A Healthy Diet for a Healthy Weight

With countless so-called quick-fix diets and a barrage of contradictory diet advice, it’s no wonder that people get confused today. Do the latest fad diets work? Without a doubt, many people lose weight in the short run, with some diets promoting faster weight loss than others (much of it water at first). Many diets are also lacking in important essential nutrients, cause a loss of muscle, slow metabolism, and provide too little fuel.

Consider this: most popular diets have been around for decades, gaining popularity, then fading out, only to be recycled again — perhaps with a new name. How many people do you know who have lost weight on a fad diet, then kept it off for several years? Within five years, 95% of dieters regain their lost weight — and for many — extra pounds in addition.

What diet has stood the test of time, promoting optimal weight and good health? Well, it isn’t really a diet at all, but rather a way of living. It may produce slower results, but the weight loss is healthy and lasting, and it is better for your body.

Eat regularly.

Eat three balanced meals a day with healthy snacks as needed (or four to six smaller meals if you prefer), to keep your body supplied with a steady source of fuel.

Eat a variety of foods.

This ensures that you get the needed energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals for good health. The Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI’s) from the Institute for Medicine provide a general guide based on the latest research:

  • Carbohydrates – 45%-65% of daily calories (no more than 10% from added sugar)
  • Protein – 10%-35% of daily calories
  • Fats – 20%-35% of daily calories.

Listing of these percentages shows that there is a range of acceptable healthy intake levels — but nothing to the extreme — depending on a person’s bodily needs and preferences. These are just general guidelines, however, not to be followed obsessively.

Eat plenty of whole grain foods.

This includes whole-grain cereals such as oatmeal or bran. Replace white rice with brown rice, barley or bulgur. Choose whole grain breads that list whole grain as the first ingredient, and try whole wheat pizza and pasta. You might also experiment with substituting some whole wheat flour or buckwheat for a fraction of the white flour in recipes, and /or incorporating some ground flaxseed (the body can’t process it whole).

Enjoy an abundance of fruits and vegetables.

In addition to important vitamins and minerals, fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants, which can help prevent premature aging and life-threatening diseases. It’s a reasonable goal to strive for five servings a day (or more). Some people like to fill half their dinner plate (about a nine-inch size) with vegetables — this includes salads or any raw choices, as well as cooked. Starches and a protein source fill the other half of the plate. This may not always be practical, but it is a good general guide.

To get the most benefit, aim for a variety of selections. Also keep in mind that the deeper and more intense the color of the fruit or vegetable, the more disease-fighting phytochemicals it contains.

Limit foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol.

Instead of overly-restricting all fats, try substituting with healthier unsaturated fats, including olive oil, most nuts, ground flaxseeds and fatty fish. These foods are not only good for heart-health, but they help you feel full, keep you satisfied until the next meal, and therefore help maintain a healthy weight or lose unwanted pounds. Remember, a diet can be healthy with up to 35% of calories from fat, but the current recommendation is that less than 10% be saturated.

Beware of too much sugar.

For most people, diets too high in sugar are lacking in important nutrients — and aren’t very satisfying. Sweet foods also cause a rapid rise in blood sugar and insulin release, which may contribute to unhealthy weight gain. Sugary foods should be considered treats — eaten less frequently, but still enjoyed.

Don’t eat too much salt.

In addition to increasing the risk of high blood pressure, excessive salt can contribute to bloating and water retention, making you feel sluggish.

If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation.

Imbibing a small amount of alcohol appears to have heart-healthy benefits, but there are clearly well-know risks associated with alcohol consumption. In addition to supplying calories with very little nutrients, alcohol also reduces inhibition. Many people find themselves more likely to overeat or binge when they drink.

Include calcium-rich foods.

We’ve all heard the buzz and seen the ads claiming that a diet rich in dairy may play a key role in long-term weight management. Is it really true? Well, there have been some interesting studies suggesting that consuming dairy products may help promote weight loss and leaner bodies. But many experts aren’t too enthusiastic about the results to date, so the jury is still out on this one. Regardless, the importance of calcium to good bone health is well known. Good sources of calcium include: skim or low-fat milk, yogurt, fortified soy milk, tofu, soybeans, sesame seeds, rhubarb, sardine or sockeye salmon with bones, figs, greens, and natural cheeses.

Be cautious of portion sizes.

Often, it’s not what people are eating, but how much. American’s portions sizes have gotten bigger and bigger — both at restaurants and in the home. Even classic cookbooks have “modernized” their recipes by increasing serving sizes. If you are at an unhealthy weight, reducing portion sizes may be all you need to do. Combined with establishing regular eating patterns and a sensitivity to hunger and fullness cues, strive for more reasonable portions. Consider what leading health organizations consider a serving size:

  • ½-1 cup cooked cereal, pasta or rice (1/2 cup is an ice cream scoop; 1 cup equals the size of a baseball)
  • one ounce of ready-to-eat cereal
  • 3 ounces of meat (equivalent in size to a deck of cards)
  • one slice of bread
  • ½ English muffin, bagel or bun (a deli bagel can equal 4 slices of bread!)
  • 1 cup of milk or yogurt
  • 1 ½ ounces of natural cheese (about the size of 3 dominoes)
  • ¾ cup of fruit juice

Note the serving sizes listed here for some beverages. Be aware that calories can add up quickly from drinks, especially the larger sizes, and they often don’t register as filling.

It’s important to understand that a “portion,” is not the same thing as a “serving.” Often, our portion of a food at one sitting is equal to more than one serving. That’s okay to a point. But on many occasions, our portions are turning out to be five or six servings. That’s when most of us need to be cautious and cut back.

Set realistic goals for yourself.

If upon reading all this, you find yourself far off the mark for healthy eating, don’t be discouraged. It’s impossible to completely overhaul your diet in one day. Eating well takes some work: a change in attitude, new habits and a sense of commitment. Set goals on a weekly basis to try new foods and make some changes, to gradually start eating healthfully — for life.

Some people follow this rule of thumb: strive to eat healthy 90% of the time. This might translate into about two less-healthy meals a week, or one not-so-healthy item for every nine nutritious choices. Obviously, the less healthy choices should be modest portions.

It’s okay to check labels and occasionally weigh and measure foods as learning tools, but making this a strict practice fuels food preoccupation. Unless you’ve been placed on a prescribed special diet for medical reasons, daily calculations are unnecessary — and cumbersome.

Moderation and variety are key.

If you believe that you are at an unhealthy weight, it’s easy to get impatient and jump on the latest diet bandwagon. But you need to be patient with yourself, making healthy eating a permanent lifestyle change. There is no diet guru out there who has all the answers. Nutrition is not an exact science, and new information is continually uncovered. Therefore, do nothing to the extreme, and don’t obsess about what you eat. Relax and enjoy. Make “moderation and variety” your mantra. Let your weight gradually and naturally settle at the healthiest point for your body type and frame. This is the key to long-term success.