Habits over diets: Local dietician talks how seniors can succeed on healthy resolutions


When Vancouver Clinic dietician Natalie Leustek meets with senior patients, she first asks what being healthier means to them. Each person has their own definition and goals.

Each person deserves a plan catered toward their goals, rather than a restrictive diet, Leustek said. Dieting is how many begin their healthy New Year resolution journey. Restrictive diets often lead to burnout, however, and instead, Leustek suggests people pursue healthy habit changes.

Habit changes can be catered to personal needs and capabilities, as opposed to dieting, Leustek said, but habit changes are slow, and it takes time to see results.

“We’re a very diet-centric culture. We want instant gratification,” she said. “When we’re focused on habit change, it doesn’t happen like that. People tend to get frustrated and want to stop when they don’t notice results quickly,”

Sometimes her clients struggle with mindset, telling her they struggle with forming new habits. She said they frequently state they cannot establish new habits at their age.

“Sometimes I’ll hear ‘I’m old’ or ‘It’s too late to change,’ and that’s not true at all,” Leustek said. “I don’t really consider age a factor. It’s more of a mindset.”

When Leustek sees a new patient, she begins by asking them about their goals. Having a reason to become healthier provides extra motivation to continue working on habit changes, she said.

Each person has their own definition of becoming healthier, Leustek said.

Seniors often want to change their body composition by losing body fat. Others want to improve their health conditions, like diabetes or high blood pressure. Others want to increase their mobility and endurance, so they can participate in family events and play with grandchildren.

After learning why a senior wants to become healthier, she asks about their previous attempts at becoming healthy, which is important, Leustek said. Establishing what worked and what did not work helps dieticians decide the best course of action for patients to achieve a healthier body, she said.

Fad diets and restrictions can be difficult to maintain, and Leustek proposes seniors consider habit changes rather than dieting.

“Diets tend to be more general, where they are just across the board for each person. Changing habits is more of an individualized approach because people have their own needs and preferences,” she said.

Following specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timebound (SMART) goals,  Leustek creates well-defined goals with her clients to help them form healthy habits.

“A SMART goal would be, ‘I will eat two servings of fruit and two servings of vegetables each day,’ ” Leustek said.

Choosing small, achievable goals for seniors can help them achieve bigger milestones over months of habit changes. The slow establishment of habits results in healthy choices taking less effort in the long term, Leustek said.

“I would not expect somebody who eats vegetables three times a week to eat vegetables three times a day,” Leustek said. “Our first goal might be ‘I will eat one serving a day.’ ”

Weeks or months of small changes to increase vegetable eating might then lead to eating three servings of vegetables a day.

“If we set the bar too high, it might be really hard for them,” Leustek said. “That might lead them to quit.”

Food restrictions are common in diets, but habit changes do not restrict foods, Leustek said. She encourages her patients to participate in the 80/20 rule.

“Eighty percent of the time, you want to follow healthier habits. The other 20% of the time is having some of those treats you enjoy, but you don’t want to overindulge,” Leustek said.

Sometimes, consuming the nutritious foods the body needs can be unpleasant.

“As we age, it’s not uncommon for people to have changes in tastes or appetite. When that occurs, it’s really important to consider how to enhance the flavor of food without salt-based seasonings,” Leustek said.

She suggests people use other herbs and spices and avoid eating too much sodium, fat and sugar. Reducing intake of those other ingredients can increase sensitivity to them with time, Leustek said.

Another challenge to diet change is nutrient deficiency. Seniors tend to struggle with fiber, protein and potassium intake. Achieving these nutrients through eating, rather than supplements, is ideal, Leustek said.

Consuming frozen or canned fruits and vegetables, nuts, nut butter and easy-to-cook meats can provide all the nutrients seniors are often lacking, she said, although supplements can be used to provide some nutrients. Leustek recommends seniors consult their primary care physician before beginning any supplements, to ensure they receive the nutrition they need.

Habit changes take time, but Leustek said her clients who chose habits over diets have experienced greater success.

“People get really focused on resolutions, and it tends to involve weight loss and ‘what I’m going to give up.’ Changing a habit does not mean eliminating anything. It means implementing limitations,” Leustek said.  “Progress is what we’re aiming for, not perfection.”