Ready to start eating healthier? Start with these simple changes.
By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column
2007 could be your healthiest year yet, because the best time to start eating healthier is now. We've never known more about diet, food components, and health than we do right now. There have never been more convenient, healthful products available than there are right now. And the earlier you start cooking and eating healthy, the better!
Before I start making specific suggestions for eating healthier, let me say this: I know that even the most motivated people can't take all of these steps every day. You may only be able to incorporate a few into your life right now -- and that's OK. That's the great thing about making nutritional changes -- anything you can do helps. It's not all or nothing.
The first seven steps are suggested daily food habits while the last two are weekly recommendations.
1. Add a Tablespoon of Ground Flaxseed a Day.
I may sound like a broken record (I've written about the benefits of flaxseed many times), but a tablespoon of ground flaxseed a day really is very inexpensive and easy, once you get in the habit. And it's one of the most powerful plant foods on the planet. Flaxseed contains a high concentration of heart-healthy plant omega-3 fatty acids (around 1.5 grams per tablespoon) and lignans (phytoestrogen phytochemicals), which have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Each tablespoon of ground flaxseed also contributes a combination of soluble and insoluble fiber.
If you don't do it for the plant omega-3s, do it for the phytoestrogens (plant estrogens). And if not for the phytoestrogens, do it for the fiber. With just one tablespoon, ba-da-boom! - there's almost 3 grams of fiber, right there.
2. Eat Some Probiotic Yogurt Almost Every Day.
There are all sorts of yogurts on the market with active cultures that benefit your digestive system, including Activia with the probiotic Bifidus Regularis. When you enjoy one of these yogurts daily, you get the nutritional benefits of a low-fat dairy product (calcium and animal protein, several B vitamins, and potassium) while introducing a dose of beneficial bacteria into your gastrointestinal tract.
3. Snack on a Handful of Nuts Almost Every Day.
Nuts contain mostly monounsaturated fat, and most nuts contribute phytosterols, which in sufficient amounts help lower blood cholesterol and also may enhance the immune system and decrease the risk of some cancers. Some nuts also contribute some vitamins and minerals we need more of, like vitamin E, potassium, and magnesium.
Trader Joe's has a great assortment of reasonably priced nut mixes, along with trail mixes that include nuts. Or try Planter's lightly salted Heart-Healthy Mix, with peanuts, almonds, pistachios, pecans, walnuts, and hazelnuts. Nuts make a nice afternoon snack. If you're on the go, just put 1/3-cup in a snack-size plastic bag. I eat mine when I'm driving my girls to the dance studio.
4. Have a Couple of Cups of Green (and/or Black) Tea a Day.
Though we don't have definite answers about tea's health benefits, we do have some important clues. In lab studies, green tea has been shown to slow or prevent cancer development in colon, liver, breast, and prostate cells, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research. One of tea's most powerful components is the phytochemical group called catechins. Catechins have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and may help stimulate the immune system and even aid with weight loss. Green tea contains about three times the amount of catechins as black tea.
Most of the studies suggesting cancer-protective effects of tea have used green tea, but black tea may also have protective qualities. White tea is less processed, so experts suspect it has plenty of phytochemicals to offer as well. A study published in the Dec. 16, 2006 issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry concluded that when it comes to the anti-cancer potential of tea ingredients, consumers may benefit more by drinking both green and black teas.
So ask yourself, when are you most likely to work tea into your diet? Personally, I now enjoy a hot cup of green tea mid-morning and a cup at night. During the warmest months, I might have a cup or two of iced tea in the afternoon as well. If you aren't crazy about the taste of green tea on its own, try some yummy flavored green teas like Blueberry or Grapefruit Green Tea, or Green Tea with Chai Spices.
5. Switch to Canola Oil and Extra-Virgin Olive Oil for Cooking When Possible.
Canola and olive are your smartest oils; they each come with assorted health benefits. The FDA recently approved a qualified health claim for canola oil that, due to its unsaturated fat content, canola oil may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease (according to supportive, but not conclusive, research). In 2004, the FDA approved a similar qualified health claim for olive oil. But, like any oil, both have plenty of calories (about 120 per tablespoon), so avoid excessive amounts.
6. Switch to Whole Grains Several Times a Day.
You might think the benefits of whole grains mostly have to do with fiber, but it's so much more than that. Whole grains are rich in an assortment of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemical compounds. Whole grains may provide many health benefits, including protection from:
- Heart disease
- Ischemic stroke (the most common type of stroke)
- Insulin insensitivity/resistance
- Certain cancers.
So switch to whole grains as often as possible throughout the day. Enjoy whole wheat breakfast cereal, toast, or sandwich bread; and switch to whole wheat for other grain products like crackers, bagels, and hot dog buns. When baking at home, use half whole wheat flour and half unbleached white flour to make 50% whole wheat muffins, nut breads, cakes, cookies, brownies, etc.
7. Eat Plenty of Fruits and Vegetables Every Day.
Recent studies suggest we should be eating nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day for optimal health. The scientific evidence is overwhelming: Fruits and vegetables provide vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, antioxidants, and other substances that protect against a variety of chronic diseases, including cancer, heart disease, cataracts, and many inflammatory diseases.
Evidence continues to mount about the cornucopia of health benefits from fruits and vegetables. For example, a recently-released study found that drinking fruit and vegetable juices at least three times a week may reduce the risk of Alzheimer's by as much as 75%. Another new study concluded that fruit and vegetables may reduce the risk of kidney cancer in men.
Be sure to choose cruciferous vegetables (those in the cabbage family, including broccoli and cauliflower) a few times a week. They contain phytochemicals called isothiocyanates, which not only increase your cells' antioxidant defenses, but help switch on enzymes that detoxify cancer-causing elements at an early stage, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research.
8. Eat Fish a Couple of Times a Week.
High intakes of omega-3 fatty acids from fish are thought to decrease the production of inflammatory compounds, and to be potentially potent anti-inflammatory agents. Why is this so important? Because excessive or inappropriate inflammation in our body cells and tissues can contribute to a range of conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, and heart disease.
One group of Australian researchers found that eating fish just once a week may reduce the risk of early age-related macular degeneration by 40%. In 2004, the FDA announced a qualified health claim for omega-3 fatty acids. The claim says that supportive, but not conclusive, research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids (those found in fish) may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.
9. Eat Beans in Place of Meat a Few Times a Week.
I call beans "protein pellets" because they are big on plant protein (a 1/2 cup serving comes with around 9 grams of protein --15% of the recommended intake for a woman). These perfect packages also come with a healthy supply of complex carbohydrates (around 27 grams per half cup) and fiber (about 11 grams per half cup). Beans also contain phytochemicals called saponins, which may help prevent cancer cells. Some types of beans even have plant omega-3s, with soybeans and red kidney beans leading the list.
Published January 12, 2007.
SOURCES: Friedman, M. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Dec. 16, 2006. Giovannucci, E. Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention, December 2006; vol 15: pp 2445-2452. Dai, Q. The American Journal of Medicine, September 2006; vol. 119, Issue 9: pp 751-759. Chua B. Archives of Ophthalmology, July 2006; vol 124, No. 7: pp 981-986. American Institute for Cancer Research web site: "Taking a Closer Look at Phytochemicals." News release, FDA, Sept. 8, 2004. News release, FDA, Nov. 1, 2004. News release, U.S. Canola Association, Oct. 6, 2006.
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