Prevention & Recovery

12 bad health habits and how to fix them

12 bad health habits and how to fix them

Author: Canadian Living

Prevention & Recovery

12 bad health habits and how to fix them

This story was originally titled "12 Bad Health Habits and How to Fix Them" in the June 2009 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!

We all know about the bad habits we have that can cause serious health problems – such as smoking, eating junk food and living a sedentary lifestyle. But what about the ones that seem insignificant, yet may cause health issues down the road? Here's how to kick them for good. 

1. Skipping breakfast
Time is tight in the morning, and grabbing just a coffee for breakfast seems like the only option.

The effects: If you skip breakfast your system will slow down to conserve energy and store calories; this will affect your metabolism and your ability to concentrate, says Gloria Tsang, a registered dietitian from Vancouver and the founder of nutrition website You'll likely overcompensate by eating more at lunch. What's more, studies in the American Journal of Epidemiology show that breakfast-skippers are more likely to be not just overweight, but obese.

The fix: Eat within two hours of waking up. The key to a proper breakfast is balancing protein, fat and carbohydrates. Sound complicated? It's not. Pack a breakfast such as whole grain bread with low-fat cheese to eat once you arrive at the office. Some whole grain cereal or oatmeal waffles will also do the trick.

2. Eating your kids' leftovers
When your kids leave the table, they're full and their plates are half-empty. They're only leftovers, you think – so you finish them off.

The effects: Eating just an extra 100 calories (half a cup of macaroni and cheese) with each weekday dinner means you'll put on a pound of fat in seven weeks.

The fix: Eat only what's on your plate. "And don't heap food on your plate – or your kids' plates, either," Tsang says. Learn to recognize the feeling of being full and then stop eating. As soon as everyone is full, pack the leftovers in containers for lunches.

3. Drinking alcohol excessively

Wine helps you to relax, and you enjoy it with dinner at the end of a busy day.

The effects: "Drinking a glass of wine – even two on occasion – is just fine," Tsang says. But, she warns, alcohol packs about 120 calories in every five-ounce (150 millilitre) glass, without providing any nutrients.

The fix: Have a glass of water before each alcoholic drink, so you're not looking to alcohol to quench thirst. Find other relaxing ways of rewarding yourself, such as taking a bath or reading a good book before bed, and limit your wine intake to a maximum of one glass a day.

Page 1 of 4 – More solutions to your bad health habits on page 2!

4. Distracted driving
The average commute to work in Canada is over an hour each way, says Cam Woolley, a traffic specialist in Toronto. So it's no wonder we try to cram other things into the drive.

The effects: Driving while juggling other tasks (such as checking your voice mail) will cause your stress level to skyrocket. Even more, you're putting your life in your hands: one tiny mistake while you're distracted could cause an accident. "I've found that most people in Canada overestimate their ability to drive," says Woolley. "It just takes one second. Taking your eyes or hands off the wheel for a bite to eat or to answer your phone can change your life."

The fix: Manage your time wisely, and remember that with weather that can change in a short time, driving in Canada is already dangerous. Never dial or text-message while driving. "There's this trend of dialing a phone, texting, or receiving and answering e-mails while you're behind the wheel," says Woolley. "We tend to think it's no big deal." But doing any one of these things can "seriously reduce your attention on the road – no matter how great you think you are at it."

5. Falling asleep on the couch

After a busy day, falling asleep in front of the TV can be tempting.

The effects: The best rest comes from sleep that is uninterrupted for seven to eight hours, and is in a dark, quiet place, according to Better Sleep Council Canada, a nonprofit organization that educates the public about good sleep health. Regularly drifting off on the couch with a TV in the background, then moving to your bed, keeps you from getting a solid block of Z's. It can also throw off your hormones and metabolism, leading to weight gain and an immune system that is less able to ward off disease. A study done at Laval University in Quebec City found that people who did not sleep soundly for seven to eight hours a night had reduced levels of the hormone leptin, which regulates appetite and lets your brain know when you're full.

The fix: To get uninterrupted sleep, turn off the TV one hour before you head to bed, and give yourself some downtime: talk about the day with your family, listen to music or go for a walk with your spouse.

6. Having coffee with all the extras

With all the add-ons, your coffee is more like a dessert. If you add whipped cream and flavoured syrup, you're heaping on hundreds of extra calories.

The effects: Whipped cream adds about 140 calories, and each pump of flavoured syrup adds another 20, Tsang says. Without these sugary indulgences five times a week, you'll cut out at least 41,600 calories a year – and that's more than 11 pounds!

The fix: If you want coffee, drink it with low-fat milk and skip the calorie-heavy treats.

Page 2 of 4 -- Do you nibble your nails? On page 3, learn how the thoughtless habit could be causing you harm.
7. Eating too quickly
You don't have time to sit down and have a proper lunch or dinner, so you eat in a hurry.

The effects: Your rushed eating habits can cause acid reflux, bloating and excess gas. "It takes your brain 20 minutes to get the message from your stomach that you're full," says Tsang. So if you inhale your food on a regular basis, chances are you're packing on extra pounds, too.

The fix: Make an effort to really taste what you're eating and appreciate the flavours. Physically take yourself away from your desk to eat lunch, and give yourself at least 20 minutes to enjoy it. To slow down, chew slowly and pause between mouthfuls.

8. Poor posture
You slouch without thinking about it, because it's more comfortable than sitting or standing upright.

The effects: Sitting in a slouched position for more than an hour can give you a tension headache, says Rhonda Kirkwood, a chiropractor in Halifax. Your head weighs about 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) and if it's not squarely above your shoulders, your neck muscles get overworked. That's what causes painful tension headaches.

The fix: The key is switching your position. Shift your weight, lean back and even cross your legs. Then switch to sitting in a proper "back-friendly" position – shoulders back, chin tucked in and elbows relaxed at 90 degrees. Your forearms should be supported by arm-rests as you work. Use work-related activities – such as getting an e-mail or phone call – as a cue that it's time to change positions.

9. Nail biting

Repeated nail-biting is often a subconscious response to stress, giving the brain something material to focus on.

The effects: Because germs are transferred directly from your mouth to your nails, you risk causing inflammation and infection to your nail bed as you chew. In extreme cases, the nail bed is permanently damaged. Nail-biting can cause trouble for your teeth as well: A study in the American journal General Dentistry found that nail-biters may be at higher risk for bruxism – clenching of the jaw that can cause facial pain, headaches, tooth sensitivity, recessed gums and tooth loss.

The fix: Keep a nail file handy at all times – in your purse, beside your bed, in the car and at the office. Every time you get the urge to bite, file instead. If that fails, apply a bad-tasting nail polish. Such products, made to help people curb the habit, can be found at major drugstores.

Page 3 of 4 -- Lose the daily weigh-in and you could improve your health! Sound too good to be true? Read on to page 4 for details.

10. Wearing the wrong shoes
Many women go to work in high heels, believing that fashion trumps comfort.

The effects: Even if you don't feel any pain, walking long distances in high heels can have negative long-term effects on your feet and back. Wearing heels accentuates the curve in your back, requiring those muscles to work harder. This causes muscle strain, which can easily lead to lower back pain, says Kirkwood. Worse, continually wearing and walking in high heels can cause long-term damage to your feet and ankles, which are strained when your heel is unnaturally higher than your foot. "The number of women who come in with plantar fasciitis [a condition characterized by painful tearing of the muscles on the bottom of the foot] is surprisingly high," Kirkwood says.

The fix: Wear flat, comfortable shoes for the commute and carry your heels to the office. Save your killer heels for meetings and presentations.

11. Getting on the scale every day
The bathroom scale can tempt you daily, especially if you're trying to shed weight in time for bathing suit season.

The effects: Associating a number with your wellbeing isn't a healthy or practical approach. "You can get obsessed and caught up in a numbers game," says Tsang, "but following good nutrition – not a number on your scale – is most important." Tsang recommends you think about how healthy you feel, and how you look (the fit of your clothes is a good indicator) instead of staring down at the scale every day.

The fix: Store the scale out of sight and take it out once a week, at most. If you're losing weight the healthy way – by cutting a maximum of 500 calories a day – then take comfort in knowing that you're losing about a pound a week, and leave the scale alone.

12. Heading to bed without brushing your teeth
By day's end, you're exhausted. Your bed is calling and you rationalize that you'll brush your teeth in the morning.

The effects: By not brushing at night, you risk affecting other areas of your health. Plaque buildup causes gum disease – which can lead to a risk of more serious conditions, such as diabetes and stroke, according to Health Canada.

The fix: Brush right after dinner. You'll have clean teeth before your bed calls – and you'll likely snack less in the evening.

Page 4 of 4 -- Skipping breakfast can have some serious consequences. Learn more on page 1.


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Prevention & Recovery

12 bad health habits and how to fix them