HEALTHY EATING: 12 tips to get you started
Healthy eating is not about strictly limiting food intake, staying unrealistically thin, or depriving yourself of the foods you love. It is about feeling great, having more energy, improving your health and stabilizing your mood. If you are confused by all the conflicting nutrition and diet advice out there, you’re not alone. For every expert saying a certain food is good for you, you’ll find another saying exactly the opposite. Using these simple tips, you can cut through the confusion and learn how to create a tasty, varied, and healthy diet, as good for your mind as it is for your body.
Healthy eating is not about a single diet. Many eating patterns sustain good health. What they have in common is lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy sources of protein and fats. Consistently eating foods like these will help lower your risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and certain forms of cancer. If you’d like to make healthy eating one of your good-health goals, here are 12 tips to get you started.
1. Build a better plate
- The Healthy Eating Plate is half vegetables and fruits, one-quarter whole grains, and one-quarter healthy protein.
- “Whole” and “healthy” are important words here.
- Refined grains (think white breads, pastas, and rice) have less fiber and fewer nutrients than whole grains, such as whole-wheat bread and brown rice.
- Healthy proteins include fish, poultry, beans, and nuts — but NOT red or processed meats.
- Many studies have linked red and processed meats with colorectal cancer.
- Healthy eating means healthier protein sources that can lower your risk for heart disease. So eat red meats sparingly (selecting the leanest cuts), and avoid processed meats altogether.
2. Pile on the vegetables and fruit
- Vegetables and fruits are high in fiber, vitamins and minerals and hundreds of beneficial plant chemicals (phytochemicals) that you can’t get in supplements.
- Healthy eating means diets rich in vegetables and fruit that can lower blood pressure, cholesterol levels and inflammation, improve insulin resistance and blood vessel function.
- Long-term studies on healthy eating, have shown people who eat more fruits and vegetables have a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and lower risk of stroke.
- Fresh fruits and vegetables are great, but don’t avoid the frozen kind (or dried fruit or canned fruits and vegetables minus the heavy syrup or salt) when they’re more convenient.
3. Go for the good fats
Not long ago, healthy eating meant eating less fat, but now we know that it’s mainly the type of fat that counts. The best sources are plants and fish.
- You can help lower “bad” LDL cholesterol by eating mostly polyunsaturated fats (PUFA’s), like vegetable oils and omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish, seeds and nuts, and canola oil, and
- monounsaturated fats (MUFA’s), found in avocados and many plant-based oils, like olive and canola oil.
- Saturated fats (found in dairy and meat products) and trans fats (hydrogenated fat found in many fried and baked goods) increase LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, increasing your risk of heart disease.
- Worse, trans fats reduce your “good” HDL cholesterol.
- When you replace bad fats with good ones, you can get up to 35% of your calories from fat.
4. Eat whole grains instead of refined grains and potatoes
Whole grains retain the bran and germ of the natural grain, providing healthful fiber, vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. Many of these substances are removed from refined grains, such as white bread and white rice, and are barely present in starches such as potatoes.
- Starches and refined carbohydrates are digested quickly, causing spikes in insulin, blood sugar and triglycerides, lowering HDL (good) cholesterol.
- This increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
- It can also make you hungry, raising the risk of weight gain.
- Potatoes aren’t all bad; they’re a good source of vitamin C, potassium, and fiber. But eat them only occasionally, in small amounts and with the skins on (that’s where the fiber is).
- Some whole grains can be cooked like hot cereal or rice and some are ground into flour for baking.
- Be adventurous; in addition to whole wheat and brown rice, try quinoa, millet, farro, and amaranth.
5. Eliminate liquid sugars
- Diet and non-diet sodas, sugary fruit drinks, iced teas with added sugar, and sports drinks — provide calories and little else.
- These drinks can make you feel less full, increasing the amount you eat and promoting weight gain. A 2011 Harvard study found that sugar-sweetened beverages were one of the dietary components most strongly linked to long-term weight gain among healthy women and men.
- What about 100% fruit juice with no added sugar? Even all-natural fruit juice has a lot of calories. Drink no more than one small glass a day (4 to 6 ounces). Add carbonated water to your “one small glass” for full-glass satisfaction.
6. Drink enough water
- Many foods contain water, so you may get enough every day without special effort.
- It can be helpful to drink water (or another no-calorie liquid, such as black or green tea, coffee, or carbonated water) with meals or as an alternative to snacking. A reasonable goal is 4 to 6 cups of water a day.
- When you add whole grains to your diet, water helps move the fiber smoothly through your digestive tract, reducing the risk of constipation.
7. Learn to like less sodium
The body needs sodium for proper muscle and nerve function and fluid balance, but large amounts can increase blood pressure and the risk of heart disease and stroke. The dangers of a salty diet (salt is 40% sodium) are greatest in people over age 50, African Americans, and women. You’ll do yourself a favor if you wean your taste buds from salt. Limit your daily sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams (mg) — the amount in one teaspoonful of salt.
- If you have high blood pressure or are at risk for it, get no more than 1,500 mg per day.
- Most of the sodium Americans consume comes from processed and restaurant foods.
- Choose fresh, unprocessed foods, and prepare them yourself.
- Read the nutrition content on labels and make sure that the per-serving sodium content is less than the calories per serving.
8. Rethink supplements
- It’s best to get your vitamins and minerals from food rather than supplements.
- This is difficult when you’re cutting calories or your energy needs are low.
- You can meet almost all your nutrient needs through food alone, even if you’re consuming 1,500 calories or less per day.
- Choose nutrient-rich foods, like leafy greens, low-fat yogurt, dried beans, whole grains and salmon.
- The exception is vitamin D. Here a supplement is probably a good idea, because it’s difficult to get the recommended daily intake (600 to 800 IU) through foods.
- You can get enough calcium on a 1,500-calorie-a-day diet by eating low-fat dairy products and nondairy foods such as canned salmon, tofu, sesame seeds, dark leafy greens like collards and kale, and legumes such as pinto and kidney beans.
9. Dine mindfully
- Take time to savor your food; it makes eating more enjoyable and can help control your appetite.
- Your sense of fullness and satisfaction depends on hormone signals from your intestines. If you eat too quickly, your brain may not receive the signals that say you’re full.
- Try putting down your fork between bites and chewing more slowly.
- Savor your food’s aroma, taste, texture, and stop eating when you feel full.
Some studies suggest this approach may help some people make healthier food choices. To start, try taking one mindful bite at the beginning of each meal; a kind of eating speed bump.
10. Keep alcohol under control
Many studies link moderate alcohol consumption to heart benefits. This includes a reduced risk of heart attack, type 2 diabetes, gallstones, and dementia. It also increases “good” HDL cholesterol. Moderate consumption means no more than one drink per day for women and two for men. One drink per day also slightly increases your risk for breast cancer, and the risk increases steadily the more alcohol you consume.
- There are plenty of other ways to get heart benefits, so if you don’t like alcohol, don’t have it.
- If you enjoy an occasional cocktail or glass of wine with dinner, you need to weigh the risks and benefits to your own situation.
- If you find one drink often turns into two or more, consider quitting or getting help to cut back.
11. Eat breakfast
It’s easy to skip breakfast when you’re rushing, not hungry, or cutting calories. A healthy breakfast causes smaller rises in blood sugar and insulin throughout the day. This lowers your risk of overeating and impulse snacking.
Eating breakfast every day is one shared characteristic common to participants in the National Weight Control Registry, who lost at least 30 pounds and kept the weight off longer than a year.
- A healthy, balanced breakfast is moderate in size and includes healthy protein, whole-grain carbohydrates, and fruit — for example, an egg, whole-wheat toast, and strawberries.
- If you like cereal, have whole-grain cereal with fruit and low-fat yogurt or milk.
12. Plan for a snack attack
- Snacking IS NOT part of a healthy eating plan, but try telling that to a rumbling stomach at midafternoon.
- A healthy snack can boost energy levels by stabilizing blood sugar while giving you an added dose of healthful nutrients.
- Unplanned, impulsive snacking often means cookies, chips, or candy bars.
- So prepare healthy snacks ahead of time, and keep them handy at home or in your office.
- Limit calories to about 100 to 150 per snack. Good choices include a small bunch of grapes, a banana, or other fruit; a handful of unsalted nuts or sunflower seeds; and plain nonfat yogurt with a few raspberries or strawberries tossed in.
- Before giving in to a snack attack, drink an 8-ounce glass of water and wait 10 to 15 minutes to see if you’re still hungry.
- The key to healthy eating is moderation.
- It means eating only as much food as your body needs.
- You should feel satisfied at the end of a meal, but not stuffed.
- Moderation is also about balance.
- Despite what fad diets would have you believe, we all need a balance of protein, fat, fiber, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals to sustain a healthy body.
So now that you know, think smart, eat smart, drink smart and go enjoy the first day of the rest of your life.
(Condensed from The Longwood Seminars At Harvard Medical School. Demystifying nutrition: the value of food, vitamins and supplements; March 5, 2013).