Studies on public health issues routinely agree that today’s most common health problems are substantially nutrition- and lifestyle-related. Unfortunately, with so many diet- and fitness programs around, many of us are ever more confused about what to eat and what to avoid.
Even the government keeps revising its recommendations. You have probably heard of the dietary guidelines, a.k.a. “Food Pyramid” or “MyPyramid,” which are updated every five years or so. Several revisions have been published by the government as well as by private researchers and advocate groups over a relatively short period of time. In 1992 the government issued its first warnings about the dangers of eating fatty foods. The latest recommendations also advise against excessive consumption of salt (sodium) and sugar.
Not all foods are created equal
I like to advocate a slightly different alternative to the current recommendations by the government with added emphasis on fresh vegetables to be included in every meal and whole grains with most meals – similar to what is known as the “Mediterranean diet.”
Foods that are naturally low in fat, high in fiber and dense in nutrients should build the foundation of any health-conscious diet plan. Animal fats, refined flour products and sweets should only occasionally appear on your plate. You may also want to watch your oil consumption via cooking ingredients and salad dressings. Because of their high content of monounsaturated and omega-3 fatty acids, olive and canola oil may be used more liberally. All others, especially tropical oils (palm and coconut), I advise to apply only sparingly.
Even items that are widely considered to be healthy, such as rice and pasta, have significant downsides. It is called the “glycemic effect.” What it refers to is the speed and degree at which food raises the blood sugar.
Refined foods, like white rice and white flour products, have a notoriously high glycemic effect. Consuming large quantities of these foods can result in rapid blood sugar changes. Elevated blood sugar levels cause an increased secretion of insulin, which in turn may lead to a sudden drop of blood sugar – a kind of rebound effect, if you will – making you feel hungry again within a short period of time.
For similar reasons, you should not over-indulge in refined and processed snack foods between meals, especially the sugary kind. The same goes for fruit drinks and sodas. Excess sugar gets converted to fat and stored in fat cells. Highly concentrated sugar content can be found not only in sweets but also in many food items and beverages that don’t even taste sweet.
To avoid some of these negative effects, it is advisable to counterbalance high-glycemic foods with low-glycemic ones. Mixed meals that include protein, fat and carbohydrate produce a lower glycemic effect. For instance, black beans in combination with rice or kidney beans added to pasta can help stabilize your blood sugar.
I also recommend consuming vegetables, grains and fruits in their natural form. When certain foods are eaten whole, they have a much lower glycemic effect than when they are processed, refined or juiced. Good examples are whole grain breads versus white breads, brown rice versus white rice, whole fruits versus fruit juices and smoothies, whole grain cereals cereals and crackers versus the refined versions and so on.
Portion sizes everyone can understand
Yes, size does matter! Food portions have substantially increased over the years, both inside and outside the home. “Value sizing” may offer more bang for your buck, but in the end your health may pay the price. So remember that bigger is not necessarily better.
Determining portion sizes can be tricky. Nutrition labels can be hard to decipher for the average consumer. How big is a medium-size potato? What’s an average bagel? How much pasta fits in a cup? Why do most food packages contain more than one serving? Here is an easier way to get the measurements right:
Three ounces of meat equals the size of a deck of cards. A medium potato is as big (or small) as a computer mouse. A bagel should be the size of a hockey puck. One cup of pasta is the same size as a tennis ball. A pancake should be the size of a compact disk. Three ounces of grilled fish are as large as a checkbook. An ounce of cheese looks like a pair of dice. Two tablespoons of salad dressing fill a ping pong ball. A teaspoon of oil or butter is no larger than the tip of your thumb. One ounce of chips or pretzels fits in the palm of your hand. A cup of fruit is about as big as a baseball. One half cup of cooked rice fits in a cupcake wrapper. Of course, these are just a few examples. You can make up your own list of things by which can measure your portion sizes.
Make a shopping list and stick to it!
Healthy eating begins in the grocery store. All your good intentions will be frustrated if you don’t know how to navigate the aisles and separate the good stuff from the bad. Plan your meals ahead of time instead of following your impulses while you are aimlessly browsing. Make a list for the whole day (or week) and lay out a daily/weekly strategy.
By the way, don’t come to the store hungry! You are much more likely to make spontaneous decisions that you later regret if you shop on an empty stomach.
Healthy eating versus convenience
People who want to make positive lifestyle changes often complain that they can’t find enough help from the world around them. Nutritious foods that are “user-friendly” can be hard to come by. Especially for those who travel a lot and spend much time away from home, it can be difficult to maintain control over their diet- and exercise routines.
There is also the issue of convenience. After a long work day, it can feel like too much effort to prepare an elaborate meal. Steaming vegetables and cooking wild rice does not sound appealing when you’d rather sink your teeth into a juicy burger. Thankfully, there are plenty of easy-to-follow recipes and cooking styles available these days that don’t take up unreasonable amounts of time and effort. And you don’t have to deny yourself the pleasure of your favorite dishes or search for special resources to begin a healthier lifestyle. In most cases, a few small adjustments can make all the difference.
If you don’t have the time to sit down for regular meals during the day, eat small portions of nutritious foods more frequently. Don’t wait until you’re starved and then wolf down a big plate. Try not to eat large portions late at night that may interfere with your sleep.
Eat fresh (as opposed to processed) foods whenever possible. What comes out of a can or a box is not of the same nutritional quality, no matter what brand you favor. If you don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables right away, make an effort to pick up a wholesome lunch or dinner at a quality supermarket instead of a drive-through. Include a wide variety of foods in all your meals. The body needs more than forty different nutrients every day to stay in good health.
No matter how rushed you are, you should take time to sit down and eat slowly. Of all the things you pay attention to, your health should not rank last. Drink lots of water. Coffee, tea, cola and alcoholic beverages are all diuretics and make for poor substitutes for water. In any case, make sure you stay hydrated. Sometimes you may feel hungry when in fact you need water. Continue to Week Four »