One question I'm frequently asked is "What's the secret to a healthy diet?" The answer isn't all that mysterious. You just have to keep some basic guidelines in mind, beginning with:
1. Use smaller plates.
Whether you're already trim or trying to lose weight, one of the best things you can do for your waistline and your health is to downsize your dishware. Cornell University nutrition researcher Brian Wansink, PhD, has found that switching from a 12-inch to a ten-inch plate leads people to eat 22 percent fewer calories. If you downsized only your dinner plate, you'd be eliminating more than 5,000 calories a month from your diet. It really is that simple.
2. Make half of every meal fruits or vegetables.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends five to nine servings of produce a day, but if you follow my rule, you won't have to count. At breakfast, fill your bowl halfway with cereal, then top it off with berries or sliced banana. At lunch, eat a smaller—or half—sandwich, and add two pieces of fruit. At dinner, make sure your plate is at least 50 percent salad, broccoli, asparagus, cauliflower, or whatever veggie you choose. This ensures that you get enough nutrients and automatically reduces the amount of fat and calories you consume (provided you don't go crazy with fatty dressings and toppings).
3. Don't eat on the run.
The first problem with grabbing and gulping is that it usually means fast food. And even a smallish fast food lunch (small burger, medium fries, diet soda) delivers around 800 calories—more than the average woman would want to get at dinner. When we eat on the go, our brains tend to register the food as a snack—regardless of how many calories we consume—leading us to overeat at our next meal.
4. The shorter the ingredient list, the better.
Most of the healthiest foods have only one ingredient: Think broccoli, spinach, blueberries, etc. Longer lists generally mean more sugar, more salt, more artificial flavors. More unhealthy stuff.
5. Nutritious food doesn't have to be expensive.
Some colleagues and I recently completed a study in Independence, Missouri, comparing prices between a diverse list of healthy grocery items and a list of less nutritious ones. (This was part of a program we've developed—see NutritionDetectives.com—to help kids make healthier choices about what to eat.) With rare exception, we found that the smart choices cost no more. In fact, there was a potential small savings associated with the healthy selections. And that's without considering such economical options as occasionally substituting beans or lentils for meat, or making a sandwich at home rather than spending money at a restaurant.
6. Take an extra ten minutes a day to prepare healthy meals.
By devoting a few minutes to planning for more nutritious eating, you invest in your own health and that of your family. And when I say few, I mean it: Studies from UCLA suggest that a wholesome, home-cooked dinner takes only about ten minutes longer to prepare, on average, than serving processed or ready-made food. If you make enough for leftovers, you'll save time in the long run. And don't forget: Obesity, diabetes, and heart disease all lead to doctor and hospital visits—which take a lot of time.
7. Retrain your palate.
As any 5-year-old or picky eater can attest, familiarity is a powerful driver of dietary preference. But taste buds are malleable and can be taught to appreciate new and subtler flavors. When you swap processed, high-fat, sodium-packed, and oversweetened food for healthier fare, it can take one to two weeks before your taste buds acclimate. Don't expect to love new flavors right away (and certainly don't expect your kids to). Just keep serving the new dishes, and soon neither you nor your palate will recall what all the fuss was about.
8. Stop eating before you feel full.
Slow the pace of your meals. Pay attention to what you're eating. And call it quits when you're about 80 percent full. After a pause, you'll likely find that "mostly full" is full enough. Studies indicate that simply by eating at a leisurely pace, you could drop up to 20 pounds a year.
9. Sit down to dinner with the entire family.
Whether it's just you and your spouse or a family of 12, demand that everyone treat the dinner hour as holy. Kids who eat with their parents are less likely to consume junk, less likely to overeat, and less likely to be overweight. Parents who eat with their children report greater satisfaction with family life.
And families who eat together are far less likely to be plagued by eating disorders, drug use, smoking, and alcohol abuse, according to several studies conducted by the University of Minnesota and the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. That's a remarkable benefit to something as simple as sitting down together for a family meal.
10. You really are what you eat.
You want radiant skin? Consider that your skin depends on the flow of blood for nutrients and oxygen—which, in turn, requires healthy blood vessels and a steady supply of red blood cells generated by your bone marrow.
The best way to keep your body humming is to eat a well-rounded, nutritious diet. Want to-die-for, salon-style hair? Then you need healthy hair follicles to build hair in the first place—and that, in turn, depends on having a healthy heart to pump nutrients to those follicles, and healthy lungs to give them oxygen.
As for better mental acuity—well, you get the idea: Your brain depends on the vitality of your heart, lungs, liver, kidneys (you name the organ) to be in tip-top shape. The best way to bring out your best attributes is to foster your overall health through smart eating—a diet that favors produce, grains, legumes, and lean sources of protein, such as fish and soy.