Forget everything you know about fussy meal plans, calorie counting, and deprivation. Building a healthy diet is as easy as tucking a few surefire strategies in your toolkit.
Read enough health and nutrition headlines, and you get the impression that Americans can't do anything right. Two-thirds of us are overweight, experts are quick to point out. We eat too much of the wrong foods, far too often. To hear some people tell it, we're hopeless.
But is it fair to place all this blame on ourselves? Just consider the confusing and downright dubious food advice we've heard over the years: Avoid carbs at all costs. Stop eating by 7:00 p.m. sharp. Have one meal a day. Have zero meals a day and drink smoothies instead. No wonder so many of us are struggling. Even if you forgo the fads and aim for a moderate diet filled with fruits, veggies, lean protein, and whole grains, life can get in the way. Maybe you venture to a restaurant and eat more than you planned. Maybe your family balks at the healthy meals you prepare at home. Maybe in your weekly sprint through the supermarket you find yourself making less-than-perfect choices. Clearly, we Americans need a get-real game plan that addresses the dietary challenges we face in all these domains.
So Better Homes and Gardens called together a panel of nationally recognized experts in cooking, nutrition, health, and human behavior to create the ultimate guide to eating right. Go ahead and dig in -- it's surprisingly easy to stomach.
"As a doctor, I believe that more and more Americans are becoming interested in eating nutritionally, in the power of food as medicine. The idea that healthful food can prevent disease isn't just something health nuts are talking about anymore. These days we all want to make better choices. And for many of us, these choices begin when we plan our weekly menus and make out a shopping list. Now we go to the store and we want to know, How will this food affect my family's health?"
-- Melina B. Jampolis, M.D., author of The No Time to Lose Diet (Thomas Nelson, 2007) and health and nutrition adviser to Better Homes and Gardens
"Most people assume they make about 15 food-related decisions a day. In reality, that number is more like 227. It's not just a matter of choosing the soup or the salad; it's, Do I add croutons? Do I finish the whole bowl? Do I go back for seconds? Since we're not always conscious of these decisions, we're easily swayed by cues in the environment -- and the environment almost always nudges us to eat more than we really need to. The good news is that once we become aware of these environmental cues, we can nudge them to work for us rather than against us."
-- Brian Wansink, Ph.D., author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (Bantam, 2006), and director of the Food & Brand Lab at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York
"To me, the message is so incredibly simple: The more unprocessed foods you eat -- especially plant-based foods -- the healthier you're going to be. That's it. It doesn't really matter what the plants are, what order you eat them in, or what proportions you eat them in. If you start eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds -- and less of everything else -- you've radically improved your diet. One of the best ways to do this is to cook at home. I'm living proof that cooking doesn't have to be complicated or difficult, and the investment pays off a billion times."
-- Mark Bittman, author of the cookbooks Food Matters (Simon & Schuster, 2009) and How to Cook Everything (Wiley, 2008). He also is a contributor to The New York Times.
"By now Americans know that there's overwhelmingly strong evidence of a link between diet and health. But at the same time they seem to be asking themselves, Why do I feel so powerless to control what I eat? The fact is, when food is highly processed and loaded and layered with sugar, salt, and fat, it becomes so stimulating that it hijacks the brain -- and our behavior. People are starting to say, 'Enough!' They're ready for a return to authenticity and moderation."
-- David Kessler, M.D., author of The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite (Rodale, 2009) and a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
"We believe that adults and kids alike are naturally designed to eat whole foods in reasonable amounts, according to individual cues for hunger and satiety that change as people grow and develop. Today, one of the biggest challenges for us as parents is to meet these needs by preparing tasty, healthy, real food for our families in the small amounts of time we have available to us each day."
-- Tracee Yablon-Brenner, R.D., and Jeannette Bessinger, certified holistic health counselors, coauthors of Simple Food for Busy Families (Celestial Arts, 2009) and Great Expectations: Best Food for Your Baby & Toddler (Sterling, 2010), and cofounders of realfoodmoms.com
"Healthy eating isn't an all-or-nothing deal," assures BHG health and nutrition adviser Dr. Melina Jampolis. "It's OK to mix frozen or precooked food with fresh items if it helps you get tasty, nutritious meals on the table faster. Just try to make smart choices while shopping, and do the best you can at cooking." Avoiding these pitfalls can help you make it happen.
By now you've probably heard it's best to start your shopping here. That's good advice, but don't settle for mushy strawberries or wilted spinach -- they'll just spoil uneaten in your fridge. "Check out the plain frozen produce instead," Dr. Jampolis suggests. "It's just as good for you -- if not better -- because it's flash frozen to retain nutrients."
You might grab a can of pinto beans or peach slices and assume that's all you're getting. Not so fast, says Dr. Jampolis. Many brands contain added salt and sweeteners, which isn't exactly advertised on most labels. Take a look at the can's nutrition facts and, whenever possible, opt for salt-free or low-sodium versions with no added sweeteners. Not in stock? Rinse before eating to lower those levels.
When shopping for bread and other baked goods, beware of the vague phrase "made with whole grains." "That product might contain 45 grams of refined grains and just 3 grams of nutritious whole grains," Dr. Jampolis says. The phrase to look for instead: "100 percent whole grains." This means the product contains no refined grains.
You already know to avoid snack foods that contain trans fat and sky-high sodium and sugar. "But don't be fooled by junk food that has vitamins and minerals added to it," Dr. Jampolis cautions. "It's still junk food with mainly empty calories." If you want a treat, keep it to one or two and choose wisely: "Seek out snacks that contain some truly beneficial component, like nuts, dried fruits, or whole grains."
Don't toss low-fat yogurt or smoothies in your cart without checking the sugar content, too. Some brands contain 30 grams or more of the sweet stuff -- the same amount found in many candy bars. (Just note that yogurt naturally contains some sugar in the form of lactose.) The healthy fix: Grab plain low-fat Greek yogurt and top with whole berries.
When it comes to ground beef and poultry, the term "lean" can be misleading. "A product labeled '90% lean' can still contain up to 10 grams of fat -- including 4.5 grams of artery-clogging saturated fat -- per serving," Dr. Jampolis says. Opt for ground meat in the 95-99 percent lean range instead. For whole cuts of beef, which often lack percentages, look for these words on labels: "Select" is the leanest, followed by "choice." "Prime" cuts are highest in fat.
Between the wine list, appetizers, entrees, side dishes, and desserts, a restaurant menu offers endless variety. Rein it in with Wansink's rule of two: Once you've picked your entree, limit yourself to two extras, such as an appetizer and a cocktail or a roll and a dessert. Otherwise, you might find yourself saying yes to something in every category.
In dimly lit restaurants, diners tend to linger, upping the odds they'll order an unplanned dessert or an extra glass of wine. Meanwhile, people in brightly lit eateries tend to gobble their food quickly, going overboard before they realize they're full. Wansink's advice: No matter what type of restaurant you're in, take a full 20 minutes to enjoy your meal -- that's how long the body needs to register fullness. Then assess whether you're really hungry for more.
Dining with one other person can increase your calorie intake by 35 percent versus eating alone, says Wansink, citing research conducted by former Georgia State University psychologist John De Castro. Dine with a group of three, and that number jumps to 75 percent. Wansink partly attributes this to etiquette: We don't want to push away our plates before others at the table are finished. To avoid overeating, try to be the last person to dig in, and reserve a few bites on your plate in case you finish first and want to sustain a polite nibble.
People consistently rate food as tasting better when it's presented on nice china versus a humble paper plate or napkin. So try not to get swept away by that "amazing" brownie at dessert. And bear in mind that people tend to eat at least 90 percent of what they have in front of them -- no matter how big the plate may be. Consider sharing an entree, ordering a half portion, or asking the server to pack up half to go.
In one study Wansink conducted, volunteers helped themselves to chicken wings at an all-you-can-eat buffet. As people ate, they discarded bones in empty bowls placed upon their tables. Here's the twist: Waiters were instructed to bus only some tables, while allowing bones to pile up on the others. In the end, volunteers whose tables were bussed ate 28 percent more because they lacked a visual reminder of what they had eaten. As your dishes are cleared between courses, do a quick mental tally so you don't lose track.
"I'd estimate that Americans cook less than 20 percent of their meals at home," Mark Bittman laments. "There's a myth that ordering fast food is cheaper and more convenient. In fact, home cooking can be easier, cheaper, and faster. Plus, it's ten times healthier than any other alternative, and it gives you ultimate control over your diet." On a busy day, you don't even need to follow a recipe, says Bittman. Here, four lessons that gave him the confidence to improvise
"One time about 10 years ago, I forgot I was hosting a group for dinner until one of them called that afternoon and asked, 'What time should we come over?' I completely panicked because I had no menu planned and no food in the house. So I ran to the supermarket and grabbed some stuff to make a salad, a roast chicken, potatoes gratin, and chocolate mousse. It was nothing spectacular, but everyone -- including me -- was happy with what I had made. That night did a lot for my confidence. I learned that when people sit down at your table, they're not expecting you to be a five-star chef. They're looking for love and great conversation and a simple, decent meal."
"I sometimes joke that there are only nine recipes in the world. But there's a lot of truth to that. At some point I realized that the same patterns crop up over and over again. If you cook a piece of chicken with ginger, garlic, and scallions, you get a Chinese flavor. Use lime and cilantro, you have Mexican. Parmesan and oregano? Italian. You can apply these flavor patterns to almost anything -- fish, broccoli, tofu, whatever. Healthy cooking is often just a matter of riffing on well-worn little flavor combos. It's like multiplication: not hard at all once you learn it."
"Probably 75 percent of my New York Times recipe columns are the result of me screwing around with ingredients I bought on impulse. There's a certain freedom in this approach. For example, let's say you decide, Tonight I'm going to make monkfish with white turnips. But then you go to the store and the monkfish looks terrible or they don't have white turnips. At that point you're in trouble because your shopping list is calling for those ingredients. On the other hand, if you go to the market with no prefixed notions, buy whatever fresh ingredients look best, then figure out how to cook them, you're actually going to end up with less stress -- and a much better meal."
"On my last book tour, I got stuck eating a lot of 'road food.' When I returned home, I was ready for some real food, but we didn't have many ingredients on hand -- my wife had been too busy at work to do any shopping. So I dug around and found some celery, a few carrots, an onion, and a tomato. I cut them up, simmered them for a few minutes in olive oil, then tossed everything with pasta. So quick, and really, really delicious. I live in New York City -- the world capital of takeout -- and I'd rather eat this stuff any day."
The secret to winning over a finicky family? Baby steps, according to nutrition counselors Jeannette Bessinger and Tracee Yablon-Brenner, both moms themselves. "Don't suddenly announce that you have seen the light and will be throwing out all the sugar in the house," Bessinger advises. "Otherwise your family might run away screaming." These seven tricks will keep them at the table.
"Moms might be tempted to bribe or threaten picky eaters into consuming different foods, but this tends to backfire," Bessinger says. "So there's no sense in playing food police. You can be in charge of what you offer your family, but let them choose what and how much to eat. This will help them cultivate a positive relationship with food."
"It's always easier to try something novel than say good-bye to an old favorite," Bessinger explains. So at first, try serving nutritious items (such as edamame) along with not-so-great standbys (like boxed mashed potatoes). Once you find healthy foods your family likes, they won't object when less nutritious fare is eliminated.
Healthful ingredients are harder to refuse when they're integrated with the main dish. One-dish recipes also make it easy to amp up nutrients without arousing suspicion (say, by swapping some ground beef for black beans). "I use tons of veggies in my lasagna and even finicky eaters love it," Bessinger attests. Other good vehicles include chili, soups, stews, and stir-fries.
When kids are allowed to garnish, sprinkle, and dip, they gain a sense of control that makes them more likely to eat (and enjoy) the food, Yablon-Brenner says. So if your 8-year-old balks at broccoli, serve it with a small bowl of low-fat ranch dressing or hummus and let him go to town.
Family members might be more receptive to healthy dishes that resemble foods they already love, such as burgers, tacos, or milk shakes. For example, instead of trying to force your spouse to choke down a tossed garden salad, try serving whole wheat pizza layered with chopped veggies and skim mozzarella. The right delivery method can make all the difference.
High-fiber whole grain versions of rice, pasta, and bread make easy replacements for their refined counterparts. But if your family has trouble adjusting to the taste, try going halfsies -- for example, by mixing brown rice with white in a pilaf -- and gradually phase out the refined stuff.
In a perfect world, our loved ones would appreciate healthful foods for what they are. But stubborn cases call for stealth. To that end, try grating or pureeing vegetables such as zucchini, sweet potatoes, and carrots and hiding them in meatballs, muffins, casseroles, and sauces. Your family will be none the wiser.
Ever had a night like this? You swing by the store for a gallon of milk. As you wait in the checkout line, a bag of chips catches your eye. You know those chips aren't good for you, but you buy them anyway and scarf them in the car. By the time you pull into your driveway, regret is kicking in.
This isn't just a case of weak willpower, says former FDA commissioner Dr. David Kessler. The real problem is that certain commercially made foods -- the ones with tons of added sugar, salt, and fat -- are so tasty and so stimulating that they actually overwhelm the brain's circuitry. When we eat them, the brain cranks out dopamine, a neurochemical associated with a reward that drives us to eat that food again...and again...and again. Eventually, just looking at the food can trigger a dopamine release. "We get stuck in a cycle," Dr. Kessler says. "We're constantly chasing that satisfaction." These steps can help you break free.
Temptation can strike suddenly -- like when you walk through a food court and catch a whiff of freshly baked cinnamon rolls. Perhaps you try to reason with yourself by thinking, I shouldn't eat that or That food is bad for me. You'll have far more success if you go a step further and visualize a better outcome, says Dr. Kessler. Try, I have a healthy lunch waiting for me back home, and cinnamon rolls aren't in my plan.
Resisting the call of the fast-food drive-through might seem futile in the moment, but consider this: Studies show that addictive cravings tend to fizzle as soon as the object in question becomes unattainable. In other words, drive a few miles past the burger joint, and you'll likely discover that you didn't really need those extra-large cheese fries after all.
When you're being lured by a super-stimulating food, the brain's reward center is keyed into one thing and one thing only: the immediate sensory pleasure of eating that food. Gain control by extending your thoughts to the consequences. For example, Nachos might taste great now, but tomorrow I'll feel awful about myself, or Ice cream sundaes always give me indigestion. Explains Dr. Kessler, "This undercuts the reward value of the food."