Making healthy food choices means taking a close look at your current eating habits. And making small changes can add up to new habits and better nutrition.
Why is it so hard to make healthy food choices? It’s not as if you don’t know which foods are healthy and which ones aren’t. But sometimes it’s difficult to make the right food choices when you’re constantly faced with temptation, or when you don’t have a plan.
Maybe you cave in when you’re feeling down in the dumps and make the wrong food choice—thinking an unhealthy food choice will make you feel better.
Not only do you have to make food choices every time you eat a meal or a snack, you’re actually making food choices all day long. That’s because every time you see, smell or think about food—which happens a lot more than you would think—you’ve got choices to make, too.
The trick to making better food choices is learning how to “trade up”—nutritionally speaking. You want to look at the foods you’re currently eating, and see if you can find some healthier choices that you can make instead. If your dietary patterns are generally good, and if you’re eating regular meals and snacks and including a variety of foods, then it’s just a matter of plugging in some healthier choices in place of ones that aren’t doing you much good.
The first step in improving your diet requires that you take a good, hard look at your current eating habits. Write down everything you eat for a couple of days without making any changes to your usual food choices. Be honest with yourself and don’t leave anything out. You can’t make changes if you don’t realistically know what you’re working with or where your trouble spots are.
Once you’ve done that, look your food diary over without judging yourself. Just be objective. Look over your eating patterns and the food choices you are making, and simply acknowledge that there are some things that you probably want to do differently. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to give yourself a pat on the back for the things you’re doing right. If you’re drinking plenty of water or fighting the urge to eat dessert at every meal, give yourself credit for that, too.
The next step is to work towards cutting back on the highest calorie foods that you usually eat. Start with the high fat and high sugar foods first. They’re the ones that are probably doing the most calorie damage, so you’ll want to learn to find healthier choices. Once you’ve identified the biggest offenders, use the healthy food chart below to help you find healthier swaps you can make that will still satisfy you. As these healthier food choices get incorporated into your usual routine, you’ll gradually improve the nutrient quality of your diet, cut calories, and probably find that your meals are more filling and satisfying.
Once you’ve kept your food diary for a while, you have a good sense for what foods you’re eating. But you also want to learn what’s in the foods that you’re eating. When you grocery shop, take time to read labels. Look at ingredients and look at the nutrition facts so you can evaluate calories, fat and sugar content in the foods that you buy. Learn how to read menus when you go out to eat so that you can make the best choices in restaurants.
One good strategy for making better food choices is to lean towards foods that haven’t had a lot done to them. The closer a food is to its natural state, or the less processed it is, the more nutritional value it tends to have. You’ll also be getting less fat, sugar and salt. For example, look at the difference in nutrition value of a serving of a fresh apple (80 calories, vitamins, minerals, fiber) compared with applesauce (100 calories, fewer vitamins and minerals, more sugar, less fiber); apple juice (115 calories, even fewer vitamins and minerals, and no fiber); apple pie (300 calories, less than a serving of fruit, and lots of added fat and sugar); and apple chips (450 calories, almost no apple, but plenty of fat and salt).
If you’re craving ice cream, trying to satisfy the craving with a handful of celery sticks probably isn’t going to work. You’re craving creamy, smooth and sweet not crunchy and stringy, so perhaps a carton of Greek-style yogurt with some berries would work for you, or a sliced up frozen banana. Or, try my recipe for frozen protein popsicles.
It’s easier to make better choices when you’ve planned ahead. When you have a plan for what you’re going to eat for meals and snacks, you’re more committed to eating the healthier choices. On the other hand, when you don’t plan ahead and you’re eating on the run, it’s too easy to fall back into old patterns and you might not choose as wisely.
Keep your focus on replacing bad habits with better ones and know that every little bit adds up. Every time you make a better food choice, you’re doing something good for yourself. And you’re one step closer to having a healthier diet overall. As you continue to make better choices, they’ll become new habits, and over time your better choices will be the foods you crave.
|Instead of…||Try this…|
|Refined flour breads, cereals, flour tortillas||100% whole grain bread, cereal, corn tortillas|
|Sodas, fruit juices||Plain or sparkling water with lemon, lime or a few pieces of fresh fruit|
|White rice, noodles, potatoes||Brown rice, quinoa, millet, whole grain pasta, soba noodles, sweet potatoes—or omit altogether and double up on veggies|
|Cakes, cookies, pies, pastry, ice cream||Fresh fruit, frozen fruit (cherries, bananas, mango have a satisfying, chewy texture), nonfat yogurt with fruit|
|Snack chips, crackers||Edamame, raw vegetables with hummus, brown rice cakes, nuts or soy nuts|
|Mayonnaise, salad dressings, sauces, gravies, sour cream||Mustard, mashed avocado, low-fat salad dressings, salsa, lemon juice, plain nonfat yogurt|
|High calorie coffee drinks||Nonfat latte or cappuccino, herbal tea, hot protein shake|
|Fatty meats, sausages, etc.||Lean meats, poultry breast, seafood, soy meat substitutes|