If you think that changing your eating habits will be difficult, you are not alone. Who wants to follow a list of “don’ts” from the food police telling you not to eat your favorite foods?
As a registered dietitian, I work with people of all ages to dispel this concern. Whether it is a young athlete preparing for competition or an adult with chronic diseases, my goal is to help them make food choices that are enjoyable and compatible with their lifestyles and specific nutritional needs.
We begin with an assessment of their personal goals and meal patterns. A locomotive engineer with an overnight shift on a train will have different challenges than an office worker with a more conventional weekday work schedule. Similarly, chronic conditions require different approaches, such as controlling blood sugar for diabetes but watching calories for weight control.
Busy and active days can make it a challenge to achieve current dietary recommendations. Very few of my patients get the recommended 8-to-10 daily servings of fruits and vegetables, which limits their intake of dietary fiber and protective antioxidants. Some report skipping breakfast and then overeating at night. Others dine out frequently because they are too busy or tired to cook.
One young man was concerned about the quality of his diet and recent weight gain. His usual breakfast consisted of juice while lunch was often a six-inch submarine sandwich. In the evening after work, he was hungry and tired as he returned to a house with no groceries. Instead of cooking, he went out to dinner with friends for a large meal.
We discussed how he could conveniently include healthful foods in his diet. Based on population studies, these are foods that promote optimal health while reducing the risk for disease. These include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds that provide fiber, omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins, and antioxidants, but do not contain excessive calories or saturated fats.
I also shared with him the basics of a healthful diet: balance, variety and moderation.
- Balance can be achieved by following the recommendations contained in current US Dietary Guidelines, which are available at ChooseMyPlate.gov.
- Since we don’t know exactly what our own bodies need for optimal health, the safest approach is to get variety within each food group. For example, if the vegetable component of our diet consists only of lettuce, our diet can be balanced but lacking in nutrients.
- Moderation refers to maintaining an appropriate caloric intake for weight control. There is also substantial evidence to support limited intakes of sodium and saturated fats.
Three months later, my patient’s regular diet consisted of cereal and a banana for breakfast, a peanut butter sandwich, apple, and carrots for lunch, and fruit or yogurt during the day if he needed a snack. After work, since he was no longer starving, he stopped at the gym before going home for a dinner that included frozen vegetables, baked potatoes, or a large salad.
Besides saving money on restaurant meals, he was amazed at how much better he felt. He was 20 pounds lighter. “I couldn’t believe that it happened so easily,” he said. When I reviewed his chart later, he had lost another 10 pounds in six weeks and was back to his post-college weight.
Healthy eating tips
Along with better food choices, my patient’s success was based on recognizing these key nutritional principles:
- Eat breakfast within two hours of getting up. A morning meal can have a positive impact on metabolism by making people hungry at regular intervals (approximately every three hours). When we eat in response to hunger during the day, we are less likely to overeat at night.
- Plan ahead to eat at home. You will have better control of your diet and save money. With a well-stocked pantry, you can easily prepare a quick, healthy meal.
- Bring fruits and vegetables to work for snacks.
- Don’t feel compelled to prepare elaborate meals. Find cookbooks that meet your time and skill needs. Two of my favorites are “Lickety-Split Meals for Health Conscious People on the Go!” by Zonya Foco and Nancy Clark’s “Sports Nutrition Guidebook.”
With these guidelines, the goal is to make small sustainable changes to your diet. You will be better off than making big changes that last a few days or weeks. You will also be able to enjoy eating without hearing a single negative word from the food police.
Deborah Katz, M.N.S., is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator with UW Neighborhood Clinics. For more information or to make a clinic appointment, call 206.520.5050 or visit uwmedicine.org/uwnc.