Don’t eat sodium. Don’t eat sugar. Don’t eat trans fat.
In our quest to eat well, we certainly hear a lot of “don’t do this” and “don’t do that.”
But what if we focused more on the do’s for a healthy diet?
Do eat more whole grains. Do eat more fruits. Do eat more veggies.
According to a recent study, healthier eating could prevent 1 in 5 deaths worldwide.
Consuming too few healthy foods is just as bad as eating too many unhealthy foods.
The study found three things that account for more than half of all diet-associated deaths: not enough whole grains, not enough fruits and too much sodium.
Other problems arise from overconsumption of red meat, processed meats, sugary drinks and trans fats.
The findings led the study author to encourage government dietary policies that focus on promoting healthy eating, rather than those discouraging unhealthy foods.
When we focus on eating healthier foods, it tends to push out the unhealthy things we know we should avoid, Spectrum Health dietitian Sarah Flessner said.
“I like focusing on including more healthy foods versus excluding unhealthy foods,” she said. “It lets our focus be, ‘I can eat more of this,’ instead of what you’re taking away.”
A little secret: Nobody’s perfect.
That said, Flessner encourages people to focus on making healthy food choices 80% of the time.
Give yourself some slack the other 20% of the time.
“It gives us a little more flexibility in our choices and helps you to not beat yourself up when you eat something that’s not the healthiest,” Flessner said.
Also, while many people diet because they’re motivated to lose weight or avoid chronic diseases, we might enjoy more success if we choose foods based on how they make us feel, she said.
When we eat healthy foods, we tend to have more energy and we find ourselves in a better mood.
When we eat a lot of sugar, salt and fat, it can make us feel sluggish and depressed, she said.
Flessner’s 6 tips for focusing on the do’s of healthy eating:
1. Start simple
If you’re starting out with a diet low in fruits and vegetables, start simple. The federal dietary guidelines recommend adults eat 1 1/2 to 2 cups a day of fruit and 2 to 3 cups a day of vegetables. Keep that as an ultimate goal, but make baby steps, she said.
“A rule of thumb that I encourage everyone to keep in mind is that for every meal or snack, think about how you can incorporate at least one fruit or vegetable,” Flessner said.
2. Pick your fruits and veggies
First, identify fruits and vegetables you know you like. Then add the ones that you’d be open to trying, she said.
“Preparation makes a huge difference,” she said. “Some people like raw carrots, or steamed carrots or roasted carrots.”
Brussels sprouts are a great example. Flessner grew up thinking she disliked them because her mother boiled them. As an adult she tasted them roasted with olive oil—and she loved them.
“Now, they’re one of my top vegetables,” she said.
As you learn to incorporate new things, don’t be afraid to mix them into other dishes. Add pumpkin puree to pancakes, or veggies to spaghetti sauce.
3. Know your whole grain
With so many refined carbs in foods, it can be hard to identify whole grain products.
Here’s the trick: Look at the ingredient label. The first word should be “whole.” You also can look for a yellow stamp on the front of the product from the Whole Grain Council, Flessner said.
4. Half is whole
Make at least half your grain servings whole grain, Flessner said.
She encourages people to start by using a whole grain version of something they’re already eating, such as bread or pasta.
“One tip for people with switching to whole grain pasta is to try whole grain angel hair pasta,” she said. “The texture difference is not as noticeable.”
5. Read labels
Read labels to determine sodium content. Processed foods can contain very high levels of sodium. Unless you’re reading labels, you wouldn’t even know.
Flessner encourages people to do a little comparing.
For instance, look at four different brands of chicken noodle soup and see which has the least sodium. Another trick: Add some frozen vegetables to the soup to dilute the sodium content.
Before adding salt to your food, taste it first. When you start cutting sodium from your diet, things might taste bland at first—but your taste buds will eventually adjust, Flessner said.
6. Plan ahead
One key to eating healthy meals and snacks: Plan ahead. Most of us aren’t going to make a healthy choice if we come home starving and there’s been nothing prepped in advance.
Take 10 minutes to make a salad. Spend some time on the weekend washing and chopping fresh veggies so they’re ready to go. One of Flessner’s tricks this time of year is to roast a large sheet pan of veggies, which her family can then eat throughout the week.
And keep in mind frozen veggies are great, too, so keep those on hand.
Little by little, you’ll be eating healthier.
“Little changes add up,” she said. “You do one thing and that builds your confidence. Then you think, ‘I did that, now what else can I do?’”