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OT: Catalyst for change: 10 ways to eat healthier

Editor's Note: We at Armchair Arcade sometimes like to give voice to the occasional off-topic feature. With that in mind we present Christina Loguidice's "Catalyst for change: 10 ways to eat healthier", which was originally meant as an article for magazines like Women's World Weekly, and for which my wife has adapted for use here. We thank you for checking out this diversion from our regularly scheduled programming and both we and the author would love to hear your comments. So, read on and enjoy! -Bill

Catalyst for change: 10 ways to eat healthier

My quest to live healthier started with an EMS call. It was not your typical call, unless you have a very curious toddler who is prone to getting into trouble. While at my parent’s house, our daughter, Olivia, managed to pull her sister Amelie’s potty seat over her head and we could not remove it for fear of exerting too much pressure and injuring her. While we consoled her and waited for help to arrive, we did what any other parent would do—we took some pictures for the baby book. Seeing those pictures made me realize I needed to lose some weight and get serious about my diet. Interestingly, shortly thereafter, Bill told me about a study published in Obesity that suggests 100% of Americans could be obese (body mass index [BMI] of 30 or higher) by 2040. While the study has a myriad of flaws, there is no doubt that there are a lot of people out there struggling with weight issues. The World Health Organization reports that 1 billion people worldwide are currently overweight (BMI between 25 and 29.9), of which 300 million are obese. While some people can be overweight yet fit and healthy, many become prone to developing health problems, such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and high cholesterol levels. These conditions are even being observed in overweight children, which is incredibly disconcerting. Because children learn by example, I wanted ours to see us eating healthy, nutrient-dense food, even if it is not always possible to get them to do the same.

Here are the top 10 things we’ve learned to do to ensure we eat healthfully, and the logic behind these choices:

(1) Read labels—This can’t be stressed enough. It is especially important to determine serving size and look at fat, sodium, and sugar content. Foods high in saturated and trans fats should be avoided as much as possible. Even a low-calorie small frozen meal will pack a lot of sodium, some with half or more of the recommended daily allowance. I was shocked to discover that even a slice of bread may have up to 10% of the daily recommended sodium allowance, mainly to preserve its shelf-life. This is not something I had previously considered because bread generally does not taste “salty.”

(2) Avoid sugar and especially artificial sweeteners —Artificial sweeteners have been shown to be detrimental in animal studies, causing everything from weight gain to bladder cancer. Even if they are considered “safe” in humans, why use something artificial when many healthy sweet alternatives are readily available? Honey is a great option that is packed with antioxidants and comes in an abundance of varieties. I prefer to buy darker honeys, such as buckwheat honey, as they are more nutrient dense. Honey has almost as many calories as sugar, at about 60 calories a tablespoon, so, if a calorie-free alternative is being sought, stevia (also known as sweet leaf) is a great natural option. Currently, stevia can be sold only as a supplement in the United States; however, Coca-Cola is looking to change that and has partnered with an agribusiness called Cargill to develop a stevia-based sweetener. Stevia is said to be 30 times sweeter than sugar and can be obtained as an extract or in little packets in most health food stores. Interestingly, stevia has shown promise in medical research for treating obesity and hypertension. This herb has a negligible effect on blood sugar levels, even enhancing glucose tolerance. A drawback for some is a slight licorice aftertaste at higher concentrations, but some manufacturers have produced versions with little to no stevioside, the property responsible for the aftertaste. I’ve also recently discovered dried cactus honey powder. It is healthy, delicious, can be used just like sugar, and has fewer calories than liquid honey, with about 54.8 calories for 0.5 oz.

(3) Eliminate sodas, even diet versions, as much as possible —This seems to be the biggest culprit to weight gain. One can of soda has about 10 teaspoons of sugar. While it seems prudent to switch to diet soda, some studies indicate that even diet soda may lead to weight gain and the eventual development of metabolic syndrome, a precursor to diabetes. The reason for this is unclear, but theories abound. One of the researchers from the Framingham Heart Study theorized that the caramel coloring in diet soda may promote inflammation of the pancreas and insulin resistance. Another theory is that people who drink diet soda may be less likely to pay attention to what else they’re eating and therefore tend to eat more. Regardless, you are putting something artificial in your body, and while soda won’t remove the paint from your car, it will rob your bones of precious calcium by leading to higher phosphate levels in the blood. Milk, water, diluted juice (most juices have a lot of added sugar), and unsweetened iced tea are much healthier alternatives. We prefer to make our own iced tea, which allows greater variation. We simply brew the desired tea for the allocated time, usually 3 to 5 minutes, and then pour it into ice-filled glass pitchers; ours are made of a durable glass that can handle the variation in temperature without shattering. Tea has lots of antioxidants, and the flavonoids it contains are very good at combating free radicals, which cause cell damage that can lead to disease.

(4) Eat more fruits and vegetables—This should be a no-brainer, yet most individuals are lucky to eat 1 serving per day. Many people seem to have an aversion to vegetables, and I think this often results from not knowing how to prepare them properly. I always had a tough time knowing how to prepare vegetables in a healthful way that also tasted great. I was so used to eating boiled frozen vegetables growing up, and Bill, the often dully colored and limp canned variety, and while tolerable, it was never pleasurable. We found the trick to eating more vegetables is having fun with recipes and preparing them in unconventional ways. You don’t need a special cookbook to do this, as there are many Web sites out there (eg, allrecipes.com, foodnetwork.com) that allow you to freely search for recipes using a particular ingredient. These sites have the added benefit of allowing you to read consumer reviews, which often provide great ideas for healthful substitutions. We also buy our vegetables fresh or frozen, never canned, and steam or bake them so that we don’t boil the vital nutrients out of them. We try to buy as much organic produce as possible or buy from our local farmer’s market or farm stands; tomatoes, peaches, you name it, taste so much better when they are freshly picked rather than having ripened on a crate that has been transported hundreds or even thousands of miles before reaching the supermarket. We recently saw tomatoes from New Zealand in our New Jersey supermarket!

(5) Buy organic milk and dairy products, if possible—There is increased expense here, with organic milk costing almost $4 per half gallon in our area, but I don’t like the idea of consuming growth hormones (rBGH) or antibiotics, even if the USDA and FDA claim it is safe. Use of rBGH increases insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), resulting in greater milk production. Although IGF-1 occurs naturally in humans and bovines alike, higher concentrations have been linked to breast and prostate cancers. Treated cows suffer higher rates of mastitis (infection of utters) than nontreated cows, requiring greater administration of antibiotics. Increased exposure to antibiotics have been thought to result in super infections, so why be exposed if you don’t need to be, even if the traces are said to be minimal? Furthermore, children seem to be reaching sexual maturity much sooner than in the past, and pediatricians are increasingly encountering toddlers who are sprouting pubic hair! This seems to be especially prevalent in children who consume a lot of dairy. Because Amelie and Olivia drink milk like it is going out of style, I feel much better buying organic dairy products or those that come from farms that pledge to be hormone-free, even if they are not certified organic.

(6) Eat red meat sparingly, and buy antibiotic-free chicken—Colon cancer has been linked to eating lots of red and processed meats. Furthermore, most beef is treated with synthetic hormones, which can cause hormonal imbalances by increasing natural hormone levels. According to the Cancer Prevention Coalition, “No dietary levels of hormones are safe and a dime-sized piece of meat contains-billions of millions of molecules.” Again, why take any chances, especially when hormone-free options are available. When we buy beef, we tend to buy lean hormone-free beef, which is available at all of our local supermarkets. As an alternative, we sometimes buy ostrich meat. “Yucky,” you say? Don’t dismiss it unless you’ve tried it! Bill and I are no super tasters, but it actually reminds us a lot of beef and is very lean. Another fantastic option is bison. Like ostrich, this can be hard to find, but well worth the effort. The meat is delicious, guaranteed hormone-free, and very lean.

(7) Boost consumption of omega fatty acids—This can be done by eating more heart-healthy fish, such as herring, sardines, salmon, mackerel, trout, and tuna, which have the added benefit of containing very little saturated fat. While there are some concerns about mercury levels in fish, and studies on how much fish should be consumed are conflicting, especially by pregnant women, many Americans do not eat enough fish or opt for unhealthy processed fish sticks and patties that are devoid of nutrients. I think a lot of this stems from not knowing how to prepare fish properly or thinking the process is very involved. Fish doesn’t need to be breaded and fried to be delicious or require a lot of work to prepare, as perusing the countless recipe sites for healthy fish dishes will demonstrate. If you are not a fish connoisseur, another way to boost consumption of omega-fatty acids is to buy omega-3 enriched eggs or orange juice, which taste no different than the non-fortified variety and are also readily available at most supermarkets.

(8) Use healthy oils for frying and cooking, and use sparingly—Olive oil (including extra-virgin olive oil) and canola oil are the best options, as they are high in monounsaturated fat and lowest in saturated fat. Monosaturates have the most beneficial effect on blood lipid levels, protecting against cardiovascular disease. I prefer to use olive oil because it is the only vegetable oil that can be consumed right after it is pressed, whereas other oils, including canola oil, require processing to remove toxic chemicals and are also stripped of antioxidants in the process. In baking recipes, I often cut down on fat by substituting some applesauce or fat free yogurt for all or a portion of the oil or butter. I’ve found that this healthful substitution does not compromise taste or texture, and no one ever complains.

(9) Learn portion control and eat smaller meals more frequently—The adage of “everything in moderation” holds true, especially when it comes to food. Our portions are far from moderate these days; order a meal at any restaurant and you’ll likely receive enough food for 3 or 4 meals, if not more. One serving of meat is only 2 to 3 ounces, so that 12 ounce steak on the menu is at least 4 servings. Because most of us do not carry a scale in our back pocket, we must visually determine what constitutes a proper portion. Generally, 1 serving of meat would be roughly the size of a deck of cards or bar of soap. One serving of pasta is 1 cup cooked, yet some restaurants serve dishes that contain up to 6 cups. Along with eating proper portions, smaller meals eaten more frequently help keep blood sugar levels steady, boosting metabolism and preventing muscle loss. If you require 2000 calories daily to maintain your weight, splitting those calories between 5 or 6 smaller meals, instead of 2 or 3 larger meals, may prove beneficial according to numerous studies. While this may seem complicated or time-consuming, it really isn’t, but it does require some planning. There are lots of online and print resources that help with planning such meals, and once you develop some understanding of the caloric and nutritional content of food, it becomes much easier.

(10) Don’t let yourself feel deprived—If you have an overwhelming desire to eat that donut or chunk of cheese that has your name on it, go ahead. The key is not to do it on a daily basis or give in every time that urge hits. I find when I eat smaller meals throughout the day, I am also considerably less likely to have such cravings. Eating clean is important, but it will be most effective if such habits can be sustained, and sometimes that may mean making allowances. The point of eating clean is to eat as healthfully as possible and to keep portions in check as much as possible.

The term “diet” is synonymous with “deprivation” to many people, and there are countless gimmicks out there that have banked on this. While such plans, methods, or pills may work for some individuals, the gains are generally short-term and may do more harm than good; one need only recall the ban on ephedra-based diet pills that occurred after the ill effects of ephedra came to light. The key to keeping weight in check and living healthier is to eat cleaner by being cognizant of what is being consumed. If more of us did this, there is no doubt in my mind that we’d have a fitter and healthier America.

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