It’s no surprise that optimistic diet and nutrition advice is magnetic. Who wouldn’t be attracted to promises of longevity, beauty, health, or a svelte body, often touted by the hundreds of competing programs out there? While there are many different paths to healthy eating and weight loss, the best diet advice tends to be the simplest: Eat more plants, keep portions in check, drink plenty of water, and so on. One would think that when presented with basic advice like this it would be easy to follow through with healthy choices, but as a nutritionist who has worked with clients for more than three decades, I know that reality is much more complex.
One reason healthy efforts fail is that so many programs ignore important lifestyle factors. While many diets focus on what you eat, behaviors also have to be taken into consideration to shine a light on how you eat and how much you eat. Studies have even shown us that whom you eat with could impact your intake. In my experience, the gap between knowing what the right choice is and actually doing it typically arises when general advice, although promising in theory, does not fit into a person’s life. I’ve spent countless hours listening to my clients’ needs, and I’ve seen what does work. While everyone is different, here are four things I believe are essential for healthy eating as well as advice for taking these principles beyond this page and onto the table.
Seek out the power of plants. We have been told to eat at least nine fruits and vegetables each day. This advice is well-intentioned as produce provides important nutrients that help ward off such diseases as cancer, diabetes, hypertension, stroke, and gastrointestinal ailments, just to name a few. But in my experience, even vegetarians can have trouble packing in nine servings on a daily basis. Instead, I’ve found that clients have just as much success when they make a conscious effort to incorporate fruits and vegetables into at least two meals or snacks each day. Once you get into the habit, you’ll easily find ways to slip more vegetables into your diet. Add a few slices of tomato and arugula to your sandwich or start your dinner with vegetable soup. You can even drink your produce by having a smoothie as a late-afternoon snack, such as my sweet potato smoothie, which is loaded with potassium, fiber, and protein.
Cut back meat consumption. A diet heavy in meat tends to attract extra pounds and could also welcome high cholesterol, osteoporosis, and kidney stones. More recent studies have even linked excessive meat consumption to certain forms of cancer. It’s clearly time to cast aside the “eat your meat and leave the potatoes” mantra that you may have heard from your parents, but going cold turkey may not be the answer. While vegetarian diets go in and out of style, programs that eliminate entire food groups tend to be less sustainable. A more realistic action would be to designate one or two nights for meatless meals. A key to doing this is to tap plant-based sources of protein, such as tofu, tempeh, nuts, seeds, and grains. Quinoa is a seed that contains an excellent protein profile weighing in at 24 grams of protein per cup (the same amount in a 3-ounce burger!). Plant-based proteins also provide flavor, texture, fiber, and a host of vitamins and minerals that you cannot get from meat. By incorporating more plant foods into your diet, you’ll experience the benefits of a healthier body weight, improved cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower risk of cancer.
Keep portion sizes and mindless eating in check. Your body requires only a certain amount of food, but sometimes it’s hard to figure out just the right amount that’s needed. With today’s technology there are many diet apps and calorie trackers available, but instead of living by the numbers, I’m in favor of learning to eat mindfully. This means understanding what your body needs versus what you want. This is something we all know in theory, but when stress or temptation strikes it can be hard to discern between necessity and desire. One helpful approach is to think about how much food your stomach is meant to comfortably hold. Most of us don’t realize that the stomach is only the size of two fists put together. Picture filling a bag that size with a glass of wine, a few pieces of bread, an appetizer, a main dish, a dessert and a cappuccino, and you realize the typical restaurant dinner is probably bigger than that bag could comfortably house. Use this image of a two-fisted pouch, so to speak, when eyeing how much food is on your plate. You can read more simple advice for weight-loss success on my website.
Be smart about carbs. It is true that some carbs, like the ones in cookies, pastries, and croissants, often travel with fat and sugar as its companions. These foods could cause weight gain and should be included on days that are more “special” and not routine. However, attempting a low-carb lifestyle can do yourself a disservice. Whole-grain breads, starches, and grains, in general, should not be avoided, since they provide a wealth of nutrients and help you feel satisfied. A more realistic approach is to fill a quarter of your plate with the right carbs such as grains and starches. The right carbs in the right portions can be satiating while simultaneously providing that comforting feeling you crave. Ancient grains like quinoa, millet, and amaranth are easily available and simple to prepare, and they can boost your intake of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and iron. Starches such as baked potatoes are also good sources of nutrients. A baked potato with skin provides twice the potassium of a banana, and it’s a great source of fiber. Top with Greek yogurt or cottage cheese and chopped veggies to make this side a loaded main dish.