Making the right food choices can seem daunting in the face of countless fad diets that claim to hold the secret to success.
But there’s a lot more to eating right than just watching your weight.
Some important factors are understanding what you eat and why, and getting the right balance of foods, said Riska Platt, RD, a nutrition consultant and volunteer for the American Heart Association.
“They say `You are what you eat’ and the research is showing that to be true,” Platt said. “More and more diseases, and the medications that follow, are tied to foods that we eat.”
That’s why eating right (better) is one of what the American Heart Association calls Life’s Simple 7® – key health factors and behaviors that keep your heart healthy, lower your risks of heart disease and stroke, and improve your quality of life.
If you regularly skip eating the key components of good nutrition – a variety of colorful fruits and veggies, fat-free, 1% fat or low-fat dairy products, fiber-rich whole grains, and lean meats, poultry and fish – your body is missing the basic building blocks for a healthy life. Healthy foods fuel our bodies to create new cells and the energy we need to thrive and fight diseases.
The first step to eating right is to figure out what you’re actually eating. In our last article, we discussed tracking your food using a food diary as a means of learning your average calorie intake.
Platt recommends keeping a food diary, which means writing everything you eat for at least a week. It also helps to use an activity tracker to know your activity level and what else may be happening in your life so you can start to understand what drives eating decisions. (Stress? Happiness? Sadness? Boredom?) Reviewing the diary on a regular basis may also help you learn how your eating may change depending on the situation, or whether it’s a workday or weekend.
“Many people relax when they have a day off and have very different eating habits,” Platt said. “It’s important to know what you’re eating all the time, not just Monday through Friday.”
It’s a good idea to learn about nutrition recommendations that outline what a balanced diet means, and what is right for your age and activity level.
Reading nutrition labels, and limiting saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium and added sugars also is important. You can also look for the AHA’s Heart-Check mark to identify heart-healthy foods in the grocery store while shopping and also in restaurants when dining out.
Meeting with a nutritionist or registered dietitian, even for just a few sessions, can help, too. The trained professional can work with you to create a nutrition plan that will put you on the right track, Platt said.
Understanding portion size and what you need in a day is important for avoiding high-calorie foods, but also to avoid overeating “healthy” foods. Knowing the difference between a “serving” and “portion” can help you avoid portion distortion.
“Just because something is fat-free or reduced-calorie doesn’t mean you can have unlimited quantities,” Platt said.
Make Healthy Changes, but Start Small
Once you have a clear picture of your eating habits, Platt recommends focusing on small goals that can be easily attained. Setting yourself up for success makes you more likely to remain motivated to reach your larger goals.
“So many people want to totally revamp everything at once, but too many people bite off more than they can chew,” Platt said. “Sometimes a first step can just be eating one bite less.”
Set healthy goals for your diet, starting small by substituting heart-healthy options. For example, trade butter, which is high in saturated fat, for a healthier vegetable oil, such as olive or canola, or incorporate more fiber-rich whole grains by substituting a whole-grain wheat bread for white.
Another approach, Platt said, is to tackle a big problem area with gradual steps. For example, if you’re overeating sweets, such as having ice cream every night, start by eating half as much each time, then shift to every other day and then once a week; that is more realistic than trying to eliminate it all at once, Platt said.
“Plan for the long term,” Platt said. “Make changes you can continue with, not just do for a few weeks or months.”
One Meal at a Time
Celebrate successes, even small ones, Platt said. A big meal out with friends may bust your calorie budget, but focus on eating healthy for the next meal rather than beating yourself up.
“Sometimes just maintaining your plan during a period like the holidays when you’d normally gain weight is a success,” she said.
Staying in tune with changes to nutrition recommendations and making adjustments as your activity level changes over the years is also important to continuing to eat right.
Transitioning into a healthy diet plan can take time and could present setbacks along the way. But don’t let that discourage you, Platt said.
“A small step backward shouldn’t undo all your steps forward,” she said. “Keep working toward your goal, even if the path isn’t perfect.”
AHA Diet and Nutrition Recommendations
The amount of food and calories you need depends on your age, physical activity and whether you are trying to lose, gain or maintain your weight. . If you need 2,000 calories each day you should: