Eat smart

Perhaps we were blinded by the light of the menorah, but our dinner these last few weeks probably did not fall under the category of “healthy eating” (latkes, I’m talking about you!), leaving many of us regretting our weak spot for chocolate gelt and averting our eyes from the bathroom scale.
It’s no wonder that this is the time of New Year’s resolutions — those infamous promises that nudge us every year and offer a fresh start and new opportunity to be healthier, and in particular, eat healthier, in the year ahead.
And so, as the confetti of the holiday season settles, you might find yourself amongst the countless individuals vowing to eat more nutritiously in the coming year. If so, you might be feeling a little lost in a maze of health food rumors, where tips and advice blend fact and fiction, and no one is quite sure which is which. With recommendations coming from TV shows and countless books, blogs and a friend-of-a-friend who read it on the Internet, it’s hard to know whom to believe.
Healthy eating has become a complicated subject, with as many opinions as there are doctors willing to write a book about it. But here are a few tips that are usually undisputed:
Eat lots of vegetables. I can wax poetical about the virtues of cabbage, beets and spinach, and I might even get a little emotional when talking about kale, but why single out a few vegetables when there are so many winners? Vegetables are the epitome of nutrient-dense food. They supply you with a dazzling assortment of vitamins and minerals, and all for a low calorie cost. Eating a variety will ensure that you are providing your body with the array of nutrients that it needs. Try to pick an assortment of bright, colorful vegetables — the bright colors have evolved to protect the plant, and usually indicate specific nutrients. For example, bright red vegetables, such as red bell peppers and red radishes, are colored by natural pigments called lycopenes, which have been associated with a decreased risk of certain cancers, particularly lung, stomach and prostate. Orange vegetables are typically colored by carotenoids, which have their own benefits, including those for vision and cardiovascular health. Green vegetables are colored by chlorophyll, which is linked to cellular detoxification and healing, and purple/blue vegetables like eggplants are colored by anthocyanins, which act as powerful antioxidants. While this information may be interesting, the bottom line is that if you include a variety of fresh vegetables in your diet, you’ll be getting your dose of countless nutrients.
Keep in mind that not all vegetables are created equal. While you can indulge in non-starchy vegetables, if you’re concerned about your weight you’ll want to limit your starchy ones — including potatoes, corn, peas and yams, which tend to be higher in calories.
Limit refined carbs. For most of us, refined carbohydrates are our Achilles’ heel. Whether your weakness is salty or sweet, refined carbs can be like kryptonite to a healthy diet. To clarify, refined carbohydrates are plants, like wheat, that have been processed in such a way that they have been stripped of all but their easily digested carbohydrate. By the time the plant has been ground, emulsified, heated, frozen, reheated and dyed, you are looking at a nutritional black hole. These refined carbohydrates live in the middle aisles of the supermarket, which, like a black hole, tend to suck you in. Try to stay clear of as much of this food as possible, and when choosing, choose whole-grain options. Whole-grain counterparts, ideally 100 percent whole grain, are less refined and have more nutritional value, so opt for brown rice, whole-wheat pasta and whole-wheat bread.
Minimize sugar. Sugar is the queen of refined carbohydrates. Sugar is snuck into our juices, coffees, canned foods, salad dressings, frozen dinners and many other places where we don’t expect it … never mind the sugar we knowingly eat. We are swimming in sugar, and our pancreas is fighting not to drown. Try to be mindful of how much sugar you are eating — play detective and read Nutrition Facts and ingredient lists. Beware, sly sugar has many aliases: high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, maltose, malt syrup, maltodextrin, cane juice, honey and molasses, just to name a few. Sugar from natural sources, like fruit, is a healthier option, and in limited quantities, honey and agave nectar may be healthier alternatives to table sugar. In small amounts stevia, a sugar substitute, may also be an option, but at 300 times the sweetness of sugar, it won’t help wean your sweet tooth.
Hari hachi bu. This is a Japanese saying, and really, a philosophical approach to eating: “Eat until you are 80 percent full.” Generally, we tend to eat until we feel stuffed, rather than almost full. Start to pay attention to your body’s “stop signal” before the plate is licked clean and you’re lying in a food coma on the couch. Eat half of your portion, and ask yourself, “Am I still hungry or am I just eating because the food is there?” Eat slowly so your brain has enough time to keep up with your greedy stomach. Keep in mind that even when you indulge in cake, ice cream, Mom’s brisket or whatever your vice, a small amount of sugary or fat-filled food is unlikely to have disastrous effects — it’s when the quantity of nutritionally bereft food becomes great that you start to see the consequences on your health.
The surest way to drop a New Year’s resolution is to deprive yourself completely of an entire food group — after all, food is one of the pleasures of life. So go ahead, eat lots of vegetables, limit those processed carbohydrates, listen to your stomach’s “I’m full!” pleas, and if you sneak in just a cookie or two, I’ll look the other way. I might even ask you for one.

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