Are you wanting to move your health in a positive direction this year but unsure of the best next step? Confused by conflicting advice and information overload? If so, perhaps this post will pave the way forward.

To me, it makes good sense to start with awareness of which risk factors are the most important for our health and longevity. We can then focus on those first as we move toward a healthier lifestyle.

What are the leading risk factors?

According to this World Health Organization report, the leading global risks for death in the world are high blood pressure, tobacco use, high blood glucose, physical inactivity, and overweight and obesity. They are responsible for raising the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancers. Further, the report states that these same five risk factors, along with alcohol use, high cholesterol and low fruit and vegetable intake account for a whopping 61% of cardiovascular deaths.

What can we do about our risk factors?

It’s a common myth that our genetic makeup determines our fate. In fact, our genes account for only about 10-20% of our risk for our leading diseases (see here). We have control over the remaining 80-90% through our lifestyle choices. So choosing to exercise and abstain from tobacco and alcohol use is important. And research shows that simply adding certain plants to our daily eating routine, even without changing anything else, can significantly reduce the remaining risk factors. Often as much as medication, and without the side effects.

Try incorporating one of more of the following four powerful plants to your routine.

1. Berries

If your risk factor is low fruit and vegetable intake, berries are the best of the best in the fruit category. That’s because while increasing your fruit intake, you’ll also help control blood pressure, blood sugars, body weight, bad cholesterol, and diabetes (see here). So berries may help all of the diet related risk factors all at once! The bright colour of berries tells us they are high in health promoting antioxidants. Berries average nearly 10 times more antioxidants than other fruits and vegetables.

I’ve found that the simplest and surest way for me to eat berries every day is to purchase my favourites (raspberries and wild blueberries) frozen in large bags from Costco. In the morning I’ll take out about a half cup of them to thaw, then eat as a mid-morning snack. Other options are to add them to smoothies, or include them with banana soft serve. A quarter cup of dried fruit works too. Eat it straight or include it in energy bites or trail mix.

2. Hibiscus Tea

Is high blood pressure a problem for you? Drinking two cups of strong hibiscus tea is a simple addition to your daily routine that could lower blood pressure as much as the starting dose of one frequently prescribed medication. It contains even higher levels of antioxidants than green tea. Drink it hot or cold. I find it in health food stores and the “natural” section of grocery stores.

3. Ground Flaxseeds

Another amazing way to reduce high blood pressure is to incorporate ground flaxseed into our food. It can also help lower our blood glucose and cholesterol. For more information about this true superfood, read my blog post on flaxseeds here.

Consider mixing a tablespoon (or two!) into oatmeal, smoothies, soups and/or stews daily. It can also be used in baking as an egg replacement (see here).

4. Greens

If weight loss is your challenge, increasing our greens may help us lose weight, and also address the risk factor of low fruit and vegetable intake. Of all the whole (unprocessed) foods, dark green leafy vegetables offer the most nutrition per calorie.  They are “the healthiest food on the planet” according to Michael Greger, MD. And whole-food plant-based weight loss guru, Joel Fuhrman, MD, states that eating large portions of greens daily is the key to weight loss success.

Some of the most commonly eaten leafy greens around here are arugula, mesclun mix (assorted young salad greens), kale and spinach. They all make a fantastic base for salads. I like to slice the kale finely when I eat it raw, or massage it so it is more tender. Then add to your salad any other fruits or veggies you please. Find some dairy-free dressings you enjoy that are as unprocessed as possible, and as low as possible in added oil. Examples are lemon tahini and 3, 2, 1 dressing (3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, 2 tablespoons mustard of choice and 1 tablespoon maple syrup whisked together in a small bowl).

Kale and spinach can be added to smoothies, buddha bowls, soups or stews, or simply steamed.

Note that if you are taking warfarin (also known as Coumadin), speak with your physician before eating more greens.  Your dose of medication may need to be adjusted to accommodate your intake of greens.

The best next step

And there you have it. With this information in hand, the best next step is the one that you’ll actually take! As a Wellness Coach, when it comes to trying to create new habits, I advocate for setting very realistic goals along with a curious, experimental and self-compassionate mindset. Adopting and sustaining new habits can be very difficult. That’s why creating only one new habit at a time, whether it is drinking hibiscus tea, eating greens or anything else, is usually the best way to go. But change is possible and when it comes to our health, totally worth the effort!