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Research suggests that making gradual changes, and letting your brain adapt to one of them at a time, is the best way to change your eating habits over the long term.

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For many people, the new year signifies a fresh slate to eat better, lose excess weight and get healthier. Commendable goals, yes, but ones that could set you up for disappointment by February.

Instead of setting lofty goals to transform your diet and your body – or committing to do too many things at once – start small. Research suggests that making gradual changes, and letting your brain adapt to one of them at a time, is the best way to change your eating habits over the long term.

The following goals can help improve your diet in 2020. Instead of resolving to accomplish all of them in January, work on these goals throughout the year.

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Eat plant-based meals four times a week. A plant-based diet has been linked to a lower risk of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, inflammation and heart disease. It also has a smaller environmental impact than a diet based on animal foods.

Adopting a plant-based diet doesn’t require you to become a vegan. It means eating proportionately more plant foods, such as vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts, beans, lentils, peas and soy, than animal foods, including meat, dairy and eggs.

Incorporate four (or more) plant-based meals in your weekly menu to increase your intake of fibre, healthy fats, antioxidants and protective phytochemicals.

Batch cook a vegetarian chili or hearty bean soup for quick lunches or dinners. Make tacos and burritos with black beans or pinto beans instead of ground meat.

Add soy ground round to marinara sauces. Try firm tofu or tempeh in stir-fries.

Toss chickpeas with a cooked whole grain (e.g., quinoa, farro, freekeh) and sautéed vegetables for a plant-based meal. Snack on nuts or edamame instead of crackers and cheese.

Add prebiotics to your daily menu. To promote digestive health this year, include prebiotic foods in your daily diet. These non-digestible fibrous carbohydrates fuel the growth of beneficial bacteria that reside in your colon.

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That’s important since these microbes, known collectively as your microbiota, synthesize certain vitamins, activate disease-fighting phytochemicals, regulate immune function and protect the lining of the gut. Your gut microbiota is also thought to play a role in inflammatory bowel disease, mental health, weight control and even food cravings.

Prebiotic foods include asparagus, dandelion greens, Jerusalem artichokes (stir-fry or roast), jicama (toss into salads), oats, whole-grain rye, barley, kefir, leeks, onions and garlic.

Use the plate model. To help reduce portion size at meals, and to fill your plate with more plants, visualize your dinner plate in quarters.

Fill half of your plate with vegetables, one-quarter with protein (e.g., fish, chicken, chickpeas, tofu) and one-quarter with healthy starchy foods (e.g., brown rice, quinoa, whole-wheat pasta, sweet potato).

Instead of using a large dinner plate, consider serving your meal on a luncheon-sized plate (7 to 9 inches in diameter).

Cook more meals at home. People who cook most of their meals at home eat a wider variety of nutrient-dense foods, including more fruits and vegetables, and consume fewer highly processed foods than people who eat home-cooked meals less often. They’re also less likely to be overweight.

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If you relied on restaurant and take-out meals last year, set a goal to cook two or three times a week and slowly increase the number of days a week you are cooking.

To save time in the kitchen, cook meals that provide leftovers such as bean soup, lentil salad, roast chicken, chili, curry and oatmeal. Look for recipes that don’t involve multiple steps such as sheet-pan and one-pot meal recipes.

Drink 16 ounces of water before meals. Mild dehydration, caused by drinking too little water during the day, can trigger headaches, cause fatigue, worsen mood and impair concentration.

Healthy adults are advised to drink 12 cups (men) and 9 cups (women) of water each day, and more if exercising. While all beverages (except alcoholic beverages) count toward your water requirements, choose plain water over sugary drinks, fruit juice and diet soft drinks.

To put a dent in your daily water requirement, make a habit of drinking 16 ounces (two cups) of water before each meal. Doing so can also help you feel full and may prevent you from overeating.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is Director of Food and Nutrition at Medcan.

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