by Laurie Wertich
The beginning of the year is certainly the most popular time to vow to adapt a healthier lifestyle. Taking steps to improve your health, however, need not be limited to just once a year. You can resolve to make behavior changes that improve your health on a birthday, anniversary, or tomorrow— and start benefiting from the changes immediately.
Historically, health resolutions tend to lean toward the negative: “I will lose X pounds”; “I will stop drinking soda”; “No more ice cream”; “I will never eat fast food again.” It can be difficult to maintain goals that focus on deprivation and elimination. If you’re attempting to change some lifestyle habits, how about putting a positive spin on your goals instead?
It’s much easier to meet your goals when you’re aiming to add to life instead of take away from it. In addition, when you’re striving to increase a food or an activity in your day, don’t be afraid to start small; even minor changes can offer great rewards over time, and you can continue to add to your efforts as you feel able.
Success is more achievable through small steps, and frequent wins with these minor changes will boost your confidence. Alternatively, many negative resolutions are black and white: if you don’t avoid an unhealthy food or drink entirely, you feel as though you’ve failed. Small successes encourage you to keep going, whereas failures often lead to giving up entirely.
So don’t wait for New Year’s resolutions or birthday bravado for inspiration; consider which small but mighty changes you can make today to improve your eating habits and your overall health. As you do, put the power in the positive: instead of making an intimidating list of necessary cuts, boost your health by adding the following essential elements to your nutrition plan.
Protein’s most basic job is to build and repair body tissue and help key bodily functions happen as needed. But it actually does much more. Recent research has shown that the current recommended daily allowance guidelines for protein should be raised in light of the increasing benefits protein provides.
Two of the most crucial roles of protein include preventing muscle loss as we age and increasing satiety after meals, which can help with healthy weight maintenance. As we age, our muscle mass deteriorates, which leads to frailty and disability. Research has shown that eating more protein throughout the day can help prevent this and, in turn, promote more self-reliance.
Protein takes longer to digest and therefore keeps us feeling fuller for a longer period of time than does a low- or no-protein carbohydrate snack or meal. Longer satiety helps prevent cravings between meals, as well as overeating at the next meal—two factors that can lead to weight gain.
To get the most benefit from protein, aim to include 20 to 35 grams of good-quality protein in each meal.
Beans, nuts, eggs, and lean meats are all good sources. The following chart includes a few other options to incorporate into your meal plan.
Wondrous Whole Grains
The US Department of Agriculture’s ChooseMyPlate.gov tool encourages Americans to make at least half the grain foods they eat be whole-grain foods. The Whole Grains Council reports that only a little more than half of Americans are meeting that goal, so there is lots of room for improvement.
Replacing more of your refined grains (things like white bread and white rice) with whole grains (such as wholegrain bread and oats) has been shown to promote many health benefits. Whole grains can help lower a person’s risk of a stroke, heart disease, certain cancers, and diabetes, not to mention help control weight and blood pressure. This is one case where more can be better: while you reap the benefits of whole grains with one serving per day, those benefits increase as your intake ratio of whole grains to refined grains increases.
To ensure that you are choosing whole-grain foods, don’t rely simply on the package’s labeling. You need to flip it over and look for the ingredients list. The first ingredient listed should be a whole grain (such as 100 percent whole wheat, oats, quinoa, or barley). A listing of “wheat” most likely means refined white flour, which has had components removed, making it no longer a whole grain. If whole grains typically aren’t your thing, you might want to reconsider. You can now find white whole-wheat bread that may be more appealing, as well as a variety of crackers and cereals made from whole grains.
Fantastic Fruits and Vegetables
When it comes to fruits and vegetables, it often seems like they’re an afterthought (or a never-thought). Produce in general is extremely versatile and can be easily incorporated into any meal or snack. Most can be eaten raw or cooked. Many can be sweet or savory. Because of their color, they make our plates look so much more attractive—and we do eat with our eyes first.
But those bright colors do more than simply make our food look appealing. When viewing the vibrant reds, greens, and oranges in your fruits and vegetables, you’re actually seeing the powerful nutrients found within. Fruits and vegetables are incredible sources of a variety of antioxidants or supernutrients, whose powers go way beyond the basic proteins, carbs, and fats. One major type of antioxidant is flavonoids, which just happen to be the natural pigments that give a variety of plant foods their deep color.
Every day your body is exposed to pollution, cigarette smoke, ultraviolet rays from the sun, and the results of your body’s metabolism. All of these and more can harm the cells in your body. Antioxidants act sort of like a sponge and absorb the bad stuff before it can cause harm, and in so doing they protect all the cells in your body. When your cells are protected, you’re at a decreased risk of developing a variety of diseases, including cardiovascular disease, macular degeneration, several types of cancer, and many other chronic conditions.
Strive to eat a piece of fruit and/or a vegetable at every meal and snack. Once you’ve hit that goal, aim to have both at every meal and one at each snack. Try for as much variety as you can get. This helps prevent boredom but also maximizes your nutrient intake. For breakfast and snacks, a fruit smoothie is satisfying, nutritious, and delicious. At lunch a piece of fruit is a great accompaniment to a sandwich. At dinnertime try eating a brightly colored garden salad before your meal, as well as a cooked vegetable as a side dish.
Snacking often has a negative connotation—considered an unhealthy behavior—perhaps because, in the United States, the “snack food” designation often means candy, chips, and soda. Or maybe it’s because so much of the marketing around snack food has been directed at kids. If either of these ideas comes to mind when you think about snacks, it’s time to change your thinking.
Healthy snacking is an important part of healthy eating. Snacking wisely helps fill in the gaps between meals in more ways than one.
A well-chosen snack can provide vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients you may be missing out on from just three meals a day, helping you meet all of your recommended nutrient goals. For example, say your recommended daily allowance for calcium is 1,200 milligrams. To meet that in just three meals, you’d need to consume more than 1 cup of yogurt or milk at each meal every day. By adding two or three snacks into the picture, you have much more flexibility with how much you need to consume at each sitting, as well as what you need to eat. Multiply this by every nutrient and food group, and you can see how much easier meeting your nutrient needs is when you have more than three occasions to make healthy choices.
In addition, timing your snacks appropriately between meals can help prevent overeating at mealtime and staveoff those late-afternoon energy slumps and cravings, which have a tendency to result in grabbing a candy bar or a bag of chips or lead to an unplanned trip through the nearest drive-thru. When situations like this become habits, maintaining a healthy weight becomes difficult. By planning and preparing a nutritious snack, you prevent not only your body from getting overhungry but also these less-than-desirable scenarios.
To maximize the benefits of healthy snacking, aim to eat a small snack about midway between meals during your waking hours. Ideally, that will be roughly three hours or so after a meal. What you choose to eat is as important as when. You want a combination of carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, whole grains) to give you energy and protein (cheese, Greek yogurt, nuts, nut butters) to give the snack staying power.
As you stock your fridge and pantry to allow for healthy snacking, consider snack combinations from the chart below: choose one food from each column.
There are several eating resolutions that you can set for yourself to become healthier. By framing your goals in a positive light, you may find them easier to reach and maintain. This will greatly increase the chances of success. And remember, eating nutritiously doesn’t need to mean sacrificing flavor and pleasure. Check out the healthy recipes on the following page for tasty, healthy inspiration.
At Every Meal and Snack, Consider the Whole-Grain Options You Can Choose.
Prep time: 5 to 10 minutes
High-protein soybeans put a different spin on classic hummus.
1½ cups frozen, shelled edamame
3 tablespoons tahini
2 tablespoons lemon juice
¼ teaspoon Kosher salt
2 cloves garlic
½ teaspoon ground red pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
In a microwave-safe dish, heat edamame on high, covered, for 2 to 3 minutes.
In a food processor fitted with a chopping blade, combine edamame and the
rest of the ingredients. Process until it reaches your desired consistency.
Serve with your favorite raw vegetables, such as carrot and celery sticks, red pepper slices, and cucumber slices.
Roasted Green Beans
Prep time: 8 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes
A delicious and easy way to get more veggies into your diet
1 pound fresh green beans, washed and trimmed
2 tablespoons olive oil
Preheat oven to 425°. Spread the beans on one or two baking sheets.
Drizzle with oil and toss by hand.
Sprinkle with salt.
Roast about 18 to 20 minutes, until the beans are starting to brown.
Shake pan about halfway through so the beans don’t stick.
¼ large onion, chopped
¼ large red pepper, chopped
Add either or both to pan with beans before drizzling with oil.
Baked Fish Fillets
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Fish is a fantastic source of high-quality protein.
This is a simple recipe to add to your dinner repertoire.
1 tablespoon butter
2 to 3 tablespoons grated or finely chopped onion
1 pound fish fillets, such as cod, haddock, or domestic catfish
3 tablespoons lemon juice
⅛ teaspoon cayenne, Italian seasonings, lemon pepper, or other spices
¼ teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 425°. Add butter to a medium frying pan and sauté onion for about 3 minutes, or until golden.
Line a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with foil and spray with oil or cooking spray. Arrange fish in a single layer in prepared pan.
Stir onion, adding lemon juice, seasonings, and salt. Spoon over fish, being sure to get some on every piece. Bake uncovered for about 10 minutes, or until fish flakes easily with a fork.