In 2009, dieting is out. Good nutrition is in. Even so, healthful food in appropriate amounts is hardly the magic bullet so many of us seek after a season of indulgence. But a convergence of powerful forces and research is fueling the discussion about healthy eating and quality food more than ever before.
Food for thought:
• Americans love a diet craze, but none has captured our willpower and money since the low-carb Atkins regimen petered out in 2005. Portion control was said to be the next big thing but wasn't. Nothing sexy or quick about eating less food and watching calories, despite the glut of 100-calorie snack packs.
• Recent research questions the value of vitamins and supplements, suggesting that we should rely on diet to ward off disease. Those findings in December pushed the concept of home cooking further into the limelight. The NPD Group, which has studied American eating and food buying habits for more than two decades, announced last fall that the number of Americans on a diet hit a new low in 2008.
• A new year always puts us on our best behavior, for a time at least, but a wicked economy adds a twist to our motivation. We like the idea of organic food and lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, but can we afford them?
Talk of food is everywhere. Parents want better school lunches. People want local produce. Consumer groups want more rigid food inspections and assurances that our food is safe. And nearly everyone is concerned about the copious quantities of high fructose corn syrup Americans consume.
Food has become complicated. All the talk of sustainable this and probiotic that, not to mention news of trans-fat battles, the raw food revolution and locavore movements, is enough to make anyone head for the drive-through. Super-size, please.
To sustain your resolution to eat more healthfully, shake some of the chatter from your head. You can't solve the world's food problems by yourself, but you can improve your own situation. Change will seem impossible if you let the enormousness of the conversation overwhelm you.
Here are tips to get the ball rolling, little by little:
• Cook at home. The more you eat out, even if it's takeout, the less you can control what you eat. If you eat out five times a week, scale back to two. Take a cooking class; invest in minimal equipment. You don't need a lot to bake chicken, make a pot of soup or grill fish.
• Don't drink your calories. Keep liquid calories to a minimum because they don't, in general, provide any nutrition. (Fruit smoothies are the exception, but they should be accounted for in your daily calorie intake.) That fancy coffee drink loaded with whipped cream and caffeine may pick you up, but it's likely a banana will do the same thing.
• Eat vegetarian at least one night a week. Many nutrition experts believe that Americans eat too much meat and not nearly enough plant matter. All this animal protein, they say, elevates our risk for cancer and other diseases. One night a week serve a bean-based meal such as meatless chili, beans and rice or hummus with toasted pita and tabouli salad on the side.
• Embrace color. So much of our diet is brown, beige and white, thanks to all the meat and simple carbs we eat. Eat food with vibrant hues at every meal. Think red (tomatoes, apples, strawberries and watermelon), yellow (bananas and squash), blue (berries of all sorts) and green (zucchini, peppers and leafy vegetables). These colorful foods are loaded with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
• Go whole hog. No, not pork, but grains. Start small by experimenting with pasta and breads. Try different brands, and don't give up if the first one doesn't suit you. Read labels to make sure the words "whole grain" are listed No. 1 or 2. Fiber is a friend that makes you feel full longer.
• Leave something on your plate. If your conscience won't let you leave food, take less. When you're eating out, get a doggie bag. Or split a meal. Or order an appetizer as your entree.
• Keep a food journal. It seems like silly drudgery, but do it for a week and find out what you're really eating. You may not technically be overeating, but it might surprise you to know you're eating the same (lousy) foods repeatedly or that you really aren't eating many fruits and vegetables.
• Shop the periphery of the store. It's not easy to avoid processed food, but shunning the store's central aisles is a start. You'll lower your sodium and sugar intake, and perhaps calories, if you eat food close to its source. For instance, chicken breast instead of chicken nuggets; tomatoes instead of tomato sauce; fish instead of fish sticks. In a tough economy, processed food is a temptation because it's cheaper. Resist as much as your wallet will allow.
• Plan, plan, plan. Take the time to sketch out the week's meals, including lunches. Study grocery store sales before making your shopping list, and take advantage of two-for-one deals that make sense. It's easy to fall off your game plan when there isn't one. Less than 30 minutes on the weekend will make the week go smoother.
• Watch your sugar intake. And by sugar, we mean carbohydrates. Start reading labels and you'll be amazed at how much corn you eat. Avoid foods with high fructose corn syrup as much as possible.
• Temper your expectations. Whether you're an experienced or beginner cook, you will not be having gourmet meals every night. There's nothing wrong with veggie omelets, a big green salad topped with protein (eggs, tuna, beans, chicken) or grilled cheese sandwiches and soup for dinner. Focus on the food's quality, not the number of ingredients or fancy presentation.
This year, think about nutrition, and your diet just may follow.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.