There are two types of people: Those who religiously set New Year's resolutions and those who cannot stand the ritual. If you fall into the second camp, consider reframing resolutions.
This January, try swapping "resolutions" for "intentions." "Resolutions tend to focus on hard and fast goals that are strict and fixated on something negative," says Alix Schram, RD, a registered dietitian at Kara Lydon Nutrition.
Video of the Day
Examples might be: "Eat less dessert; stop sleeping in; exercise X number of days for X number of hours each week," Schram says. "Such specific and severe resolutions like these are more likely to fail."
On the flip side, intentions tend to be softer and encourage us to think about something we want to add to our lives. "Have you ever gone to a yoga class where they prompt you to set an intention for the practice?" Schram asks. "Suggestions often include [inviting] calm, strength, compassion or a thought to take you through the class that encompasses something you want to cultivate [in yourself]."
Below, registered dietitians (RDs) offer guidance on how to set realistic intentions for the new year.
What Do Healthy Food Resolutions, or Intentions, Look Like?
"Many of our behaviors, both helpful and unhelpful, can become so routine that we may not recognize the impact they have on us," says Madeleine Giunta, RD, a registered dietitian at the North Shore University Hospital.
The new year can be a helpful time to check in and acknowledge some of the great, supportive habits we've developed, as well as question some of the habits that don't leave us feeling so good, Giunta says.
They’re Not All-or-Nothing
Even the most well-intentioned resolutions can take an unhealthy turn if they're too restrictive. Because New Year's resolutions follow a season of heavier eating and drinking, the habits we want to cultivate come January 1st often address diet and exercise. We might decide to cut out all sugar, exercise seven days a week or go sober.
The problem? These types of goals take us from 0 to 100, says Paula Rubello, RD, a registered dietitian at Culina Health.
Success breeds success, so set intentions you can actually achieve. "When we accomplish a small goal, we feel good about ourselves, which motivates us to continue making changes," Giunta says. In this way, small tweaks over time can lead to big victories.
Unattainable goals have the opposite effect. "While failure is a natural and important part of life, constantly setting ourselves up to fall short can rob us of confidence and motivation," Giunta adds. "When we [feel defeated], it's challenging to summon the drive to make a change."
If your New Year's resolutions always "fail," the problem likely lies in the types of goals you're setting — not in you.
They’re True to Our Values
"Healthy intentions come from a place of true self-awareness," Giunta says. "A good understanding of our strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes and what types of food or exercise are accessible to us is [key] for setting realistic goals."
Think back to your previous New Year's resolutions. Perhaps you started a diet that cut out all of your favorite foods or committed to an exercise routine that required you to wake up at 5 a.m. every day. If you know you're a foodie or have never been a morning person, these commitments aren't likely to last.
"Attainable resolutions are rooted in our [knowledge of our personal] strengths and weaknesses," Giunta says. "If you love dessert but want to make healthier choices, adjust your resolution from 'I will cut out all sugar' to 'I will replace ice cream with fruit salad three times a week.'"
Schram also recommends getting curious about what matters most to you before setting intentions for the new year. "Start by doing some journaling or simply thinking about your values," Schram suggests. "When you're able to get clear on what you value — in yourself, in others and in life — it becomes much easier to set intentions that [feel] aligned."
“Healthy goals celebrate the process, not just the outcome,” Giunta says. “Shake off the expectation that all goals must accomplish something you can see or feel.” An intention to get outside more often or try one new recipe every week may not translate to visible change, but that doesn’t render them useless.
5 New Year’s Intentions to Set This January
Struggling to think of balanced intentions for the new year? RDs recommend starting with the basics, like finding ways to engage in joyful movement and improving the quality of your sleep. Use these realistic recommendations as inspiration.
1. Dial Down the Intensity
"If you enjoy exercising, switch out some of your HIIT classes for low-impact movement like Pilates, yoga, walking, swimming or moderate cycling," Schram suggests. "These [workouts] have just as many health benefits and are more gentle on the body, producing less stress and helping to keep our hormones in sync."
If you're not into organized exercise, open your mind to other forms of physical activity. "Aim to try out four or five new forms of movement this year," Giunta says. "While [workouts like] barre and HIIT get a lot of attention, don't forget that movement can include going up and down your stairs 10 times, going for three 10-minute walks around the block during the day or dancing during commercial breaks on TV. Creativity is key."
Indeed, research shows that engaging in light to moderate-intensity movement throughout the day may be even more beneficial for our heart health than doing one high-intensity workout that's followed by extensive time spent sedentary, per a December 2022 study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
2. Eat the Rainbow
"Incorporate a wide variety of plant foods, such as fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and grains in your meals every week," Rubello recommends. "Research shows that consuming more than 30 different types of plants per week is linked to a [more robust] gut microbiome, which is essential for our overall health."
Get specific by setting a goal for the number of plant foods you'll eat every day. If you're currently eating one type of plant food daily, aim for two plant foods every day. Already eating five or more plant foods daily? Adjust the goal to focus on variety. For example: Plan to buy two new plant-based foods each week to help you put different phytonutrients on your plate.
3. Expand Your Emotional Toolbox
If you struggle with frequent emotional eating, work on adding two or three new coping mechanisms to your toolbox.
List out activities you can turn to when big feelings overwhelm you. These activities can be calling a friend, journaling your thoughts, getting outside to feel some sunshine, walking or cuddling your dog or putting on your favorite TV show, Giunta says. "Keep this list on your phone or even stick a physical note on your fridge or microwave so that you're reminded of other ways to soothe yourself when turning to food for comfort."
And remember: Emotional eating is normal. Remove the shame and guilt from the habit and instead use it as an opportunity to get curious and practice self-compassion by asking yourself: What do I need right now to feel my best? Sometimes it might be a doughnut and sometimes it might be deep breaths. Both are A-OK.
4. Dine Without Distractions
"Aim to eat at least one of your daily meals without any distractions," Rubello says. "This practice allows us to eat more intentionally and become more connected to our hunger and fullness cues."
Make it a point to ditch your phone, computer, tablet or TV at at least one meal every day and notice how your experience of eating shifts when you dine without distractions.
5. Don’t Sleep on a Nighttime Routine
Adequate, quality sleep is critical for focus, memory, reducing disease risk, supporting a steady metabolism and maintaining neuroplasticity, Schram says. "Honor your internal circadian rhythm by finding ways to help your body wind down at night."
Start by sticking to a regular sleep schedule. Going to bed and waking up at the same times can help you fall asleep more easily and wake up more energized, per Harvard Medical School. Make it a point to get to bed within the same hour nightly — yes, even on weekends.
Already on a solid sleep schedule? Level up by ditching screens at least one hour before hitting the hay and incorporating calming activities like reading a (real!) book, doing restorative stretches or trying out guided breathing exercises to help prep your system for sleep.
The Bottom Line
Don't enter the new year with a "diet starts tomorrow" mentality. Despite what the media may tell you, you don't need to fundamentally change yourself come January 1st.
"Intentions imply that we are already good enough as we are, but that there are still ways we want to grow, move forward and work on our overall health," Schram says. "Instead of setting a resolution to lose X pounds, an intention might be to learn and listen to your body by asking questions like: 'What foods make me feel energized and satisfied?' or, 'What types of movement feel best for my body and fit into my schedule easily?'"
Intentions are something we deeply want to achieve, Schram says, not something we think we should achieve.
New year, same (already amazing) you.