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Sweet Success: How to Achieve Your New Year's Resolutions

By L.K. Regan

So here you are, thinking about your new year's resolutions. And for lots of people, the destruction that the holiday season wrought on their diet inspires resolutions centered on food or drinks. We all know that most resolutions end in failure, so what can you do to increase the chance of success? We talked to our favorite nutritionist, Manuel Villacorta, MS, RD, CSSD, one of the leading nutritionists in the San Francisco Bay Area and creator of the RealJock Healthy Weight-Loss Programs. He has practical advice—and he's offering free access to his website to help you get started.

First, Manuel gave us the bad news: research has shown that, after six months, fewer than half the people who make New Year's resolutions have stuck with them, and, after a year, that number declines to around ten percent. But just because you may have had failed resolutions in your past is no reason to abandon the idea of making a resolution now. "Give yourself a break," Manuel says. "Don’t beat yourself up because of past failures and don’t use the situation as an excuse to overeat or keep blaming a lack of willpower. Stop procrastinating!" But at the same time, don't expect to accomplish your resolution on January 1. "It took time to build your current habits," Manuel says, "so it will take time to break the bad ones in order to build the new ones." And this will take time. "You cannot break habits overnight; in my private practice I work with people for at least 3 months minimum to help them achieve new habits. A new habit is engraved in you if you start doing it without thinking about it too much."

So, how do you get there? It begins with defining the resolution itself and, Manuel says, with not setting unrealistic expectations. "For many people, resolutions don't work because people swear off foods or drinks without being realistic about it." Sound familiar? "The number one pitfall with making resolutions is when you are setting your goals," Manuel says. "When creating your goals, be realistic and set attainable goals—ones that you can measure and actually accomplish. Start low and build upon your success." If you set smaller, measurable goals—and more than one of them—you can check off successes and feel a sense of progress that will keep you from quitting.

An action plan is also key to reaching your goals. It's one thing to formulate a goal, and another thing to figure out how you will accomplish it. And this can seem deceptively simple. If your goal is to eat healthier, what is that going to mean in terms of when, where and how you shop? What will you need to do to make your environment supportive of your goal, both in terms of your own behavior and, potentially, negotiating with a partner or family members? These are things you don't immediately think of when you formulate a resolution—but they are key to your ultimate success.

Here is an example of how to formulate and realize a new year's resolution, according to Manuel. Let's suppose this is your idea for a resolution: This year I will eat more fruits and vegetables. "This is great," Manuel says, "and you probably will start with all your good intentions. But a high percentage of people won’t be able to fulfill this resolution because there is neither a plan nor a measurable goal." Oops. So what should you do to this resolution to make it work? Start by shaping a realistic and measurable goal: At least two days per week, I will add fruit after lunch and a vegetable with dinner. Now your resolution is something you can actually track and assess. And you can easily see the changes you will need to make to accomplish this goal: you will need fresh produce from a good market, and to budget time and money to acquire it. And, since your goal only concerns two days of the week, Manuel says, "You will have a much better chance of accomplishing this goal and then feeling that you are winning. Always start low and work yourself up to your complete goal." Sounds simple, right? That's the idea.

And to get your resolutions off on a good foot, you have until February 6 to take advantage of free access to Manuel's website Eating Free. That means advice, support—and Manuel's new Eating Free iPhone app, accessible only to Eating Free members.