Nutrition: Healthy Eating

By Michelle Meadows

Introduction

Most Americans consume too many calories and not enough nutrients, according to the latest revision to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In January 2005, two federal agencies--the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture (USDA)--released the guidelines to help adults and children ages 2 and up live healthier lives.

Currently, the typical American diet is low in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and high in saturated fat, salt, and sugar. As a result, more Americans than ever are overweight, obese, and at increased risk for chronic diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and certain cancers.

Of course old habits are hard to break, and the notion of change can seem overwhelming. But it can be done with planning and a gradual approach, says Dee Sandquist, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association (ADA) and manager of nutrition and diabetes at the Southwest Washington Medical Center in Vancouver, Wash.

"Some people can improve eating habits on their own, while others need a registered dietitian to guide them through the process," Sandquist says. You may need a dietitian if you are trying to lose weight or if you have a health condition such as osteoporosis, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes.

Sandquist says that many people she counsels have been used to eating a certain way and never thought about what they were actually putting into their bodies. "Someone may tell me they drink six cans of regular soda every day," she says. "When they find out there are about nine teaspoons of sugar in one can, it puts things in perspective. Then I work with the person to cut back to three cans a day, then to two and so on, and to start replacing some of the soda with healthier options."

Others are eating a lot of food between mid-day and bedtime because they skip breakfast, Sandquist says. Another common scenario is when someone has grown up thinking that meat should be the focus of every meal. "We may start by having the person try eating two-thirds of the meat they would normally eat, and then decreasing the portion little by little," Sandquist says. Cutting portion size limits calories. So does eating lean cuts of meat and using lower-fat methods of preparation such as broiling.

Sandquist says that when people strive for more balance in their diets, they tend to enjoy mixing up their food choices. "A lot of times, they've been eating the same things over and over. So when they start trying new foods, they find out what they've been missing."

Barbara Schneeman, Ph.D., director of the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Nutritional Products, Labeling, and Dietary Supplements, encourages consumers to make smart food choices from every food group. "The Nutrition Facts label is an important tool that gives guidance for making these choices," she says. The label shows how high or low a food is in various nutrients.

Experts say that once you start using the label to compare products, you'll find there is flexibility in creating a balanced diet and enjoying a variety of foods in moderation. For example, you could eat a favorite food that's higher in fat for breakfast and have lower-fat foods for lunch and dinner. You could have a full-fat dip on a low-fat cracker. "What matters is how all the food works together," Sandquist says.

Older people are most likely to improve their eating habits, but nutrition is important for people of all ages, says Walter Willet, M.D., chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health. "We know that when people have health problems or their friends become ill, these are strong motivators of change," says Willet. "The more serious the health condition, the more serious the change. We'd rather people made changes early and prevent health problems in the first place."

So what if you're feeling trapped by a diet full of fast-food burgers and cookies? You can work your way out slowly but surely. Here are tips to move your eating habits in the right direction.




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