We all need to take care of ourselves and it all starts with you. Ask yourself, 'Am I worth a little extra effort ot think about what I'm putting in my body?' The fact is, you and your body deserve nothing less!
Here are some of the minor tweaks you can begin with today. You'll be surprised how simple they sound, and what a difference they can make for how you feel and look:
1. Add more HEALTHY fat to your diet.
What can this do for you? Many adults, especially baby boomers, have lived through the non-fat this and low-fat that "craze" and therefore now believe that fats equal calories and should be avoided. The truth is, our bodies NEED fat to function. (After all, 60 percent of the brain is fat.) A calorie is not a calorie, which means not all fat is alike. Researchers are finding that the body metabolizes some fats better than others.
Healthy fats include those found in many nuts, seeds, avocado, olives, extra-virgin olive oil, and canola oil. Eating nuts and avocados will not make you fat. On the other hand, not eating them might. Unlike calories from saturated (bad) fats, healthy fat calories are essential to the body's metabolism. They keep your body functioning at its peak performance, and you'll find that you will feel satsified for a longer period of time as well.
How do I include healthy fats? Use extra-virgin olive oil and canola for most of your cooking. Use a tablespoon of olive oil and balsamic or rice vinegar on your salads. Avoiding bottled dressings will prevent you from consuming the added sodium and sugar that processed dressings contain. I enjoy using mashed avocado or guacamole on a sandwich in place of mayonnaise or use it as a dip for veggies. You can also snack on raw almonds, pumpkin seeds, pistachios, and walnuts - four kinds of nuts and seeds with great lipid-lowering ability - or add them as toppings or ingredients to cereal, vegetable dishes, or foods.
Alissa's Tip: Buy a flaxseed grinder (I use a coffee grinder) and add freshly-ground flaxseed to anything from cereal and baked goods to vegetables and smoothies. Flax is a rich source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids as well as antioxidants and fiber, and it's been shown to reduce "bad" LDL cholesterol. Freshly ground flaxseed is preferred because whole flaxseed is not absorbed as well into the body and once ground, the seeds begin losing their antioxidant benefit.
2. Drink more water and green tea to REPLACE sugary beverages.
What will this do for you? Water is free of sugar, additives, and artificial sweeteners - as long as you're drinkg PURE water. In contrast, juice and soda contain empty calories (150 calories per cup of grape juice, 150 in a regular 12-ounce can of soda) made up mostly of sugar and few nutrients.
I also recommend avoiding ALL diet sodas and sugar-free juices/foods all together. They may have few or no calories, but the artificial sweeteners they contain work in the body the same way sugary drinks do: They cause the brain to signal to the pancreas that "sweets are coming!" This causes the pancreas to start pumping insulin. Insulin, in turn, triggers carbohydrate cravings and fatigue. Excess insulin in your body causes body fat storage, which is obviously the opposite of what you are trying to do when consuming sugar-free or "diet" foods/beverages.
Drinks like soda and juice can cause a person to develop unhealthy eating habits. Why, you may ask? The brain tends to associate them with certain foods (chips, fries, hamburgers) or with expecting to eat at certain times. Liquid calories also take up stomach space, making us less likely to eat more satisfying and nutrient-rich foods, so overall nutrition suffers.
Water is less filling and hydrates the body. Hydration is important in order to flush out toxins, transport nutrients, and to keep tissues such as the nose and mouth moist and better able to defend against viruses.
How can I incorporate more? Aim for 64 ounces of water a day (that's eight, eight-ounce glasses), plus two to four cups of antioxidant-rich green or white tea (as a better-for-you coffee replacement). To build the water-drinking habit, pour glasses of water when you set the table, and set out a carafe for easy refills. Get in the habit of taking a sip of water in between bites at meals to slow down your eating. I shoot for 2 glasses of water with each main meal, and 1 with each of my snacks. Get in the habit of carrying a portable water bottle with you throughout the day. Reach for water whenever you're thirsty and make sure to drink plenty of water after activity that makes you sweat.
Alissa's Tip: Put a flavored white- or green-tea bag, like mandarin orange, into your water bottle as a quick, amazing-tasting alternative to hot brewed tea. This tip will help you to get the antioxidant benefits of tea without the additives, calories, or artificial flavorings of mixes like Propel or Crystal Lite. The polyphenols in green tea also have mild metabolism-boosting properties.
3. Try NEW gluten-free whole grains each week!
What can this do for you? Whole grains provide essential B vitamins and crucial fiber. Many of us get into the habit of relying on the same grain sources day in and day out. Americans also tend to depend on simple grains such as white wheat, white rice and white potatoes. Not only do simple grains no contain the fiber that whole grain sources do, but they are also void of many nutrients that our bodies need to function and maintain healthy weight.
Greater grain variety exposes the body to more nutrients and makes it easier to hit the targeted 45 grams per day of fiber adults need. The average American is getting just 15 grams per day. Another potential plus to weaning from wheat: undiagnosed celiac disease, a wheat intolerance caused by the body's inability to absorb gluten. The rates of celiac disease have increased 400 percent since the 1950s, according to a 2009 Mayo Clinic study in the journal Gastroenterology. And for every case diagnosed, there are thought to be 30 others not yet detected.
How can you include new whole grains? Start once a week by swapping out your usual white potatoes, white rice, or white bread with a serving of a new-to-you wheat alternative. Quinoa (pronounced "keen-wa," it cooks like rice), for example, which is a grain-like plant, contains up to 50 percent more protein than many grains, as well as higher fat, calcium, and B vitamins. Other options include millet, barley, brown rice, spelt, amaranth, wheat berries, buckwheat, and wild rice. Even food superstores, like Target, often now stock these wheat alternatives.
Alissa's Tip: If you're nervous about cooking an unfamiliar grain, look for semi-prepared mixes or ready-made dishes. Visit your local health food store for more natural or organic alternatives. Packaged mixes are higher in sodium, but a good alternative if you're wanting to try a new grain and the cooking part is scaring you.
4. Eat a hearty breakfast
Why is this important? Many people postpone the first meal of the day as long as possible because they're convinced that once they start eating, they can't stop. If you fall into this category, the reason you can't stop is NOT because you have eaten, it's because of WHAT you have eaten. For example, if you just grab a bagel or a piece of fruit, it's a simple carb that's burned quickly, and you're soon ravenous with a need to feed a glucose low. This sets you up for a roller-coaster of blood-sugar highs and lows all day, which lead to uncontrollable eating.
By eating a more complex breakfast soon after you get up, however, your body actually remains satiated longer, and you'll ultimately eat less.
What does a hearty breakfast look like? Breakfast basically means "breaking a fast". You need to break your overnight fast within an hour of awakening with a balance of four items: a slow-burning whole grain (oatmeal, muesli, ezekiel English muffin, whole-grain cereal such as Kashi Go Lean), some protein (Greek yogurt, low-fat milk, tofu with scrambled eggs, nut butter, fish, lean meat), healthy fat (almond butter, cashew butter, nuts, ground flaxseed, canola oil, and a fruit/vegetable (raisins, frozen berries, grapefruit half, grilled vegetables, banana).
Avoid these food categories that contain simple carbohydrates that will leave you feeling hungry and craving foods ALL day:
- Simple carbs (frozen waffle, pastry, muffins, sugary cereal, pancakes made with white flour, breakfast bars)
- Fatty foods high in saturated fats (fried eggs and bacon, cheesy omelets, bagels with cream cheese, fast-food breakfast sandwiches)
Alissa's Tip: For an easy, sustaining, one-bowl solution, prepare a big batch of steel-cut oatmeal the night before. In the morning, microwave the oatmeal, add organic skim milk/soy/rice/hemp milk with walnuts or almonds and dried fruit (apricots, dates, raisins, etc.). Add ground flaxseed and top with fresh berries, a little cinnamon, and you're good to go.
5. Avoid the every-day sandwich
Why? Again, this comes down to variety and avoiding excessive simple carbohydrates. Most Americans are inclined to think of lunch as two pieces of bread and a filling. The breads most commonly used are a simple-carb, processed white wheat. What do we fill our bread with? Typically processed, fatty meats and cheeses. What is the result? An abundance of calories, simple carbohydrate, and a growing mid-section.
How do I break the cycle? Try some alternatives. Many other cultures eat what we traditionally consider "breakfast food" (whole-grain cereal with yogurt and fruit, eggs) or "dinner food" (fish, brown rice with veggies, soup, yesterday's leftovers).
No microwave available to heat up a meal? Pack a salad topped with canned salmon, chickpeas, tuna, or all-natural deli turkey. Roll up veggies and low-fat cheese in a whole-grain or ezekiel tortilla. Munch fruit and nuts.
Alissa's Tip: Pre-plan and pre-pack your lunches and snacks the night before. You can also go to a recipe finder such as epicurious.com to experiment with new dishes built around whole grains, soy protein (tempeh and tofu, for example), or squashes or other vegetables. Pay attention to the recipe reviews to find ones that match your tastes and prep-time preferences. Making enough to brown-bag for lunch saves money and will spare you the stressing over "what will I eat?" that too often leads to quick, calorie-stuffed, nutrient-hungry choices.
6. Get a variety of protein sources - both animal and plant-based.
Why is this important? Most Americans eat too much animal-based protein. A meat-heavy diet is linked to a higher risk of heart disease and cancer. It is better to get a balance of animal and plant-based proteins for overall health and to have an abundance of nutrients. That's why introducing more vegetarian meals, ideally three to four times a week, is an easy way to boost overall nutrition -- and save money.
How can you achieve this? Shoot for a mix like this: Red meat once a week, poultry one to two times a week, seafood or vegetarian three to four times a week. Eventually, your goal should be to have red meat twice a month or less.
Alissa's Tip: I recommend having your meat-based protein at lunch. You'll find this will help with the common afternoon "cravings" and you'll be in better self-control the rest of the day. At your breakfast and dinner meals, go for plant-based proteins such as beans, tofu, seitan, tempeh, textured vegetable proteins, or veggie burgers. You can also have eggs, Greek yogurt, small amounts of reduced fat cheese, or whey protein smoothies. Make sure to include at least 5 fruits and vegetables each day with your meals and snacks.
These tips along with you setting personal goals for yourself will help you to live long, live well, and to enjoy the benefits of living a healthy lifestyle.
Alissa Robertson, MS, RD