The Time is Ripe
Add fruits, vegetables and grains to your diet now to improve your health
Are broccoli, black beans, and bran at the top of your list of fave foods? If they aren’t, it may be easier than you think to develop healthier eating habits. Simple changes in the way you cook and eat can lead to a healthier diet. The time is ripe to reduce your risk of disease by cutting down on animal foods like meat and high-fat dairy products, and including more plant-based foods in your diet.
According to the latest US Dietary Guidelines, it’s all about developing a healthy eating pattern, the core of which includes:
- Vegetables of all types—dark green; red and orange;
- Beans, peas, and lentils;
- Starchy and other vegetables;
- Fruits, especially whole fruit;
- Grains, especially whole grains like oats;
- Fat-free and low-fat dairy products, such as low fat milk, yogurt, and cheese, and/or lactose-free versions and fortified soy beverages and yogurt as alternatives;
- Protein foods, including lean meats, poultry, fish, and eggs; seafood; beans, peas, and lentils; and nuts, seeds, and soy products;
- Oils, including vegetable oils and oils in food, such as seafood and nuts.
Fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains top the list because they may be lifesavers against chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer. Their main weapons are antioxidants, phytochemicals (plant chemicals), and fiber.
Studies suggest these foods may protect us by battling free radicals and other substances in our bodies that can lead to illness. Also, when you eat fruits and vegetables, beans and grains, you fill up on foods that don’t contain artery-clogging saturated fat; they’re lower in cholesterol and sodium, too. How do you follow the transition to a healthier diet pattern? Try these healthy to-do tactics.
- Make healthy foods part of your routine. It’s easy to turn fast food or junk food when nothing is available. Make it easy to reach for something heatlhy by planning the week’s menu, including healthy snacks, in advance. When you visit the grocery store, use this eating plan as a guide to healthy foods. Collect recipes that promote produce and grains to star status and demote meat to a supporting role. Keep the recipes handy in your kitchen.
- Put produce front and center. Having fruits and vegetables where you can see them is one of the best ways to make sure you eat more of them. So instead of hiding fruits and vegetables in the crisper bin of your refrigerator, keep a bowl of them on the top shelf. You can also make a bowl of fruit the centerpiece of your kitchen.
- Plan vegetarian meals. Prepare a totally vegetarian meal at least weekly. In general, aim to have at least twice as many grains and vegetables as meat at each meal. It may help to buy meat in small (1/4 to ½ pound) packages. If you can’t find them, ask the butcher to divide up a larger package for you.
- Sneak fruits and vegetables into food you already eat. For example, top off your morning cereal or yogurt with berries or peaches. Layer your sandwich with dark, leafy greens, such as spinach and watercress, as well as bean sprouts, shredded cabbage, and slices of green and red pepper. Add generous portions of vegetables—such as mushrooms, peppers, onions, and carrots—to spaghetti sauces, soup, chili, and pizza. Chop the vegetables fine, if you prefer, so that big chunks are nowhere in sight.
- Jump-start the day with cereal and juice. You are more likely to get enough fruits, vegetables and grain in your diet if you begin eating them early in the day. Wake up with eight ounces of juice—orange, grapefriut, or tomato, for example—and you’ll get almost one and a half servings of fruit before you even leave the house—or head down the hall to your home office.
- Become an exotic eater. Because every fruit, vegetable, and grain contains different nutrients, you’ll be better able to protect yourself against disease by eating a wide range of these foods. Variety is the key. It also keeps meals interesting. Instead of the usual—bananas, potatoes, and pasta, opt for more exotic options such as bok choy, Swiss chard, papayas, mangoes, raspberries, blueberries, fresh pineapple, artichokes, sweet potatoes, celery root, broccoli rabe, and jicama. Or try couscous, bulgur wheat, rye bread, and different varieties of rice such as basmati. In general, the best disease fighting vegetables and fruits are bright or deep green, red, yellow, or orange. Ounce for ounce, for example, sweet potatoes contain twice as much vitamin C as white potatoes. And sweet potatoes contain vitamin A, while white potatoes do not.
- Order ethnic. Compared with the American meat-and-potatoes routine, ethnic foods such as Chinese, Mexican, and Indian tend to have a greater ratio of vegetables to meat. And vegetable-laden entrees are generally less expensive. Consider replacing your tried and true menus with ethnic eats.
- Stick with fruit for dessert. Fruit is a better nutritional option than a gooey chocolate concoction because it has less fat, fewer calories, and more nutrients. And the fiber fruit contains may even help you digest your meal. Or try a fruit sorbet. With less fat than most frozen yogurts and only 100 calories per half cup, brands made with fruit juice (check the label) are a sweet way to get vitamin C.
Can’t decide which changes to make first? Start slowly. For example, make it your goal this week to try one new vegetable-rich recipe. Or add spinach instead of iceberg lettuce to your sandwich. Next week, make another change, such as drinking grapefruit juice at breakfast. Soon, a plant-based diet will become second nature. And keep in mind that when it comes to making a big health difference, small changes add up.
Guest columnist Sandra J. Gordon is an award-winning writer who delivers expert advice and the latest developments in health, nutrition, parenting and consumer issues. Her book, “30 Secrets of the World’s Healthiest Cuisines” is available for purchase at Amazon.