What does “healthy eating” mean to you? Two areas that people typically think about when considering a healthier diet are related to how much salt and sugar they consume.
“Generally speaking, Americans eat too much salt, because we rely on processed foods at home and eat out a lot,” says registered dietitian nutritionist and certified diabetes educator Barb Van Meerbeke, who provides nutrition counseling for WelloSpan Health. “Dietitian nutritionists consider a low-sodium diet to be 2,000–3,000 mg of sodium per day. A lot of people exceed that number.
“But the thing to remember is this: We’re not born with a craving for salt,” she says. “It’s something we acquire. I tell people who need to be on a low-sodium diet that they should try to go cold turkey for two to four weeks. They will realize that afterwards, their tastes have changed a bit and they don’t crave salt as much.”
Van Meerbeke suggests not always turning to salt to add flavor to foods, and instead using more herbs and spices. “And if you use soy sauce, which is very salty,” she says, “buy the low-sodium version and try to use less of it.”
Just as sodium affects each person differently, the same is true for foods that affect one’s blood sugars.
Some individuals have a lower tolerance for carbohydrates and sweets than others.
“Foods like sweets and sodas are low in nutrition and high in calories,” Van Meerbeke says. “As a nation, we simply eat too much of them, which can lead to a variety of health issues.” Issues such as diabetes, obesity, inflammation, certain cancers, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and joint problems can result, in part, from poor diets. “But overall,” she states, “simply eating too much food—and eating too much processed food, specifically—leads to health problems.”
Ultimately, Van Meerbeke says, a healthy diet all boils down to what she refers to as “mindful eating.”
“Mindful eating is paying attention to what you are putting in your mouth,” she explains. “Eat delicious food, but don’t eat when you are distracted and not able to taste the food. Eat slowly, and stop eating before you get too full.”
Van Meerbeke says it’s best to cook your foods at home and stay away from processed foods as much as possible. “I recommend making your recipes with real foods such as lean meat, chicken, fish, whole grains, eggs, natural low-fat dairy products, healthy oils, nuts, seeds, natural peanut butter, fruits and veggies,” she states. “It’s easier and quicker than you think, and you and your family will be healthier for it.”
It's easy to over-indulge at a holiday meal. Barb van Meerbeke offers the following tips to help you enjoy the feast and eat healthier:
- Decide in advance what you'll eat and stick to your plan.
- Eat only foods that you love. Enjoy seasonal favorites but less of them.
- Don't waste your calories on foods you can get any time, such as chips and pretzels.
- Consider cutting the amount of fat (butter, oil, margarine) by one-third in recipes such as stuffing and mashed potatoes.
- Offer to bring a healthy dish to your family gathering.
- Eat mindfully and exercise more.