Seven Strategies for Healthy Eating

Healthy eating isn’t rocket science. Just follow Mom’s advice, eating your peas and beets and slugging your milk, right? Unfortunately, though, for many people, eating healthier is as challenging as starting an exercise program, which is undoubtedly why many of my Personal Training clients have turned to me for guidance.

If there is one nutritional no-no that takes the cake, skipping meals might be it. For starters, “people who skip meals aren’t getting all of the nutrients they need,” says Mickey Harpaz, Ph.D., exercise physiologist and nutritionist in New York City and Fairfield County, Conn., and author of Menopause Reset! (Rodale, 2011). Not only are they missing out on nutrients that will help prevent chronic diseases, they may also suffer more immediate consequences, like not having energy (which then threatens their ability to exercise) and having a weakened immune system, which will make them more susceptible to colds and the flu.

Studies also show that people who skip meals tend to overeat at later meals, especially if they’re giving breakfast the brush-off. “Eating breakfast helps you avoid excessive hunger—and overeating—later in the day,” says J. Graham Thomas, Ph.D., co-investigator of the National Weight Control Registry, a database of people who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for a minimum of one year. Among these successful losers, 78 percent report eating breakfast daily.

Nosh protein with each meal
Protein isn’t just the building blocks of muscles; it’s also a dieter’s friend. The main reason? Protein keeps you satisfied. “Compared to carbohydrates, which take about two hours to digest, protein takes about four hours, making you feel fuller for longer periods of time,” says Heather Bauer, R.D., founder of Nu-Train, a diet and nutritional counseling center in New York City, and author of Bread is the Devil (St. Martin’s, 2012).

While protein at every meal is critical, including it at breakfast is especially important. “Eating protein at breakfast not only helps youlose weight, I’ve found that it also prevents mood swings,” Bauer says.

Sample Equivalents of 1 Ounce of Protein

1 tablespoon peanut or almond butter
2 tablespoons hummus
¼ cup cooked beans
1 ounce cooked fish or lean beef (about ¼ the size of a deck of cards)
One egg
¼ cup (about 2 ounces) tofu

Good protein sources include fish, turkey, chicken, egg whites, nonfat yogurt and lean beef. For my vegetarian Personal Trainingclients: eat beans, tofu and meat substitutes.

Yet how much protein should you be eating? Not surprisingly, this is a question that baffles many individuals. In a recent survey of 1,000 people conducted by CLIF Builder’s and Kelton Research, the majority of survey respondents were unsure how much protein they need each day; in fact, only 35 percent of respondents understood their protein needs.

For basic guidelines, though, turn to government recommendations, MyPlate (, and check out the protein equivalents in the box to the right. In general, women ages 19 to 30 should eat 5.5-ounce equivalents of protein daily, while women 31 and older should be consuming 5 ounces per day. Men ages 19 to 30 have slightly higher protein requirements and should be eating 6.5-ounce equivalents a day, while men 31 to 50 should eat 6-ounce equivalents daily. Men ages 51 years and older are advised to eat 5.5-ounce equivalents daily, although it should be noted that all of these recommended amounts could change, depending on the activity level of you as an individual.

Pump up the produce
It’s no secret that Americans are lax about eating their fruits and veggies. Case in point: One study from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that among more than 15,000 individuals surveyed, 62 percent did not eat any whole fruit servings, while a quarter of the participants reported eating no vegetables.

Yet fruits and veggies are crucial for good health, especially because they may help ward off certain chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, some cancers, stroke, cardiovascular disease and hypertension, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They’re also low in calories and loaded with fiber, which can help you lose and manage weight. “People who eat the highest amount of fruits and veggies have the healthiest body weight and gain less weight as they age,” says Barbara Rolls, Ph.D., professor of nutritional sciences at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Penn., and author of The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet (HarperCollins, 2012). She adds that her studies have also found that high amounts of fruits and vegetables in place of other foods can help people slim down.

How much you need depends on your gender and age. According government guidelines via MyPlate, all men regardless of age should eat two cups of fruit a day; in the veggie department, men ages 19 to 50 need three cups daily and men 51 and older need 2.5 cups daily. Women, on the other hand, need 2.5 cups of vegetables and 2.5 cups of fruits daily if they’re 19 to 50 years old; women 51 and older should eat two cups of vegetables and two cups of fruits a day.

Of course, counting cups can get confusing, which is why the government has a simple solution: Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables. Start meals with soup, salad, or a vegetable or fruit; bulking up sandwiches with lettuce, tomatoes and other veggies; leaving fruit on the counter at home so you’re more likely to eat it; sneak vegetables and fruits into recipes whenever possible; and pack easily accessible produce like apples, oranges or carrot sticks in lunch bags.
Limit processed foods
From frozen dinners to potato chips, processed foods have become a mainstay in the American diet. Yet while they might be convenient, they’re frequently far from nutritious. “Processed foods are often low in fiber, and it’s fiber that satisfies you and slows digestion,” Rolls says. “Without that fiber, it’s easy to overeat these processed foods.”

Processed foods are also created to appeal to the taste buds, which is why they’re usually loaded with added fats, sugars and salt. As a result, you will not only tip the scale in the wrong direction with a diet high in processed foods, you also won’t be eating as nutritionally as you could be.

This isn’t to say that all processed foods are bad or that there’s not a place for them from time to time, Rolls says. For instance, pre-packaged and frozen fruits and vegetables (sans sauces) can be a healthy addition to any kitchen pantry. Even foods like fruit-and-nut bars can play a role in the diet, especially if you travel and need to fuel up. “You don’t need to ban [all] processed foods,” Rolls says, “but you should eat less of them, especially those that are calorie-dense, and [instead] focus more on whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, healthy fish and low-fat dairy.”

Choose healthier carbs
With the rise of the Atkins Diet and other carb-restricting diets, carbohydrates became the evil nutrient. Yet if you are cutting carbs from your diet, you need this basic nutrition lesson: “Carbohydrates keep you full, stabilize blood sugar levels and provide valuable nutrients,” Bauer says. Carbohydrates also fuel the body, which is crucial if you want to exercise regularly.

Trouble is, many people either think all carbohydrates are evil so they cut them from their diet or they make unhealthy carb choices. To help her personal training clients counter this confusion, Bauer lumps carbohydrates into two categories: “Devil Carbs” (like white bread, white pasta, bagels, muffins, scones, candy, chips, popcorn, bread from the bread basket, pizza, ice cream, brownies, cake and Danish pastries) and “Angel Carbs,” which include brown rice, quinoa, baked sweet or white potatoes and whole-wheat breads. She advises avoiding Devil Carbs—“they spike your blood sugar, and when you crash, you feel tired and hungry,” she says. Choose “Angel Carbs” instead.

Getting my personal training clients to shift to healthier carbs is only part of the battle, though. I also need to remind them not to go overboard on carbohydrates, which is easy to do in this country. Take, for instance, a classic steak dinner, which is often accompanied by a baked potato and bread, or a picnic where a typical plate might include a hamburger bun, potato salad, corn on the cob and cookies. “Eating all of those carbohydrates at one meal is a recipe for weight gain,” Harpez says, which is why he passes along a simple rule. “Eat only one carbohydrate source per meal.”

Give sugar the boot
Call us a sweet nation: Americans consume about 23 teaspoons of added sugar per day, roughly 460 calories, according to the USDA. Added sugars, which are different from naturally occurring sugars in foods like fruits and milk, are found in regular soft drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks, candy, cakes, cookies, pies, pastries, donuts, fruit drinks and ice cream.

So what’s the danger? According to the American Heart Association, added sugars not only contain zero nutrients, the added calories can also pack on the pounds, which could lead to obesity and decreased heart health. “Those added sugars increase blood sugar levels, insulin production and fat storage, all of which are dangerous to your health,” Harpaz says.

That’s why Harpaz recommends that individuals steer clear of added sugars by choosing foods with no more than 10 grams of sugar per serving. (Note, though, that added sugars are different than naturally occurring sugars in fruits and vegetables, which can have the opposite effect on the body, regulating blood sugar and preventing the production of insulin.)

Following a diet based on whole foods will also naturally help reduce added sugars. Another crucial key to reducing sugar intake? “Eliminate all beverages that are contributing calories to the diet, especially sodas and sugar-laden coffee drinks,” Bauer says, adding that water is still the best beverage choice.

I also need to make my personal training clients aware that they need to read labels and get savvy about spotting hidden sugars, which can appear under other names. Some of the most common offenders are corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, maltrose, dextrose, sucrose, honey, fruit juice concentrate and maple syrup.

Eat more meals at home
Eating out has become an American way of life. Yet if you want a simple way to improve your health, including keeping your weight in check, eating out less frequently should do the trick.

One study from the USDA found that eating just one meal away from home each week adds about 134 calories to the diet, which translates to roughly a two-pound weight gain in a year’s time. (Interestingly, eating lunch away from home racks up the most extra calories—158—compared to dinner, which adds 144 calories, and breakfast, which boosts caloric intake by 74.) The same study found that people choose less healthy fare when eating away from home.

That people are consuming more calories when eating out doesn’t surprise Thomas. “Restaurants are businesses, and their goal is to create repeat business,” he says. “To do that, they make their foods as delicious as possible by adding high levels of sugar, fat and salt, all of which might improve taste, but will have consequences on health.”

Even more problematic are portion sizes, which have been on the rise over the last few decades. Portion sizes in most restaurants are too large for a single meal—one study found that although 76 percent of chefs thought they served regular portions, they were actually serving portions of steak and pasta that were two to four times bigger than servings recommended by the government—and unless you are asking for doggie bags, you’ll wind up consuming too many calories, Thomas says.

As if that’s not bad enough, restaurants use subtle ways to encourage overeating. Variety is one. “The greater the variety of foods available, the greater the chance of overeating,” Thomas says. Lighting, music and the overall ambiance can also influence eating behaviors.

Bottom line: By eating at home more frequently, you will avoid these diet disasters and may save a little money on food—and gas!—in the long run.

Of course, it is unrealistic to expect my personal training clients to make all of these changes all at once—breaking bad dietary habits takes time and can be an extremely difficult process for some people as it requires them to rethink patterns of behavior that they may have followed since childhood. The good news is that improving one’s diet is not an all-or-nothing proposition, and one (or more) bad choices won’t negate a dozen good choices. I want to encourage you to focus on one area at a time, like cutting out sugary drinks or eating breakfast every day during the week. Once you become used to these new behaviors, you can make other changes that will continue to bolster your sense of accomplishment. You will be eating healthier and, more importantly, feeling healthier in no time.

For more information on strategies for improving your health, contact Maurie Cofman, C.E.S. Personal Trainer in St. Louis.