Simple Steps to a Healthier Diet
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In recent years, volumes of research have proven that we have enormous power to prevent disease, slow the rate of aging, increase our energy level, and promote natural weight control simply by making smart food choices. The old saying "You are what you eat" has proven truer than anyone could have guessed. And despite headlines that are often contradictory and confusing, eating healthfully is a lot easier than most people think.
Following are some simple strategies that can help bring your diet into balance. In fact, these strategies are so simple that people often dismiss them. But don't let their simplicity fool you they are very powerful. By implementing the following guidelines, you will automatically get more of the antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients that your body needs, and less of the harmful fats, sugar, salt, and calories that you don't need.
Eat Two to Three Servings of Protein-Rich Foods Every Day
An adequate protein intake is critical for maintaining lean body mass and muscular strength, and for keeping your immune system going strong. But many people who follow low-fat diets do not eat enough protein. The reason? In an effort to reduce fat and cholesterol, people often choose to eat less meat, or even to give it up entirely. And while it is not necessary to eat meat to get enough protein, you must substitute a protein-rich alternative like dried beans, soy foods, or eggs. Unfortunately, many people do not do this. If you are watching your weight, you should know that it is especially important to include two to three ounces of protein in each meal. Why? Protein-rich foods are the most filling of all foods, so they help stave off hunger and keep you feeling satisfied until your next meal.
Fat-fighters will be happy to know that a wide selection of ultra-lean red meats, pork, poultry, and even lunchmeats and sausages are now available. This means that you can have your protein without a counterproductive dose of saturated fat. Where does seafood fit in? Fish range from practically fat-free to moderately fatty. However, the oil in fish provides an essential kind of fat, known as omega-3 fat, that most people do not eat in sufficient quantities. Therefore, all kinds of fish and especially the more oily ones like salmon and mackerel are considered healthful, and are excellent alternatives to meat and poultry. In fact, fish should be substituted for meat at least twice a week.
Prefer not to eat meat? Plenty of protein-rich plant-based alternatives are available. And even if you are a meat-eater, these vegetarian alternatives should constitute at least half of your protein choices. Why? Plant foods are naturally low in fat and contain no cholesterol. In addition, plant foods supply the dietary fiber and health-promoting phytochemicals that meats, poultry, and seafood do not.
Some of the best and most widely available alternatives to meat are legumes dried beans, peas, and lentils. Besides being rich in protein and nutrients, legumes are loaded with soluble fibers that both lower cholesterol and help stabilize blood sugar levels. One type of legume that is gaining popularity in this country is the soybean. Once relegated only to health food stores, a wide variety of soy products, including tofu, burgers, and ground meat alternatives, are now available at your local grocery store.
Eat Two to Three Servings of Calcium-Rich Foods Every Day
Everyone knows that calcium is essential for building strong bones. But calcium also helps maintain normal blood pressure, may help prevent colon cancer, and performs many other vital functions in the body. Yet most people's diets fall short of the recommended 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams per day. Why do so many people lack calcium? Many avoid calcium-rich dairy products, believing them to be high in fat and calories. While this used to be true, these days, a multitude of no- and low-fat reduced-calorie dairy products are widely available.
Prefer not to eat dairy products? No problem. But you must substitute other calcium-rich foods such as calcium-fortified soymilk, cheese, and yogurt. As a bonus, soy products also contain phytochemicals and nutrients that help protect against osteoporosis, cancer, and heart disease. Many green leafy vegetables--including broccoli greens, kale, and bok choy are also loaded with calcium. And legumes and tofu can add significant amounts of calcium to the diet.
Eat at Least Five Servings of Fruits and Vegetables Every Day
Fruits and vegetables offer a bounty of nutrients, fiber, and phytochemicals all powerful preventive medicines against cancer, heart disease, and many other health problems. Since not all of the protective substances present in these foods have been identified, and some of them probably never will be, it is impossible to get all the benefits of fruits and vegetables from pills or supplements. Currently, fruits and vegetables are placed on the second tier of the USDA Food Guide Pyramid, while grains form the larger foundation. Some health professionals believe that this order should be reversed, making fruits and vegetables the core of the diet, and giving grains the secondary role.
Watching your weight? You just might benefit from including generous portions of produce in your meals. People who skip the vegetables and fruits at a mere 25 to 50 calories per cup, and pile on extra rice or pasta at 200 calories per cup or who have an extra slice of bread at 80 to 100 calories will probably find weight loss slower than they expected. Realize that starchy vegetables like potatoes, corn, and peas contain about the same amount of calories as rice or pasta, so be careful not to overdo portions of these veggies.
Sadly, the average American does not consume even the minimum recommended amount of vegetables and fruits. Even worse, much of the time, these foods are laden with butter, margarine, cheese sauce, or other fats. But getting your five-a-day is not as hard as you may think. A medium-sized piece of fruit, a half cup of cooked or raw fruits or vegetables, a cup of leafy salad greens, a quarter cup of dried fruit, or three-fourths of a cup of fruit or vegetable juice each constitute a serving. So if you include at least one cup of fruit or vegetables at each meal, and replace snacks like pretzels, crackers, chips, and cookies with fruits and vegetables, you will easily meet or exceed the five-a-day recommendation. Finally, remember that five servings are the minimum recommended amount. To maximize your health, aim for eight to ten servings.
Excerpted from The Best-Kept Secrets of Healthy Cooking by Sandra Woodruff, R.D. Copyright © 2000 by Sandra Woodruff.
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