After decades of consuming fast food and processed snacks, following fad diets, downing energy drinks and popping supplements, Americans are starting to turn back to the simple art of eating well. Perhaps the wake-up call is that some of the biggest killers in our country—heart disease and type 2 diabetes—could be reduced with a healthier diet. Or that nearly one in three children is overweight or obese. Everywhere there’s a renewed interest in cooking and where our food comes from. We like to think that the change has come with the realization that—armed with the right tools, recipes and nutritional information—you can make food that is both delicious and healthy, quick and easy, satisfying and slimming. These 10 tips will help you eat well for life. Download a FREE Healthy Salad Recipes Cookbook!
—Jessie Price, The Simple Art of EatingWell
At present, only one in four Americans gets the 5 to 13 daily servings of fruits and vegetables the USDA recommends. Simply upping your consumption of fruits and vegetables—foods packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants—helps to lower your risk of heart disease and diabetes. Not to mention all the other benefits: for example, beta carotene in carrots and sweet potatoes helps keep your eyes, bones and immune system healthy, and lycopene in tomatoes, watermelon and pink grapefruit may help protect against prostate and breast cancers. With foods like this, who wants supplements?
Protein is essential for our bodies. It’s a component of every cell in our body, it helps us build and repair tissues and gives us energy. The foods highest in protein, such as beef, chicken and seafood, often are at the heart of a meal. And that’s where they should be—at the heart of it, not the whole meal. Americans have become used to making a big slab of meat the center of the meal, whereas in many other cultures (think of an Italian meat sauce or a Chinese stir-fry) meat is part of but not the entire plate. Try filling just a quarter of your plate with a protein, such as chicken, fish, tofu, lean beef or pork, a quarter with a whole grain like brown rice or a starch like a potato, and half with vegetables.
In EatingWell recipes we use the USDA recommended 3 ounces of cooked meat per serving. Plus we use lean cuts of beef and pork and show you how to make rich-tasting chicken dishes without the skin (which adds as much as 4 grams of fat).
The American Heart Association recommends eating two servings of fish and seafood a week. Why? Seafood is a good lean source of protein. And many fish, especially fatty fish like salmon, tuna and sardines, have something that’s hard to get from other foods: omega-3 fatty acids and specifically DHA and EPA, healthy fats that have been linked to improving everything from heart health to brain functioning to depression.
Not all fat is bad—and some, like the unsaturated fat in olive oil and canola, may actually help reduce “bad” LDL cholesterol, which in turn may help to lower your risk of heart disease. But regardless of what kind of fat you use in a recipe, use all fats in moderation because they are high in calories. There are plenty of ways to make cooking with less fat easy and tasty. For instance, make sure you have a set of nonstick or cast-iron skillets so you can cook with teaspoons of oil rather than tablespoons. Skip tossing cooked vegetables in butter. Instead try roasting them with a little olive oil or serve them with a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkling of fresh herbs. Try replacing some of the butter in baked goods with better-for-you canola oil.
The myth that you need butter and cream to make food taste better is just that: a myth. As for dairy—milk, sour cream and yogurt are good sources of calcium, which helps keep your bones strong and healthy. Cut down saturated fat without sacrificing flavor by replacing them with low-fat or nonfat versions.
Probably the biggest criticism of “healthy” cooking has been that it is bland or flavorless. It doesn’t have to be. Use plenty of spices, herbs and citrus to make your food taste great. And use salt, too—it is essential to bring out the flavors in food—but it’s wise to watch your sodium intake, as sodium can contribute to high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease. The USDA recommends consuming less than 2,300 mg of sodium (about 1 teaspoon salt) daily. The majority of Americans’ sodium intake comes from processed foods, so if you’re cooking with mostly whole, natural foods, you’re already on your way to keeping your sodium intake in check.
For other, less “virtuous” seasonings, such as bacon or cheese, choose varieties with big flavor like extra-sharp Cheddar cheese or a super-smoky bacon. That way you can add a moderate amount to your food for the biggest impact.
One of the best ways to make healthy cooking a breeze is to be a smart shopper. That starts with planning meals and making a detailed shopping list grouped by the layout of your supermarket before you head to the store. It makes your trip much less stressful (not to mention faster) if you don’t have to backtrack when you’re already at the register because you realize that you forgot the carrots. Concentrate your shopping in the outer sections of most supermarkets—produce, seafood, meat and dairy departments—where the healthiest and least-processed ingredients tend to be. In the freezer section, head for frozen vegetables and fruits. In the inner aisles, go for healthy staples like whole grains, canned or dried beans, canned tomatoes, spices and plenty of tasty condiments.
When you pick up foods that have nutrition labels, make sure you always read them. Check the nutrition information and also look at what ingredients are in the product. A general rule: the simpler the ingredient list is to read, the better. The label’s a great spot to look out for trans fats—don’t just rely on the marketing that says “0 grams trans fats,” but check to make sure there are no partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredient list.
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When your pantry is full of staples, you’ll find you won’t need to run to the store in the middle of cooking dinner to get a bottle of soy sauce. Plus it makes it easier to improvise a dinner on the fly when you don’t already have something planned. Ingredients like pasta, canned beans and canned fish can be the basis of spur-of-the-moment meals.
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Eating well is not about deprivation—it’s about that good feeling you get when you eat something that is flavorful, wholesome and satisfying. No food should be off limits. Studies show that depriving yourself of the foods you love, especially in the name of dieting, may cause you to overeat later. Embrace a delicious and healthy way of eating that you can sustain for your whole life.
That’s why we believe you should satisfy your cravings. When you bake, limit added sugars. (Added sugars of any kind—whether it’s corn syrup, white sugar, maple syrup or agave—all add calories and don’t offer any nutritional value.) Savor desserts so you really enjoy it without feeling guilty. But the bottom line is that maintaining a healthy weight comes down to balancing the amount of calories you eat with the amount you expend during the day. So if you’re going to have that piece of cake, think about cutting back somewhere else or exercising a little longer.
Cooking should be relaxing, creative and delicious. If you’re not experienced in the kitchen, perhaps you cook the same few things over and over. Start broadening your skills by slowly adding new, easy recipes to your repertoire—pick one new recipe to try each week. The more things you cook, the more confident you’ll feel about experimenting and the more fun you’ll have in the kitchen.
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