Chris Schulz Published

Starting The New Year Off Healthy

An assortment of fresh vegetables are laid out before being prepared for a meal.Adobe Stock

Many people plan to start a diet as a New Year’s resolution, but studies have shown that restrictive diets have high rates of failure.

Reporter Chris Schulz spoke with registered dietician and WVU Extension specialist Gina Wood about more sustainable changes to have a larger impact on health in the long term.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Schulz: Can you tell me a little bit about the appeal or the allure of starting a diet with the new year?

Wood: The new year is something that we think of as starting over, starting again, refreshing, rejuvenating. And I think oftentimes, because the holidays can be a time of indulgence for people, that we feel we have to start to do something differently in terms of our eating habits after that sort of period of celebration and indulgence. And that can lead to, sort of, subscribing to diet culture as a way to start the new year. I think that may have something to do with it.

Schulz: What do we mean when we use the term diet culture?

Wood: I think it can mean lots of different things. I’m not sure that it really has a real set definition, but I think about it as a set of beliefs that is related to food, related to weight, that we tend to ground in myths, sometimes myths and unrealistic expectations. And I think that leads us to believe that being thin is the same as being healthy. And I don’t think those two things are necessarily equal. I think, when we subscribe to diet culture, we tend to separate food into good and bad categories, which then causes us to assign those values to ourselves when we eat those foods. And I think that can be really harmful.

Schulz: You talked about this desire for rejuvenation, this desire for maybe a course correction after the indulgences of the holiday. All of that sounds good. So what is the concern here in the new year from a dietary standpoint? 

Wood: Dieting can have detrimental effects on us mentally, physically, socially. It tends to lead to extremes in behavior like cutting out entire food groups, or severely restricting calories or engaging in excessive amounts of exercise, all for the purpose of losing weight rather than achieving a healthier self. I think it increases the risk of poor body image, it can contribute to disordered eating. And I think that engaging in those dieting behaviors has been shown to be associated with loss of muscle, which can lead to weakness in your muscles, weakness in bones. 

Subscribing to that diet culture, engaging in those dieting behaviors, especially if it’s repeated can lead to weight cycling, which is the repeated loss and gain of weight over time. And that can actually be harmful to our cardiovascular system. It tends to change our cardiovascular risk factors such as our blood lipids or glucose levels or insulin or blood pressure, heart rate, and that can really put a strain on the cardiovascular system so that excessive dieting or weight cycling can be really harmful.

Schulz: What do we mean when we say fad diets?

Wood: I think fad diets are diets that are typically perpetuated in the media and social media and other types of media, books. Things like that lead us to engage in those extreme behaviors. If a diet is suggesting that you cut out a whole entire food group, or severely restrict your calories or engage in some of those behaviors that I mentioned earlier, I think those are what we call fad diets. 

They typically don’t last. We’ve seen them all throughout history of different varieties. Typically, because they’re asking people to engage in, sort of, extreme behaviors, it’s very difficult for people to maintain those behaviors over time. That’s sort of what we refer to as a fad diet. It’s typically an eating pattern that is very difficult to maintain over time, which leads to that weight cycling that I was talking about, that sort of rapid weight loss, perhaps, and then the recognition that this isn’t something that I can continue long term, and then the weight tends to come back on as you revert back to some of your former habits, and those things are harmful.

Schulz: There’s a lot of options for people looking for a plan to lose some weight or to be healthier. There’s a lot of information out there these days. I can’t ask you to make a general recommendation, but what are some general guidelines for people who are hoping to improve their health in the new year?

Wood: I think when we think about improving health, asking ourselves, not “How do I want to look?” or “How much weight do I want to lose?” But “How do I actually want to feel?” Do I want to feel lively and energetic? Vital? Those are the questions that I think can lead to some kind of recognition of changes that people can make that they can maintain, and that are realistic for them. Focus on how food makes you feel, as opposed to, how many calories does it have? Or how is it going to make me look in the long term? 

But if you’re looking for some practical tips, my advice is to start with something that’s actually achievable. So start with setting a goal that you know you can achieve, because success breeds success. If you are a soda drinker, and you recognize that you would like to maybe cut down on that, start with thinking about when and how, and where do I drink soda, and what are the instances that I might be able to switch that out with a glass of water or a glass of milk. Something that’s very doable, that’s very realistic. 

We set ourselves up for failure when we try to make those drastic changes that we can’t maintain. So start with really small goals that are behavior based, rather than assigning value to particular foods or trying to cut out entire food groups. I think taking a look at what you’re already doing and then making some realistic changes that you can achieve. And as you achieve one success, that could be something as small as replacing a soda with a glass of water, that will lead to the belief that I can make other changes, too. So I think starting small, being realistic, making sure that you can achieve what you set out to achieve and that will breed additional success in the long term.

Schulz: Are there any resources that you would recommend – either WVU or more broadly – that people can look towards? I know that a lot of us grew up with the food pyramid and that’s not necessarily these days looked at as the most informative food structure. So where can people find more information about actual, scientifically based nutrition?

Wood: So, we have a couple of resources that I would recommend. The old food pyramid is now called MyPlate. That is a government resource, it’s And that gives us scientific information on the types of foods, the quantities of foods, the nutrients that we need to be healthy, and it is grounded in science and evidence. So I think that is one place that people can start. There’s a document called the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It’s long, it’s not necessarily meant to be read by the lay public, but it does have some great information in it in terms of the science behind what is recommended for long term health for the average American. So I think those two places.

Look for your government resources, try not to rely on other types of media, you’re mentioning social media, because there’s so much misinformation out there. People get really caught up in relying on media, relying on sources of information that are not necessarily grounded in science and evidence to guide their eating behaviors. Seek out your registered dietitian. At WVU we have two registered dietitians on staff: myself, and Kristen McCartney, who’s my colleague. We are happy to help those resources that are grounded in science and evidence is what I would recommend. 

Schulz: Is there anything else?

Wood: I think you’re asking for recommendations. Again, not recommending a particular diet, but we do have evidence, we do have science that says that things like healthy fat are good things to include in your diet. Things like olive oil in place of butter, nuts, and all of there are great sources of healthy fats, avocados. Whole grains, adding whole grains to your meal, adding more fruits and vegetables to your meal, and really looking at the amount of pre-packaged and processed foods that you’re eating. I think those things can also lead to chronic inflammation. 

The more the food looks like what nature intended, the better it will be for you. Things in their whole forms, think foods in their natural state, eating foods that are minimally processed, those are the things that people can look to. Cutting out sugary beverages and replacing those with water or milk. Making sure you’re including things like beans and legumes in your diet, all of those are recommended. They’re not associated necessarily with a particular diet, but they’re things that people can look towards and look to if they’re trying to start including some healthier foods in their overall eating pattern in the new year.