By Laura Burak MS, RD, CDN
It’s the holiday season all over again! This time around, why don’t we give ourselves the gift of deserting diet fads and deprivation diets, and instead finally learn how to actually eat?
As a nutritionist specializing in healthy eating and weight management, I am witness to the fact that the public is grossly under-educated in — yet flooded with — nutrition information and misinformation. Our supermarkets can feel like the wilderness without a compass. If a bag or box reads “healthy,” “whole grain,” or “light,” it must be good for us, right? Well, those words really don’t mean much unless we know how to interpret the food label and ingredients.
So what are we supposed to eat? How can we work on improving our diets when there is so much misunderstanding? I teach clients to keep it simple and stick to a few key questions. Here are some healthy holiday tips you can use:
Did it grow in the ground (or on a tree or a bush)? If you are eating a raw apple or nut, there has been nothing added to it and that’s REALLY good.
If it comes in a package, can I pronounce and understand the ingredients? If yes, and the ingredients seem pretty standard, then the product is probably fine in moderation.
Are the words “partially hydrogenated” NOT on the package? Good, then the product does not contain trans fats. If one serving of a food contains 0.5 grams of trans fat or less, a food company is allowed to list “trans fat free” on its label. However, it is likely that people will consume more than one serving at a time. If you see the words “partially hydrogenated,” then the product contains trans fats (no matter what the label claims) and you should put it back on the shelf. New research shows that no level of trans fat is considered safe for consumption, since trans fats increase the risk for heart disease and other chronic diseases such as diabetes. The Food and Drug Administration is actually moving toward banning trans fats. Let’s hope this ban happens sooner rather than later.
Is whole-wheat flour the first ingredient in your bread product? If the answer is yes, then the product is predominantly whole grain. All grains begin as whole grain but they are often refined and processed to make products and, therefore, the nutrients and fiber (the good stuff) are lost.
Do I drink beverages sweetened with sugar — as in juice, soda, or sports drinks? If the answer is yes, cut out these empty calories and drink water, club soda or unsweetened coffee or tea instead.
Is a product boasting words like “diet” and “low” this and that? Diets and diet products don’t work. They contain artificial ingredients and usually end up doing more damage than good for our waistlines. Again, stick to real food because a little of the real stuff (like salad dressing or a sprinkle of cheese) goes a long way.
Even when the holidays are long gone, carbohydrates are often considered the enemy when it comes to weight control. But the real problem is the quantity and quality of the carbs (and everything else) we consume in this country. The bottom line is to eat real food in moderate amounts, and don’t beat yourself up when you overdo it once in a while. Move forward and do better for the next meal. We are only human and nutrition perfection does not exist.
Make sure to include snacks if meals are far apart. This strategy will keep your energy levels up and prevent you from overeating or making poor decisions at meals. It’s tough to find healthy packaged snacks these days, so when I find a tasty one, I get excited. I have been recommending Fiber d’Lish bars to clients for years because they fit my criteria for a healthy carb. All the grains are actually whole grains, I can comprehend all the ingredients (and there aren’t many, which is good), and they fall into an appropriate calorie range for snacks. Plus, they provide half the fiber we should be eating in a whole day!
This holiday season, try to eat smarter than in previous years, and you will already be ahead of the game. Incorporating a healthier lifestyle is a process that will continue to improve with education, dedication and time. And you can always contact a registered dietitian in your area if you need guidance. Happy holidays!