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Top 10 Nutrition Habits for Optimal Health
“To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art.” -La Rochefoucauld
By: Karen McPartland, RD
The Princeton Longevity Center provides the most advanced and individually-tailored programs for improving and sustaining health and longevity.A key component of this program for creating and supporting optimal wellness is nutrition. In order to get a detailed picture of your current and future health, we need to focus on how the food choices you’re making day in and day out are impacting this. Since the center’s goal is provide simple, easy steps that fit into your current lifestyle, in honor of the Princeton Longevity’s Center 10th anniversary, here are the top 10 nutrition habits to support an active, vital and fulfilling life.
- If you bite it, you should write it.
Many times we think we’re making all the right nutrition choices to support our health only to discover that what we’ve been focusing on is not leading us down the right path. For example, maybe we have gotten the message that nuts are healthy but we’re being too generous with our portion sizes by pouring a few handfuls of nuts from the jar resulting in too many calories. Or maybe while we’re only drinking a glass of that heart-healthy red wine, but that “one” glass is the size of a medieval chalice.
Staying accountable is a good way to keep on track. Knowing you have to write down what you eat helps to keep you focused and your portions in check. Many times we eat so automatically that we don’t realize what we’re doing until we begin writing it down. Keeping a food diary helps you to recognize what your sticking points are, such as happy hour, fast food drive-thrus, the vending machine or maybe Sunday brunch.
Writing down or recording what you’re currently eating and drinking provides a clearer picture of what’s really going on. Whether you write it in a notebook, use a tracking app on a smart phone or input it into an online program, just like a diagnostic test, these provide a detailed snapshot in order to see what changes we need to implement.
Too busy to track your eating habits on a consistent basis? As part of your comprehensive exam, the nutrition department provides an in-depth look at your eating by analyzing your food diary for an appropriate calorie level, sources of fat, and vitamin and mineral status. We then come up with a plan to tweak these habits to support optimal health.
- Eat like it’s your job.
In our time crunched days, eating or eating well often becomes the first thing we sacrifice when faced with the demands of our careers and families. Often we become so busy during the day we either forget to eat or eat so little that by the time dinner arrives, we’re ready to pillage the contents of the kitchen. This tends to lead to eating most of our calories at night right before we go to sleep - a time when we’re most inactive.
Skipping meals may sound like a good way to save some time or calories or to account for a weekend of overeating, but this strategy tends to backfire as it leads to overwhelming hunger – the kind where anything and everything looks good. Reaching this level of hunger often causes you to over-serve yourself, eating larger portions more quickly than you normally would.
Eating meals and snacks at regular intervals helps to stabilize your blood sugar, keep your energy up, and prevent you from reaching for a sugary treat in the afternoon.Start the day with a fiber-rich breakfast, such as oatmeal or whole grain toast, and add a generous serving of protein, such as eggs or a Greek-style yogurt. The fiber and protein will help to stabilize your blood sugar and keep you feeling full longer.
Remember that food is fuel. If you want to run like a sports car, you need to fill your tank with high quality fuel.
- Power up with protein.
Too many carbs makes us feel sleepy and causes a roller coaster reaction of blood sugar highs then low. Protein is digested more slowly than carbs and it also causes you to burn a few more calories as you digest it.Focus on having a good source protein at meals and snacks such as lean meats, beans, lentils, tofu, or low fat dairy products.
- Focus on healthy fats.
Not all fats are bad. Fat is essential to help our body run smoothly and absorb many vitamins and minerals. The American Heart Association and the AmericanCancer Society recommend that no more than 30% of our daily calories come from fat. For most of us that’s about 65 grams of total fat per day. While this may seem like a lot, fat can add up fast so we want to focus on the heart-healthy unsaturated (especially monounsaturated) fats that help to improve cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease. Examples of heart-healthy fats are nuts, seeds, nut butters, olive oil, avocados, and fatty fish (such as salmon, tuna, halibut, and sardines).
How do I get more healthy fats in my diet? Add a small palmful of walnuts to hot cereal, snack on almonds, add slices of avocado to your sandwiches, cook with small amounts of olive oil, or choose natural nut butters to spread on your whole grain toast in the morning. Just remember that fat has twice the calories of protein or carbohydrates so keep an eye on portion size.
Did you know that dehydration is the number one cause of afternoon fatigue? In addition, we often mistake thirst for hunger causing us to eat more. Rather than reaching for another cup of coffee or a sugary snack to boost your energy, grab a glass of water for a natural pick-me-up. Besides helping with energy and weight management, water is essential to digestion as it helps the body make bile and stomach acids. If you are dehydrated, the body needs to pull water from other parts of the body to get the digestive work done, which can cause bloating and cramping. Make sure to drink water throughout the day so you can rehydrate and help your body process the food you eat.
Ideally you want to aim to drink at least half of your body weight in ounces of water per day.Just keep in mind that you may need more than this depending on your level of activity and how much you sweat.
- Fiber is your friend. Focus on fruits and veggies.
The fiber in fruits and veggies is Mother Nature’s helper. The fiber not only helps keep you regular but also helps to improve your cholesterol as well as fill you up for fewer calories. Reach for 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Focus especially on fruits and vegetables high in vitamin A such as carrots, sweet potatoes, squash and spinach as well as those high in vitamin C like citrus fruits, strawberries, broccoli, tomato, kiwi, and red bell peppers. Foods with vitamin A and vitamin c are powerful antioxidants that help to lessen the oxidative stress on the body and reduce the risk of many chronic diseases.
Some easy ways to get more fruits and veggies include sautéing some spinach, tomatoes and mushrooms to add to your morning eggs; snack on fruit between meals; or skip the pasta and stir fry zucchini, yellow squash and mushrooms in tomato sauce.
- “Waste” it or “Waist” it.
You are not a human garbage disposal. Picking at your dinner plate when you’re not hungry, eating your kid’s leftovers or drinking that last swig of orange juice in order to throw out the container, is not doing you or your health any favors. If the leftover cake sitting in the office kitchen is calling your name, either remove yourself from the temptation or if possible, remove the temptation and pitch it. Stop worrying about “wasting” food because if you eat it, it goes to your “waist.” Eating food when you’re not hungry will not help one starving child. Doesn’t that food look better in the trash can than on your waist?
- Become a food Ninja. Plan and attack your indulgences strategically.
Remember, enjoying what you’re eating is not the same as eating everything you enjoy.In other words, instead of trying to eat every treat food you love on the weekends (such as chips, pizza, booze, wings, and an ice cream sundae all in one meal), focus on one main splurge and choose healthier supporting options. Love dessert? Order strategically by choosing a lighter main entree such as broiled or grilled fish with lots of vegetables and save room for that dessert you crave.
- Be a food snob.
Have you ever been craving a cookie and in trying to keep on track, ate yourself around the kitchen with healthier options only to end up eating the cookie on top of everything else? If you’re craving the real deal, go for it but beware of mindless munching which can lead to over serving yourself. If you’re going to enjoy a fun food, make sure you sit down, tune in to what you’re eating, and savor every bite.
- Prepare like a Boy or Girl Scout.
Many people don’t like to plan their meals or think about what they’re going to eat. Instead they go about their day and grab whatever is available when hunger strikes. A lot of times we justify it in our minds by thinking: “Hey I’m busy, I don’t have time to worry about another thing,” or “It’s not my fault I had to eat unhealthy food. I didn’t have any other options. It was out of my control.”
If you’re trying to make a change in your nutrition, the importance of planning cannot be underestimated. To quote a chapter in Debbie Danowski’s book The Emotional Eater’s Book of Inspiration, “It is best to decide what to eat when you are full.” Why you ask? Because when you’re starving and ready to gnaw on your desk, it’s much harder to make healthy choices when anything and everything looks delicious.
Aim to be prepared by planning for healthy meals and snacks. Go to the grocery store on the weekends and stock up on staple items such as fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, frozen brown rice, low fat dairy products (such as string cheese, Greek-style yogurt, skim milk and low fat cottage cheese), natural nut butters, unsalted nuts, whole grain breads and pastas, canned beans, diced tomatoes, and lean proteins such as chicken breast, turkey breast, eggsand canned tuna and salmon. Always have health snacks available for work or for travel. Good choices include grab-and-go items such as single-serving bags of nuts, fresh fruit, string cheese, natural energy bars, whole grain cereal in a Ziploc baggie, roasted soybeans (edamame) or even peanut or almond butter sandwiches on whole grain bread.Having healthy choices available gives you options rather than always having to hit the vending machine or fast food drive-thru when hungry and tired.
Just a little bit of planning goes a long way!Healthy eating is really not that difficult. A little time investment can make a big difference. It’s important to keep in mind that “those who think they have no time for healthy eating will sooner or later have to find time for illness.”