We all know the old saying "you are what you eat." And the more that doctors and scientists learn, the more we see that this old wisdom is true.
The United States Centers for Disease Control says a person who eats a well-balanced diet has much better chances for a longer, healthier life. People who don't "eat healthy" tend to run into all kinds of problems, especially as they get older. Some of these include:
Being overweight leads to bone and joint problems, heart problems, blood circulation problems, and conditions like diabetes
Heart and Cardiovascular (the heart plus its veins and arteries) diseases
High blood pressure, coronary artery disease, poor circulation, high blood cholesterol, heart attacks
Kidney and Liver disease
liver problems, pancreatitis, kidney stones, and other problems of the urinary tract.
Aging can be stressful enough. Getting older and being unhealthy can make life miserable. So let's talk about how healthy food choices can help us not only enjoy longer lives, but enjoy our lives longer.
What is a healthy diet?
The U.S. government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans says a healthy diet:
- Focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole greens
- Has the right amount of lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts
- Is low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt (sodium), and added sugars
- Uses fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products (cheese, butter, etc.)
- Meets, but doesn't exceed, your daily calorie needs
- Has the vitamins and nutrients your body needs to stay healthy and vital.
Wondering how these kinds of foods should stack up as part of your daily diet? Take a look at the United States Department of Agriculture's Food Pyramid.
Another helpful tool might be the "DASH" diet. Some years ago, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) developed this diet for people who have hypertension (high blood pressure). Since then doctors have found that the "DASH" diet is a healthy approach to eating for everyone. It's based on a 2,000-calorie a day diet, so you may need to adjust the food amounts for your needs and goals. But it's still worth a look to see if DASH might be a good start for you.
Calories: the real bottom line.
Speaking of calories, it's time to make it perfectly clear. The true way to weight loss is through controlling calories. They are everything.
You've heard of all the diets and all the "wisdom:" "cut the carbs." "Get rid of the fat." "Pack in the protein." Then there's the cabbage soup diet. Or the goji berry diet, the egg diet, the juice diet, you name it. Some of these might help you lose weight in the short term. But that's what they're for: the short term. Staying on any of these diets can damage your metabolism.
And finally, there are the diet plans you can buy. These usually come with prepackaged foods or recipes. While diets in this last group can be a good way to learn about portion control, and may be better balanced in terms of vitamins and minerals, they can be expensive.
But again, you can't lose weight unless you begin using more calories than you're eating. It really is that simple. And the two proven ways to do this? Eat less, and exercise.
After all, if those fad diets worked they wouldn't be fad diets, would they?
We're not saying it's easy. Especially when fast food can be so filling, and so cheap. However, the long-term cost can be huge. WebMD quotes one long-term study in which people who ate fast food more than twice a week gained 10 more pounds than those who ate it less than once a week.
But we're also saying it doesn't have to be that hard, either. Keep things simple by making sensible choices on a day-to-day basis. Keep track of what you eat, and then see what maybe you didn't really need to eat. That's the way health becomes habit.
Want to lose weight? Start by finding your "caloric balance."
As we said above, obesity (when someone's body has so much excess fat that it becomes a health risk) is behind all kinds of diseases. So getting to and keeping a healthy weight is key to long-term health. Experts say the best way to lose weight is to do it slowly, over time. That way you're changing your lifestyle as you go. With luck, you're losing unhealthy habits as you shed unwanted pounds, and "smartly lost" pounds are less likely to come back.
So where do you start? The first thing to do is to see your doctor and learn how many calories you need each day. From there, you can work backward to see how many calories you can safely cut to lose weight at a sensible rate. Your doctor can help you create a "customized" weight-loss plan that will be safe for your health. Your doctor also can help you make a plan that won't leave you feeling like you're starving, either.
Something you can do right now is learn about your Body Mass Index (BMI). This is the ratio of your weight to your height, and the Centers for Disease Control's online Body Mass Calculator is a handy tool.
You can also start thinking about your caloric balance. Here's a simple explanation from the Centers for Disease Control:
If you are...
- Maintaining your weight, you're "in balance." You are eating roughly the same number of calories that your body is using. Your weight will remain stable.
- Gaining weight, you're "in caloric excess." You are eating more calories than your body is using. You will store these extra calories as fat and you'll gain weight.
- Losing weight, you're "in caloric deficit." You are eating fewer calories than you are using. Your body is pulling from its fat storage cells for energy, so your weight is decreasing.
If you're in caloric excess, keep in mind that losing one pound of body fat means you have to eat about 3,500 calories less than your calorie needs. According to this helpful handbook from the Department of Health and Human Services, to lose about 1 to 2 pounds per week, you'll need to cut the number of calories you take in by between 500 and1000 calories per day.
So, how do we do this? Once again, the Centers for Disease Control have lots of helpful information. First let's look at 4 simple tips on how to cut calories:
- Replace high-calorie foods with low-calorie foods. Foods that have lots of fiber and water are good ways to feel full without eating too many calories.
- Learn to eat fruits and vegetables instead of those high-calorie snacks. They're a great way to fill up and get lots of good nutrition for fewer calories.
- Think about your drink. We often forget that there can be hundreds of calories in what we drink. In its "12 Diet Mistakes" slideshow, WebMD reports that coffee drinks with lots of cream, syrup or other sugars, and certain alcoholic drinks, can pack as much as 500 calories – as much as an entire meal – into a single cup.
- Rethink your serving sizes. You may find that your portion sizes are leading you to eat more calories than you realize. Studies show that people consume more calories when faced with larger portions, even though they don't mean to.
Eat the right amounts in portions and serving sizes.
Even if you're not trying to lose weight, eating the right amounts of food is an important way to maintain weight and stay healthy.
So what are healthy portions? If you're like many people, they're smaller than you think.
The USDA lists a single serving as:
- One slice of whole-grain bread
- 1/2 cup of cooked rice or pasta
- 1/2 cup of mashed potatoes
- Three to four small crackers
- One small pancake or waffle
- Two medium-sized cookies
- 1/2 cup cooked vegetables
- 1 cup (four leaves) lettuce
- One small baked potato
- 3/4 cup vegetable juice
- One medium apple
- 1/2 grapefruit or mango
- 1/2 cup berries
- 1 cup yogurt or milk
- 1 1/2 ounces of cheddar cheese
- One chicken breast
- One medium pork chop
- 1/4 pound hamburger patty.
But as we know, trying to keep track of lists of ounces, cups, and tablespoons can be a lot of work. So here's another way: just compare the serving sizes of certain foods to familiar physical objects.
For example, a single serving of:
- Vegetables or fruit is about the size of your fist
- Pasta is about the size of one scoop of ice cream
- Meat, fish, or poultry is the size of a deck of cards or the size of your palm (not including your fingers)
- Snacks like pretzels and chips is about the size of a cupped handful
- Apple is the size of a baseball
- Potato is the size of a computer mouse
- Bagel is the size of a hockey puck
- Pancake is the size of a compact disc
- Steamed rice is the size of a cupcake wrapper
- Cheese is the size of a pair of dice or the size of your whole thumb (from the tip to the base)
That's it, plain and simple. Calories really do count – no matter what you've read in magazine articles. If you really want to trim down, the most effective way is to eat a variety of healthful foods, exercise 60 minutes every day, and stop super-sizing your meals.
And then there's water.
This is one of the simplest things to change. Water helps burn calories. When don't drink enough of it, your metabolism slows down, which slows weight loss. Studies show that adults who drink eight or more glasses of water per day burn more calories than those who drink less. So try adding a glass of water to every meal and snack.
The simplest way to manage what you eat: start with what you put on your plate.
The simplest way to eat well and control your weight is from the plate up. In other words, think about what goes onto your plate. After all, it's a very short trip from your plate to your mouth. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers these simple tips:
- Fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables.
- Eat red, orange, and dark-green vegetables like tomatoes, sweet potatoes and broccoli in main and side dishes.
- Make at least half of your grains whole grains. Check food-package labels and choose 100% whole-grain cereals, breads, crackers, rice, and pasta.
- Vary your protein intake. Try to eat seafood twice a week, and stick to small portions of lean meat and poultry the rest of the time. Beans are a natural source of fiber and protein, so they're a great choice, too.
- Switch to low-fat or skim milk. It's best to choose milk and cheese with 1 percent milk fat or less. You can also try calcium-enriched soy products.
And don't forget to exercise.
When you don't exercise, you place the entire burden of weight loss on your diet. People who are more active can eat more of the things they like and still lose weight. The key is finding an exercise you enjoy. If the treadmill seems dull, try swimming, ballet, biking, or table tennis, all of which burn more calories than walking. Spend time at different activities until you find one you want to do most days. Whatever you do, try to get an hour's exercise each day.
Good luck, and remember: it's never too late to start. Every step toward healthier living is a step in a good direction. So here's to a happier, healthier life.