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Jumpstart a healthy lifestyle

Laura Owens is a freelance writer who specializes in natural health, mood balancing, psychology, social trends and motherhood. She lives in Orlando, Florida. You can reach her at laao@cfl.rr.com or http://lauraowens.wordpress.com.

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Every change we want to make starts smack dab between our ears -- with how we think about accomplishing our goals. Here are some ways to jumpstart a healthier lifestyle sooner rather than later.

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While commitment, willpower and persistence are must-haves to make over old, ingrained habits, making lifestyle changes gradually is easier than tackling a goal all at once.

Ditch diets

Diet is a nasty four-letter word, and for good reason. The mere mention triggers images of deprivation and hunger pangs. Unless your doctor prescribes a specific diet, ditch that old word and make a "new nutritional lifestyle" your goal. With a gradual shift in how you eat, the weight loss might not be instant, but the pounds will drop and a healthy lifestyle will become more than a yo-yo fad. Add a healthy bulk food to every meal and snack (or start with one meal, then two, then three and so on), while cutting back on sugar, trans fats and processed foods.

Naturally filling foods are packed with protein and fiber such as legumes/beans, almonds, fiber-based fruits and veggies (apples, broccoli), and low-fat high protein snacks (preferably without any fillers or preservatives) such as lean meats, fish, low-fat cheese, nuts (a small handful) and soy-based products. Keep starches like pasta, breads, rice and potatoes to a minimum or substitute with whole-wheat and multi-grain versions. Find healthy oils. Forgo the butter, and add a dash of olive oil and natural herbs.

Don't deprive, feel alive

One or two days a week (depending on your weight goals and level of exercise), allow yourself an indulgent snack or meal. Don't finish every bite on your plate just because you can. If you mentally push back the chocolate cake you've dreamt about all week, the cake holds the power instead of you. Allow yourself to eat the exact meal or snack you crave. Enjoy your favorite food by eating with intention -- slowly, mindfully and with deliberate joy.

Guilt need not apply

Don't dilute your weekly pleasure by wallowing in guilt. Stock the fridge with healthy, preservative-free versions of your favorites to keep processed foods (aka, toxins) at bay. Sugar, fat and preservatives promote inflammation in the body and chronic bloating. The more you replace processed foods, fats and sugars with "food from the earth," the more your body will reject the crud and begin to crave the good stuff.  

Change your portion perception

At home and eating out, Americans tend to push portion size to the limit. Bigger plates seem like a bigger bang for our bucks, but we've erroneously trained our bodies to crave more calories than they really need. If calorie counting makes you twitch, begin cutting calories by gradually lowering your portion size and packing a doggie bag. Wait 20 minutes to sense if you feel satiated. If you're still genuinely hungry (vs bored, sad, anxious or eating to make Grandma happy), add filler with a healthy, low-fat, high-fiber or high-protein food.

Avoid any thing fried or smothered with cheese, and opt for grilled and sautéed versions with heart-healthy Mediterranean flair (olives, olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, fresh herbs, etc). Small changes made over several weeks and months mean that what once felt like a diet becomes a natural way of life.

Have exercise your way

No, lifting the remote or walking to the mailbox doesn't count as your daily cardio. Effective exercise means customizing a fitness program that works for your style, time constraints and budget. Move a minimum of 30 to 45 minutes per day, three to five times a week. Strive to make exercise as big a part of your life as eating dinner or brushing your teeth, and eventually (generally within three months, plus or minus), "Do I have to?" turns to "I really want to."

Walk the dog, take a belly dance class, or stroll the neighborhood at a brisk and breathy pace. Join the gym and take a spinning, Pilates, muscle tone, cardio or kickboxing class. Alternate cardio with strength training; each is equally important to your overall health. Avoid muscle memory by mixing up workouts with a variety of moves that surprise your muscles into new levels of strength and endurance. Find your movement mojo instead of trying to mimic your skinny friend's exercise routine or the size-four woman on the slick magazine cover.

Kickstarting a healthy lifestyle doesn't have to feel like an "all or nothing" regimen. Begin a lifetime of better habits by first making a paradigm shift to make meeting your goals a gradual, step-by-step process. Adopt an immediate positive attitude but add incremental changes to your diet, nutrition and stress management. Taken in small bites, changing old ways to new and improved patterns will feel less like deprivation, and more like total self empowerment.

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