Despite the best intentions, Americans easily succumb to the feasting and indulgence of the past holiday season, even though anticipating 2016 with a chance to wipe the slate clean. After all, January was a time of resolutions and new beginnings.
Health experts warn that backsliding can begin as early as the first week in January when good intentions are swept out the door with the tinsel and confetti. But now it’s early spring and high time to return to wiser eating choices before summer rolls around. It’s never too late for another fresh start! Besides weight loss, the positive outcomes of diet intervention include increased energy, improved health and possibly a longer lifespan.
Diets fail for various reasons: lack of commitment, boredom, being too restrictive (causing irritability) or foods that are nutritionally deficient (causing brain fog). Whatever the cause, weight loss shouldn’t be about deprivation. A small piece of dark chocolate never ruined a diet!
Diet regimens that fare the best are user-friendly, flexible and offer tasty, nutritious meals with adequate calories. However, it is more important to choose a healthy way of eating that fits with personal preferences than to rigidly follow one diet plan; this modification strategy has a better chance of long-term success.
All About Variety
Healthy eating and good nutrition begin with Mother Nature’s gift of real food, not with nutritional supplements. Food supplies our bodies with macronutrients — protein, carbohydrates and fat, micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and phytochemicals — while non-nutrient substances are believed to fight chronic diseases.
No single food can supply all the essential nutrients in the amounts, so it’s essential to eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Food diversity ensures that each meal includes all the essential nutrients. In addition, nutrients give fruits and vegetables their assortment of bright colors, creating rainbows on the plate.
The Power of Protein
Protein — a macronutrient because we need large amounts to stay healthy — plays a vital role in supporting cell growth and tissue repair. It is found in meat, fish and seafood, poultry, soy, nuts, eggs, milk, cheese and yogurt.
Vegetarians can get enough protein by choosing the right combination of foods. Protein-rich legumes (like lentils, black beans, garbanzo beans) paired with whole grains (like brown rice, whole wheat, quinoa) provide the nine essential amino acids out of 20. These are the building blocks of protein and are essential because they must be part of the daily diet. Ideally, protein intake should be spread throughout the day and should make up at least a quarter of your daily calories.
Carbohydrates are one of the body’s main sources of energy. Three main types are starches (complex carbohydrates), fiber (for digestive health) and sugars. Without complex carbs, muscle mass — including the heart — breaks down to supply enough energy. Carbs are a good source of B Vitamins. Complex carbs include fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, whole grain foods and low-fat dairy foods. Intake of sugary carbs in processed foods like soft drinks, cookies and chips should be limited.
Bad Fats vs. Good Fats
Fat supplies the body with energy, supports hormones and cell growth, makes food taste good, and is necessary for the absorption of fat-soluble Vitamins A (vision), D (bone strength), E (boosts immunity) and K (blood clotting). On the flip side, fat is high in calories; eating too much causes weight gain. Saturated fats — solid at room temperature — are a known risk factor for cardiovascular disease. They raise blood levels of cholesterol and cause plaque build up in the arteries which can lead to a stroke or heart attack.
Stick margarine (a gift from France) and solid shortening are made from vegetable oils through the chemical process of hydrogenation. Partially hydrogenated fat molecules — high in trans fats — are hazardous for heart health. Avoid them by examining labels, especially on convenience foods, and make note that partially hydrogenated oil can contain trans fats.
Heart Healthy Oils
Heart healthy monounsaturated fatty acids are found in olive, canola, peanut and sunflower oils, nuts, avocados and seeds. Olive oil is the primary source of oil in the Mediterranean diet and is beneficial to cardiovascular health. It doesn’t raise cholesterol or create fat deposits in blood vessels. Polyunsaturated fats like safflower, corn, canola and soybean oils have a beneficial effect on the heart and help reduce low-density lipoprotein (bad cholesterol). They provide omega-3 fatty acids — an essential fat the body can’t produce. Other sources include tofu, sunflower seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts, and fatty fish like salmon, trout and mackerel.
How Fats Got a Bad Rap
The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee eliminated a suggestion from previous published guidelines that Americans should restrict total fat intake to 35 percent of their daily calories. The committee focused on the type of fat eaten rather than the amount. They also dropped a recommendation that restricts intake of dietary cholesterol from foods like eggs and shrimp.
About 25 years ago, two major reports implicated saturated fat as a major culprit in the American diet. During the low-fat diet craze that followed, all fats were deemed harmful. Manufacturers replaced the fat in reduced-fat and fat-free foods with refined starches and sugars. Unfortunately, calorie counts stayed the same, and people ate twice as much. The increase in sugar intake is believed to be partly responsible for the recent rise in obesity and Type 2 diabetes in the United States.
Dr. Frank Hu of The National Academy of Medicine and a member of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Committee says the emphasis on low-fat in earlier dietary guidelines mistakenly created the impression that all fats are bad and all carbs are good.
The current committee suggests new limits on the amount of added sugar Americans should consume — no more than 10 percent of one’s daily calories. According to Dr. Hu, “There is a lot of hidden sugar in our diets, not just in sweets.”
Nature’s Food by Design
The healthiest lifestyles include homemade meals with minimally processed, wholesome foods. Build menus around nutrient-rich vegetables, fruits and whole grains. The seasonal abundance of locally harvested produce means it’s economical and, more importantly, at its peak in nutrients and flavor. Include small portions of lean protein, low-fat dairy and healthy fats. Even dessert has a place on the table when balanced with nutrient-dense foods.
Any food can be enjoyed as an occasional splurge. Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University says, “The best way to reduce calories, in my view, is to eat what you like, but eat less. Make healthier food choices and move more, of course.”
Healthy eating is not a diet, but a satisfying way of life … one delicious bite at a time.
A Rainbow of Spiralized Vegetables
Expect to see plates filled with even more interesting vegetables in 2016. “Spiralize” cucumbers, carrots, beets, daikon radish, sweet potatoes, zucchini and similar vegetables into long, curly, pasta-like strings or ribbons. Their use is limitless.
Arugula Salad with Spaghetti Squash
For this colorful salad, golden spaghetti squash strands are tossed with mixed greens, including peppery arugula. It is extremely high in Vitamins A and C; the B Vitamins; potassium; and omega 3 and omega 6 fats. Each cup is about 40 calories. Arugula is part of the brassica family along with broccoli, collards and watercress. It is a nutritional superstar loaded with Vitamins A, C and K. Glucosinolates — compounds responsible for arugula’s peppery flavor — have high potential as a cancer-fighter. Yellow, crisp Opal® apples are a cross between Golden Delicious and Topaz.
1 small spaghetti squash, rinsed
5 ounces mixed greens with arugula (about 6 cups)
1/4 medium red onion, sliced paper thin
1 large apple like Honeycrisp or Opal®, peeled, cored, julienne-cut
2 to 3 ounces blue cheese, feta cheese or soft goat cheese, crumbled
1/2 cup toasted pecan or walnut halves, in large pieces, or sunflower seeds
Lemon Dressing (recipe included)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut squash lengthwise; scrape out seeds. Place cut sides down in a roasting pan with 1-inch water. Cook 45 minutes or until tender. Don’t overcook or squash can become watery and lose its sweetness. When cool, use a fork to rake out the squash strands to a large bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Use at once or cover and refrigerate overnight. At serving time, put greens into a large bowl. Gently mix in the amount of squash desired; refrigerate leftovers for another meal. Mix onion and apple into salad. Add dressing to lightly coat ingredients. Divide among salad plates; sprinkle with cheese and pecans. Serves four to five.
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Zest of one small lemon
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 to 2 teaspoons Dijon or Creole mustard
Put ingredients into a small jar with a tight-fitting lid. Shake well; use at once or refrigerate up to two days. Makes 1/2 cup.
Suggestions for Leftover Squash: In a skillet, sauté minced garlic in olive oil or butter then toss in spaghetti squash with some fresh chopped parsley and hard grating cheese like Parmigiano-Reggiano. Season to taste.
Roasting concentrates the flavor of vegetables and brings out their sweetness. For a heartier dish, include sweet potato, purple potato or buttery Yukon Gold potato. Fennel and parsnips are especially delicious, too.
1 medium red onion, cubed
2 small zucchini, halved lengthwise, cubed
2 small summer squash, halved lengthwise, cubed
2 small peeled turnips, cubed
1 large red pepper, cut in squares
3 carrots (red, yellow, white or orange), scraped, cut in 1-inch coins (cut in half if too thick)
1/2 bag frozen artichoke heart halves
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, oregano or thyme leaves, minced
1/2 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
Grated black pepper, to taste
1 fresh garlic, finely minced
1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, Romano or Asiago cheese
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Cut veggies into similar size cubes, 1 to 1 1/4 inch. In a large bowl, coat vegetables with olive oil, herbs, salt and black pepper. Spread evenly over a large, oiled baking sheet with a rim. Roast 25 minutes, turning occasionally. Mix in garlic and top with grated cheese. Cook 5 more minutes or until tender and golden brown. Remove from the oven; taste for seasoning. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Quinoa, of the genus Chenopodium with spinach, beets and chard, is indigenous to the Andean region of South America. Technically a seed, this nutritional powerhouse is a complete protein with adequate levels of nine essential amino acids. Gluten-free, it’s an excellent source of omega 3 and omega 6 fats, vitamins, minerals and fiber. The seeds are coated with saponins (derived from Latin for soap), bitter compounds with antinutritional properties that are removed when commercially harvested. Some quinoa brands recommend a rinse before cooking; rinse water with bubbly foam indicates saponin residue. For drier quinoa, the water amount can be reduced to 1 1/2 cup. Each 1/2 cup serving of cooked quinoa is about 111 calories.
1 cup quinoa
1 to 3/4 cups water or low-sodium broth (or half water and half fresh juice)
Sea salt, to taste, if desired
If instructed to rinse quinoa, follow package directions using a fine-mesh strainer. Drain well. In a 1 1/2 quart saucepan, bring water and salt to a boil; stir in quinoa. Bring back to a boil and reduce to a simmer; cover with a lid. Cook 15 minutes OR until translucent and the liquid is absorbed. Let quinoa rest 10 minutes, then fluff gently with a fork. Serve warm or cool for use in other dishes. Makes six servings or 3 cups.
Enhance the Flavor: Toast prewashed quinoa or well-drained, rinsed quinoa in a skillet over medium-high heat, shaking the skillet or stirring constantly until the seeds are fragrant and begin to pop.