Editor’s note: Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. The article originally appeared on Health.com
Nutrition is a hot topic these days, yet many of my clients still struggle with consistently following through with “the basics,” and the stats show that missing the mark on many healthy habits is the norm. For example, the median daily intake of produce for U.S. adults is 1.1 servings of fruit and 1.6 servings of veggies, far below the minimum recommended five daily servings.
If you’re going to set just one goal for 2015, I think eating more produce should be it, but I’ve also listed four others below. I know you’ve heard them before, but they are without a doubt the most tried-and-true, impactful eating habits you can foster—both for your waistline and your health. And despite knowing them, you may not be achieving them, so they’re worth considering as you choose your resolutions.
If taking them all on at once seems overwhelming, try a “step-ladder” approach: Focus on one change until it feels like a normal part of your daily routine, then add another, and another. Sometimes taking it slow ups the chances that behaviors will stick, so come December 2015, you’ll be celebrating a year of accomplishments.
Eat produce at every meal
There are numerous benefits to making produce a main attraction at mealtime. In addition to upping your intake of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, eating at least five servings a day is tied to a lower risk of chronic diseases, including heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers. Fruits and veggies also help displace foods that pack more calories per bite, a plus if you’re trying to lose weight. For example, one cup of non-starchy vegetables contains about 25 calories, compared to 200 in a cup of cooked pasta. And reaching for a medium-sized pear in place of a handful of chips, crackers, or cookies can slash anywhere from 50 to 200 calories.
How to do it: A good rule of thumb is to include a serving of fruit in each breakfast and snack, and two servings of veggies in every lunch and dinner. One serving is 1 cup fresh, about the size of a tennis ball. Whip fruit into a smoothie, add it to oatmeal or yogurt, or just bite right in. And for easy ways to make veggies the base of a meal, check out my previous post: 5 delicious pasta alternatives with a fraction of the calories.
Make water your beverage of choice
You’ve heard about the unwanted effects of drinking both regular and diet soda, but you may not be aware of some of the benefits of drinking more H2O. According to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, people who get much of their daily fluid intake from plain water tend to have healthier diets overall, including more fiber, less sugar, and fewer high-calorie foods.
And in addition to hydrating you, water may be a helpful weight loss aid, by curbing appetite and boosting metabolism. One study found that people who drank about 7 cups of water a day, ate nearly 200 fewer daily calories compared to those who gulped less than one glass. Another found that when adults drank 2 cups of water right before eating a meal they ate between 75 and 90 fewer calories. And a German study concluded that consuming 16-ounces of water upped calorie burning by 30% within 10 minutes, an effect that was sustained for more than an hour.
How to do it: Reach for 16 ounces (2 cups) of water four times a day. And if you dislike the taste of plain H2O, spruce it up. Add wedges of lemon or lime, fresh mint leaves, cucumber slices, fresh grated ginger or organic citrus zest, or a bit of mashed juicy fruit, like berries or tangerine wedges.
Choose whole-food starches
Americans are eating far too many refined grains, including white versions of bread, pasta, rice, crackers and pretzels, in addition to baked goods and cereals made with refined starch. The intake of whole grains, like brown rice, whole wheat, and quinoa is on the rise, yet the average intake of whole grains in the U.S. is less than one serving a day. Research shows that a higher whole grain intake is tied to a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and obesity. The latter may be because whole grains are filling: Their fiber helps delay stomach emptying, which keeps you fuller longer, delays the return of hunger, and helps regulate blood sugar and insulin levels, which are tied to appetite regulation.
In 2015, strive to replace refined grains — which have been stripped of their fiber and natural nutrients — with 100% whole grain options (including gluten-free varieties if you need to or prefer to go gluten-free). Or choose non-grain nutrient-rich starches, such as skin-on potatoes, root vegetables, squash, beans, and lentils. If weight loss is a goal, moderate your portions rather than cutting out carbs altogether so you don’t miss out on the nutrients and sustained energy they provide, which are important for enhancing mood and exercise endurance, two other keys to successfully shedding pounds.
How to do it: Aim for just one to two servings of whole food starch in each meal, more if you’re more active, less if you’re less active. Great choices include oats or a puffed whole grain cereal at breakfast, quinoa or chickpeas in a salad at lunch, and sweet potato, squash, lentils, or wild rice at dinner. One serving is generally a half-cup of a cooked starch, or the serving stated on the nutrition label for packaged foods.
Budget your sugar intake
In all my years counseling clients, I’ve found that for most people, moderation works better than deprivation. Currently, the average American takes in a whopping 22 teaspoons of added sugar each day. Added sugar doesn’t include the type put in foods by Mother Nature (like the sugar in fruit) but rather the kind added to foods, like sweetened yogurt, or the sugar you spoon into your coffee. According to the American Heart Association, the daily target for added sugar should be no more than 6 level teaspoons for women, and 9 for men — that’s for both food and beverages combined. It’s strict, but the target isn’t zero, which means you don’t need to banish sugar completely. Allowing yourself some of the sweet stuff can be a helpful way to stay on track, because swearing it off completely can result in intense cravings and rebound overeating.
How to do it: Start by cutting out processed versions of sweet stuff, like candy and packaged treats, and begin tracking how many foods you buy that are pre-sweetened, such as yogurt or almond milk (sugar can even be lurking in store-bought tomato sauce and salad dressing). Next, opt for unsweetened versions of packaged foods, or make them yourself without adding sugar. For example, for an awesome DIY dressing whisk together extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard, minced garlic, and Italian herb seasoning. Now that you’ve slashed your sugar intake, strategically decide how to “spend” small amounts while staying within your budget.
Enjoy a little bit of dark chocolate (up to an ounce of 70% cocoa or greater) every day, or once or twice a week pre-plan splurges that won’t derail your overall healthy diet, like splitting a dessert with a dinner companion, or buying one really worthwhile cookie from a bakery. If you don’t feel you need regular treats, that’s great. Many of my clients find that the less sugar they eat the less they crave. But if your sweet tooth strikes, or it’s a special occasion, don’t succumb to all-or-nothing thinking (e.g. “I can’t have any” or “I had a little so I might as well go all out!”). People who lose weight and keep it off long-term find ways to strike a sane and healthy balance.
Become more mindful
One of the most powerful resolutions you can make for 2015 is to work on raising your eating awareness, which includes tuning into hunger and fullness cues, as well as slowing your eating pace, and identifying non-physical eating triggers (boredom, habit, or a bad day). Paying attention to body signals has been shown to be as effective as a formal class for weight loss. And slowing down your eating can naturally help you eat less while feeling more satisfied.
One University of Rhode Island study found that fast eaters downed more than 3 ounces of food per minute, compared to 2.5 ounces for medium-speed eaters, and 2 for slow eaters. Finally, becoming more mindful can also help you realize when you’re drawn to food even though you’re not physically hungry, which can help you address your emotional needs in non-food ways.
How to do it: To hone your mindfulness skills, start keeping a food journal to record not just what and how much you eat, but also your degrees of hunger and fullness before and after meals, as well as any emotional notes, such as craving something crunchy because you feel angry, or wanting to eat while watching TV.
Also, try committing to not doing anything else while you eat, at least once a day. Take breaks between each bite, check in with your body, focus on the flavors and textures of your food, and stop when you feel like you’ve had enough, even if you haven’t cleaned your plate.
It may feel awkward at first to slow down and eat solo, but this practice can help you to catch yourself eating too fast, ease you into a slower pattern, and allow you to break mindless eating patterns, which may be the key to a happier and healthier year ahead.