Whether you make formal New Year’s resolutions or not, the changing of the calendar often leads to contemplating what changes we might like to see in our lives. On the nutrition front, these are my top five picks for habits worth cultivating in 2017.
Creating and serving even the simplest of meals is a profound way of caring for yourself and your loved ones. Homemade meals tend to be more healthful than ones you purchase, because when you cook from scratch, you know exactly what you’re eating. That makes it much easier to eat in a way that aligns with your health goals.
Think that cooking is difficult or time-consuming? It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. Even inexperienced home cooks can do wonderful things when they learn a few core skills: A few ways to cook vegetables; the ingredients for a simple vinaigrette; how to cook a pot of beans or whole grains; what to do with a piece of meat or fish, or a block of tofu or tempeh.
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Nail down a few basics, assemble a small collection of condiments and seasonings that appeal to your taste buds and you’re set. For inspiration, look for cookbooks and food blogs that embrace real-world “let’s get dinner on the table” cooking with short ingredient lists that emphasize easily available fresh foods and pantry staples. Save any “project” cooking for the weekends.
Consider why you eat
Sure, you eat when you’re hungry, but what are the other reasons you eat? Boredom? Stress? Loneliness? Anxiety? Many people use food to meet needs that food simply wasn’t meant to meet. When you find yourself reaching for food or mindlessly browsing the contents of your refrigerator, get in the habit of asking yourself, “Am I hungry?” If the answer is “No,” ask yourself what you are expecting food to do for you in that moment. Usually, there are better, more meaningful ways of entertaining or soothing yourself.
Reduce added sugars
According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, it’s difficult to get enough of the nutrients we need for good health without exceeding our calorie needs if we get more than 10 percent of our total daily calories from added sugar. The average American does get more than that, especially children, teens and young adults.
Added sugars are different from the natural sugars found in vegetables, fruits, grains, beans and dairy products. Added sugars, which include white sugar or other calorie-containing sweeteners, are highly refined from their original source and add calories without nutrients. Beverages are the biggest source of added sugars, followed by desserts and snack foods, but sugar is added to many prepared foods —including salad dressings and frozen meals — another reason home cooking is better for health.
Eat more plants
If you make one change to your eating habits for 2017, a great choice would be to eat more whole plant foods: vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices. Simply put, adopting a plant-based diet is one of the best moves you can make for your health if you want to make your meals more nutrient-rich and reduce your risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer and other chronic diseases.
The good news is that plant-based diets can take many forms, from vegan to vegetarian to flexitarian to omnivore. The common denominator is that they put plant foods at the center of your plate. If you also choose to eat animal-based foods (meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy), they play smaller, supporting roles. While the benefits of a plant-based diet come from eating a variety of plant foods, you can’t go wrong by making vegetables the star. They are packed with vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients — compounds that reduce chronic inflammation and disease risk — while being lower in calories than other foods.
Let go of rigid rules
Although it’s hard to go wrong with eating plenty of plants and minimizing a reliance on highly processed foods, the fact is that there’s no single perfect eating plan. A nutritious diet allows for flexibility and shifts over time to suit your tastes and nutritional needs. Trying to find and follow a “perfect” eating plan is not only an exercise in futility, but it also often leads to all-or-nothing thinking: You’re either perfect or you’re a failure. This can lead to feelings of shame, and shame is a lousy motivator for positive change. Perfection is the enemy of progress.
If you have a history of all-or-nothingism, why not try something new this year: Start small, start today and keep moving forward. Pick one or two areas to focus on — adding more vegetables to lunch and dinner, bumping up protein at breakfast, eating regularly instead of skipping meals and curbing mindless snacking are a few favorites — then add another only when you feel solid in your new habits.
At a glance
A short list of what you can stop doing in 2017:
- 1. Stop feeding your children store-bought snacks. Chips, crackers and other salty treats are not only sodium-laden, but also full of preservatives and artificial colors. Put an end to it now. You don’t want any of those things in growing bodies. Everyone may have to go cold turkey in the family, so start adding baby carrots, celery, grapes and other fresh fruits and vegetables that can survive in zip-lock baggies and handed out in the car.
- 2. Avoid the drive-thru. You know where I mean, and it isn’t the bank. From slices of pizza to burgers and fried chicken, taking home fast food for dinner should no longer be an option. It’s better (but not great) to stop in the supermarket and buy a meal at the deli counter if you are in a hurry. Let’s be frank: Did you really think anything fried was good for you or your kids?
- 3. Stop and look in your kitchen cabinet and refrigerator/freezer. What do you see? How many things in the cabinet come prepackaged in a box or a can? Mac and cheese, Rice-A-Roni, Campbell’s soup, for example. Is there a way for you to stop buying some of them? All, and many more are just stuffed with calories, fat, sodium, etc. Buy plain pasta and rice and doctor it up at home.
- 4. Stop being ignorant on purpose. I know you’ve been avoiding looking at the nutrition labels on food. Learn to read one; it’s not hard or beyond your capabilities. The hardest part is doing the math: How many servings are in this container? If I eat the whole thing, what will I consume? You can do it.
- 5. Stop and look at the proportions of food on your family’s plates. Hard as it is for Americans to do, we all need to stop giving meat/poultry the most room. Then, we need to stop making starches like bread, potatoes, pasta and rice the second-biggest portion. Make veggies No. 1. Do it little by little and you’ll start edging out the other two.
Suzanne Boyle, News-Democrat