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Healthy eating, a never-ending learning curve | Gustafson
Despite or perhaps because of the ongoing obesity crisis, more Americans are taking an interest in improving their eating habits, from cutting back on meat consumption to buying more organic produce.
The public outcry over "pink slime" and growing concerns over food contamination exemplify this trend.
But it is also true that switching to a healthier regimen is not a simple process. Many Americans are confused about what to do in the face of often contradictory messages they get from the government, health experts, advocacy groups and food manufacturers. Is a vegetarian diet preferable to an omnivore eating style? Is organic food worth the extra costs? Is it possible to eat better on a limited budget? Can snacking be part of a healthy lifestyle? There are no definite answers to questions like these.
"Whether you've been told that you need to lose weight by your doctor, have special medical concerns or just want to look and feel better, learning how to eat healthy meals is a life-long experience," says Allen Smith, a health and fitness writer. Unless you have a specific plan you can follow and that works for you, trying to design a balanced diet can be an overwhelming task, he says.
You can start by consulting the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are periodically updated and reissued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). But they require heavy reading and are not without dispute. Or you can make your food choices according to the so-called glycemic index (GI), a rating system for carbohydrates with regards to their impact on blood sugar levels. But you must be a very detail-oriented person to engage in such calculations. For the rest of us, I believe it's best to make small but effective changes that require less effort but have accumulative benefits over time.
Here are a few tips for a small-steps approach:
• Do not look at your dietary improvements as a form of punishment for your former "sins." If you feel deprived of your favorite foods, whether they are bad for your health or not, you will not be able to maintain your efforts in the long run, no matter how beneficial they may be.
• For similar reasons, I recommend that you try making simple modifications first. Despite of what you may have heard or read in the media or as part of a commercial weight loss program, you should not clean out your refrigerator and pantry all at once. Leave something in there that you love and can enjoy once in a while when the going gets a little tough or you just experience a momentary craving. It's also a good way to learn how to exercise moderation and test your willpower.
• Make small changes to your typical dinner plate. Increase your vegetable and fruit servings while reducing the size of your meat portions. Do it gradually. If you cut back on something that's less healthy, double the effect by adding something more nutritious. For example, if you can't live without that juicy burger, make it from scratch at home (as opposed to buying one from the fast food joint or the frozen meat department at the store) with extra-lean (preferably organic) meat. Leave out the cheese and add more tomatoes and lettuce instead. Forget about the French fries or, if you can't, make them yourself (from fresh potatoes) and bake them in the oven. What matters most is that you eventually gain more control over what and how much you eat.
• Understand the importance of meal times. Eat breakfast. It will give you the energy you need to start your day and will keep you from becoming too hungry and tempted to overindulge later on. Take a real lunch break (no munching while working). Have something light but highly nutritious, so you don't feel sluggish in the afternoon. If you need a snack, choose healthy options like fruit or yogurt. Back home, sit down for dinner, preferably with your family. Make a point of shutting off TVs, computers and cell phones. Savor your meals and enjoy your company. Both contribute enormously to better eating habits.
• Become a savvy shopper. Understand the layout of your grocery store or supermarket. Spend most of your money in the produce department. If it's within your budget, buy organic fruits and vegetables to reduce your exposure to pesticides and other contaminants, which is the main reason why you should consider switching to organic foods. Learn to decipher Nutrition Facts and ingredients labels (not an easy feat). Cut down on fat, salt (sodium) and sugar whenever possible. If you buy processed food items, compare brands and choose the ones with the lowest amount of these.
• Don't be too hard on yourself (and those around you). You only set yourself up for failure. Healthy eating is not like an event that has a beginning and an end. Especially dieters for weight loss tend to think that once the pounds are gone, it's again a free-for-all. Wrong. Eating right is part of a lifestyle that you hopefully will keep pursuing for as long as you live. Once you reach that goal, there is no longer a struggle, a weakness or a tendency you must guard against. It's just who you are. If you still feel tempted to stray once in a while, take it in stride. As human beings, we are always on a learning curve.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book "The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun"®, which is available on her blog, "Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D." and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.