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Kick unhealthy habits to the curb

Main Line Health Concordville January 9, 2017 General Wellness

Taking on every one of your vices at the start of a new year is sure to be overwhelming, if not a straight shot to failure. Most of us waver between too much of what’s not good for us and too little of what nourishes us, always trying to find the balance or take charge.

So what if you were to take on just one area of your health where you know what you “should” be doing, but haven’t been doing it? Keeping in mind this “one thing” philosophy, decide which area you’re willing to take on, and even the one behavior within that area that might make all the difference.


Fortunately for coffee and tea drinkers--and those who enjoy an occasional chocolate indulgence--caffeine has proven health benefits, from decreasing inflammation in the brain and possibly reducing risk for Alzheimer’s disease to decreasing risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease.

Drinking coffee in moderation—that is, up to 400 milligrams of caffeine or three to four cups a day—is an acceptable amount for most people, providing the boost of energy and mental focus most coffee drinkers are seeking. Keep in mind, however, if you’ve just ordered a Starbucks Grande, you’re already at 330 milligrams (260 if you ordered dark roast), which is most of your daily caffeine allotment.

A daily pattern of excess caffeine can lead you down that slippery slope of staying up too late, not getting “sound” sleep, feeling fatigued during the daytime, and having to drink more just to make it through. If you’re used to drinking caffeine throughout the day, try this:

  • Start small: Drink just one small coffee or tea to start the day. Then you know you have “room” to spare if you decide to have another cup or two.
  • Know your limit: Figure out how many servings of your favorite caffeinated beverage you can have to stay under 400 milligrams. Then stick to that limit and space out servings as you wish.
  • Count those chocolates: According to caffeineinformer.com, a dark chocolate square has about 14 milligrams of caffeine. The more chocolate you eat, and the higher the amount of cacao, the more caffeine.
  • Ditch high-energy drinks and sodas: Other ingredients in these offset any potential benefits from the caffeine. If you’re not ready to go cold turkey on soda, try taking it in small doses. Pour a few ounces of your favorite drink into a small glass with ice and sip it slowly. You might lose interest by the time you’re ready for more.
  • Switch to decaf after 2:00 PM: One study has shown caffeine up to six hours before bedtime has disruptive effects on sleep. Stopping caffeine earlier in the day helps your body settle into a restful state. Try decaf coffee (five to 25 milligrams of caffeine), herbal tea, or water in the afternoon.


Poor sleep is linked to a host of health problems from weight gain and depression to increased risk of heart disease and other chronic conditions. Consider these cures for sleep saboteurs:

  • Monitor screen time—and place: Experts advise turning off tablets and phones 30 minutes to an hour before bed, and keeping all devices out of the bedroom. If you use your phone as an alarm clock or otherwise have good reason to keep it in your room, put it in a drawer overnight so that it’s out of sight and away from your head. Put your phone in airplane mode so that incoming buzzes and beeps won’t disturb you.
  • Check your thermostat: Especially in the winter months, it’s tempting to keep your home toasty, but being too warm can wake you up—and so can being too cold. Most people sleep comfortably when the indoor temperature is between 68 and 72 degrees.
  • Brain dump: If it’s making your mind race, just write it down—then let it go. Get it all out on a notepad you keep by your bedside. The emails you need to send, the follow-up call you need to make, the errand you need to run tomorrow.
  • What you resist, persists: When we wake up in the middle of the night, the first thing we’re inclined to do is try to get back to sleep. Feeling robbed of a full night’s slumber, the internal monologue begins. “I wonder what time it is.” “I’m wide awake.” “How am I going to get back to sleep?” In fact, a normal sleep cycle lasts for about 90 minutes and we go through several of these cycles every night. It’s not abnormal to be roused in between sleep cycles. Just go with it.


Most of us are seduced by sugar every day, whether it’s in our coffee or a mid-day snack. The American Heart Association (AHA) advises women to take in no more than six teaspoons, or 24 grams of added sugar per day, and no more than nine teaspoons, or 36 grams, for men. Due to all the sugar additives in our food, many of us are at our limit after morning coffee and the first meal of the day.

While sticking to the AHA limits may seem daunting, success begins with small changes, such as:

  • Trying food and drinks with less sugar: If you take a teaspoon of sugar in your coffee, try it with half a teaspoon, and try it more than once. Give your taste buds a chance to acclimate to a slightly less sweet experience.
  • Using an app to track: There are numerous apps, like Myfitnesspal, that can be used to track sugar intake. As you track what foods you are eating, it automatically tallies how much added sugar you’re taking in.
  • Just saying no: Read the labels for soups, salad dressings, and other food items. If sugar (in all its disguises, including “cane malt,” “corn syrup,” and “crystalline fructose”) is among the first couple of ingredients, or the number of sugar grams per serving is over your limit, put it back on the shelf and move on. It doesn’t have to come home with you.

The easiest sugar habit to kick? White carbs.

“Get them out of your diet,” says Ann Moore, a certified family nurse practitioner (CFNP) at the Main Line Health Concordville. “Go with whole wheat pasta or brown rice,” she says, “and no soda.”


Sodium helps regulate blood flow and pressure. A delicate balance of sodium, potassium and water helps our kidneys flush waste from our blood. This balance is easily upset when we have too much or too little of any of these.

The AHA recommends we consume less than 1,500 milligrams (1.5 grams) of sodium per day as our best defense against a natural rise in blood pressure as we age. The average American, however, ingests a whopping 3,400 milligrams (3.4 grams) per day—and most of it isn’t coming from a salt shaker. The majority of our sodium intake comes from the “salty six,” a group of sodium-packed offenders that includes processed meat, pizza, soup, bread, chicken, and tacos.

Examine your sodium intake and consider these adjustments:

  • Know the numbers: Anything that has more than 20 percent of the daily recommendation in one serving is considered high. For people with high blood pressure and anyone following AHA guidelines, that’s 300 milligrams per serving.
  • Switch to low-sodium products: If you enjoy sandwiches and toast, then opt for low-sodium Ezekiel bread. If you’re not ready to let go of lunch meat and cheese just yet, choose one or two days of the week to indulge in these. Even the low-sodium varieties are high by AHA standards. Low- or no-sodium soups are easy to find and you can always salt to taste with a pinch of your favorite seasoning.
  • Eat more bananas: And yogurt and lima beans and sweet potatoes—all potassium-rich foods that help neutralize the effects of sodium in the bloodstream. There are also potassium-based salt substitutes that may satisfy your salt cravings. Potassium salt substitutes are not for everyone, especially people with kidney disorders. Be sure to check with your doctor before using these products.


Inhaling carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) contributes to more than a dozen types of cancers not to mention leads to brittle bones, and can make you feel years older than you are. Symptoms such as shortness of breath and a persistent cough are often the “wake-up calls” CFNP Ann Moore sees in patients who smoke.

If you're not a smoker, you can still be at risk: Nonsmokers who breathe in secondhand smoke inhale 69 toxic chemicals known to cause cancer and are more likely to develop lung cancer and heart disease. Living with a smoker, in fact, increases your chances of getting lung cancer by 20 to 30 percent.

Whether it’s you or a loved one who’s determined to quit this year:

  • Don’t go it alone: Join SmokeFREE, Main Line Health's free six-session behavior management program, which provides practical counseling and support to help smokers quit. You can also get free support via the PA Free Quitline, a tobacco cessation service available to all Pennsylvanians.
  • Know what to expect: There will be challenges to quitting smoking, but also rewards—almost immediately—such as better breathing and decreased heart rate within 20 minutes after quitting. In less than a year, you'll experience almost no withdrawal symptoms, and after a year, your risk of heart disease cut in half.
  • Fall in love with a nonsmoker: According to Moore, many successful quitters have fallen in love with a nonsmoker who insists they have to quit. “It works every time,” she says. “Love always wins out.” You can also surround yourself with nonsmokers to avoid temptation.

So pick a habit, any habit, and focus on changing just one thing that matters most to you. Keep in mind that living a healthy lifestyle is a journey involving forging new paths and correcting course along the way. No matter how small the change you make, it’s making the change that matters.

Main Line Health serves patients at hospitals and health centers throughout the western suburbs of Philadelphia. To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.