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A Guide to Healthier Eating

Eating less junk food and adding more nutritious food to your diet are simple changes that can make a significant improvement in your nutrition and health.

You should cut back on foods that have only limited nutritional value, that are overprocessed, or that contain too much fat, salt, sugar, and refined white flour.

Instead, eat more of these kinds of foods:

  • Close to their natural state: fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables.

  • Less processed: whole grains.

  • Plain rather than flavored: milk, cottage cheese, and yogurt. Choose low-fat or nonfat versions when available.

  • Healthier: olive oil instead of vegetable oil; vegetable oil instead of shortening; low trans fat vegetable margarine over butter.

  • Better meat choices: poultry, fish, and the leanest cuts of red meat.

  • More nutritiously prepared: broiled meats and vegetables that are raw, steamed, or lightly cooked in the microwave. Avoid deep-fried foods and fatty sauces such as gravy, cheese, and Hollandaise.

Making these changes won't require driving miles out of your way in search of organic produce. Nutritious, healthy food is plentiful in any grocery store and at most restaurants, if you know how to find it.

A closer look

Let’s take the above advice point by point:

  • Just-picked fresh vegetables and fruits are at their most nutritious. As fruits and vegetables begin to wilt or dehydrate, many of the nutrients like vitamin C decrease. The next best choice is fresh frozen, because the vegetables and fruits are picked and almost immediately quick frozen, preserving most of their nutrition. Canning vegetables requires heat, which destroys vitamins sensitive to heat. In addition, water-soluble vitamins leach into the canning water, which most people discard.

  • Whole grains are high in fiber, vitamins, and complex carbohydrates. As they are processed, much of the fiber and vitamins are removed. Eventually, the end product, white flour, is basically just carbohydrate. That’s why when you read the label, it frequently says “enriched flour.” Enrichment is an attempt to return some of the nutrition removed by processing.

  • Plain milk, yogurt, and cottage cheese generally have a better ratio of nutrients. When flavoring is added, sugar is often added, too. Flavored yogurt, for example, has twice the calories of unflavored yogurt; most of those calories are from added sugar. The same is true for chocolate milk versus plain milk. Using low-fat dairy products decreases both the total calories and fat intake of the drink.

  • All oils and fats have pretty much the same calorie count, about nine calories per gram. Some fats, however, are worse for you than others. Saturated fats and trans fats, a type of saturated fat, are worse for you than an equal amount of polyunsaturated fat. Polyunsaturated fats, such as nonhydrogenated vegetable oils, are not as good for you a monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil. To keep your heart and vascular system healthy you should avoid saturated fats whenever possible. As a rule, saturated fat is a solid at room temperature, and polyunsaturated fats remain liquid. Soft tub margarines have varying ratios of saturated to unsaturated fat to make them soft enough to spread but not so soft that they run off your bread.

  • Different types of meats contain different amounts of saturated fats. Mutton, lamb, beef, and pork are very high in saturated fat. Chicken, turkey, and other fowl have less saturated fat. Fish have the least saturated fat, because they must remain flexible when swimming in cold water.

  • Cooking influences many aspects of nutrition. Heating food decreases its vitamin content. Boiling food dissolves vitamins, minerals, and other plant nutrients in the water, which is often discarded. Frying or deep-frying meats add to the fat content, but broiling, barbecuing, or boiling reduces the fat content. When broiling or barbecuing, the fat drips off the meat. When boiling, the fat comes to the surface and must be skimmed off to reduce fat content.

Limit the junk food

Avoid fast-food restaurants, because most of their products are deep-fried or very high in fat, salt, and sugar. Fast food and "super-sized" servings have contributed to the broadening of America's waistlines. If you must order fast-food meals, do your homework by studying the nutritional guide available at most of these restaurants and choosing the healthiest foods. You could order a salad with a low-fat or nonfat dressing or a sandwich that includes lots of fresh vegetables. Avoid sweetened drinks such as soft drinks, punches, sports drinks, and juices. In particular, avoid drinks sweetened with fructose or high fructose corn syrup as research suggests that these foods actually increase appetite for fatty foods and total calories.

Read food labels

Allot time when shopping to study food labels, because they are important. Less nutritious foods contain excessive amounts of fat and refined carbohydrates. In addition, these foods often contain little, if any, of the eight basic vitamins listed at the bottom of nutrition labels. The food labels will tell you this.

When reading the ingredient list, see if white flour, sugar, fat, or salt is among the first three ingredients. If it is, the food has more of that ingredient than anything else, because ingredients are listed in descending order by weight.

Next, check the number of fat grams. For every five grams of fat in a serving of a food, you're eating the same as one teaspoon of fat. So, if one serving of a frozen dinner has 23 grams of fat, you're eating the equivalent of 4.5 teaspoons, or 207 calories, of fat.

Look at the amount of sugar listed on the food label. Four grams equals one teaspoon of sugar, so a soda with 44 grams of sugar contains 11 teaspoons, or 176 calories, of sugar.

Snack foods contain lots of sodium, but the 2010 recommendations by the USDA say you should limit your sodium consumption to less than 2,300 mg per day. The daily sodium intake for African-Americans is 1,500 mg; this is also the limit for people with hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease, as well as people 51 years and older.

Shop smart

Eat a filling meal before shopping for groceries. Make a shopping list, limiting the pleasure foods, and then stick to the list. Select a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, but only as much as your family can reasonably eat in a week. Remember that fresh is better than frozen, and that frozen is better than canned. Be choosy about meat: Select lean cuts of red meat and heart-healthy fish and fowl.

Prepare wisely

When cooking, choose the most nutritious way to prepare meats, vegetables, and fruits. Keep in mind that packaged products taking only minutes to prepare may not give you the best nutrition. But a nutritious meal doesn't have to take a long time to fix. Develop your own collection of recipes for quick-to-make, nutritious, flavorful meals.

Take it slow

Although you may be tempted to change your entire diet overnight, making gradual changes is easier, more effective, and much more likely to become a permanent part of your life.

Online Resources

Weight-Control Information Network  http://win.niddk.nih.gov/publications/for_life.htm
USDA  http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/publications/dietaryguidelines/2010/policydoc/execsumm.pdf
USDA  http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/publications/dietaryguidelines/2010/policydoc/policydoc.pdf
American Dietetic Association  http://www.eatright.org/public/content.aspx?id=10935
American Dietetic Association  http://www.eatright.org/public/content.aspx?id=11629
American Dietetic Association  http://www.eatright.org/public/content.aspx?id=5554
American Dietetic Association  http://www.eatright.org/public/content.aspx?id=5671
U.S. Department of Agriculture  http://www.mypyramid.gov/guidelines/index.html

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