Small Steps to Making Big Changes with Healthy Food Choices
By Carol Ritchie
As we once again embark on our culinary journeys into a new year, it is inevitable that we say to ourselves, “My New Year’s resolution is to take care of myself, to exercise and to eat better for good health!” The holidays are over. The sweet treat overindulgences are becoming faded memories. It is once again the time to make healthful dining choices. For a few weeks, maybe, that little self-affirmation works. And then Valentine’s Day shows up and the health kick is done until faced with making the same resolutions again for next year!
Let 2017 be the year to make a difference! If your resolution for this year is to lead a much healthier lifestyle, then do it. It is not really that difficult when you know how. It all begins with small steps. But it also takes commitment, dedication and persistence. I like to follow the recommendations of the American Heart Association, an organization dedicated to promoting heart health, good nutrition and healthy eating habits. I am very fortunate to be one of many recipe developers over the years who have contributed recipes to the long list of American Heart Association cookbooks. Cooking for the heart has always been dear to my heart.
Making a change in your eating habits usually does not require a sudden, radical about-face from your daily diet. Small changes yield big results. The results will not likely be immediately apparent. Time and patience are truly virtues in the quest for the results you might be seeking. But a positive difference is practically guaranteed if you are determined to maintain the small changes made to typical poorer eating habits.
On Your Mark …
To really see where to go, it is important to understand where you are. Take a thorough look at your current eating habits and exercise schedule. Write it down. Account for one day at a time. (Remember, small steps.) What is a typical breakfast? A typical lunch? Dinner? And don’t forget snacks. How many chips, cookies and sodas are consumed between those meals? Be honest. Write it all down.
During that same “average eats” day, what type of exercise is most common? Are you active, with lots of walking or various movements? Or are you sedentary, sitting at a computer all day? Write down a typical day’s activities that accompany the typical eating habits for that day.
Okay, that’s one day; let’s say that was Monday. Do the same thing for Tuesday, then Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. The weekend will likely be a bit different. For some, exercise might prove to be better than during the week. For instance, lots more physical activities might occur during the weekend. However, the eating habits might be much worse on the weekend, with visits to restaurants and the ubiquitous pizza deliveries.
With one week of eating and exercise habits charted, look at the rest of the month. Does the first week simply repeat itself week-after-week? Likely, it does, but take into consideration the occasions that will present interruptions to your regular weekly habits, like birthdays, holidays and other special events. Knowing when these special occurrences happen during the month will assist in the overall planning to make it easier to stay on track. A “surprise” event can easily be accommodated, but when it happens too often it is very easy to stray off the path and find yourself lost, giving in to temptation more and more, and losing focus on your ultimate goals. Know your habits before you begin to change and the small steps will be easier to recognize and implement.
Get Set …
What are the small steps? Now it is time to assess the current habits to determine where to make small changes. No matter where you might find yourself in the food and exercise regimen, there is one simple solution that will surely make a difference: Move more, eat less.
It is much too easy to eat more per meal than needed for good health. Nutrition labels and dietary guidelines set by the US Department of Agriculture provide important facts about serving sizes for the average daily diet. In many instances, we simply eat too much food. Counting calories can certainly help determine the “correct” amount of food to consume each day, but that usually applies to those dedicated to losing weight. To “maintain” a consistent weight and stay on a healthy eating path, cut the portions back a little bit. Those few extra bites sure are tasty, but without them – consistently - you won’t miss them. Small steps.
Restaurants do not usually help in this quest to reduce consumption of great food during meals. Often, the portions provided are enough to satisfy the calorie count for two or three meals. Don’t feel obligated to finish the meal at the restaurant. Take home half for tomorrow. Or share a meal with someone. Restaurants might not like those choices, but it is your health that matters now, isn’t it? Temptation and irresistible indulgences will always contest your choices to do the right thing for your health - and sometimes temptation will win - but be tempted with only a few bites, not the whole enchilada. Small steps.
And if you eat, you must move. For every calorie consumed, choose activities to move your body and burn those calories. Walking is usually the easiest option. Use a pedometer. There are great apps for smartphones to keep track of your daily steps and much, much more important information vital to maintaining your good health. (No excuse - everyone carries a phone now.) Maybe a daily walk around the block or two isn’t a feasible option. No worries. Park a little farther from the store entrance. Walk around the store for a few more minutes or pick up the pace just a bit during each shopping trip. There are easy ways to add more walking - more movement - to your daily errands without a dedicated “walk.” Small steps. (No pun intended.)
The American Heart Association promotes many tips to lead a healthy lifestyle. All their cookbooks offer great advice for healthful eating. Here are many small steps to making big changes with health:
• Eat a variety of vegetables and fruits daily. High in nutritional value, it is important to include at least one serving of both fruits and vegetables in every meal.
• Eat whole-grain and high-fiber foods. Look for breads, pastas and cereals that are high in fiber. Serve side dishes that include grains, such as barley, oats, quinoa, brown rice, whole wheat and wild rice.
• Look for fat-free or low-fat choices in dairy products. A simple change from whole milk to skim milk (or even 1% or 2% milk) can make a difference.
• Eat lean poultry and meats. Cut away any visible fat. Cook without adding saturated fats: grill, bake or broil. Avoid processed meats. And eat fish twice a week.
• Include legumes, nuts and seeds in your diet. Beans, peas and lentils are great side dish choices. Peanuts, almonds and sunflower seeds are great snacks. Granola bars that are low in sodium and sugar, but high in grains, nuts and seeds, are good choices when you feel that you need something to eat between meals.
• Cook with oils that do not have saturated or trans fats, such as olive oil or peanut oil.
• Cut back on sodium. This is one ingredient to pay special attention to on nutritional labels and when dining out. Many processed foods are loaded with sodium, so it is almost never necessary to supplement these foods with additional salt.
• Cut back on sugar. Like salt - in respect to the fact that many foods are already high in sugar content - look at labels and hesitate to add sugar where it is not needed. Strictly limit foods (and drinks, like sodas) with added sugar. Naturally sweet foods, like fruits and 100 percent juices, offer plenty of sweetness for most diets.
• Cut back on foods high in dietary cholesterol. Egg yolks and shellfish fall into this category. While it is not necessary to eliminate these completely, the American Heart Association recommends limiting cholesterol intake to 300 milligrams each day.
While it might seem daunting to follow these guidelines with every meal, just remember: small steps. Start with one of these tips and make that change in your diet consistently every day. Once you are comfortable with that small step and it begins to become a habit, add another change - the next small step. Your commitment, dedication and determination to continue these changes in your daily eating habits will determine the outcome. To help you get started with a delicious, healthful, yet hearty choice for dinner - a comforting Italian soup packed full of vegetables and perfect for the cold winter months - try my Minestrone (see recipe).
Small Changes Yield Big Results
I can’t stress the message enough: small steps. Don’t try to make all these changes overnight. With enough motivation and determination, it can be tempting to change everything and expect immediate results. That is simply too much pressure and not a realistic expectation. Little-by-little, changes and results will happen. Remain dedicated and your resolution will remain true.
With healthful changes, comes healthful living. You will undoubtedly begin to feel better, mentally and physically, not to mention the positive emotions that come with accomplishing your goals. Move more, eat less. Eat better. Small steps.
You can do it now - and throughout 2017!
Carol Ritchie is the host of "Cookin' wiih Carol." She has taught cooking classes in the Dalas-Fort Worth area for 25+ years.