The strong association between what we eat and how we look and feel can't be denied.
"You are what you eat," says Lolly Brilliant, a Precision Nutrition-certified trainer and coach, the minute I get her on the phone to talk about this column. "Highly processed food makes you feel great temporarily. Then your blood sugar dips, you feel lethargic, and you're hungry again." Or as Christine Taylor Garner of Sudbury puts it, "I would collapse and die of starvation by 10 a.m. if I ate sugar in the morning." Why?
"Processed food doesn't have the nutrients you need to keep your blood sugar stable," Brilliant explains.
We all know what we should be eating, but having access to the right foods at the right time can be difficult. People cite the inconvenience (and cost) of preparing healthy foods, busy schedules, and too many unhealthy food choices everywhere they turn as stumbling blocks to eating right.
"Have a plan before you start your day," Brilliant advises.
Know what you're going to eat and prepare accordingly. (My five tips at right can help with that.) In addition, Brilliant suggests keeping track of your meals and snacks via an app like MyFitnessPal (myfitnesspal.com), which can help you understand where your calories are coming from and how your nutrition is stacking up day by day.
Here are five straightforward (and pretty easy) ways to tune up your nutrition. Try out one (or more) and let me know what you think:
1. Breakfast: Swap empty calories for nutrient-dense foods.
Most adults who responded to an informal poll stated that they ate a good breakfast of protein, fiber, and fresh fruit. "When I eat eggs or protein for breakfast, I can go a lot longer without feeling hungry, and I'm more alert," says Cindy Cummings of Portland, Oregon. Some of these same adults stated that their children ate things such as cereal, a bagel, or a toaster pastry for breakfast. One father admitted: "I'm not sure how full they feel or if they crash a couple of hours later, because they're off at school when it would be an issue." I'll bet their teachers could tell you! Why aren't we nourishing our children's growing bodies the same way we do ours?
2. Lunch: Instead of skipping it, bring a meal from home.
Let's assume you had a good breakfast. Keep the momentum going (and your blood sugar stable) by bringing your lunch to work or school, or sitting down at home and enjoying a salad, bowl of soup, or a small plate of leftovers from last night's dinner. Those who skip lunch are more likely to hit the vending machine in the afternoon, or overeat at dinner and again later at night.
3. Drinks: Cut out soda in favor of water or seltzer.
Even if you just switch it up at dinnertime, you're doing the whole family a favor by replacing sugar- or artificially-sweetened drinks with good old water, which many of us don't get enough of on a daily basis. Place a pitcher of ice-cold water (lemon slices optional) on the table instead of the soda bottle, and watch the kids refill their glasses again and again. My kids loved helping themselves from the water pitcher at dinnertime, as did their friends who frequently ate over.
4. Snacks: Replace packaged snacks with DIY fresh snacks.
"I only put healthy snacks in the car," notes Jennifer Ulfelder of Medway. "If I'm hungry I'll eat it, and if I'm not that hungry, I won't." A sugary packaged snack might be eaten regardless of hunger level. In addition to being nutritionally empty, most packaged snacks contain additives and preservatives to keep them shelf-stable. Healthful alternatives that can be ready to grab-and-go in Ziploc or reusable containers include berries, a small salad, hard boiled eggs, nuts, low-fat cheeses, homemade granola, or hummus and raw vegetables. These snacks are filling and nutritious, the exact opposite of a bag of chips or candy. David Kingsley of Murietta, Calif., says he keeps frozen grapes on hand at all times at home as a sweet snack he and his three kids enjoy.
5. Dinner: Instead of winging it, have a plan. As our incomes increase and our leisure time decreases, it has become routine to eat out or take unhealthy shortcuts, rather than cook from scratch at home. "When we're in a rush and I haven't planned ahead, that's when we end up eating convenience foods," Garner says. She (and others) swear that planning ahead is the way to achieve greatness at dinnertime. "It doesn't have to be those all-day-Sunday affairs pre-cooking a week's worth of meals. For me it just means a well-stocked pantry, and always having some fresh or frozen veggies on hand that can be eaten raw or simply steamed, and some kind of protein that cooks quickly -- chicken, beef, fish, ham, canned beans, eggs," Garner adds. Kingsley says the crockpot is his secret weapon to preparing healthy meals for his family. The truth is, a simply prepared, home-cooked meal is usually going to be more nutritious and less expensive than a restaurant meal. For more on meal planning and some simple recipes, visit my website, simplydeliciouschef.com.
Martha Ruch is the owner of Simply Delicious Personal Chef Service, helping busy families come together at the dinner table since 2007. Find pictures, recipes, cooking tips, and more at simplydeliciouschef.com; on Facebook @SimplyDeliciousPersonalChefService; and on Twitter @chefmartha.