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Simple Steps to a Healthier Diet

Choose Whole Grains Over Refined Grains
Grain products like bread, cereal, rice, and pasta form the base of the USDA Food Guide Pyramid, with six to eleven servings recommended daily. But you should know that not all grains are created equal. To get the most from this food group, it is crucial to choose whole grain products — products such as 100-percent whole grain breads and cereals, oats, barley, brown rice, and bulgur wheat. Why? In recent years, whole grains have emerged as one of the foremost health-protective foods. In fact, several major studies have shown that people who eat whole grains are about 30 percent less likely to develop heart disease and diabetes than people who eat mostly refined grain products like white bread, white flour, white rice, and refined breakfast cereals. This should come as no surprise. Many of the nutrients that are present in whole grains — magnesium, copper, chromium, selenium, folate, vitamin E, and fiber, for instance — are essential for the protection of the cardiovascular system and the metabolism of carbohydrates. In addition, whole grains contain health-promoting phytochemicals, the benefits of which are just being recognized.

Unfortunately, most people are not reaping the benefits of whole grains. In fact, a whopping 83 percent of all grains eaten by Americans are refined! Refining strips grains of most of their fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and causes a 200- to 300-fold loss of phytochemicals. Therefore, a diet based on refined products can actually hasten the development of certain health problems. Need another reason to switch to whole grains? Fiber-rich whole grains are more filling and satisfying than their refined counterparts, and so can help prevent overeating. In contrast, a diet of low-fiber refined foods will leave you feeling constantly hungry.

When made properly, breads, muffins, casseroles, side dishes, soups, and even desserts can include wholesome whole grains.

Limit Your Use of Table and Cooking Fats
One of the most effective ways to trim fat and calories from your diet is to cut down on butter, oil, and other fats used in cooking and baking, as well as table fats found in products such as margarine, mayonnaise, and salad dressings. In their full-fat versions, just one tablespoon of any of these products will add about 10 grams of fat and 100 calories to your meal, so it is well worth finding ways to cut back on these products. In addition, a diet that is low in fat leaves more room for healthful foods like vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. But can you cut back on fat and still have flavor? Absolutely! For each of these foods there is now a lighter alternative that can substitute beautifully in your favorite dishes.

Eat Sugar Only in Moderation
Too much sugar has long been a problem in many people's diets. And the mind-boggling array of low-fat cookies, brownies, pastries, candies, and other goodies produced in recent years has only added to the problem. You should realize that while these products may contain little or no fat, they usually contain just as much sugar as their high-fat counterparts — and sometimes more! What health threats are posed by sugar? First and foremost, sugar contains no nutrients, and, when eaten in excess, can actually deplete your body's stores of chromium, the B vitamins, and other vitamins and minerals. Second, sugary foods are typically eaten in place of nutritious foods. Third, by overwhelming the taste buds and increasing the taste threshold for sweet flavors, diets rich in sugary foods can cause you to lose your taste for the more subtle flavors of wholesome, natural foods. Last but not least, sugary foods are usually loaded with calories, making them a real menace if you're watching your weight.

The good news is that, in moderation, sugar can be enjoyed without harm to your health. What's a moderate amount? A person who needs 2,200 calories per day to maintain his or her weight should aim for an upper limit of 48 grams of sugar per day, or about 12 teaspoons. If you need only 1,600 calories per day, your upper limit should be 24 grams, or about 6 teaspoons — the amount present in 8 ounces of sugar-sweetened soda. Unfortunately, consumption of sodas, ice cream, pastries, cookies, and other sweets has risen dramatically in the past decade. Currently, the average American diet — which includes over 30 teaspoons of sugar per day — can hardly be considered moderate.

Limit Your Sodium Intake to 2,400 Milligrams Per Day
A limited sodium intake has many benefits, ranging from better-controlled blood pressure to stronger bones. But of all the guidelines for good eating, this one can be the most difficult to follow, since many lower-fat foods contain extra salt. Fortunately, with a just a little effort, even this dietary goal can be met. The most effective sodium-control strategy is to cut back on the salt used for cooking and at the table. Believe it or not, just one teaspoon of salt contains 2,300 milligrams of sodium — almost your entire daily allowance — so it pays to put the salt shaker away. You can also cut back on sodium by switching to a "light" salt, which is half sodium chloride and half potassium chloride. (Note that people with certain medical conditions should not use light salt due to its high potassium content.)

Another effective strategy is to limit your intake of high-sodium processed foods. Read labels, and choose the lower-sodium frozen meals, canned goods, broths, cheeses, and other products. Also, whenever you make a recipe that contains high-sodium cheeses, processed meats, or other salty ingredients, avoid adding any extra salt.

These guidelines aren't glamorous and they don't make headlines, but, as many people have discovered, they do produce results. The fact is that it is the simple things you do day in and day out that have the biggest impact on your health. You'll find that the tips provided throughout this book make it surprisingly easy to follow these steps and to build a healthful, enjoyable eating plan.

Excerpted from The Best-Kept Secrets of Healthy Cooking by Sandra Woodruff, R.D. Copyright � 2000 by Sandra Woodruff.

To order this book go to www.penguin.com. Get a 15% discount with the coupon code FENPARENT.


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