Part of the challenge in healthy living is that you see the effects gradually. That can be frustrating when you're working hard in the gym and sticking to your diet.
But whether you see it immediately or not, your body responds the moment you begin making healthier choices. These changes can reduce your risk of obesity, heart disease, cancer and diabetes, all while making you feel better.
Controlling Blood Sugar Heads Off Disease
When you eat food containing carbohydrates, your blood sugar rises. How fast and how much it increases depends on how quickly your body is able to break down the food. One way of measuring this is the glycemic index, which ranks food on a scale from 0 to 100 based on how it affects your blood sugar. Foods with a high glycemic index are quickly broken down and cause sharper spikes in blood sugar levels, followed by dramatic drops.
Why does this matter? For one, sharp blood sugar fluctuations can increase your risk of Type 2 diabetes, and research has tied diets rich in high glycemic foods – such as white bread, white potatoes, soft drinks and candy – to increased risks of heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
"Fluctuating blood sugar causes fatigue, and high levels of insulin can lead to weight gain," says Dr. Kristine Arthur, internist at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. "Over time, this can also cause chronic inflammation in the body."
Controlling your blood sugar can also lead to:
Sustained energy levels. By opting for low-glycemic foods, you immediately help your body better regulate its blood sugar. This is better for short-term energy levels. "When you avoid that afternoon urge to have a donut and a soda, you immediately avoid this spike in blood sugar followed by the inevitable crash," Arthur says. "By choosing a balanced snack of protein and carbs – like an apple with peanut butter or nuts – you are buying yourself balanced blood sugar and sustained energy levels for the next few hours."
Greater mental clarity. Blood sugar fluctuations can also affect your mental clarity in the short term. Low-glycemic foods release a slower, sustained amount of glucose into your body, which can optimize focus, according to The Franklin Institute. Research has shown that dips in blood sugar – common when you haven't eaten in a while or when your body is recovering from a spike – can impair concentration, learning and memory.
Cut Back on Caffeine to Improve Mood
Many of us would meet that afternoon slump with a cup of coffee, soda or energy drink. But research suggests that caffeine raises cortisol – the "stress hormone" – and chronically high cortisol levels can damage immune health.
In the short term, cortisol can make it difficult to handle pressure, and caffeine exacerbates the hormone's effects. In other words, skipping a caffeinated drink can immediately help regulate this hormone and its short- and long-term effects.
Find Balance Through Exercise
"Exercise helps your breathing, which lowers your heart rate and blood pressure almost instantly," says Dr. Nicole Weinberg, a cardiologist with Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
These benefits aren't only good for your cardiovascular system – they also help your mood. The rush of endorphins during physical activity can immediately boost your mood and reduce stress levels.
And like diet, exercise has immediate effects on blood sugar, minimizing energy peaks and valleys throughout the day.
Commit to a Healthy Lifestyle
"The benefits evolve over months, sometimes years. Physiologic changes will start quickly, but the true effect takes time," says Dr. Mark D. Lurie, cardiology director at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in Torrance, California.
Delayed gratification is better than no gratification at all, but having to wait for the dramatic effects of a healthy lifestyle may drive some people to give up. A measure of trust has to go into eating right and being active – trust that your body is making changes here and now, despite the fact that those results aren't as visible as a drop in your pant size.
"Broccoli may not taste as good as fried onion rings, and watching TV may not leave us with the sore muscles of a good workout," Lurie says. "But we all have to have our eyes on the prize – and the prize is lifelong good health."