We all know that we should eat healthier, and many of us have made some improvements to our diets, such as buying low-fat foods and more vegetables. Still, many of us are finding that it is far easier to add weight than shed it; that our energy isn't what we'd like; and we suspect, as we guiltily purchase that bag of chips or pop open a can of beer, that we'd feel a lot better and might do ourselves a major health favor if we started a modest nutritional makeover.
But it can be hard to really change.
This series has been designed to address many of the obstacles we all face when trying to undertake a nutritional makeover: uncertainty about what to do and where to go for help; finding ways to overcome a lack of willpower; and coming up with a good game plan.
This final installment takes you where the rubber meets the road: strategies for making better daily health choices.
This final installment takes you where the rubber meets the road: strategies for making better daily health choices. It tells you how to shop smarter, cook healthier food at home easily and inexpensively, and how to avoid undermining your makeover when you eat out.
Eating better begins with buying healthier food. Nutrition information has been required on most food packaging since 1994. The Nutrition Facts food label is located on the back, side, or bottom of a food package. Learning how to read and interpret food labels can help you make healthier choices, and there are several tutorials online that can guide you, including one from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and another from the American Heart Association (AHA).
A cereal that contains dried fruit may seem like it contains an exceptionally high amount of sugar, but much of that may naturally occur in the dried fruit and not necessarily be added sugar.
The Percent Daily Value (DV), found in the column on the right side of the label, is also based on 2,000 calories per day. If you eat substantially higher or lower than 2,000 calories per day, you will need to mentally adjust these percentages. The idea is to meet 100% of the DV for fiber, vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron each day.
People are often alarmed at the grams of sugar listed on a food label, and often times rightfully so. The grams of sugar listed on the nutrition information label includes many types of sugar: natural sugars in the case of fruit (fructose) or milk (lactose), or added sweeteners like refined sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. The fact that the label on a carton of nonfat milk says it contains 12 grams of sugar does not mean sugar has been added to the milk. It refers to the natural sugar found in milk. A cereal that contains dried fruit may seem like it contains an exceptionally high amount of sugar, but much of that may naturally occur in the dried fruit and not necessarily be added sugar.
The closer to the beginning of the list a sugar is listed, the more added sugar there is in a food.
Besides the information on the Nutrition Facts panel, foods often come with claims on the label such as "sugar free," "light," or "low sodium," or other variations on those terms. Generally speaking, "free" means a food has the lowest possible amount of the nutrient specified. "Very low" and "Low" means it contains a little more than foods that are "free," and "reduced" or "less" means that the food has 25 percent less of a nutrient than is found in the regular version of the food.
If you are serious about your nutritional makeover, prepare most meals at home. This gives you control over how foods are prepared, the ingredients that are used, and the amount of food that is made.
Planning is key. Choose a day of the week to spend some time planning menus for a week. Make a grocery list from the recipes you've chosen to prepare. This way, all of the ingredients you need will already be available, so the temptation to stop at a drive-through window or go out to eat will be reduced. When you realize how much better home-cooked food tastes and how much less expensive it is, you will never look back.
Make a grocery list from the recipes you've chosen to prepare. This way, all of the ingredients you need will already be available, so the temptation to stop at a drive-through window or go out to eat will be reduced.
Restaurants often hide the taste of their foods by using an abundance of fat and salt. Cooking at home gives you the opportunity to cut the amount of fat and salt that you consume, thus reducing calories and making what you cook more healthy. Several websites that provide recipes with nutrition information. Check these out:
- The Food Network - Healthy Weeknight Dinners
- Mayo Clinic - Healthy Recipes
- Eating Well - Healthy Cooking
- The American Heart Association - Healthy Recipes
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Healthy Recipes
- Go heavy on the fruits and vegetables, ideally serving at least one at each meal.
- Choose lean cuts of meat, and cook at least two fish meals a week. Keep portion sizes to 3 ounces.
- Cook with whole grains, like whole wheat flour and whole oats.
- Gradually reduce the use of solid fats, like butter, and use more liquid oils, like olive and canola oils.
- Use less salt in cooking. Experiment with herbs and spices.
- Substitute low fat or nonfat foods for their whole milk counterparts.
The food choices you make away from home are just as important as those you make at home, particularly if your lifestyle involves eating in restaurants often. Nutrition information on the food offered in chain restaurants is available online. You may be sad to learn that one of your favorite dishes is just simply over the limit calorie- and fat-wise, but at least you found out!
Use the website for restaurants that you frequent often to investigate the healthiest choices available on their menus. They may even be labeled on the menu as low calorie, low fat, or low sodium meals. Start with a cup of broth-based soup. This will cut your appetite so that you can be satisfied with less food. Be creative in your choices. Do you need that entrée? Often an appetizer and a dinner salad is filling enough. Look for baked or broiled choices on the menu. Substitute vegetables for fries when possible. Portion sizes at restaurants are usually big enough to feed two, so share an entrée with your dinner partner and order two salads.
Be creative in your choices. Do you need that entrée? Often an appetizer and a dinner salad is filling enough.
Other tips for eating out healthfully include:
- Choose main dishes that include vegetables, such as stir fries, kebobs, or pasta with a tomato sauce. Avoid dishes made with creamy sauces.
- Order a kid's meal at a fast food restaurant. Some sit down restaurants will allow adults to order from the kids menu for smaller portions.
- Ask for a to-go box when you order your meal. Put half your food into the container when the meal arrives and take it home for a second meal.
- Order pizza with a thin crust (whole wheat, if possible), red sauce, lean meats like Canadian Bacon or chicken, and lots of vegetables. Skip the extra cheese.
- Ask for all toppings on the side, e.g. salad dressing, butter, sour cream, gravy, etc. Then you can control how much you eat.
- Avoid the "all-you-can-eat" buffet. Order an item from the menu instead.Be choosy at salad bars. Select fresh lettuce, raw vegetables, fresh fruits, and low-fat or fat-free salad dressings. Avoid marinated salads, pasta salads, and fruit salads made with whipped cream. Leave off the cheese and croutons.
You now should have plenty of nutrition tools with which to start your nutrition makeover. Consider consulting with a registered dietitian. Keep a food journal, and then plan a few modest changes to get started. Remember, long-term changes in your shopping, cooking and eating are going to give you the best long-term results.
Choose a behavior that needs changing, and work on it until it becomes automatic to you. Experts generally agree that it takes about three weeks to break a bad habit and replace it with a new one. With the right amount of persistence and determination, you could acquire 17 improved eating habits in just one year! Depending on the goal you've set, you could be on your way to a healthier, slimmer you, or at least just feeling better about the way you're taking care of your body, all in a matter of weeks.