When it comes to resolutions for any given new year, introducing healthy habits often tops the list. Even with a renewed goal, it can seem overwhelming to overhaul your diet. Dr. Gena Gardiner, a physician with Mercy Clinic Family Medicine in Chesterfield Valley, understands.
Here, she offers 10 healthy eating tips, and whether you adopt one or all of them, each can help make a positive difference to your health in 2017.
1. Gardiner starts with a resolution to limit processed foods, and she backs that up with a few simple guidelines for spotting heavily processed items: Read labels and choose products that contain no more than five ingredients, making sure you can pronounce all of them. “Eat food generally in a form that is as close to what occurs in nature as possible,” she says. If you’re short on time, frozen vegetables can be convenient. She adds, “I cook several chicken breasts at a time and use them for a variety of dishes such as quick enchiladas, sandwiches, salads and soups.”
2. “Eat more fiber in the form of whole foods,” Gardiner says. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, oats, flaxseed and oat bran are among the best sources of dietary fiber. In addition to promoting bowel regularity, soluble fiber might help lower cholesterol levels, reduce blood pressure and decrease inflammation. “Soluble fiber, such as psyllium and oat products, can reduce the risk of coronary artery disease and stroke, while insoluble fibers, such as wheat bran and some fruits and vegetables, have been recommended to treat digestive problems such as constipation, hemorrhoids and chronic diarrhea,” she says.
3. Limit sugar and carbohydrates. “This keeps insulin production and blood glucose more level, leading to less highs and lows that may stimulate overeating,” Gardiner says. Added sugar is found in many processed foods and beverages, so check labels. “The use of artificial sweeteners has not been shown to be effective in weight loss,” she adds. “However, if a person is consuming high calories in soft drinks or sweetened tea, changing to an artificially sweetened beverage may help in the weight loss, but changing to water would be ideal.”
4. Tempted to start your new year’s diet with a cleanse? No need, Gardiner says. “The body is able to detox on its own through the kidneys and the liver,” she explains. If you want to jump-start a weight-loss plan, Gardiner suggests a five-day cabbage soup-type plan, as long as you don’t have underlying health issues. “Usually, the cabbage soup is made with minimal fat, lots of veggies and not too much salt,” she says. “If this is too extreme or difficult, you could do a similar weight-loss jump-start by adding lean chicken in the recipe.”
5. To help maintain a healthy diet, a little planning can help a lot. Think about your meals in advance, and plan out a menu. Gardiner’s favorite diets are the Mediterranean diet and low-carbohydrate diets, but she advises patients who have high blood pressure to follow the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) plan, which is available online at dashdiet.org. “If you get sidetracked, it’s important to know that you have the tools and the capability to get back on your plan,” she adds. “You’re in it for the long haul.”
6. As you embark on a healthier diet, keeping a journal or log of your food intake can be helpful, Gardiner says. A 2008 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that people who keep a food diary lost more weight than those who did not. Researchers think that writing down everything you eat increases awareness and helps identify areas for improvement.
7. Eat a variety of foods, and be selective at the store. “Organic and non-GMO [genetically modified organism] foods do not guarantee a better quality of food, and that’s an extensive topic in and of itself,” Gardiner says. “In general, buy the freshest foods available. Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly with a dish brush, but do not use detergents or soaps. Trim fat from meat and skin from poultry.”
8. If weight loss is your ultimate goal, then be smart about calorie needs. “The guideline of a 3,500 calorie restriction a week, resulting in 1 pound lost in a week, is general and does not take into account other factors,” Gardiner says. “The National Institutes of Health’s Body Weight Planner can help predict weight loss more accurately.” The online tool (supertracker.usda.gov/bwp/index.html) considers current weight, height, sex, age and activity level.
9. Don’t just rely on diet for overall health and wellness. Clean eating is crucial, but exercise is another important aspect of a healthy lifestyle. “Although it’s difficult to lose weight with exercise alone, exercise appears to be beneficial for body fat and can augment a weight-loss plan,” Gardiner says. “Exercise also has many cardiovascular and mental health benefits.” Gardiner recommends planning exercise on your calendar and striving for at least 30 minutes on most days. “I like wearing my activity tracker because I’ve realized how little I do over 24 hours,” she says. “I try to move more throughout the day and walk my dog regularly now.”
10. Finally, if you’ve taken all these steps to heart or adopted only a few but found them beneficial, reward yourself. “Positive reinforcement can go a long way to changing our habits,” Gardiner notes. Treat yourself to a nonfood reward to celebrate your successes. For example, Gardiner suggests giving yourself a set amount of money for each day you eat healthfully and exercise. All those successful days will add up, not only to a lot of cash but also to healthier years to come.