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We Asked 1,000 People About Their 2021 Health Goals. One Answer Really Stood Out.

updated Jan 4, 2021
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In a year that revolved around a global health crisis, personal heath in 2020 was undeniably…hard. From doomscrolling and day drinking to cancelled gym memberships, many people’s mental and physical health took a nose dive in March and continued to plummet all the way through New Year’s Eve. For the most part, it’s been laughably challenging to settle into a healthy diet and movement routine when the world around us feels so unstable. It’s tough to keep up with your steps when you don’t go anywhere. And how important is it really to eat kale when you’re busy washing your hands every five minutes and constantly calculating a six-foot radius around yourself?

So when we were thinking about the start of a new year, when people tend to reevaluate their commitment to their health, we wondered what that could possibly look like. One thousand Kitchn readers responded to our 2021 health survey, and we learned that most people were majorly ready to turn over a new leaf. Call it a resolution or just a shift in priorities; the fact is that change is coming in 2021. And maybe, even, some vegetables.

Health Matters Now More than Ever

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Seventy-five percent of respondents said that their health is more important to them now than it was at the start of 2020. How we choose to embrace this commitment to wellness varies, but the consensus makes sense: COVID-19 has taken more than 350,000 lives at the time of this article’s publication, causing us to be more aware of our mortality. Many respondents noted they were looking to find ways to strengthen their immune systems for their own health and the health of those around them. 

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The majority of readers rated their current satisfaction with their health as a 6.4 out of 10 (1 being “very low” and 10 being “perfectly happy”). Even though 6.4 is better than average, it’s still not great. Not surprisingly, many respondents who felt dissatisfied with their health cited COVID-related quarantining as a major factor. One reader said it best: “I gained weight. I cooked, I baked, I ate … and then had seconds while I Netflixed. I don’t regret staying in, but I need to rethink my habits and really look into turning this pandemic fatigue around for my household’s sake. I have NO clue what that looks like for us. And scary still, how I’ll motivate myself to tackle this.” 

2021 Will Be All About Moderation and Intuition

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One of the biggest trends we saw in reader responses was a desire for a more moderate approach to wellness. Almost half of readers surveyed said they planned on trying something new for their health this year, but our stats revealed that “something new” didn’t necessarily mean a rigorous exercise plan or new diet.

In fact, plenty of readers noted that they were moving in the opposite direction of dieting and meal planning. About 35% of readers surveyed stated that their 2021 health goals would be about achieving and maintaining overall wellness.

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Readers mentioned that intuitive eating, eating in moderation, and a balanced approach to feeling great while enjoying life were important for them in 2021, and these types of goals are difficult to quantify. “My main priorities are incorporating movement and listening to my body’s cravings for particular foods,” explained one reader. Another person noted that health goals are about mindset, rather than physical change: “[I plan on a]ccepting my body for how it is, and working to make sure it’s in good shape so that it can continue to sustain me.” Another commented that 2020 provided an opportunity to unlearn dieting patterns that didn’t feel nourishing: “I’ve started learning about intuitive eating … repairing my relationship with food and physical activity is my priority in 2021. I will no longer let our diet culture dictate what I should eat or do — I will trust my body and myself.“

Weight Loss and Exercise Goals Are Still Important 

Sixteen percent of readers are looking forward to growing stronger and more fit (and more than a handful of people said they hoped for Peloton bikes under the Christmas tree!). A work-from-home schedule in 2020 meant more fitness opportunities for a few, including this reader: “I think working from home gave me more opportunities to exercise this year during my lunch breaks or right after work since I eliminated my commute and I want to keep that up.” But stay-at-home orders provided a challenge, too: Many folks said that they missed their gyms, yoga studios, and fitness communities.

Another 15% of surveyed readers hoped to lose weight, although how they planned to do that varied from dieting to exercise to everything in between. Most readers who said they were dissatisfied with their weight cited COVID-related stress as the culprit. “I’ve definitely gained weight during the pandemic, but since food IS comforting, I want to focus more on being more physically active,” one reader explained. 

Another reader admitted, “I have already started prioritizing my health after ‘yolo eating’ from March until October — lots of COVID baking and eating. But I have since gotten back into my old habits of a more structured plan, prioritizing protein, and treating myself 20% of the time instead of 100%.” 

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When we asked readers what diets they planned on following in 2021, 27% said they don’t plan on following any specific diet. And while specialty meal plans like Whole30, and low-carb were still present in respondents’ plans, 23% of readers who did plan on following a diet cited “eating in moderation” as the goal.

Grocery Shopping Will Look a Lot Different This Year

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While COVID safety protocols have already radically shifted the way we grocery shop, 41.2% of readers say that their specific health goals will further change how they shop for food. Even folks who typically favor fresh and home-cooked food gave themselves a pass this year. One reader admitted, “My normally healthy diet turned into nachos, pizza, and takeout.” 

But over the course of the last nine months, the takeout routine wore thin. Readers said they wanted a stronger immune system and overall sense of wellness in 2021, and are planning on ditching baked goods and packaged snacks for fresh, local foods. One reader explained, “I want to remain as healthy as possible to boost my immune system’s ability to protect me from the COVID virus.” Another reader, who works in a hospital, stated, “I want the most effective immune system that is possible.” 

Unfortunately, scarcity and financial constraints meant that shopping for fresh and healthy food was challenging for some last year. One reader explained, “Availability of fresh produce and meat has affected meal planning in 2020 more than expected. I am hoping that will improve in 2021, and I am adjusting meal planning and cooking to utilize more frozen vegetables.” Other readers will grocery shop with a strategy, as they use efficient meal plans to handle being at home more often: “I’m meal planning (I’ve always just shopped sales and made from there), specifically so that I can remove some mental strain from coming up with meals each day.”

Dry January Is Definitely Still Happening

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New Year’s health goals aren’t just about following diets — they also center around limiting something. Sugar, processed food, and alcohol are the biggest things our readers are cutting back on in 2021 — although 8% say they aren’t planning on cutting back on any food item at all.

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For some, a mini-reset felt more manageable than an entire year of austerity. Twenty-six percent of respondents are planning on participating in an alcohol-free January. While “Drynuary” has gained momentum in the last decade, some Kitchn readers feel that it’s more necessary than ever this year. Pandemic-related stress meant increased consumption of alcohol for many, including one reader who said, “I’ve been eating entirely too much, drinking entirely too much, and the time change has made it even harder to pretend I give a damn because it’s dark at 5:15 and I’d rather just have a glass of wine than squeeze in a workout.” 

While many can relate to a steady increase in the amount of booze consumed, respondents also reported an uptick in drinking more frequently. As another reader said, “All my good habits have disappeared, replaced by unlimited chocolate and day drinking. When we come out of this, I want to be healthy and raring to go (places).”

Mental Health and Family Matter Now More than Ever

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While the majority of respondents (54%) are tackling their health goals alone, 34% said their partner would join them on the journey, and 8% planned on involving family members. One reader noted that, “My whole family (myself, my husband, and our three-year-old daughter) just needs to focus a little more on casual exercise.” Another reader cited family as the motivation for better health: “I need to be an example to my family by taking care of my body and my mind. I would like to consume less [media] and be more present.”

The most prevalent trend we saw in reader write-in responses was a desire for better, balanced mental health. Reader responses ranged from the humorously self-aware (“My physical health is fine. I’m more worried about my mental health. This year has been a dumpster fire,”) to the reflective (“I’m trying to be a bit more aware of my mental health, something I didn’t really have to monitor too much before the pandemic. And I’m trying to practice gratitude as well,”) to the hopeful (“I feel like 2020 allowed me to fast-track my acceptance journey through mental health awareness. I’ve been open about my struggles with close friends, but 2020 has, to some extent, lessened taboos on anxiety, panic attacks and other struggles that many silently face. I look forward to keep growing in 2021, be more in tune with my feelings and not forget that once ‘normal’ life starts again.”)

Despite most survey participants agreeing that something’s gotta give in 2021, there were just about as many goals, opinions, and resolutions as there were respondents. If you take away anything from this wrap-up, let it be this: You know best what you need (body, mind, and grocery list!) to feel your best in the new year. 2020 was terrible for most, but it also provided us all the opportunity to dial in our own personal wellness regimens. So go ahead and set some goals, or don’t. Change everything, or keep on keeping on. You’re doing the best you can, and you’re doing great. 

Do you have anything to add to the conversation? We’d love to hear your take on health and wellness in 2021. Share your experience and goals in the comments below!