There are two ways to improve the quality of what you eat: You could study nutrition theory thoroughly, abandon most of what you've been doing until now, and retool your diet from stem to stern. Or you could keep things simple by making just one small change at a time.
Take breakfast, for example. Sitting down to one—if you don't already—can be your first ten-minute intervention. Numerous studies have found that skipping breakfast is linked to overweight and obesity. Women seem to be especially responsive to the benefits: A study of 4,218 adults found that eating breakfast meant that women—but not men—were far more likely to have a body mass index under 25, putting them comfortably in the healthy weight category.
If you do eat breakfast, then the next change is even simpler. When you're at the supermarket, spend some time picking out a whole grain cereal—look for one that delivers about five grams of fiber per serving. (You can save time by going with one of my favorites—cereals by Nature's Path, Kashi, and Barbara's Bakery.) Then buy some skim milk and fruit. Now you have a meal that takes all of 60 seconds to prepare yet delivers protein, complex carbohydrates, and a hearty dose of fiber, calcium, and antioxidants. A whole grain breakfast seems to have special benefits. Research published earlier this year found that women who got at least one serving of whole grains a day—a cup of whole grain cold cereal, for example, or one slice of whole grain bread—weighed less and had slimmer waists than those who ate none. Remarkably, more than two-thirds of the 2,000-plus women in the study failed to get that crucial serving.
For many people, dinner is the place to cut corners. Cooking a meal at the end of a long day sounds daunting, but it may not be as challenging as you think. A study out of UCLA suggests that putting together a home-cooked dinner on average takes only about ten minutes more of hands-on time than using mainly prepackaged dishes. If you go to the store with a few recipes in mind, you'll have what you need at your fingertips each evening. A dinner of grilled fresh fish with a light citrus marinade (orange juice, olive oil, and dill), steamed green beans, whole grain bread with herb-infused olive oil for dipping, mixed green salad, glass of wine, and a square of dark chocolate for dessert would actually take less time to prepare than a frozen pizza.
Most important, the dishes you make will be much healthier. Processed food, fast food, and takeout often have too much salt and sugar. The fish dinner I described above contains most of the items that make up the "polymeal"—a collection of foods (fish, almonds, wine, dark chocolate, garlic, fruits, and vegetables) that researchers have suggested can lower heart disease risk by 76 percent.
Take 10 Minutes for Breakfast
A whole grain cereal with fruit and skim milk adds up to a healthy dose of fiber, loads of calcium and antioxidants, and protection against weight gain.
Take 10 Minutes for Lunch
You'll save not only money by making a sandwich at home but hundreds of calories over the typical fast food fare. And you'll gain a big nutritional boost.
Take 10 Minutes for Dinner
Believe it or not, research suggests it takes on average only ten minutes more of hands-on time to prepare an evening meal from scratch compared with using only prepackaged dishes.
And then there's lunch. To help demonstrate what an impact a ten-minute change can have on your midday meal, I asked six staff members at this magazine to track their cafeteria meals and snacks for a couple of days, and then to try bringing their food from home for two days. Although this group tended to make smart choices—and were helped considerably by the healthy fare available in their cafeteria—they still managed to make a big improvement in their diet when they brown-bagged their lunches. While only a couple of volunteers ate fewer calories, they got 25 percent more fiber on average and boosted consumption of healthy fats and vital nutrients like calcium.
"The variety at the cafeteria confuses me," says senior editor Suzan Colón, who was one of the volunteers to cut calories—200—by packing her meal. "And they only have large plates, so it's easy to overdo it. The first morning I brought lunch, I was in a tremendous rush and just grabbed the first few things I saw—some leftover spaghetti and salad. When lunch rolled around, it was really freeing not to have to make any choices." Assistant editor Dorothea Hunter was reluctant to bring her lunch because it seemed like too much hassle. "But it wasn't at all," she says. She made sandwiches or brought in leftovers. "I love saving the money, and now I'm trying to pack at least twice a week."
My experience with patients over the past 20 years tells me that if you switch from typical cafeteria fare or fast food to a meal from home or a snack pack (that's what I bring to work), you will derive even greater benefit than the O staff. Like Colón and Hunter, you can use leftovers from a delicious dinner you made the evening before. Or make a sandwich of sliced turkey with lettuce, tomato, and mustard on whole wheat bread; it will take at most a few minutes to make, cost less than most fast food, and will likely save you a few hundred calories, many milligrams of sodium, and several grams of saturated and even trans fat. And you'll be getting—as with breakfast—a dose of many valuable nutrients, including lean protein and fiber.
If you're like me and prefer to graze during the day, you can skip the sandwich and go for a snack pack. Mine typically contains some fresh fruit, nuts or seeds, nonfat yogurt, dried fruit, perhaps some whole grain bread, and maybe some fresh veggies like diced peppers or baby carrots—finger food, in other words, that I can munch on whenever I am so inclined. Preparing this kind of snack pack is an investment of roughly two minutes a day.
Experiment to find what works best for you. My feeling is that you should approach your meals the way you approach the weather. If it looks like rain, take an umbrella; you can defend yourself against an inclement food climate—fast food restaurants, processed food, vending machines—by packing your lunch, preparing your dinner, and eating a smart breakfast. A ten-minute time investment here and there is all it takes.