big one. If you want to lose weight, then, first of all, you know, attaching a number to that makes it obviously more specific, how much weight you want to lose, and really kind of stress testing whether that is a realistic outcome, the number that you've chosen.
And then instead of focusing on that as your New Year's resolution, write down, I don't know, three, four, maybe five or six. Because however many micro habits we choose, some of them won't work. So choose a couple of extra things that you will do differently that will help you to lose weight. Very, very specific things, whether it's, I'll only eat between 12 noon and 8:00 PM or I won't eat, you know, certain types of food.
Then start to really actively bring three of those things into your life for the first quarter of the year. And then, as I said, after the first three months, bring in another two or three things that might help. So as increasing your step count or reducing your alcohol intake.
So really specific small things that you are really confident that you can do, and also setting them up for a shorter timeframe so that you can hold yourself accountable. Because accountability is a big part of it, and a year is a long time to kind of check how you're going. Sure, you can have milestones, but it's easier to lose track and give up on things if it's such a long period of time.
[00:09:18] Jonathan Wolf: And is there sort of real evidence behind what you're talking about because it all sounds logical, like reduce it down, have a shorter period of time? Is there, sort of real evidence that this is an approach that can be more successful?
[00:09:32] Tara Swart: Yeah, so I think that the scientific evidence is based on the fact that we are talking about neuroplasticity, which is changing brain pathways and neuroplasticity is something that we have throughout our life but happens less as we get older unless we are purposefully putting our brain through change and this is what we're doing, a big New Year's resolution or a micro habit.
[00:09:53] Jonathan Wolf: And Tara, because I've never heard the word neuroplasticity, which is a brilliant word. I love the idea of it. Sarah is nodding as well, so this is a word that she also liked. That sounds pretty great. Could you explain a little bit more about what that is and then explain, I think, where you were going with it?
[00:10:08] Sarah Berry: And Jonathan, I feel there's some preferential treatment here. I'm not allowed to use any big words and then explain them. So you're very lucky.
[00:10:18] Tara Swart: Yeah, it's such a great word.
Neuroplasticity. So it's basically the flexibility of the brain. And the brain has the ability to grow and change throughout life at any age, any stage, and any mindset. And this is, you know, a huge for us as humans to understand that this is possible and, part of achieving our resolutions is believing that they're possible.
If you don't think that you can do something, then it's going to feel harder. You're more likely to give up. But if you know that you have this amazing capacity in your brain to change your habits, and you can give yourself examples of yourself having done that or somebody else that you know has, you know, achieved a habit that you'd like to achieve, then it just actually makes it easier for the brain.
It's more energy efficient. If you are kind of fighting with your brain cause you don't think something's possible, then the brain's more likely to give up trying to help you stay on the right path.
[00:11:06] Jonathan Wolf: And Tara, just to make sure that I understand this, it's really interesting, but not something that I understand at all.
Are you saying that our brain, like these habits of what we're having, is sort of shaped in our brain, sort of like, you know, the water going downhill in a particular way, and therefore if I want to stop smoking or I want to stop eating an entire chocolate bar at, you know, 11:00 PM which is one of the little habits that I know I should cut down a bit?
That actually I need to somehow literally, you know, rewire a bit my brain. I'm now mixing the metaphor between the river and the electricity is probably not good, but Is that what you're saying?
[00:11:40] Tara Swart: Yeah. So if you think about a baby between birth and 18 months, they go from being completely vulnerable and dependent to walking and talking. Being able to control their bladder and bowels. And that is the biggest example of neuroplasticity that we have. So that's creating those brain pathways in the first place. In the teenage years, we prune away brain pathways that we don't require anymore, and we focus more on things like socialization and sexual behavior, and emotional regulation.
And then after the age of 25, so 25 to say 65, we have this ability to overwrite pathways in our brain but we don't necessarily do it because we have the habits that we have, and those are the default pathways. That's what you were kind of saying with the water flowing downhill. So if you want to change a habit or create a new habit, you are literally joining up new nerve cells in the brain to create new pathways or override existing pathways.
You can't undo a habit that's in your brain, but you can overwrite it with a new desired one. And that's basically repetition and practice. There is a four-step process, which I can go into in a minute, but yeah, it's literally overwriting pathways in your brain. So it's also physical hard work. And that's one of the things that's helpful when you're changing a habit and you feel like giving up.
You know, it's like building a brick wall. It's manual labor for your brain and that's why it can be tiring. It can make you more hungry. It can, you know, make you have these sorts of thoughts about wanting to give up because that's literally your brain's using up so much energy to create this new pathway.
And again, understanding that can help people to get over that hump, you know, the sort of difficult period.
[00:13:23] Jonathan Wolf: I think that's amazing. I've never heard that before. And so what you're saying is, you know, if I think about an analogy that maybe we're more used to, which is we know that exercise is good for you, but also it's hard and tiring and you need to keep doing it if you ever want to lift a heavier weight. Like we understand that it's hard work, but you get that benefit. I think wasn't something really I understood as a child actually, but I think as we sort of understood more in popular culture, I think what you're saying, which I hadn't really appreciated is when I want to stop eating that chocolate at 11, actually, that is hard. I've wired myself that way and so stopping, particularly for the first, and tell me in a minute how long this is, but you know, that first few weeks or whatever of trying to do a different habit. I'm basically fighting against this wiring and until I've laid a new physical thing in my brain, these neurons, to make it happen, that's real.
This isn't just like, Hey, you know, why have you got such weak willpower? You should just be able to do it. You're, you're saying this is just the same as something like exercise or anything else that we know, of course, is physically hard. Have I understood that?
[00:14:23] Tara Swart: Yeah, you said it really well, and I think this is the difference between neuroscience and psychology and the difference that we have learned by having sophisticated scanning technologies, which is that psychological work, is physical work.
When you are changing a habit, even if it's an intangible one, physical work is going on in your brain and your brain is a tiny percentage of your body weight, it's like two or three kilos, but it's the most energy-hungry organ in the body and change is even, you know, it's going to demand more energy. And the resources for the brain are glucose from the breakdown products of a healthy balanced diet and oxygen.
So basically eating right and breathing is important in terms of achieving our New Year's resolutions.
[00:15:08] Sarah Berry: Tara, it must also be incredibly challenging and the environment we live in now as well. So you've talked a lot about these behavioral challenges that we have, but I guess it's double the amount of work given the environment where we have, in terms of instant gratification, all of this readily accessible ultra-processed food, et cetera.
So we're battling against two huge challenges then, aren't we, with these resolutions often?
[00:15:35] Tara Swart: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, life is more stressful than ever before. What you would read in a newspaper today in one day is more information than we would've received in our lifetimes about a hundred years ago. So when you're overstimulated like that, which we all are, all the time, the willpower thing can also be harder because that's another demand on your brain.
And that's why I'm a big fan of these like bite-size chunks in terms of changing habits.
[00:16:01] Jonathan Wolf: I think that's amazing. Tara, you said I think that there was a four-step process if you did want to change your brain. And I think everyone who's listening to this is like, oh, I want to change my brain. I'd like to stop all the things that feel, you know, self-destructive or not helpful, and just get my brain to be doing the things that I feel it should.
So, I think everyone's taking out a pen and a piece of paper. Tell us about the four-step process.
[00:16:26] Tara Swart: Okay, so it starts with raised awareness. So you have to be very clear about the beliefs that you hold around your health and your weight, the sort of thoughts that you have, and the potentially self-sabotaging behaviors that you're indulging in.
And then decide which one or ones you need to change and decide what the new desired behavior is that you are going to override that with. And then the second step is focused attention. So you don't just jump straight into, okay, I need to stop eating the whole bar of chocolate. And I'm just going to try and do that straight away.
You notice every day for a week or even a month, what is it that pushes you to eat that entire bar of chocolate? What is the stressor that is causing you to do that? And when do you not do it successfully? And what's the environment that's helping you to just have one square of chocolate instead of the whole bar?
And once you are much clearer than that, and, you know, I believe that the raised awareness part, the first part is 50% of the battle. Then the third part is deliberate practice, where you literally force yourself to behave in a new way until it becomes your new habit. So every single day when you go to get that bar of chocolate, you only have one piece, and you keep doing that for as long as you can.
If one day, say 10 days in, you eat the whole bar. This is where people go wrong. They then think, okay, I've failed at that, so I might as well just eat the bar every day. Just start again. So from the next day, have one square of chocolate and start the whole process again. Until that becomes sustainable, and as we discussed, that will feel like hard work, but there is a tipping point where you build this new neural pathway in your brain.
And then stopping after one square of chocolate is your new habit. And the fourth part is kind of around all of this, which is accountability. So another reason that people don't achieve their New Year's resolutions is that the only person holding them accountable is themselves. So it's very easy to persuade yourself that, oh, it's okay actually to have a whole bar of chocolate every night.
I tried not to do it, but it didn't work. And so I'll just go back to doing that.
[00:18:36] Jonathan Wolf: And you know, we've talked about weight a number of times and Sarah's been really patient here, but I'd love to actually talk a bit about that specifically in this context of these New Year's resolutions because I think there could be a lot of people listening to this who have overindulged in December, you know, feel they've put on a bit of weight, they've probably dropped some of their healthy routines because, you know, we have a whole bunch of activities, you know, for Americans probably starting with Thanksgiving through to the end of December, which are sort of non-standard and also break possibly many of your healthy habits. And they're sitting here, they've probably already seen the first 10 ads for weight loss programs on their social media. You know, if they do drink, they may be also feeling a little bit worse for wear. So more vulnerable. So, and it feels like this is people, you're sort of a bit of a low point. You want to make a change. Sarah, how should they be thinking about this and you know, weight and weight loss today?
[00:19:35] Sarah Berry: I think firstly they should use many of the approaches that Tara suggested. So not to be vague, she has a really important point she said at the beginning and the four strategies she talked about, but setting these micro goals I think is really important, but it's really tough. And it's tough because just like you said, Jonathan, you know, you turn on your TV probably from unfortunately the 30th of December, they don't even wait till the 1st of January. Or you put on your phone or you look at social media and there is again, Tara like you said, this fantasy of, you know, just do this, take this silver bullet and hey, you know, or all your dreams will come true in terms of how you look, how you feel, or there's actually loads of nutrabolics out there at this time of year about what you can do.
And normally they're quick fixers. They don't work, they're not sustainable. And then you are in that cycle, picking up really what Tara was saying. You're just getting into that cycle of feeling like a failure. It's not working. And this applies to everything, whether it's giving up smoking or trying to lose weight.
And unfortunately, one of the biggest things around New Year is weight loss. People trying to lose weight. People trying to either do a quick fix with some magic bullet or potion that's been sold to them that quite frankly 99.99% of the time, or may I say even 100% of the time is absolute nonsense.
Or people go on these drastic weight loss diets through calorie restriction, and this is where I think there's a big problem people are making changes that we now know just don't work and are not sustainable. So yes, if you reduce your energy intake by restricting the number of calories you are consuming, calorie counting diets, which is what the majority of people do for their New Year's resolutions in relation to diet, without thinking about the quality of diet, what will happen is yes, you'll lose weight.
You'll lose weight quite quickly, but you will not keep that weight off in 90% of the cases, and actually for most people, very quickly they'll put that weight back on. And so you might see a change in weight in two weeks, a month. It might even last as long as three months. But what we see typically is after three months, people put that weight on, and actually, they tend to end up in a worse situation than they started in, in the first place. And this is for a number of reasons. So we know that when you restrict the number of calories that you are consuming, the brain, which is very clever, as Tara is already, I think highlighted, tells us, Hey, you are in starvation mode. I'm not getting enough calories. So it actually drives you to consume more calories than you were restricting.
So you are already in really tough times because your brain's telling you to consume loads more than you've actually even lost. In addition to that, our metabolism changes. So how much energy we typically just expend just from sitting down, changes. So again, we are just fighting this losing battle and this is why calorie-restricted weight loss diets, I think a just a disastrous way to start your new year because you are setting yourself up to fail.
But also they're based around this whole principle, in my opinion, of denial. And I think the evidence is really clear that denial doesn't work. You know, it's not an effective way to live your life, to lose weight, and not a pleasant way. And actually, if we go back to basic principles of health, what we do know is that adding in healthy food is far better for us in terms of our health, but also our weight than actually taking out unhealthy food.
[00:23:07] Jonathan Wolf: And Sarah, I actually had a specific question from Maria on social media that I love and she said, how can people avoid going into dieting mode in January, particularly if they feel they're overweight and if they're looking for a long-lasting solution? And I'd love Sarah, but then I'd love Tara's view because I can see how the brain is very tied into this as well. And at a point I think, we're getting bombarded with some of the smartest people coming up with the best ads and messaging they possibly can, right? To play ourselves, and convince us to embark on this.
[00:23:40] Sarah Berry: Well, I think Maria should play the smart game and go further long-term game rather than the short-term benefit and really try and focus on that as one of her key things to have that kind of focused attention and raised awareness about what Tara talked about, and it's based on the principle of much of the research that we are doing at ZOE and our findings with our own personalized nutrition research that we're doing at ZOE, that if we can improve our health from the inside, it's only then that we can have the sustained benefits on the outside I e. a sustained change in weight. So if we can make micro resolutions and micro changes, and hopefully Jonathan we'll have time to come onto some of my top tips as well as Tara's top tips for this, if we can make some of these micro-changes, but that will have a macro impact on our health over time, I think you'll be the smart one, Maria, that you'll be the one that will actually achieve sustainable weight change to your healthy weight.
[00:24:44] Jonathan Wolf: Any thoughts on that, Tara?
[00:24:45] Tara Swart: Yeah, I mean, I'm just actually thinking about the fact that we are kind of saying it's okay to completely over-indulge from late November from Thanksgiving into December for Christmas, and then go to the opposite extreme in January and try to lose a large amount of weight. I would look at the whole year in advance and think it doesn't have to be the sort of feast and famine.
There is a way of navigating November and December, by, you know, still having a lovely time and treating yourself, but doing that in a healthier way, and that's good for you and your loved ones. I always say everything in moderation. I'm not saying don't have champagne for, you know, Christmas Eve or whatever you want to do, but the food, you know, the pumpkin, the trimmings for Christmas, you can just eat more of those good things and you don't have to eat a massive amount as well. So even setting ourselves up to be so overweight in January that we feel we need to do something drastic, to me isn't the right way of approaching this whole situation.
[00:25:49] Jonathan Wolf: And Tara, is there anything in the science that talks about how long something takes to be a habit? Because just as you know, anecdote for myself, I could totally over-indulge on Christmas day or you know, if I'm in the States and I'm invited around for Thanksgiving and like. One day doesn't really change my habits very much.
So if I have that one day, then actually I find it quite easy to return to whatever my normal pattern is about food, where I'm generally quite thoughtful. I definitely find that if I go for a whole week with something that is really off, then actually I feel like somehow I've almost got into that pattern and it's hard to return backward.
Is that just me? Am I making all of that? Is there anything sort of real in the differences between those?
[00:26:35] Tara Swart: So there are actually two questions there, and I'm gonna come back to the, how long does it take to change a habit? But I'll, I'll pick up on your example because it's so real for people. So you're absolutely right that overindulging for one day isn't gonna change, you know, the thoughtful behaviors that you have, you know, set up already. I kind of mentioned this already, but one of the pitfalls is that let's say you did overindulge for a week and you have noticed that you've put on weight. The normal default for the brain is to say, well, you've messed this up now.
So basically you've failed.
[00:27:04] Jonathan Wolf: By the way, I do that totally full of like guilt and self-loathing. As soon as I've like done something, I feel I shouldn't have done it.
[00:27:11] Tara Swart: But then that also kind of in a way, unfortunately, allows you to keep doing it because you think, well, I failed at that so I might as well not bother. But it's so important to not beat yourself up and start again. That's a really big learning that I've had over the last, you know, decade or so.
[00:27:25] Jonathan Wolf: It's really interesting because I have a 3-year-old, as well as a 14-year-old. And I see the 3-year-old do this. Like if somehow she's told she's done something wrong, she literally throws her toys, you know, out of the pram as it were. Incredibly upset. And then when you look at the 3-year-old, it's sort of obviously like, you know what, don't give up, everything's fine. You should just go and do it again. So in a way, it's so obvious with a 3-year-old, and what I'm hearing you say is, it's sort of the same for me, but maybe I'm not so good at saying don't give up and you know, throw your toys out of the pram. It's all right. Just go back and do it again. And that's as relevant for me as an adult as it is when you're trying to bring up a small.
[00:28:01] Tara Swart: Exactly. We're much, obviously much kinder to our children and our pets than we are to ourselves. We don't give ourselves that same break that, you know, we might give to our children.
And so the thing with 3-year-olds is that it's very physical. So when something goes wrong, they will literally throw their toys, they will throw themselves to the ground so you can see what's going on inside your brain.
Have you seen the movie Inside Out?
[00:28:24] Jonathan Wolf: No.
[00:28:25] Tara Swart: Oh, you must watch it. It's a Disney film. It's about a child who can see the little characters in their brain that are their emotions.
And so basically your 3-year-old's behavior is going on inside your head, but you are not demonstrating that to the world because you've learned to regulate your emotions.
[00:28:41] Jonathan Wolf: I try not to throw myself on the floor and hammer my feet however much I may occasionally feel like doing it, yes.
[00:28:48] Tara Swart: Before we forget, let's get back to how long does it take to create or change a habit?
There are so many, you know, things out there like it takes two weeks or 42 days, or 66 days or whatever. But you know, none of those are true because basically, it depends on what it is. If it is going from eating a bar of chocolate to one square of chocolate every night, you could do that in probably two weeks.
You could create that habit in two weeks. If it's something like improving your emotional intelligence or your intuition, that's going to take at least nine months. I mean, I actually talk about the neuroplasticity process for a profound change as literally like the gestation period of a baby. So the amount of time it takes from fertilization for a baby to be born because you are literally becoming a new person.
If you change something that fundamental about yourself, it's like going through the birth process and then, you know, let's use the analogy of language because it's a very tangible one. Jonathan, if you and I both decided to learn Spanish, and I used the Duolingo app and kind of just did it myself in my spare time but you went for Spanish lessons once a week and you had an exam at the end of six months, and then you had a trip planned to Mexico, you would be much better at Spanish than me. So it's also the intensity of the effort that you put into learning something new or changing a habit. And, and those are the same things.
Changing a habit is basically learning something new for your brain.
[00:30:15] Sarah Berry: So I often wonder, Tara, whether also the time of year is really putting us, setting us up to fail as well. You know, January, it's a bit dreary. Christmas is over, and New Year is over, particularly for women who might be in the summer thinking about getting into that bikini, dare I say it, that in January, what is their motivation?
Picking up on the point that you just said, people don't have necessarily an immediate target and I think that there is quite good evidence to show if you've got a goal, if you've got a target that you've got to meet, then you are more likely to be able to follow any of these resolutions.
[00:30:53] Tara Swart: Yeah, that's absolutely true.
So if you have a vacation coming up, then it's definitely much more likely that you will do what you need to do to get into shape than if you don't. But we are talking about New Year's resolution specifically because it's that time of year now but you know, September's also a time, the kind of school year start, you know, that people might think about changing something.
You could pick your own birthday as a time to, you know, start something new. Apart from this, the, as you said, the time of year and that whether there's an actual, you know, tangible reason at the end of it, it's not necessarily much to do with dates as it is to do with your motivation and your willpower.
So, for example, before my wedding, what I did to get into shape, I would never, never have the motivation to do. Now, you know, there was a very, very clear goal and what I ate and the exercise that I did was non-negotiable that that would be the case for, you know, at least three months. And it was hard work.
But in terms of the desire to do it and the motivation, it's actually like really annoying because I sort of realize that there either has to be something really bad like a health scare, or something really good, like what you're going to look like on your wedding day to make you behave in a way that you obviously can, but it's definitely harder to do just in normal life.
[00:32:11] Sarah Berry: And do you think setting micro targets alongside the micro changes could work just as well as that health scare or that wedding dress that you need to get into?
[00:32:23] Tara Swart: I think that in the absence of the health scare or the wedding dress, that's why I'm talking about micro instead of big goals because you are not likely to have that same level of motivation.
And also it's a shorter time period. So, you know, that's actually, I've only just realized this now, but, because I did the micro habit thing every three months quite a few years ago before my wedding. But having, yeah, that shorter period of time as well, it's like, okay, it's three months. I can do anything for three months.
I'm not sure I can do anything for a whole year. But I, you know, three months is just more doable. So in the absence of a big motivator, an external motivator, it's easier to achieve micro habits than it is to achieve lofty goals.
[00:33:06] Jonathan Wolf: Amazing. So I think we've touched on through the conversation already, some actionable advice, but we always like to make sure that listeners have this chance to really understand, okay, what are the things that I could really do to turn this into practice?
And I think I'd like to ask both of you if you'd be willing to share maybe sort of your three top tips. If you're having to sort of condense this down for anybody who's listening, I understand you're saying, well, I wouldn't necessarily start today, but I guess maybe they could start tomorrow, and therefore it's no longer a New Year's resolution, but just part of this steady process, which I do love.
I think that that's very powerful. I guess why shouldn't you start on something today? As long as you have it in mind that this is just about what you want to do in your life as opposed to sort of this sort of off and on. You know, Sarah May maybe start with you because I think you were holding off some things that you were thinking specifically, I think to do with diet.
[00:33:55] Sarah Berry: So firstly, the reason I don't believe in New Year's resolutions is that I'll make a change at the point that I think I need to make a change, in which case there'll only be micro changes because it's continued. So my top tips would really feed into that. Making continuous small micro changes. And really at the forefront of this is around not using words like denial or even avoiding a term that we've used a lot today about overindulgence, but actually making a change in a very positive way.
So not denying yourself anything, not cutting anything out, but thinking, what can you bring into your diet? What can you bring into your day to make yourself more healthy? And so adding in healthy food, It's a first priority rather than worrying about taking out unhealthy food. And over time what will happen is naturally you will displace some of those unhealthy food habits because you'll actually feel better because you are including these healthy foods for a whole host of reasons that we could do a separate podcast on Jonathan.
So that would be my first tip to add in, not take out. My second tip would be to sleep. So this is something we talk about a lot on our podcast, the importance of sleep, not just for mental health, for resilience, but also for diet. We know that sleep has a really strong impact on what kind of foods you self-select, and how much energy you consume if you've had a poor night's sleep.
We know that about 35% of people in the UK and the US actually don't get enough sleep, and this directly impacts levels of obesity, cravings for sugary food, but also their blood sugar responses after a poor night's sleep. Oh, and in terms of an actionable tip for sleep, just going to bed maybe 15 minutes early than you normally would, so 15 to 30 minutes earlier than you normally would I think is a great tip. I know we live busy lives. I know it's hard, but even 10 minutes then. Anything is better than nothing in terms of improving the length of your sleep. And then my third tip would be to think not just about what we eat, but how we eat, and this is something I'm particularly fascinated by since all our exciting discoveries from our ZOE program of research.
So think about the time of day that you're consuming foods. We know that late-night eating is really unfavorable for lots of health outcomes as well as predisposing us to increase weight. We know that if you can eat in a slightly shorter eating window, so instead of spreading your meals over a 14-hour period, try to eat maybe in a 10 to 12-hour eating window over the day.
We know that things such as your eating rate as well, things that people will never have thought of, but again, don't involve the denial of food can impact your metabolic response. And subsequently also your weight. So slow down the rate at that you are eating food. So it's all of these practical tips around how we eat and maybe Jonathan, we can do another podcast on, how we eat to follow up, in more detail.
But they're my three top tips. So it's all about enjoying food as well.
[00:37:00] Jonathan Wolf: Tara.
[00:37:01] Tara Swart: Yeah, so I wish we had time for me to just fan girl and back up everything that Sarah just said, but I'll try to like, give some other tips as well. So I think I'll go back to saying break things down into bite-sized chunks. So, you know, small things that you feel confident that you can do.
Think about things that you are actively going to do rather than things that you don't want to do. And if you are doing things like going to bed 15 minutes earlier, walking a thousand extra steps a day, and eating broccoli instead of a burger, then those things are actually going to help your brain to achieve your larger goals.
So all of those things that create the conditions for success in your brain mean that when it does come to a bigger goal or a less tangible goal, you will actually be in a better condition to be able to achieve that. So thinking about what you're building up to, and probably even like having fun and giving yourself a reward once you achieve, you know, the first set of micro goals because just like Sarah said, we don't want this one to seem like a sort of miserable and insurmountable task, but you know, small things. Get a reward at the end of it. The achievement itself might be the reward, but it could be something else. And know that you are creating the building blocks in your brain to achieve your larger goals.
[00:38:18] Sarah Berry: And Jonathan a motto I often tell people that I live by and think would be really positive for people to bare in mind is if a food is too healthy to be enjoyed, it's just not healthy for you at all. And I think people should remember that in the new year, that food is to bring us pleasure.
[00:38:37] Jonathan Wolf: I'm still struggling with tofu for exactly this reason, though I recognize that this is my failing and I'm working on it, yes, no, I understand what you mean.
And sometimes of course you can train yourself, right? I was thinking, of Tara's thing about this micro step because I used to drink tea with two sugars in it, and I used to have at least six of those a day, probably more. And one of the things I discovered when I did the first ZOE test was my blood sugar control was terrible. Possibly because I was basically living on sugar for the previous 20 years.
But I hadn't realized, because on the outside it was like, I just started to put on some weight at this point, but I haven't before. And what I found, but it's interesting, I didn't, this was sort of trial and error, was I couldn't go cold turkey, I couldn't give up all the sugar right away. It was too much.
But I was able to reduce it to one sugar immediately. And interestingly, a couple of months after that, I then went to no sugar and it was really hard for the first couple of weeks. And then interestingly now, whenever somebody gives me something that has, you know, for some reason added sugar, I'm like, it's disgusting.
I think I've rewired my brain, is what you're telling me, Tara, and that this has taken the time and that in a sense I've managed to get that to work. I hadn't read your book at this point. But affecting what I was doing is sort of retraining step by step towards this new state and now this is my normal habit.
Is that a little example of the sort of micro changes you're talking about?
[00:39:59] Tara Swart: Perfect example.
[00:40:00] Jonathan Wolf: Wonderful. Wonderful. Well, I have one final question just before we run our time because we touch on it at the beginning and this is about alcohol because I know that there are a lot of people who will be thinking about this in January, and Sarah, you gave a slightly complicated answer, so if people are thinking, you know what, I think I should give up alcohol in January, what are you saying to them?
[00:40:22] Sarah Berry: So I would start by echoing what we've been talking about throughout this podcast is that just stopping something is not sustainable. So saying, go cold turkey, stop drinking alcohol, I don't think it will be something that's achievable for people in the long term. I think that cutting down on alcohol, and again, this depends on your starting point, as I said at the beginning, but cutting down on alcohol is a good idea, but we do need to be mindful as well, is that there is evidence to show that in low amounts, certain types of alcoholic drinks, such as red wine, which are rich in polyphenols, may actually have a favorable effect on our health.
And by low amounts, I mean, one small glass a day and not drinking to excess. And I think that therefore alcohol doesn't have to be demonized as part of our life. Now, people do drink to excess quite often over the Christmas period, so it's certainly not a bad idea to be cutting down, but I think there's clear evidence that going cold turkey is challenging and not sustainable.
[00:41:25] Tara Swart: There's actually also evidence that people who do dry January drink more in the rest of the year. So I'm not saying don't do dry January or sober October. I think those are good ideas, but don't then overcompensate for that. So be mindful that doing that might have a, you know, bounce back effect and, make sure that you mitigate that.
So if you do stop for a month, just make that into the start of reducing generally. Rather than, okay, I did that. So now I can just go back to how I was before.
[00:41:57] Jonathan Wolf: And Tara, it sounds like you were saying, when you were talking before about positive rather than negative, that saying, I'm going to cut this out, is negative and hard.
You know, it all depends on where you're coming from, right? So I think if you're coming from somewhere you feel like you're, you're drinking a lot every day, then perhaps you'd say, I can drink a glass of red wine or something. Is that what you're saying? Like something that's more positive as a change towards, rather than, I'm just not going to do this, tends to be more successful or am I misunderstanding?
[00:42:23] Tara Swart: No. So I just want to be clear that alcohol is a neurotoxin, so it is bad for you and you can get polyphenols from red grape juice.
[00:42:32] Jonathan Wolf: And we think it is great for you to say that, yes.
[00:42:35] Tara Swart: But if it's part of your lifestyle already, then I would put a slight twist on what you said and think more about why you drink alcohol. So if it's because it's social, if it's a reward for like something that went well at work, then pretty much anything you know is okay. Eating the whole bar of chocolate for that reason is okay. If it's because you are depressed, lonely, or bored then those are not good reasons for doing anything.
[00:43:01] Jonathan Wolf: So this is back to what you were saying before when you were explaining this four-step process, which is sort of focus your attention and understand why you're doing this and that actually helps you to think about where you can go.
I could tell that this on its own deserves a much deeper dive. So I hope we'll have a chance to come back. Tara, thank you so much, Sarah, thank you so much for this. I think it opened up as many questions as often happens as we have resolved. As always, I'd like to try and do a quick summary and both of you please correct me if I got any of this wrong.
I think the first thing you said is about New Year's resolutions, which you don't really like. Tara explained this wonderful idea of neuroplasticity. Our brain can still change, which is very exciting and there is real science about how to do this. And then I think Sarah gave us some great tips specifically as we are thinking about health and diet. And then the final thing that I noted here is to give yourself a reward for achieving your micro goal.
Thank you so much. And I think there are a whole host of podcast topics that we will try and get to in 2023, now we've got here.
[00:44:07] Sarah Berry: Thank you and happy 2023 to everyone listening.
[00:44:11] Jonathan Wolf: Thank you, Tara and Sarah, for joining me on ZOE Science & Nutrition today.
If you'd still like to make a New Year's resolution despite listening to Sarah and Tara, tell us not to, then maybe a good place to start is discovering how your own biology works and how to eat in a sustainable way to improve your health. If so, you may be interested in joining ZOE. Each member starts with an at-home test to understand your own biology. and compare you with thousands of participants in our science studies. We then create a personalized program to improve your health and help you with exactly the sort of micro-goals that we talked about today. If you're interested in learning more about ZOE, you can head to joinZOE.com/podcast and get 10% off your purchase.
If you enjoyed today's episode, please be sure to subscribe and leave us a review as we do love reading your feedback. If this episode left you with questions, please send them in on Instagram or Facebook and we will try to answer them in a future episode. As always, I'm your host, Jonathan Wolf. ZOE Science & Nutrition is produced by Fascinate Productions with support from Sharon Feder, Yella Hewings-Martin, and Alex Jones here at ZOE.
See you next time.