What if you could pull up a seat in front of some of the smartest, most plugged-in experts in their fields—doctors, nutritionists, cardiologists, prevention specialists—and ask them to recommend one thing you can do to better your health? Just one. There's no time like the present to make a fresh start but there might be many changes we want to make: get more sleep, stress less, drop 20 pounds, go vegan, take up power yoga, yada, yada, yada. All very noble. But baby steps are the name of the game when it comes to long-term success. And if you're really going to throw your efforts behind a single change—or maybe a couple, if you're up to the challenge—which one is the most worthwhile? What will make the biggest impact on your life and pay the greatest health dividends?
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That's the question we put to EatingWell's advisory board members. They're the panel of pros we speed-dial whenever we need insight on a topic we're investigating or a sounding board about a hot new trend or headline-grabbing study. And now they're here to tell you how to have your happiest, healthiest year ever. (Each recommended a different "one thing," but all agreed that these are six top priorities to tick off, one by one. Great minds, right?) So, what are you waiting for?
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The Expert: Richard D. Mattes, Ph.D., R.D., is a distinguished professor of nutrition science at Purdue University. He's currently researching the health effects of low-calorie sweeteners and whether fat may be a taste just like sweet, salty and umami.
"My advice is simple in concept, difficult to implement: practice moderation. I wish I could make it more exciting than a bag of nails, but I can't. A long time ago, if you wanted to lose weight, our dietary advice was to just eat less of everything and that should work. But it didn't, because people didn't want to follow that advice, so then the search was on to find gimmicks that would help them lose weight another, easier way—just cut out fat or carbs or gluten. Everyone is still hoping there's some magic diet out there that will make managing their weight painless and enjoyable—something they don't have to work at. There have been an extraordinary number of variations on the theme over the years, and, of course, not one of them has worked because there is no work-around. It always comes back to calories consumed versus expended.
"Here's the good news, though: You can eat what you like if you're sensible. We all see the logic of being moderate in how we drive our cars and how we invest our money. We make all sorts of decisions where we take a more balanced approach and somehow we don't use those same guiding principles when it comes to our diet. If people actually practiced moderation there would be a whole lot less obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases. All kinds of things would start falling into place.
"It would also mean not having to think as much about what you eat. You could just enjoy your food. So if you think about it, moderation can actually be freeing. I honestly don't count calories. I don't restrict foods. You don't have to trade off anything if everything you do is moderate."
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The Expert: Philip Ades, M.D., is director of cardiac rehabilitation and preventive cardiology at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. His recent research examines the importance of exercise and healthy diet in lower-socioeconomic-status cardiac patients.
"I'll tell you what I say to all of my patients: Exercise is part of your diet. If you're thinking about weight control or weight loss—and two-thirds of the American population are—part of your goal has to be burning a lot of calories. Yes, it's good and probably a little quicker to cut back on the calories you take in, but that's not a real long-term plan. No one can stay hungry forever! So, 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise, like brisk walking, is what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends for both weight and health. It doesn't matter if you break that time into several workouts or go for one long hike on the weekend—it's the cumulative effect that counts. If you're doing nothing right now, start slowly and build up to this amount. And if you're a healthy person who is already active, it could be even more than 150 minutes—or more intense exercise.
"Aside from weight, there's a long list of benefits of regular exercise—almost more than I can say. In fact, I have a slide I often show that has about 60 things on it. But the big ones are prevention of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and several different kinds of malignancies, like breast and colon cancer. You'll actually have less arthritis over time, your blood pressure and cholesterol will be better, and you'll have less depression. Your whole quality of life will be better."
Proof breaking a sweat is so worth it: a recent review of 83 studies published in Psychology & Health found that going from couch potato (unfit) to getting at least 150 minutes a week of exercise slashes the risk for heart disease, hypertension and type 2 diabetes in half; the odds of a stroke plunge 60 percent.
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The Expert: Rachel K. Johnson, Ph.D., R.D., is a professor of nutrition & food science at the University of Vermont. She recently co-authored a book reviewing how nutritious the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) federal assistance food packages are.
"Whole grains are a really key component to a healthy diet. They help lower the risk of heart disease and hypertension, improve digestion, and they may lower the risk of some cancers—which is why we're all trying to eat more of them these days. But it can be tricky! I find it very difficult to track down whole grains when I'm traveling or eating out at a restaurant. Even the supermarket can be challenging. Today, for instance, I wanted to get a loaf of artisan bread to go with the whole-wheat pasta we're having for dinner, and I couldn't find anything made with whole grain. Even though it was all nice, fresh-made bread, I wound up leaving with nothing. You have to be a savvy label reader too. So many products scream 'whole grain!' and it can fool you into thinking you're making better choices than you actually are.
"The truth is, most Americans don't come close to making half their grains whole—by far most of the ones we eat are refined. A good way to tell if a product is primarily whole-grain is if the first ingredient on the label says whole wheat, brown rice, buckwheat, oatmeal, whole oats or whole-grain cornmeal. Then there are the grains that naturally come whole, like wheat berries, farro, millet and rye berries. It definitely takes some sleuthing in the beginning to really find the foods that are healthy, but once you know which products are truly whole-grain, you can just grab and go."
A recent Tufts University study found that compared to refined-grain eaters, those who opted for whole grains burned 92 more calories a day. The researchers chalk it up to higher stool weight and frequency (literally pooping out extra calories) and higher levels of "good" inflammation-fighting gut bacteria.
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The Expert: David L. Katz, M.D., is director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center and founder of True Health Initiative. He's currently finishing up his 12th book, The Truth about Food (HarperOne), which will be published next fall.
"I always say that the six-cylinder engine of lifestyle medicine is: feet, forks, fingers, sleep, stress and love. So feet is physical activity, forks is dietary patterns, fingers is not holding cigarettes, sleep means getting enough, stress is to manage and dissipate it, and love is social relationships. All of these things are potent influences on human health—and they all interact with each other. Studies show they can actually refashion your medical destiny at the very level of your DNA and even your chromosomal architecture. They are just profoundly foundational.
"My advice is to step back, look at your health from altitude and ask yourself: 'Which one of these six things needs the most attention in my life?' The answer might surprise you. For example, you may think you want to lose weight, but if you have overwhelming stress, you're not going to be able to get a handle on your eating until that's managed. If you have serious sleep issues, you won't have the energy or resolve to change your diet and exercise habits until you sort that out. Figure out your one thing, then proceed accordingly. Once you fix the first thing, it will energize you to say, 'Wow, life's a bit better! Now I feel like I have the wherewithal to address the next thing—and the next.'
"This invites another consideration, and that's that we tend to forget what health is really for. The health care system propagates the idea that it's important to be healthy because it's important to be healthy. That's rubbish! The reason health matters is that it makes your life better. If it didn't, I'd say who gives a hoot? The whole point of pursuing health is to infuse your days with greater net pleasure. Healthy people have more fun. And that's what you should aim for in 2018: making a change that brings you closer to that sweet spot."
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Pictured Recipe: White Bean & Veggie Salad
The Expert: Miriam E. Nelson, Ph.D., is director of the Sustainability Institute at the University of New Hampshire, Durham. She recently led the university to become one of only three nationwide with a platinum sustainability rating, reflecting initiatives like dining-hall composting and a 100 percent renewable-energy-powered main campus.
"Americans eat very few beans—only 9 percent of the population consumes them on any given day—and they're so good for you. They're a rich source of nutrients, protein and fiber, and there's a ton of research linking bean consumption to longevity, particularly in Blue Zones—the areas of the world where people live the longest. Beans are also cheap and have a very low environmental footprint compared to other protein sources—which means they're good for the planet too. We should have a bean revolution!"
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The Expert: Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H., is a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. She is currently working on a book about how the food industry funds nutrition research.
"My one change is to eat more vegetables. I would say it's the one thing in nutrition that everyone can agree on—there's just really no controversy about it! We know so much about how people who eat vegetables have healthier diets, maintain their weight better, live longer and have less chronic disease, such as cancer. Yet the average person gets only half of the recommended servings a day. And if you look at the overall dietary patterns of Americans, potatoes (usually as french fries) and the tomatoes in pizza are the two vegetables that are consumed in the largest amounts. They shouldn't count! When I say eat more vegetables, I mean things like leafy greens and root vegetables and actual whole tomatoes without the added sugars, salt and preservatives.
"One of the great benefits of world food trade is that you can walk into any halfway-decent supermarket in America and have an enormous choice beyond staples like carrots and broccoli. Experiment! There are so many options available, and great ways to prepare them that are truly fun and delicious. Eating more vegetables should be a pleasure."
A recent review of 95 studies published in the International Journal of Epidemiology found that for every 7 ounces of produce you add each day, the risk of all major diseases—including cancer, heart disease and stroke—drops significantly.