Making good food choices is important for everyone. As a Nutritionist and Registered Dietitian, I believe there are two important things you can do to achieve a healthy food lifestyle—and that is to: 1) make good food choices, and 2) identify habits that you can keep doing over a long period of time, which fit easily into your daily routine, and can become a sustainable part of your life (by this, I mean no fad diets!).
Make Your Calories Count!
If you find dieting, losing weight and making healthy food choices difficult, look at it this way: try to get the most out of the calories you eat. Avoid foods that have a lot of calories but little nutritional value—or “empty” calories. Foods with a lot of nutrients (vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy fats) and relatively few calories are considered healthy.
Now ask yourself—is there something you are eating or drinking that you can cut out? A great (and easy) first step is to quit sugary drinks, such as soda, bottled lemonade or sweetened tea, or juices with sugar added. Try unsweetened teas and flavored or plain water instead. Cookies, cakes and candies are also filled with empty calories, so think about cutting those out of your diet too.
If you can cut out 500 calories from sugary beverages or snacks every week, you may see an improvement in your weight of as much as 1 to 2 pounds a week. You might miss the sweet taste but it may help you to know that your taste buds take time to change, so give yourself about 2 weeks to get used to it.
How to Tackle the Grocery Store
So how else can you start making good food choices? Let’s start with the grocery store. When you go food shopping, you may be faced with making decisions about what the healthiest items are to purchase. This can be a frustrating and confusing task. Your goal should be to make the healthiest choices possible that fit into your lifestyle and can be sustained over time. Here are some tips that may help you:
Never shop when you are hungry. You will make much better choices if you shop after you’ve had a good breakfast or lunch, or when you’re not in a rush.
Try shopping the perimeter of the store and fill up your basket. The most healthy items are usually located on the outside aisles of the store, including fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs, greens, meat and dairy.
See if you can check out and exit the store without buying packaged and processed foods.
If you are buying packaged or processed foods, be sure you know how to read food labels, so you can be more informed about what you are eating.
Try to spend the most time in the fresh fruit and vegetable section. Most of us don’t eat enough vegetables, which offer many nutritional benefits and fill you up so you can better resist the temptation of unhealthy foods. Deeply colored fruits and vegetables provide more nutrients, so be sure to eat a variety of different colored produce.
When you go to the meat section, pick lean proteins, such as fish and skinless chicken or turkey breast.
Select whole grains instead of white flour, white pasta, and white rice. Quinoa is a great grain to try because it has a lot of protein, which is not the case for many grain products.
Don’t forget the legumes: chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans or lentils. Eat these for protein and fiber.
Choose naturally low-fat and high-fiber foods (e.g., low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese, whole grain cereals).
Know that not all oils are bad for you. Look for nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil and other healthy oils which can provide the fat you need in your diet.
Write a grocery list ahead of time. Make sure it’s filled with healthy food choices, and stick to it!
Some grocery stores have dietitians on staff to help you make good choices. It often helps to be able to talk about your personal preferences and health needs with a qualified nutrition professional, a registered dietitian. These services may be free at certain grocery stores.
A good portion of a healthy meal is made up of fresh fruits and vegetables. Sometimes you may not be able to get fresh fruits and vegetables. In that case, try to choose frozen fruits and vegetables, which are usually picked and frozen when they are at their freshest, and keep them in your freezer and use whenever you are in a pinch. Find out if there is a year-round farmer’s market near you. Farmer’s markets can help you cut out processed foods, since they offer fresh fruits and vegetables.
I advise against eating canned items because canned vegetables are usually filled with salt. Canned or packaged fruits can also contain added sugar. If you do choose canned vegetables, look for no or low salt vegetables, and fruits preserved in their natural juices rather than syrup.
Cooking Quick and Healthy
After the grocery store, it’s a great idea to carve out some time to wash and cut some of your fruits and vegetables. This will make the fresh, delicious items ready to eat when you are hungry and want a snack or need to cook a quick meal. Otherwise the fresh produce may end up unused and thrown away. The goal is to make it easy to snack on something healthy (think of baby carrots or berries), especially when you feel like reaching for cookies or potato chips.
Be sure to experiment with different spices: find a few spices you like, so that you can use them in tasty, fresh meals—I personally like cayenne pepper. With most of the preparation done ahead of time, you can take your cut up vegetables and your go-to spices, and sauté them together in a pan with a tablespoon or two of olive oil. Add your lean protein to the pan: shrimp is a nice option because it cooks up in no time at all.
Make sense? OK, now go ahead and work on making food choices that are easy, healthy and tasty!
Alpa Shah, MS, RD, CDE is a Senior Medical Manager, US Dietary Supplements, Global Medical Affairs at Pfizer