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Improving Your Nutrition in Four Simple Steps

Feb 02, 2012

Written by Pamela S. Hinton, Ph.D.

Improving your diet doesn’t require significant resources to invest in a nutritionist or personal trainer. Whether you need a complete diet overhaul or minor adjustments, you can positively affect your health with just a few simple changes to your diet and eating habits. Follow these do-it-yourself nutrition tips to achieve a healthy body weight, reduce your risk of chronic disease and maybe even spice up your daily plate.

Achieve a healthy body weight.
For most people, this means reducing daily energy intake by several hundred calories to sustain weight loss. Although this task sounds daunting, just one or two small changes will do the trick if they are maintained over time. For example, you can:

  • Substitute water for sugary soda and fruit drinks. If it’s the carbonation you crave, choose unsweetened, carbonated water.
  • Beware the coffee-based drinks that are made with whole milk, sweetened with syrup and topped with whipped cream. Ask for your latte with skim milk and “no whip” to cut calories.
  • Reduce the amount of added fat. At 100 calories per tablespoon, salad dressing, butter, margarine, cream cheese and peanut butter are energy-dense. You can save a significant number of calories by using these sparingly or selecting low-fat alternatives.
  • Use less fat in cooking and baking. Substitute fruit purées for a significant portion of the oil or butter in baked goods. Thicken soups and sauces with vegetable purées. Buttermilk is an excellent substitute for sour cream or whole milk in cream soups, sauces or mashed potatoes. And, for your holiday pies, try a crust of ground almonds with a minimal amount of oil and syrup rather than lard or butter.
  • Revamp your snacks. Rather than snacking on chips, crackers, cookies or candy, which are high in fat, trans fat and calories, opt for a piece of fresh fruit, baby carrots, air-popped popcorn or a cup of low-fat yogurt. If you crave a salty snack, like chips or crackers, choose the baked or reduced-fat version.

Reduce your intake of saturated fat, trans fat, sugar and sodium.
Not only do added fat and sugar pile on unwanted calories, but consumed in excess, they contribute to weight gain and chronic diseases such cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some types of cancer. In some people, too much sodium leads to high blood pressure. To combat these problems, you can:

  • Limit your intake of processed grains and snack foods, such as cookies, crackers, corn and potato chips, and snack cakes. Although these snacks are highly palatable, they are also laden with trans fat, sugar and sodium. Instead, choose unprocessed foods for snacks, such as dried fruit, pretzels or nuts.
  • Limit your intake of processed meats—such as bacon, lunch meat and sausage—and of cheese and pizza, which are also high in saturated fat and sodium. Instead, prepare lean cuts of fresh meat and choose low-fat cheese. Several times per week, choose beans, legumes or tofu as a source of protein in place of meat.
  • Use less salt at the table and during cooking. In place of salt, enhance the flavor of your food with added herbs and spices.
  • Sodium, sugar and trans fat often hide in unsuspected foods. For example, canned soups can be surprisingly high in sodium, and sugar is often added to pasta sauce. Likewise, trans fats are ubiquitous in processed foods. It pays to read food labels. Avoid products that have added sugar (sucrose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup) or trans fat (hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil).

Increase your intake of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish and dairy products.
These foods contain a multitude of vitamins, minerals and other compounds (i.e., fiber and antioxidants) that promote health. We recommend that you:

  • Eat more fruits and vegetables at meals and snacks. Fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber. They also add color, which not only makes our plate more visually appealing, but adds the antioxidant power of phytonutrients.
  • Swap whole grains for processed ones. Choose brown rice and whole wheat pasta. Experiment with quick-cooking grains like quinoa and millet. Read food labels to select baked goods and cereals that are made with whole grains.
  • Choose fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt and cottage cheese as a high-protein snack that is also packed with calcium and vitamin D. As an alternative to dairy products, select soy milk or orange juice that has been fortified with calcium and vitamin D.
  • At least two times per week, choose seafood rather than meat to increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids.

Be a conscientious consumer when eating out.

  • Ask for salad dressing, butter, sour cream and sauces on the side, so you can control how much is added.
  • Avoid dishes that are prepared with cream or served with a cream sauce.
  • Select foods that have been steamed, broiled or baked, rather than fried or sautéed.
  • Restaurants are notorious for serving excessively large portions. Don’t hesitate to ask for a take-home container.
  • For dessert, choose fruit sorbet or pie (and leave the crust), or share your dessert with a friend.

View the full winter 2012 issue of the ACSM Fit Society® Page online.

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