Creating health habits that stick
Karina Inkster, MA, PTS
Vegan fitness and nutrition coach Karina Inkster helps you adopt two powerful healthy living habits: a plant-based diet and a consistent strength training routine. Here’s your starter kit for long-term success.
January: the traditional goal-setting month for many of us. This year, I’d like to challenge you to take a slightly different approach. Instead of making a goal-based resolution, resolve to create habits. It just so happens that I went vegan on January 1. It was not meant to be a New Year’s resolution, which is one of the many reasons I’m still vegan, 16 years later.
Making the transition to veganism and incorporating strength training into your daily life are two of the most powerful lifestyle habits you can adopt. A vegan diet also has a significant positive impact on the environment. Steering clear of animal agriculture—one of the world’s largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions—means lowering your carbon footprint. Plant-based diets require much less energy, water, and fertilizer than diets containing animal products. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that, when properly planned and executed, vegan diets are “healthful” and “nutritionally adequate.” They make sure to point out that vegan diets are “appropriate for all stages of the life cycle,” including pregnancy, childhood, and older adulthood.” This means you can start at any age! Taking steps to eat more plant-based foods and fewer animal products will positively affect your health at all stages of life. The same goes for fitness. You can start at absolutely any age and make incredible progress. Aim to keep the habits you add small and sustainable. This way, you’ll set yourself up for lifelong results, and you’ll learn to love the daily processes involved in achieving your health and fitness goals.
Making the transition to veganism doesn’t have to be complicated, and it doesn’t have to happen all at once. In keeping with our theme of habits, here’s my approach to going vegan: begin with the start of your day and work your way down. This could take a few weeks or a few months, but it ensures you build solid habits at each step.
Start by “veganizing” your breakfast. Try overnight oats or cooked oatmeal topped with fruit; tofu scramble; or a berry, flax, and chia seed smoothie.
Once vegan breakfasts are your “new normal” (once the habit is established), move on to lunches. These can be as simple as a PB&J sandwich or hummus with fresh veggies, or more elaborate like a “Buddha bowl” of black beans, cabbage, grated beets, and tempeh over a bed of brown rice and drizzled with tahini dressing.
Give yourself a few weeks, then move on to dinners. The options are endless! In our household, chili, stir-fries, minestrone soup, and enchiladas are winter staples.
Food quality, calories, and macronutrients are the three nutrition concepts most vital to supporting your fitness.
High quality foods are those in their most natural states (whole grains, fresh produce) and are high in micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Preparing most of your meals in your own kitchen and focusing on filling your plate with as many whole foods as possible will ensure you’re eating a nutrient-dense diet that fuels your fitness goals.
Work with a nutrition professional to help you set calorie and macronutrient goals. Calories—a measure of the energy we get from food—are important for both athletic performance and physique goals. You need to ensure you’re consuming an appropriate amount of energy for your fitness endeavours, while also supporting your physique goals. You’ll need to take in less energy than you burn if you’re looking to lose fat, and more energy than you burn if you’re working on gaining muscle.
Macronutrients are the nutrients our bodies need in the largest amounts: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Each has a different function in our bodies, and we each need different ratios of these nutrients, depending upon our lifestyles and training. Most of my vegan clients who strength train aim to get half their calories from carbohydrates (whole, nutrient-dense sources whenever possible), 25 to 30 percent from healthy fats, and 20 to 25 percent from protein.
There’s no one right way to go vegan—you can make the transition in whatever way best suits your lifestyle. However, there are a few mistakes to avoid.
Replace animal products with a variety of whole, plant-based foods to prevent nutritional deficiencies. Focus on sources of protein such as tofu, tempeh, beans, nutritional yeast, nuts, and seeds.
Challenge yourself to create a mindset of abundance, rather than one of avoidance. Instead of focusing on all the foods you can’t eat, focus on all the new foods you can eat more of, including those you haven’t yet tried. (I had no idea what tempeh, amaranth, farro, or wakame were before I went vegan!)
Your “food environment” is your environment and the habits you’ve built that determine what—and how—you eat. Try scheduling some time each week to prepare a large batch of a healthy vegan entrée and some grab 'n' go snacks to reduce the amount of cooking required during the week.
Along with a whole foods, plant-based diet, regular resistance training is a must for optimal health, fitness, and disease prevention. Resistance workouts most often involve strength training at the gym, but you can also complete bodyweight, resistance band, or suspension trainer workouts at home. Here are some tips.
Plants are subpar protein sources.
Plants contain all the amino acids (building blocks of protein) our bodies need. As long as you’re eating a variety of whole plant foods, the protein you need is not hard to get.
Going vegan will help me lose weight.
A whole foods vegan diet certainly can help you lose weight, but it’s a calorie deficit, not a vegan diet, that’s responsible. Weight maintenance, as well as muscle gain, is possible on a vegan diet.
Going vegan will decrease my athletic performance.
The opposite may be true! Eating an abundance of plant-based anti-inflammatory foods (containing antioxidants and phytochemicals) may aid in recovery from training.
The simplest way of getting a reasonably accurate idea of your calorie consumption and macronutrient ratios is to track your food in an app such as MyFitnessPal.
Aim for three sets of 10 to 12 reps per exercise, with a weight that feels very challenging by rep 7. For the weighted carry, aim to walk about 30 metres (40 to 50 steps).
Example:Goblet squat Target: Quads, glutes, hamstrings Strength standard:40 percent of your bodyweight for 10 reps The squat is one of the most effective lower body exercises. It builds muscle and strength, as well as hip mobility.
Example:Deadlifts Target: Hamstrings, glutes, low and upper back Strength standard: 100 percent of your bodyweight for 10 reps Deadlifts engage all the muscles of the posterior chain (the back of your body).
Example: Reverse lunge Target: Quads, glutes, hamstrings Strength standard: 50 percent of your bodyweight for 10 reps (25 percent of your bodyweight in each hand) Lunges develop foot, ankle, knee, and hip stability, in addition to strengthening your legs.
Example:Push-up Target: Chest, shoulders, core Strength standard: 10 full push-ups in a row The push-up is the most fundamental upper body pushing movement to master. It engages your entire core and teaches proper body alignment.
Example: 3-point dumbbell row| Target: Back, core Strength standard: 35 percent of your bodyweight for 10 reps Rows strengthen the major muscles in your back, which can help to improve your posture. By using only one hand on the bench (instead of kneeling on it), your core muscles work hard to resist torso rotation.
Example: Farmer’s walk Target: Entire core musculature, shoulders, back Strength standard: 80 percent of your bodyweight for a distance of 40 metres (40 percent of your bodyweight in each hand) This often overlooked movement is a must to stay pain and injury free. It increases grip strength, builds muscle, and translates well into everyday movements (such as carrying heavy shopping bags!).