Keys to a healthier diet

Alysha Witwicki | Boulder Weekly

New Year’s resolutions usually go something like this: Pay off all debt. Quit smoking. Shed those 25 pounds that don’t seem to budge.

But most resolutions are so extreme that they have very little staying power.

“People easily become discouraged when they set big goals because they are too overwhelming,” says Sarah Zangerle, a dietitian at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Comprehensive Weight Loss Center. “In order to keep the motivation going, it’s important to focus on small, achievable goals.”

In other words, baby steps. Below are six steps for a healthier diet in 2012.

Go meatless once a week

The average American eats half a pound of meat per day. Research shows too much animal fat can increase your risk of diabetes and cancer.

“Eating a vegetarian diet lowers your BMI (body mass index) and decreases your blood pressure and risk for many chronic diseases,” says Dee Gabbard, a clinical dietitian at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee.

According to Meatless Monday, a nonprofit initiative of The Monday Campaigns, going meatless just one day a week is enough to improve your health.

Shake your salt habit

Sodium, also known as salt, is a necessary evil. Although our bodies need sodium to function properly, too much can cause high blood pressure.

But hiding the salt shaker is only the beginning. “More than 80 percent of the sodium we consume comes from restaurants and processed foods,” Gabbard says.

Many people should be getting only 1,500 milligrams of sodium, according to the latest dietary guidelines from the American Dietetic Association.

“The key is reading labels,” says Margaret Allen, registered dietitian at Columbia St. Mary’s in Milwaukee.

Think outside the box

Boxed and prepackaged foods have a lot going for them. They seem to last forever and can be transported easily. That’s because preservatives, artificial colors, partially hydrogenated oils, sodium and fillers are the stars in this case. But potato chips, hot dogs and fruit snacks don’t have much going for them nutritionally.

“Try incorporating more fruits and vegetables,” says Brenda Kalchbrenner, registered dietitian at Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare. “If you are filling up on produce, automatically you’ll be consuming less unhealthy foods.”

Eat the rainbow

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate guidelines show Americans how to eat a balanced meal. Half the plate should be fruits and vegetables, a quarter lean proteins, another quarter whole grains and a serving of low-fat dairy on the side. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables — and a variety of colors — is best.

“If people could eat three colors a day, that would make a huge impact on their overall health,” says Allen.

Your daily goal should be 2 cups of fruit and 2 ½ cups of vegetables.

Seek out superfoods

Simply put, superfoods give you more bang for your nutritional buck.

“These are foods that are packed with vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals —biologically active compounds that protect cells from damage that leads to aging, disease and cancer,” says Gabbard.

Superfoods include salmon and sardines, which contain omega-3s. This can lower your heart disease risk and help arthritis. Green tea contains anti-oxidants that have been shown to fight cancer. Blueberries contain phytoflavinoids, antioxidants, potassium and vitamin C, which lower risk of heart disease and cancer.

Know your fats

Most people who grab fat-free versions of foods think they are making healthier choices. Not so, says Kalchbrenner.

“We need some fat in our diet to absorb vitamins and keep us satisfied,” she said. “The key is eating the right kinds.”

Too much saturated and trans fats, like those found in beef, cheese and margarine, can raise your risk of heart disease by increasing cholesterol levels.

Instead, substitute these fats for hearthealthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, such as those found in fish, nuts, seeds and liquid vegetable oils.

© 2012 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel —MCT