March is National Nutrition Month ®, a campaign designed by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to help people learn how to make sound food choices that fit with their lifestyle. And with spring quickly approaching, there’s no better time to reset your diet and implement the healthy choices that are right for you.
But what exactly is a healthy diet? With all the diet trends and fads out there, this can be a tricky question. Some think that eating healthy means having to buy expensive, organic foods, or having the time to make everything from scratch. Others might think they must completely give up a certain food or food group, which is simply not realistic. Fortunately, putting a few small, very realistic changes into practice will clean up your diet and make a big impact in keeping your body healthy.
Break Unhealthy Eating Habits
- Increase fiber. Dietary fiber helps with digestion, reduces LDL (aka “bad”) cholesterol, helps fight disease, and increases the feeling of fullness. High fiber foods include fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, and whole grains. When shopping for grains, look at the ingredients list; the first ingredient should be a whole grain (i.e. whole wheat, whole grain corn, whole grain oats). Other whole grains include barley, rye, buckwheat, bulgur, quinoa, and brown rice.
- Reduce sugar. Sugar lurks everywhere. Even unsuspecting foods can pack a lot of sugar, such as salad dressing,
ketchup, tomato sauce, cereals, and many savory snacks. Consuming too much sugar on a regular basis can lead to chronic high blood sugar and diabetes, and make you feel hungrier. Check the labels for foods you eat regularly and choose items with the lowest grams of sugar per serving. Limit full desserts to just a few times a week.
- Don’t fear fat. Saturated fat (i.e. meat, dairy, processed foods) should be consumed in moderation, and trans fat (i.e. shortening, processed snacks, commercial baked goods) should be avoided because of their known damaging effects on the heart and arteries. However, unsaturated fats such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats have a protective effect on the heart and aid in many other processes such as hormone production and brain function. Many foods are now fortified with healthy fats including eggs, vegetable oil spreads, and grains. Other foods that naturally contain healthy fats include nuts, nut butters, seeds, avocados, olives, various vegetable-based oils, and fish.
- Reduce processed foods. These foods tend to be high in sodium, a known contributor to high blood pressure. If the ingredients list includes several items you do not recognize, put it back on the shelf. These ingredients are often high-sodium preservatives. Keep in mind that processed foods are typically found on the inner aisles of the grocery store, such as canned foods, condiments, frozen meals, boxed/bagged foods, and some breads. The exception is processed meats (lunch meat, hot dogs, bacon, sausage), which are typically on the outer edge of the store.
- Drink water. Try to make water your main drink of choice, and drink often throughout the day. Sugary drinks such as soda and juice should be kept to a minimum due to their high sugar content, and diet drinks should be limited because of the artificial sweeteners. Consume caffeine and alcohol in moderation to prevent them from having negative effects on your health.
These five practices will help weed out the excess junk in your diet and keep your body running at its best. If it seems overwhelming to do all of them at once, pick one at a time and slowly incorporate them into your routine. Worried that eating healthier will cost more? Here are some easy tips for shopping healthy on a budget:
- Buy in-season produce. Not only is it fresher, it is more likely to be on sale.
- When buying fresh, buy only as much as you will eat before it goes bad.
- Compare unit prices. Many stores provide the unit price for you (i.e. price/pound, price/ounce), but if not you can calculate it by dividing the price of the item by the number of units in the package. Check different sizes and different brands of the same item to find the best price per unit. Sale items are not always the cheapest!
- Buy frozen fruit and vegetables. These will keep in the freezer much longer and you won’t end up having to throw it out. Check ingredients labels for added salt or sugar.
- Stock up on sale items. When you’ve found a low price on something that won’t go bad quickly, stock up!
- Don’t buy from the ends of the aisles. Items there might seem like a great deal, but it may not be the best price.
Most of all, consider your health an investment that will pay you big returns in well-being and longevity!