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7 Small Diet Changes to Make You Healthier Than Ever

It doesn't require a major overhaul of your diet — and you can even skip the kale


For most of us, it’s a lot easier to swap in one small good-for-you habit on occasion than completely overhaul the way we eat.

Based on recent research, any or all of the following seven strategies will help do just that, to reshape the food choices you make on a daily basis. So before you know it, in a month, two months or six months, you’ll be eating in ways that put your fiftysomething body in much better shape.

1. Cook at home. A lot. Keep it simple.

Fast food takes the worst rap, but dining at any restaurant can do a number on weight and health. When researchers analyzed restaurant offerings in three cities — Boston, San Francisco and Little Rock, Ark. — the average meal delivered a whopping 1,200 calories. And that’s not counting beverages or the bread basket.

“Large portions, free bread and perhaps the disinhibiting effect of alcohol can lead us to overeat by quite a lot when dining out,” says lead study researcher Susan B. Roberts, a senior scientist and director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at Tufts University.

Trouble is, routinely eating 1,200-calorie meals is not a good choice for aging bodies that already need fewer calories. So why not cook the same style dishes at home, but with a healthier twist?

High levels of saturated fat in red meat can raise the risk for heart disease and stroke, and even lean cuts can be a problem.

“You’re going to save at least 450 calories, maybe more,” says Brierley Wright, a registered dietitian and nutrition editor at Eating Well.

Do some meal planning early in the week, stash quick-fix foods in the panty or use weekend time to cook big-batch meals. “If you do some of the prep work in advance you’re more likely to cook at home,” says Wright.

2. Cue into hunger. Read body signals. Eat mindfully.

Is there a healthy solution to a culture that bombards us with high-calorie foods and snacks that tempt us to overeat? A British study suggests it could be as simple as being mindful.

These scientists asked half of a group of overweight volunteers to listen to audio tapes that encouraged them to pay attention to the lunch they were eating. The other half of the group dined on the same lunch while listening to an audio book.

When allowed to snack a few hours later, the group that focused their attention on the meal ended up eating 30 percent less.

Harvard nutrition professor and researcher Teresa Fung isn’t surprised. Multitasking and 24/7 access to electronic devices causes a lot of us to be distracted while eating. Next time a craving strikes, Fung suggests pausing and figuring out what the body really needs.

“Are you bored? Are you eating because you always eat a little something before bedtime?” she asks. “Do a read-out of the body. If the signal isn’t hunger, don’t eat,” she says. Sometimes what you’re craving is a change in activity, not a bag of potato chips or a cookie.

3. Ease up on the red meat. Eat fish. Cook more plants.

In the quest for the best protein source for good health, red meat continues to take a beating.

According to the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR), overwhelming evidence shows that high levels of red meat in the diet are linked to an increased risk of colon cancer. The evidence is so powerful that AICR scientists recommend Americans keep red meat intake to moderate levels, or less than 18 ounces a week. (A McDonald’s quarter-pounder is about 4 ounces of meat; a large steak might be 8 ounces.)

What about red meat and heart disease? That link is controversial.

“Still, I think from a cardiovascular disease perspective, it’s important to limit red meat,” says Fung. High levels of saturated fat in red meat can raise the risk for heart disease and stroke, and even lean cuts can be a problem.

“The way Americans eat red meat is mostly as ground meat, and that is not lean,” says Fung. “It’s called 85 percent lean, but it carries a lot of saturated fat.”

A better strategy, she suggests, is to replace red meat with fatty fish like salmon, or plant proteins like beans and legumes. In fact, a Harvard study finds that substituting plant protein for animal protein, particularly processed red meat, is linked with a lower risk of mortality.

4. Reach for the right yogurt. Plain varieties. Add fruit.

Looking at three long-running scientific studies (with over 100,000 participants), Harvard researchers linked a daily serving of yogurt to an 18 percent lower risk for type 2 diabetes. In an unrelated study, Swedish researchers noticed a 23 percent lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes among adults, ages 45 to 74, eating the most high-fat dairy products, including high-fat yogurt.

More research is needed to tease out how yogurt might be impacting diabetes risk and whether full-fat or low-fat is the best option. In the meantime, most health experts like the idea of yogurt for good health.

“Yogurt is full of a lot of different nutrients including calcium and protein,” says Wright.And we’re learning more and more about probiotics and their importance to gut health.”

Just watch out for flavored and fat-free yogurts with lots of added sugar, she cautions. All that excess sugar could negate health benefits. Instead, add fresh fruit to plain or low-sugar yogurts.

5. Forgo the daily sugary drink. Not just soda. Any sugary liquid.

Overdoing it on sugary drinks has a lot of negative health consequences, contributing to everything from high blood pressure to unhealthy levels of fat in the blood to weight gain.

Now a new study suggests that one sugary drink a day is enough to create damaging levels of visceral fat. What is that?

“Visceral fat is that deep fat that surrounds your organs,” explains Rachel Johnson, a nutrition professor at the University of Vermont and chair of the American Heart Association Nutrition Committee. “And it puts you at higher risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke, and there’s even some evidence that it might be linked to dementia.”

So cut the soda, right?

“You need to be looking at labels on any sugary drinks,” says Johnson. “The sweetened teas and the sweetened coffees are just as concerning as the soft drinks.” So are the energy drinks, the lemonade and too much fruit juice, or more than an 8-ounce glass per day, says Johnson.

6. Skip the diet drinks, too

Drinking diet cola might shave off a few calories, but chances are good you’ll make up for those lost calories somewhere else, probably with a side of fries, a donut or some other energy-dense, less nutritious choice — aka what scientists call “discretionary” food.

At least that’s the word from a new study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Lead researcher Ruopeng An, has two hypotheses about what might be going on.

“Drinking a diet beverage is less satisfactory and so people may attempt to compensate by consuming additional calories. Or drinking a diet beverage makes people feel less guilty of consuming discretionary foods,” he says. “Or vice versa.”

Either way, the bottom line is that diet drinks probably aren’t as big a help with weight control as most people think.

7. Sip an extra glass of H20

People who increased their proportion of plain water intake in overall dietary water by just 1 percent (about 1 cup) a day end up consuming fewer calories, less saturated fat, less sugar, less sodium and less cholesterol, according to another University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign study by An.

He says the numbers are clear. People who increased their water intake by one, two, or three cups per day ended up consuming 70 to 200 fewer calories over the course of that day. They also took in 5 to 18 fewer grams of sugar, or about one to five teaspoons less.

These are the kinds of little changes that can add up to better health over the course of a day, a month or a year.

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By Maureen Callahan
Maureen Callahan is a registered dietitian, recipe developer and lead author of the Health.com diet book review series. She is a two-time James Beard Award winner.

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