It is resolution time again — something you will be reminded of incessantly in the coming weeks as the media turns its face toward the “New Year, New You” sun. You have, no doubt, already noticed the flood of health-oriented stories in print and on TV, promotions for new self-help books and ads galore for fitness clubs and diet programs.
Even if you are not one to buy into the hype, it is hard not to reflect on the passing year and plan to improve in the one ahead. Marist Poll data show 44 percent of Americans intend to make a New Year’s resolution. Not surprisingly, the vow to lose weight tops the charts, with exercising more and getting healthy making the top five.
But the messages and products designed to help with (and capitalize on) our desire to eat better and be healthier can be mind-numbingly contradictory and confusing. Search the most popular diet books online and you’ll find meat-heavy paleo plans competing with guides for becoming vegan, old-world Mediterranean diets facing off with modern juice cleanses and plans promoting fasting against those advocating drinking butter.
To the layman, each may seem to make sense in its own way, yet each essentially opposes the other. The same can be said of the reported health and nutrition research. Every other week you read about a study that flies in the face of one the week before. All this back-and-forth can be downright paralyzing, stopping a well-intended resolution in its tracks.
But if you take a step back and survey the landscape with a broader lens, you’ll see that despite the vast differences in dietary advice, there are certain common denominators, principles that virtually everyone agrees on, that go beyond fads and frenzies and have held up for decades. By shifting your attention from the next big thing to these core truths, you can escape the noise and focus on making changes that stand the test of time.
The benefits of eating vegetables, particularly the non-starchy variety, are uncontested. Thanks to their bounty of protective and healing nutrients, you can essentially name the disease or malady, and studies show eating vegetables reduces your chances of getting it. Plus, because they are high in water and fiber, vegetables can also promote weight loss by filling you up on fewer calories.
Despite all this, most of us fall woefully short of getting enough. We should be filling half our plates with produce at each meal, but a 2013 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says American adults eat vegetables just 1.6 times a day on average and nearly a quarter of us eat less than a serving a day.
If you are going to pick one health-related resolution, make it to eat more vegetables. And don’t just make the promise; commit to a specific strategy for getting more. Try including a vegetable at every meal or snack: Toss chopped tomato into your scrambled eggs at breakfast, stuff your sandwich at lunch with extra sliced cucumbers and radishes, snack on crudites in the afternoon and start every dinner with a salad or vegetable soup.
Fat is a hot topic nowadays — and one that’s rife with different opinions. But one thing everyone seems to agree that we should be eating more omega-3s, the type of fat found in fish, walnuts, flax and chia seeds and leafy greens (There go those vegetables again.)
Besides being essential fats (we must obtain them from the foods we eat to prevent deficiency) omega-3 fats have an antioxidant-like effect, reducing inflammation in the body, which is thought to be at the root of all sorts of problems, including rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease and skin flare-ups. The best way to get omega-3 is from fish, so plan to work at least two servings a week into your meal rotation. Tossing some walnuts, flax or chia into your morning cereal or yogurt is also a clear win.
Whether or not you buy into the latest sugar-is-the-devil zeitgeist, it is clear that sugar is worse for us than we once thought, not only adding empty calories but also increasing our risk of heart disease. There is an across-the-board consensus that the less we have the better. (To be clear, I am talking about added sugars here — the stuff put into food for added sweetness — not the sugars inherent in foods such as fruit and dairy. You’d be missing the mark if you avoided those healthful foods because of the sugars they naturally contain.)
So take determined steps to cut back on added sugar this year. The biggest culprit is sugary drinks, so switch to water, flavored with a splash of juice or citrus slices if plain doesn’t cut it for you. Also get plain varieties of yogurt and add fresh fruit and a touch of honey instead of getting the heavily sweetened flavored kind. And gradually step down the amount of sugar you use in coffee and tea so your taste buds have a chance to readjust.
In general, the more manufacturing steps a food goes through to get from the farm to you, the more nutrients it loses and the more highly concentrated its calories become along the way. Focusing on foods closer to their original state — whole grains instead of refined, chicken breast instead of breaded chicken nuggets, whole fruit instead of fruit juice — can put you on the path to losing weight and getting healthier. So this year, resolve to prepare more food at home using minimally processed ingredients. You can’t go wrong.
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