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If you had just one piece of health advice for people in their 20s, what would it be?
That’s the question we posed to a number of experts in nutrition, obesity, cardiology and other health disciplines. While most 20-year-olds don’t worry much about their health, studies show the lifestyle and health decisions we make during our third decade of life have a dramatic effect on how well we age.
Staying healthy in your 20s is strongly associated with a lower risk for heart disease in middle age, according to research from Northwestern University. That study showed that most people who adopted five healthy habits in their 20s – a lean body mass index, moderate alcohol consumption, no smoking, a healthy diet and regular physical activity – stayed healthy well into middle age.
And a disproportionate amount of the weight we gain in life is accumulated in our 20s, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The average woman in the United States weighs about 150 when she’s 19, but by the time she’s 29, she weighs 162 pounds – that’s a gain of 12 pounds. An average 19-year-old man weighs 175 pounds, but by the time he hits 29 he is nine pounds heavier, weighing in at 184 pounds.
But it can be especially difficult for a young adult to focus on health. Young people often spend long hours at work, which can make it tough to exercise and eat well. They face job pressure, romantic challenges, money problems and family stress. Who has time to think about long-term health?
To make it easier, we asked our panel of experts for just one simple piece of health advice. We skipped the obvious choices like no smoking or illegal drug use – you know that already. Instead we asked them for simple strategies to help a 20-something get on the path to better health. Here’s what they had to say.
- Weigh yourself often.- Susan Roberts, professor of nutrition at Tufts University and co-founder of the iDiet weight management program
Buy a bathroom scale or use one at the gym and weigh yourself regularly. There is nothing more harmful to long-term health than carrying excess pounds, and weight tends to creep up starting in the 20s. It is pretty easy for most people to get rid of three to five pounds and much harder to get rid of 20. If you keep an eye on your weight you can catch it quickly.
- Learn to cook.- Barbara J. Rolls, professor and Guthrie Chair of Nutritional Sciences at Penn State
Learning to cook will save you money and help you to eat healthy. Your focus should be on tasty ways to add variety to your diet and to boost intake of veggies and fruits and other nutrient-rich ingredients. As you experiment with herbs and spices and new cooking techniques, you will find that you can cut down on the unhealthy fats, sugar and salt, as well as the excess calories found in many prepared convenience foods. Your goal should be to develop a nutritious and enjoyable eating pattern that is sustainable and that will help you not only to be well, but also to manage your weight.
- Cut back on sugar.- Steven E. Nissen, chairman of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation
I suggest that young people try to avoid excessive simple sugar by eliminating the most common sources of consumption: 1) sugared soft drinks 2) breakfast cereals with added sugar and 3) adding table sugar to foods. Excessive sugar intake has been linked to obesity and diabetes, both of which contribute to heart disease. Sugar represents “empty calories” with none of the important nutrients needed in a balanced diet. Conversely, the traditional dietary villains, fat, particularly saturated fat, and salt, have undergone re-examination by many thoughtful nutrition experts. In both cases, the available scientific evidence does not clearly show a link to heart disease.
- ?Live an active life.- Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School for Public Health
While many people can’t find time for a scheduled exercise routine, that doesn’t mean you can’t find time to be active. Build physical activity into your daily life. Find a way to get 20 or 30 minutes of activity each day, including riding a bike or briskly walking to work.
(Related: Learn how to run like a pro.)
- ??Eat your veggies.- Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University
Nutrition science is complicated and debated endlessly, but the basics are well established: Eat plenty of plant foods, go easy on junk foods, and stay active. The trick is to enjoy your meals, but not to eat too much or too often.
- ?Practice portion control.- Lisa R. Young, adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University
My tip would be to not to ban entire food groups but to practice portion control. Portion control doesn’t mean tiny portions of all foods - quite the opposite. It’s okay to eat larger portions of healthy foods like vegetables and fruit. No one got fat from eating carrots or bananas. Choose smaller portions of unhealthy foods such as sweets, alcohol and processed foods. When eating out, let your hand be your guide. A serving of protein like chicken or fish should be the size of your palm. (Think 1-2 palms of protein.) A serving of starch, preferably a whole grain such as brown rice or quinoa should be the size of your fist. Limit high-fat condiments like salad dressing to a few tablespoons – a tablespoon is about the size of your thumb tip.
- ?Adopt a post-party exercise routine.- Barry Popkin, professor of global nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
If you engage in a lot of drinking and snacking, ensure you exercise a lot to offset all those extra calories from Friday to Sunday that come with extra drinking and eating. We found in a study that on Friday through Sunday young adults consumed about 115 more calories than on other days, mainly from fat and alcohol.
- ?Find a job you love.- Hui Zheng, associate sociology professor, population health, Ohio State University
Ohio State University research found that work life in your 20s can affect your midlife mental health. People who are less happy in their jobs are more likely to report depression, stress and sleep problems and have lower overall mental health scores. If I can give just one piece of health advice for 20-year-olds, I would suggest finding a job they feel passionate about. This passion can keep them motivated, help them find meaning in life, and increase expectations about their future. That in turn will make them more engaged in life and healthier behaviors, which will have long term benefits for their well-being.