Nutrition: Eat It
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Nutrition: Eat It

Jump-start your health with nutritious (and tasty!) meals.

Why Eat Healthy?

Imagine This... You've been known to catch a chill while standing in front of your refrigerator with the admonitions of diet gurus, yesterday's newspaper headlines, and your mother running through your head. Meals used to feel like battles. Good fats vs. bad fats. Fast food vs. slow food. Carbs: friend or foe? You had questions. Soy what? To supplement or not to supplement? And those supposedly helpful Nutrition Facts labels? They made you feel like a freshman trapped in a senior's chemistry class. Then you found that nutrition know-how could actually make food fun -- nourishing your body, easing your mind, pleasing your palate, and restoring your faith in one of the finer things in life: food, glorious food! Come and get it. You can do it!

The Payoffs

  • Health. You have a better shot at maintaining or regaining yours if you eat well-balanced, nutritious meals.
  • Happy tummy. An empty stomach can make you crabby and contentious -- but when you've got a healthy, pleasing meal in you, your entire outlook changes for the better.
  • Conflict resolution. Many of us are conflicted and confused about the way we eat -- but who needs all the guilt and anxiety the media feeds us? A little nutrition knowledge can give us the clarity we need to feel more serene.
  • Joie de vivre. Eating well is not about rules (eat your vegetables!) or deprivation (no dessert for you!). It's about satisfying both your needs and your desires -- for comfort, pleasure, and even joy.

From the book: YOU CAN DO IT!, The Merit Badge Handbook for Grown-Up Girls, by Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas, 2005 (Used with permission of Chronicle Books LLC, San Francisco, CA, www.YouCanDoItBook.com.)

Meet Your Mentor

Carol Ann Rinzler

What She Does: Carol is the author of more than 20 (yes, 20) books on nutrition and health. They include Nutrition for Dummies, Controlling Cholesterol for Dummies, Weight Loss Kit for Dummies, The New Complete Book of Food, The Book of Chocolate, and the pioneering Estrogen and Breast Cancer: A Warning to Women. She is the nutrition columnist for the New York Daily News and frequently writes articles on health, food, and diet for a number of newspapers and magazines.

Why She Does It: "I love explaining scientific issues in ways that ordinary human beings can understand. I choose to write about subjects I want to know more about myself -- partially because I'm the kind of person who can't rest until I understand an issue and get my questions answered. I'll never be 'done' with nutrition, because we are at the very beginning of our understanding of the subject. I've updated Nutrition for Dummies three times, and once a year in the New York Daily News, I do an 'Oops!' column of nutrition bloopers. The great thing is that with what we do know about nutrition, you can do a great deal to make your life more adventurous and fun. You can learn about your body, your history, and your culture."

Word from the Wise: "What you eat says a great deal about you -- whether you are adventurous, what allergies and conditions you may have, and quite a bit about your genetic makeup. When George H.W. Bush said he hated broccoli, he might have been letting us know that he has the gene that makes some people sensitive to one of the flavor chemicals -- phenylthiocarbamide -- in cruciferous veggies. And food is an incredible adventure, a continuing journey of self-discovery."

Badge Steps

1. Know thyself -- and thy diet.

Before embarking on any significant change to your diet, get the facts about your dietary needs from a reliable source: your doctor. But your doctor can only help you if she has accurate information about exactly what you eat and what your health issues are. So make an appointment to see your doctor at least a week from now, and in the meantime:

  • Keep a complete food and drink diary for a week, noting everything you eat and drink alongside accurate portion sizes. Be honest -- this is the really illuminating part.
  • Get a handle on your medical history. The Health History you created for Care for Your Health will come in handy! If you haven't yet earned that badge, list your medical conditions, major illnesses, and medications, plus any medical conditions you know your parents, siblings, and grandparents have had.
  • Make a list of questions for your doctor about your diet. Here are a few to get you started: Is there anything obviously missing in my diet? Should I be taking a dietary supplement? (See Carol's Supplement-Savvy Tips.) Do I need to lose weight? Does my health history indicate that I should modify my diet in some way? Diabetes/high cholesterol/osteoporosis is common in my family -- are there any dietary changes I can make to help prevent these problems? Is the rash/headaches/nausea I've been having the result of a food allergy?

 

Take your food diary, medical history, and dietary questions to your doctor. She'll be impressed -- and it will help you both get a handle on your nutritional needs. If you'd like specific meal-planning pointers, ask your doctor to refer you to a dietitian.

Go to your doctor prepared to make a difference in your health.

2. Follow the guidelines.

In addition to the input you get from your doctor, spend an afternoon reality-checking what you think you know about what you should eat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Health and Human Services' Dietary Guidelines for Americans and Food Guide Pyramid are ideal for this. Go to www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/dga and there you'll find:

  • Rules of thumb for shopping and menu planning. Stick the Food Guide Pyramid on your fridge, and take the information in the Pyramid Pointers sidebar with you shopping. Carol quips that "It's hard to believe anything concocted by a committee is this sensible! The best thing about these guidelines is that they seem to have been written by real people who actually like food."
  • Serving suggestions. The Food Guide Pyramid tells us the numbers of servings we should shoot for from each food group and reminds us what healthy serving sizes really are.
  • Tasty options. The Guidelines are big on variety, with Mediterranean, Asian, South American, Native American, and Vegetarian Food Pyramids to please any gourmet palate.
  • Reliable research. Dubious about that article you read in National Enquirer about doughnuts being the cure for cancer? Consult the Guidelines to research food and lifestyle choices that promote health, provide energy, and may reduce the risk or severity of chronic illnesses, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
  • Commonsense reminders about aiming for a healthy weight and exercising regularly.

Put the Guidelines to work for you.

More Badge Steps

3. Make a meal plan.

Using the Pyramid and your doctor's recommendations, create your own eating plan for a week. Remember that while the Pyramid allows for a great deal of variety, you should:

  • Emphasize whole grains in the "Bread, Cereal, Rice & Pasta" base of the Pyramid. This includes oats, brown rice, whole-wheat or durum semolina pasta (which includes most Italian pastas), and whole-grain baked goods.
  • Use fats and oils sparingly, and try to use mostly unsaturated fats.
  • Trade up to lower-fat, lower-cholesterol dairy and proteins in place of high-fat, high-cholesterol items. A serving of lean beef, skinless chicken, or low-fat yogurt is better than a serving of beef hot dogs or whole milk.
  • Go for balance. An easy way to balance a meal is to imagine four sections on your plate. Fill one with protein, one with a whole grain starch, and the other two with fruits and vegetables.

Make a meal plan for the week.

4. Shop for taste sensations.

Once you've got your square meal plan squared away, it's time to make up a shopping list. In addition to any ingredients you need for your meals, add these items to your list:

  • Condiments and spices. Eating veggies, beans, and grains is much more fun when you throw on a little wasabi (Japanese horseradish), salsa, fresh herbs, spices, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, or a sprinkling of sharp, freshly grated cheese.
  • Fresh produce. Even if your lettuce occasionally wilts before you get around to using it, having produce on hand makes it a lot more likely that you'll eat enough fruits and vegetables. If your supermarket doesn't inspire you, go to your local farmers' market or natural food store and take your pick of ripe, seasonal local produce.
  • Healthy snacks. This includes nuts, fruit, string cheese, hard-cooked eggs, dill pickles, raisins, and small cans of tomato juice. Instead of frequenting the vending machine, stock that snack drawer in your desk and the office fridge with these items.
  • Dark chocolate. Satisfy sugar cravings and get health benefits (it's true!) with a one-ounce portion of dark chocolate. Why dark chocolate? No milk = no cholesterol.

To make room for all this good stuff, go through your food supplies at home and at your office, and ditch a few items that don't sit well with your newfound nutrition knowledge. If they're not expired, you might donate them to a local food pantry. Easy does it, though: You can't expect to change your family's eating habits overnight, and you don't want anyone to feel deprived. Implement healthful changes gradually, and you'll avoid cravings and rebound bingeing.

Stock up on healthy eats and treats.

5. Play with your food.

Now that you've enjoyed a week's worth of tasty, healthy meals, you'll know what eating well can do for your mood, your body, and your spirits. So make a habit of it! Spend a month exploring healthy food options by trying three of the activities listed below at least once:

  • Make every day a picnic. Bring your lunch to work in a cool lunchbox or a brown bag your kids have decorated, and soak up some sun on your lunch hour. It's easier to control what you eat at work if you pack your own lunch and snacks. (You'll probably save money, too.)
  • Throw it into a stew. Stewing tenderizes meats, which means you can use lower-fat cuts of beef. When the stew is done, let it cool in the fridge for a day to marry the flavors, and skim any leftover fat off the top.
  • Get wacky with a wok. This round, deep pan distributes heat evenly, so you don't have to use much oil to make sure your meats and veggies get cooked to perfection in minutes. Works great with a steamer and cover, too.
  • Food fight!!! Come on, what else are you going to do with all those old marshmallows you found in the pantry?

Eat well for a month -- and have a blast doing it!

CONGRATULATIONS! Feeling merrier as you eat and drink? Here's to your health! You did it!

More Tips and Pointers

Success stories from other women who have dared to dream.

I Did It!

"My work requires me to drive around seeing client businesses several days a week. Though I'm not a junk food junkie, I did find myself eating fast food on those days because it's so convenient and, well, fast! Trouble was, I quickly put on 10 pounds and felt guilty for eating the stuff I try to keep my kids away from. I started ordering off the children's menu to get smaller portions, sticking with grilled chicken or plain burgers, and substituting side salads (with low-fat dressing) for fries and water for soda. It's still fast and convenient, but I no longer feel guilty -- and I lost the weight." -- Rikki

Indigestion

"In an effort to lose weight, I eliminated sugar and wheat from my diet. I did lose weight this way -- but since I was eating quite a bit more protein and fat, my cholesterol counts went way up. My doctor was concerned, and I'm now trying to eat more grains. It's a struggle, and I'm still trying to find the right balance for me." -- Sondra

Comparison Shopping

Before you buy, check the Nutrition Facts panel.

Ingredients are listed in order of their prominence in the food. If corn syrup is item number two after water, that "juice drink" is more like soda pop than juice.

Pay attention to serving sizes; they are often smaller than you think (or wish!).

"% Daily Value" helps you determine how an item will help meet your body's daily needs for vitamins and minerals, and how much fat, sodium, and cholesterol you're in for with each serving.

"High" means that one serving provides 20 percent or more of the Daily Value of a nutrient. For example, a juice might read "High in Vitamin C."

"Low" means you can eat several servings without going over the Daily Value of this nutrient. The FDA strictly monitors items that claim to be "low-fat."

"Good source" means one serving gives you 10-19 percent of the Daily Value; for instance when a cereal advertises that it's a "good source" of fiber.

"Light" (or "lite") refers to calories, fat, or sodium. Items that claim to be "light" must have one-third fewer calories, 50 percent less fat, or 50 percent less sodium than is usually found in that type of product. But be sure to double-check serving size on "lite" items -- sometimes they are smaller.

Pyramid Pointers

Ripped from the guidelines.

Eat a variety of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables daily. These plant foods make you feel full with few calories, are low in fat, have no cholesterol, are high in fiber, and are filled with the phytochemicals believed to reduce your risk of heart disease and cancer.

Mind your serving sizes. The suggested minimum of five servings of fruits and vegetables may seem like a lot, but in actual practice this amounts to some veggies at lunch and dinner plus a fruit snack in between. (No, ketchup doesn't count!)

Aim for a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol and moderate in total fat. Unsaturated fats are found in: olive, canola, and vegetable oils; avocados, pecans, almonds, walnuts, and flax-seed; fatty fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines, and lake trout; and vegetables. Saturated fats (including butter, cheese, lard, and palm and coconut oils) are associated with increased cholesterol, heart disease, high blood pressure, blood clots, and some kinds of cancer.

Go easy on the sugar and the salt.

Moderate your intake of highly processed foods. This means frozen entrees, "instant" box mixes, and meal-in-a-can dishes like chili or baked beans. These tend to be high in salt, sugar, fats, and multisyllabic mystery ingredients.

Seals of Approval

Here's the deal with all those seals.

  • Certified organic. Your produce is guaranteed by the USDA and state certification agencies to be free of pesticides, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not used in their production.
  • Fair Trade Certified. A guarantee that the farmers got paid a fair price for their produce and that your purchase supports responsible farming practices.
  • Free range. A term usually applied to eggs or meats, implying that the animals were not reared entirely in cages, but were instead put out to pasture or allowed to roam on fenced-off land. However, this claim is not certified by the FDA or any other agency.
  • GMO-free or (GE-free). Implies that the food was not genetically modified or engineered to grow faster or develop other traits (such as a thicker peel for easy transport). Because the public health consequences of GMO foods are unclear, there are strict European Union labeling requirements on GMO foods. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not currently require labeling for foods produced with GMOs or monitor "GMO-free" claims.
  • Hormone-free. Implies that the item has been raised without growth-promoting hormones that can make animals grow larger faster or produce more eggs or milk. The long-term effect of exposure to these hormones on humans is not known. Although the FDA does not currently require foods produced with hormones to be labeled accordingly, the agency is cracking down on false "hormone-free" claims.

Weight Loss

What works?

If you're curious what health and science professionals -- rather than fashion magazine editors -- consider "overweight," visit the Weight Control and Obesity section at www.nal.usda.gov/fnic to see charts and assess your Body Mass Index. Consider consulting a dietitian about your needs and struggles, and if you just want to fit into your skinny jeans, remember this common sense from Carol: "The Food Pyramid offers so many choices that you can eat that way for the rest of your life. Weight Watchers also doesn't exclude any foods, which is extremely important. Most people can stay on a restricted diet for a short period of time, but eventually say, 'To heck with this; I can't do this!' and gain weight back." Eating fewer calories (rather than excluding entire food groups) and exercising is what works long term.

Advice from the Expert

Carol's Supplement-Savvy Tips

It's best to get nutrients from food, rather than from pills or powders. But there are certain situations that call for supplementation, such as when:

  • You're pregnant or nursing. Ask your doc for specifics.
  • You take prescription drugs. Ask your doctor if the nature of the drug makes supplements prudent.
  • You smoke. Smokers use up vitamin C.
  • You're approaching menopause. This is time for extra calcium.
  • You're a strict vegetarian (or vegan). You may need extra vitamin B12, calcium, and iron. When buying your supplements, choose a well-known brand, check the label for exactly what you're getting in each dose, check the expiration date, and follow storage instructions.

Beyond the Badge

If you love it as much as you thought you would, dream on...

  • Consult a specialist. When should you see a dietitian? Carol puts it this way, "If you have diabetes, you require a special diet. Your doctor may hand you a diabetes-friendly diet plan, but a smart doctor will also send you to a dietitian. The dietitian will help you translate that diet into terms you can live with in your real world." Dietitians can also be helpful when you are trying to lose weight safely and for the long haul. You can find a dietitian in your area by going to the American Dietetic Association's Web site, www.eatright.org. Click the "Find a Nutritional Professional" link, enter your zip code, and voila.
  • Grow your own. Instead of worrying about how organic, natural, or pesticide-free your grocery's produce is, why not take matters into your own hands and grow at least some of it yourself?
  • Cook it up. In addition to controlling ingredients and portion sizes, cooking helps us slow down and really appreciate food. While cooking up a storm, implement the following practices to minimize germs and bacteria (there are 76 million cases of food poisoning each year in the U.S. alone!):

  1. Wash your hands before and after touching food, and wash all fruits and vegetables.
  2. Follow the directions on packages for storing and preparing foods, and cook foods thoroughly.
  3. Use one cutting board for raw meat, fish, and poultry; another for other foods.
  4. Keep sponges dry, or microwave them for a few minutes -- long enough to dry but not burn them!
  5. Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.
  6. Never eat or drink anything containing raw eggs.

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