This new year is all about change. As a dietitian, I am thrilled that there appear to be no fad diets on the horizon, and the old ones (e.g., the low-carb craze) seem to be vanishing into the sunset.
That's not to say we've lost our quest to live longer and maintain healthier, more nutritious diets. Consumers are becoming more interested in what they eat, but their concern goes far beyond watching their waistlines. We're more conscious of the deeper health benefits of certain foods, as well as the environmental impact of our diets. Balanced meals, antioxidants and the overall lifestyle change are front and center. It's about time!
So how can you resolve to eat better in 2009?
1. Say no to extremes and yes to a healthy lifestyle.
We have come to realize that extreme diets don't work. Giving up food groups has proven not so effective. They're hard to maintain, and deprivation eventually leads to overeating and guilt. Sound familiar?
What works is making small changes. It's as simple as that. Identify one change every week or even every month, and commit yourself diligently to make it.
For example, if you're not eating breakfast now, start by having a small bowl of a high-fiber cereal with nonfat milk. Or if you notice little fruit in your diet, add a whole fruit as a snack between lunch and dinner.
Make a list of 10 changes, and add them one by one to your routine until they become habitual. They may seem insignificant, but over time your body will show the benefits. And the best part is that you'll be making a lifestyle change, not sacrificing your life for the sake of a cookie.
2. Think foods with a function.
Functional foods, or food components, are those that provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition. Examples are the live and active cultures (good bacteria) in yogurt, the heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids in flaxseed and the exceptional amount of soluble fiber in oats. Thanks to consumer interest in the connection between diet and health, functional foods are booming.
But buyer beware: Not all functional foods are healthy. All manner of fortified junk food is lurking in the grocery aisles. Just because a chocolate chip cookie is labeled as "fortified with fiber" doesn't give you the green light to chow down. Read labels. That cookie is most likely laden with sugar and fat. Nature's functional foods (i.e. fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds) are still superior -- and they don't come with a label.
3. Think and eat green (and I'm not talking about veggies -- yet).
Going green has become a trend in the past decade. Driving a hybrid or buying organic is no longer an eccentricity, but rather something most of us aspire to do. Eating green means eating foods that are environmentally sustainable, and that means, where possible, locally grown. Eighteen percent of greenhouse gas emissions are from livestock alone -- that's more than transportation. Most foods travel thousands of miles before they appear in your local market. The message: Eat less meat, hit your local farmers markets, stay informed and ask questions.
4. Court the exotic and ethnic.
All over the United States, ethnic cuisine is going mainstream, whether it's Latin American or Mediterranean or Indian or Asian. This trend is not just good for the palate, but has health benefits as well. We're no stranger to the heart-healthy benefits of the olive oil consumed in Mediterranean diets. Indian diets include more vegetables and less meat than the traditional Western diet. And South American grains (for example, quinoa) hold very respectable amounts of fiber and other vitamins and minerals. Try one new ethnic food a month to broaden your palate and maybe improve your health. You may surprise yourself and add new foods to your repertoire.
5. Tea it up.
Green, black or white -- whatever your pleasure. Tea shops are almost as common as coffee shops. Tea is considered a super food of our generation. We may have all heard that tea is full of antioxidants (natural substances that prevent cell damage), but it has also been linked to heart health, cancer protection and improving the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. It's also calorie-free and considered part of our daily fluid requirements. Next time you pass the teahouse, pop in and sample a few. Maybe you can swap your afternoon java for a cup of antioxidant-laden tea.
6. Spice up your year.
Spices have a lot more to offer than just flavor. They are full of phytochemicals, and researchers believe they may help control or prevent diseases. The U.S. Department of Agriculture rated oregano at the top of the list for its antibacterial properties. Cinnamon may help diabetics lower their blood sugar.
Turmeric may slow the progression of Alzheimer's. And cumin is believed to have cancer-fighting properties (and, as a bonus, it just might keep you away from the salt shaker). Next time you're grilling a simple chicken breast, add a spice of your choice to jazz it up.
7. Eat a rainbow of color.
When I was growing up, my parents told me I needed to eat my greens. As a soon-to-be parent, I'll be preaching for my kids to eat all the colors in the crayon box. We now know that vegetables of all colors provide an array of phytochemicals (plant chemicals that have protective or disease-preventing properties), antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. And what one has, the other may not.
Tomatoes house lycopene; carrots and pumpkin contain beta-carotene, and the antioxidant glutathione is found in asparagus. For maximum protection, we need it all. Add veggies to your morning omelet, pack them into your sandwich at lunch, and dip a carrot in your hummus for a midafternoon snack. Variety really is the spice of life.
8. Eat at home (and I don't mean takeout).
If you're not cooking at home now (or if you are only sometimes), add one day or additional day to your dinner schedule. Cooking at home puts you in control. You determine the ingredients and how much to use, as well as portion sizes. Eating at home is one of the best ways to lose or maintain weight and eat healthily. Aside from the nutritional aspect, it's much more cost-effective. And with this economy, who doesn't want to save a buck?
9. Commit to be fit.
Just get moving. Dance, join a gym, take an aerobics or martial arts class, get involved in team sports, walk, jog, ride a bike, go swimming, do yoga or get a trainer. Pick something and commit to it.
We've already learned that deprivation leads to overindulging. So treat yourself. The most important point to remember is that you're not on a diet. You're making a lifestyle change. I encourage my clients to live by the 90/10 rule, meaning: 90 percent of the time eat healthily and exercise; 10 percent of the time indulge. There are 21 meals a week (3 meals per day, not including snacks); 10 percent of that is two meals. So, two meals a week are yours to eat as you wish, be it in two dinners, or one breakfast and one dinner, and so forth.
There you have it. These resolutions are a far cry from what we've heard in the past decade or so, but then look where the old-style diet resolutions got us. Change is exactly what we need.
Betsy Klein is a registered dietitian.