Healthy Eating in an Imperfect World

No time to eat right? WebMD has the solution.

By Dulce Zamora
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

Eat nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Choose whole-grain, nonfat, or low-fat foods. Be physically active daily. Watch calories. Limit the fat. Get enough calcium.

We live in a world with a dizzying amount of scientific research pointing to foods and habits that make for good health. In an ideal universe, that's good news. If we exercise and eat right, we give our bodies essential nourishment and movement to work at their best.

Yet our world is far from ideal. There are responsibilities, deadlines, and food or lifestyle preferences that get in the way of healthy eating. Real life happens, and in the rush to satisfy daily hunger and desires, we may succumb to less-than-healthy choices.

It doesn't always have to be that way. No matter what our lives are like, there's always room for improvement.

"There is always something positive that can be done for our health," says Sue Moores, MSRD, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association (ADA). "Maybe it's eating an extra fruit a day, maybe it's cooking a food a different way, or maybe it's (trying) a new food that's out that we didn't know much about because of all the ethnic influences."

Making an effort to eat healthy does not mean abandoning our lives. Find a few minutes to think about a small nutrition goal, how you think you can reach it, and what can prevent you from success. Then devise a plan.

Without this vital planning stage, all good intentions can be for naught. "People need to spend just a little bit of effort planning ahead so that they just don't wait until the last minute until they're ravenously hungry and then make poor choices," says Tara Gidus, RD, also a spokeswoman for the ADA. She says people think preparing for a healthy diet takes a lot more effort than it really does.

To make it easy for aspiring healthy eaters, WebMD has put together a list of common obstacles that get in the way of good nutrition, and asked the experts for some advice on how to overcome these road blocks.

Busy Bees Can Eat Healthy, Too

Demands of work, family, and community can keep people from preparing for healthy meals. This is true for workaholics, supermoms and dads, overachievers, frequent travelers, and a host of other people trying to beat the clock. Because of their lack of time, these folks often turn to quick-fix foods that are high in fat, sugar, sodium, or calories, and low in essential nutrients.

The solution isn't to find more time, but to work with the schedule you do have. The minutes spent perusing fast-food or vending machine options could be used toward time to visit the grocery store, where you can pick up prepared salads, sandwiches, and meats, pre-washed and cut fruits and vegetables, canned soups, low-calorie and low-fat frozen meals, yogurt, string cheese, and cereals.

There may be a bit more effort involved in shopping at the supermarket, but wasteful hours of worry about flab and low energy do tend to go away with healthy eating. With well-balanced meals, we usually feel more positive about ourselves and our surroundings.

"We continue to see a really strong link between how we eat and what we eat, and being well," says Moores. "The better we do on our part to choose good foods and eat healthfully, the more effect it has on helping us stay well, feel good, and enjoy life."

Here are some more healthy tips for busy bees:

  • Cook a bigger batch of food on the weekends, and refrigerate or freeze for weekday consumption.
  • Set an alarm for mealtimes. Even if you're buried in a project, don't skip meals; designate a time to eat.
  • Try not to do anything else while eating. Mindless consumption prevents the enjoyment of food. When that happens, people tend to eat more and eat unhealthy alternatives.
  • Put fresh or dried fruit where you can see it to remind yourself of your goal to eat healthy. Bananas, grapes, and apples make handy and nutritious snack items.
  • If at a restaurant, turn down the supersize option, and choose baked and broiled instead of fried.
  • Order the lunch portion at dinnertime, and hold off on fatty condiments.
  • Keep handy snacks around, such as fruits, dried fruits, nuts, seeds, trail mix, carrot or celery sticks, wraps, and sandwiches.

Tips for Fussy Eaters

These people can be very particular about what they put in their mouths. They may not like certain textures, tastes, or preparations of food. They may wince at healthy options such as fruits and vegetables, low-fat, low-sugar, low-calorie, or low-sodium products. Or they may shun everything but their certain set of comfort foods.

Gidus reminds fussy eaters that a variety of foods in moderation is important for good health. "Try to expand your horizons," she says. "If you eat the same thing everyday, you may not be getting enough nutrients."

Trying something new does not mean going for the exotic. Make a list of fruits, vegetables, meats, and other foods that might be acceptable for you to try. You may not like apples, but how about grapes or pears? Instead of just balking at spinach, why not sample red leaf lettuce?

If you don't like food prepared a certain way, try it raw -- if applicable -- or presented in another way. You could also combine new foods with already favored edibles.

"Some vegetables can be made into soups so that you're not having to eat the raw broccoli. If you like bagels, you can put some low-fat cream cheese and then some crushed pineapple or shredded carrots. Have fruit juice with club soda," suggests Claudia Fajardo-Lira, PhD, a nutrition expert with the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), and assistant professor at the department of environmental sciences at California State University, Northridge.

"If you eat in front of the TV, you probably have no sense of how much you're eating."


According to the USDA, there is no difference between a “portion” and a “serving.” See Answer

When trying new foods, go easy on yourself, says Moores. Check out a new dish every week as opposed to every day. If you're not used to brown rice, try mixing brown and white rice first. Or you could mix the brown rice with different herbs and spices.

Motivating Couch Potatoes

You love your TV shows, and can't think of a better way to relax after a hard day's work. Yet studies have found a strong relationship between tube-watching and obesity. Perhaps it's because TV viewing is a sedentary activity. Or maybe it's because people tend to eat mindlessly in front of the screen.

If you eat in front of the TV, you probably have no sense of how much you're eating, says Christine Filardo, MSRD, director of public relations for the Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH), a nonprofit consumer education group. PBH helps run the national "5 A Day" campaign to increase fruit and vegetable consumption 5 or more a day for 75% of Americans by 2010.

"If you're sitting there [in front of the TV], and you rip open a bag of chips, it's very easy to eat the entire bag of chips and not really think about what you're doing, because your main focus is not on what you're eating, but on what you're watching," says Filardo.

Substitute candy and chips for light popcorn. Baby carrots with a low-fat dip and a bowl of fruit are also good alternatives. Also try light yogurt instead of ice cream.

Junk Food Junkies

Planning healthy meals and snacks ahead of time is crucial for people who want to curb their junk food cravings.

"Some junk food junkies just fall into that habit, because there's nothing else around, and so they hit the vending machine, or stop at a convenience store, and that's what's there," says Gidus.

If you must have junk food, sample the healthier alternatives, such as baked chips, dried fruit, or sugar-free Popsicle. Look for low-calorie, low-sugar, and low-fat options.

It also helps to determine what element in the junk food you like. "A lot of people don't realize that they are looking for something in particular," says Gidus. "I ask [clients], 'At night you tend to eat this, this, and this, so it sounds to me like you're looking for something crunchy,' and they'll say, 'Yeah, I guess, I am.'"

In place of chips, the crunch-lover could try chomping on light popcorn, whole grain crackers, carrot sticks, red peppers, and rice cakes.

For the sweet tooth, sugar-free pudding, sugar-free Jell-O, fruit bars, baked apple, fresh fruits, and dried fruits are options.

If you have to have chocolate, keep a small, lower-calorie portion of it around, recommends Mark Kantor, PhD, associate professor in the department of nutrition and food science at the University of Maryland. He likes little, individually wrapped chocolates, because they can give enough satisfaction, but can discourage overindulgence as it takes effort to open up each morsel.

The Right Food for Weekend Warriors

You're typically not that active, but this weekend your friends have invited you to a hike, to go skiing, or to a 5K run. What type of foods will give you enough energy to make it through strenuous events?

"I don't think any food is going to help [the weekend warrior]," says Kantor, noting that no edible will be able to prevent injuries caused by being unconditioned.

It is, however, important to eat before or during a demanding activity, as tiredness can lead to injury. To keep energy levels up, pack dried fruits, cereals, and trail mix.

Maintaining hydration is also key. "People don't realize how much water they can lose during exercise," says Kantor. "Even during the winter, if it's dry, you can really sweat a lot and the sweat evaporates quite quickly so you don't even realize how much water you're losing."

There are people who turn to energy bars or drinks for an extra boost. Be careful of this option as some products may be as high in sugar and empty in nutrients as candy bars. Read the packaging label. Moore says a good energy bar will have 5 grams of fat or less, 3-5 grams of fiber, up to 15 grams of protein, and 15-25 grams of carbohydrates. Stay away from products that have sugar or corn syrup as their first ingredient.

Also look at the vitamin and mineral content, particularly if you're having more than one serving of the bar or drink. Make sure the vitamin and mineral content adds up to about 25% or less. Some energy bars are heavily fortified, and too much vitamins and minerals can be harmful. Too much copper, for instance, can interfere with iron absorption and function in the body.

Kitchen Phobes

Don't know how to cook a healthy meal? No problem.

"You don't have to be a gourmet cook to eat healthfully," says Filardo. "A couple of chicken breasts and sliced up sweet potatoes can be roasted in the oven. You can stir fry a bag of baby spinach with some garlic and olive oil."

Take advantage of the work that has already been done for you, adds Filardo. There are low-calorie frozen foods, prepared salads, and cut-up fruit readily available at grocery stores.

If you get take-out, try healthier versions of the food. For example, when ordering pizza, go light on the cheese and order a salad to go along with your meal. At Chinese restaurants, ask the chef to use less oil. Order vegetables, and go easy on the rice, noodles, and deep-fried foods. For soups, go with the broth-based option. Choose tomato sauce as opposed to cream sauce for pasta.

Indeed, no matter where you are on the spectrum of healthy eating, it is possible to make a positive change without drastically changing your lifestyle. Make enough of these small changes in your diet over time, and a healthy body won't have to be just an ideal. It can become reality.

Originally published Feb. 21, 2005.
Updated December 21,2006.

SOURCES: Sue Moores, MSRD, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association (ADA). Tara Gidus, RD, spokeswoman, ADA. Claudia Fajardo-Lira, PhD, nutrition expert, Institute of Food Technologists (IFT); and assistant professor, department of environmental sciences at California State University, Northridge. Christine Filardo, MSRD, director, public relations, Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH). Mark Kantor, PhD, associate professor, department of nutrition and food science, University of Maryland. CNN Online: "TV, Lots of Fast Food Triple Obesity Risk." Andrews University Online: "Obesity and TV."

©2006 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.


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Last Editorial Review: 2/25/2005