Happy New Year!
Is changing your diet on the to-do list for 2024? If so, you are not alone: a recent Forbes Health poll found that 33.8% of planned new year’s resolutions centered on losing weight and 31.6% were about improving diet.
Despite these good intentions, many of us find it difficult to sustain a healthier diet over the long-term, which interferes with our weight-loss goals and can adversely affect our overall health.
“Eating healthier is one of the most important things anyone can do to improve their health,” says Dr. Elizabeth Wagner, an obstetrician and gynecologist in Fort Worth. “A lot of times people tend to make it more complicated than it is – a healthy diet mainly requires some planning and self-discipline.”
How Eating Better Improves Health
Eating a healthy diet isn’t just about losing weight, although that is often an important motivator for people looking to improve their diet. A balanced and healthy diet improves and protects our health in countless ways.
There are plenty of diets out there you can subscribe to which will strictly limit what you can eat, how much you can eat and even what time of day you can eat. Those may be right for some people, but the truth is, you can also achieve a healthy diet by observing a few basic ground rules.
You can put most food and drink into one of three buckets:
Eat & Drink Less:
- Salt. Consuming less salt is good for your heart. High sodium intake is a key risk factor for high blood pressure.
- Sugar. Reducing sugar intake is not only good for your waistline, but it also helps reduce the risk of developing diabetes and prediabetes.
- Saturated fat. Eating less saturated fat, found in foods like butter, cream and red meat, helps reduce risk of heart disease and stroke.
- White flour and white rice. Foods made with white flour, such as bread and pasta should be consumed sparingly. White flour has been stripped of the nutrients in the grain, leaving only the waistline-hostile carbs.
- Alcohol. People should only drink alcohol in moderation due to numerous negative health impacts linked to excessive drinking. Moderation is defined as no more than two drinks per day for men and one for women. However, keep in mind that even one or two drinks contain plenty of calories that will contribute to weight gain.
- Fruit juice. Fresh fruit is good for us, but fruit juice is less so. While a glass of OJ In the morning does provide some beneficial vitamin C, it is also calorie heavy.
Eat & Drink More:
- Omega-3 fats. Eating foods with omega-3 fats – found in salmon, mackerel, walnuts and edamame – improves your heart health, lowers triglycerides and is good for your eyes and brain.
- Fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables. Fresh fruits and vegetables are usually high in fiber, which helps you feel full and is good for your digestive system. In addition, many are rich in antioxidants, which are believed to help protect the body’s cells from free radicals, harmful agents that contribute to heart disease and cancer.
- Whole grains. Whole grain pasta and bread are better for you than those made with white flour. They have more nutrients and beneficial dietary fiber.
- Water. Many of us don’t drink enough water. Drinking plenty of water – at least 64 ounces per day – is important for our health and also helps curb hunger.
- Processed baked goods. These tend to be high in carbs, sugar and preservatives.
- Soft drinks & fruit punch. These are loaded with sugar and calories and provide zero nutritional value.
- Anything containing trans fat. The worst kind of fat, trans fat increases the bad, LDL cholesterol and reduces the good, HDL cholesterol.
Planning for How to Eat Better
“Many of us have the best of intentions when it comes to improving our diet and eating healthier,” says Dr. Karen Grant, a family practice physician in Fort Worth. “But then life gets in the way and derails our good intentions.”
You know the drill – you’re exhausted at the end of the day from working, ferrying kids around and running errands. You just do not feel like cooking dinner – not tonight, so you reach for your phone and order some pizza. Of course, you’re not limited to just pizza any longer with so many restaurants available on meal-delivery apps.
A few swipes later, and you’ll have a meal for the whole family on your front porch in under an hour. While it’s possible your order may contain some healthy items, there’s a good chance the entrée you’ve ordered will be high in salt, saturated fat, sugar or all three. Since it’s from a restaurant, the portion size will undoubtedly be way too large. Repeat this scenario a couple of times a week, and your healthy eating goals for the year are suddenly on the ropes.
How to get around this dilemma? With some planning. Take a little time over the weekend to plan out the weeks’ meals. Go to the grocery store and get what you need for the week. Try making a few meals that lend themselves well to leftovers, so you get multiple meals out of them.
For example, make a healthy bean stew or hearty soup for Sunday dinner and enjoy the leftovers on Tuesday. Grill some chicken breasts or salmon over the weekend and store in the fridge. Feature it as the protein on a salad or bowl later in the week.
In addition, there are great online resources for countless weeknight recipes that will come together in 30 minutes or less. Planning out what you’re going to cook and making sure you have the ingredients on hand will make the difference between a healthy weeknight meal and one that is loaded with calories, salt and fat. You’ll also save a lot of money!
Other Healthy Eating Tips
Here are a few more best practices to keep in mind to facilitate a healthier diet:
- Eat breakfast! Eating a good breakfast gives you needed energy to start the day and helps you avoid over-eating later.
- Healthy snacks can help curb hunger and prevent overeating at lunch and dinner. Items like fresh fruits, raw unsalted nuts and lightly buttered popcorn are good choices.
- Practice portion control: it’s not just what you eat, but how much. Control your portions by eating slowly and not eating in front of the TV.
- Don’t eat right before bedtime – it will interfere with your digestive process and sleep.
Should You Count Calories?
You can, but it’s not necessary. It is very possible to have a healthy diet without counting calories every day. Many people find that to be a tedious and time-consuming process that they quickly abandon, so don’t let calorie-counting become an obstacle to your goal of eating better.
However, it’s important for everyone to have a basic understanding of calories and how they impact our weight and health. Even many healthy foods – walnuts, avocados and olive oil, for example – are still high in calories.
A pound of bodyweight is equivalent to 3,500 calories. We naturally burn some calories throughout the day, even without exercise. However, for most people, a high-calorie diet – even with exercise – will likely lead to weight gain.
“It’s good to have an approximate idea of how many calories you’re consuming in a meal,” advises Dr. Camille Folkard, an endocrinologist and internal medicine physician with offices in Dallas and Plano. “You don’t need to count them all the time or log them, but you should be cognizant that two slices of pizza will contain a lot more calories – not to mention sodium and saturated fat – than a 4-ounce serving of lean fish and a side of steamed vegetables. Bottom line, we have to burn more calories than we consume to lose weight. If we eat more calories than we burn, we’re going to put on extra pounds.”
Create Sustainable Change
“We all know people who embarked on a new diet in January, only to abandon it by March,” says Dr. Curtis Evans, an internal medicine physician in Fort Worth. “The key to success is to gradually change your lifestyle with respect to food by incorporating good habits and practices and phasing out the bad ones. Don’t focus as much on depriving yourself of foods you love but rather on identifying healthy foods you enjoy and are realistic for you to prepare at home on a regular basis.”
The most effective and lasting health changes are the ones you build the foundation for over time so that they are sustainable. Expecting instant results – and being disappointed when they don’t appear – only sets us up for failure. Creating and sustaining a healthy diet plan is as much about the journey as the eventual destination.
This article has been reviewed and approved by a panel of Privia Medical Group North Texas physicians.
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