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Healthier food choices for every meal of the day

Lativia Jones Bolarinwa is a freelance writer who lives in North Carolina with her husband. Besides writing, she enjoys dance, website design and watching movies.

Healthier Food Choices

On your quest to lose weight or eat healthier, how often have you skipped a substantial breakfast just to grab a quick and convenient energy bar? Likewise, how often do you wonder if that warmed up Lean Cuisine or Lean Pocket is actually healthier than frequenting the Wendy's drive-thru? You are faced with endless food choices every day. You are also faced with the whirlwind of contradictions and myths about "health foods" that leave you wondering what foods you should eat. The best way to choose truly healthier foods is to become more food savvy. Here are some basics every health-conscious eater should know.

Woman making healthy food choices.
Are you smarter than a 5th grader when it comes to knowing the recommended daily servings of each group on the food pyramid? The basics of a healthy diet begin with knowing the food groups, serving sizes and the number of servings you need. The basic food pyramid has not changed much since you were a kid but it has evolved to be more specific about the types of food to eat, and it now includes regular exercise as a component of healthy living.

FOOD PYRAMID BASICS


Grains. Foods made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley or another cereal grain.
Suggested daily servings: 6 ounces

Vegetables. Any vegetable or 100 percent vegetable juice. May be raw, cooked, fresh, frozen, canned, dried or dehydrated, whole, cut-up or mashed.
Suggested daily servings: 2.5 cups

Fruits. Any fruit or 100 percent fruit juice. May be fresh, dried, frozen, canned, whole, cut-up or pureed.
Suggested daily servings: 2 cups

Milk and other dairy. All fluid milk products and food made from milk. Foods made from milk that have little or no calcium, such as cream cheese, cream and butter are not considered part of this group.
Suggested daily servings: 3 cups

Meat and beans (proteins). All foods made from meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, peas, eggs, nuts and seeds.
Suggested daily servings: 5.5 ounces

Oils. Fats that are liquid at room temperature.
Suggested daily servings: Eat sparingly

One size does not fit all. For more detailed information on the food pyramid and to create a customized diet plan based on your body, visit www.MyPyramid.gov.

HEALTHY BREAKFAST CHOICES

Skipping breakfast is common in today's fast-paced, diet-trendy lifestyles. However, it can lead to fatigue and eventual food binges because your body needs a morning meal, especially after not eating all night. Breakfast is appropriately called "the most important meal of the day" because it not only gives you the fuel to get you through your day but a morning meal also helps keep your mind focused and alert. Make time for breakfast.

Sarah Farrell, a 19-year-old dancer, knows how hectic life can be but makes a healthy breakfast a top priority. She says, "I like to have wheat pancakes with banana or poached eggs, I get all the nutrients of the egg without the grease and butter of frying it."

Farrell's wheat pancakes and eggs give her an adequate amount of calories, protein and fiber, which keep her full and energized for her morning ahead. Keeping her breakfast low in fat is a healthy strategy, as well.

If you don't have ample time for a substantial breakfast, you can get by with a breakfast bar. However, read the labels and opt for the breakfast bars that are lower in sugar and high in protein and fiber.

HEALTHY LUNCH CHOICES

By the time lunch rolls around, if you are slaving away at work, school or with the kids, dining on fast food or some type of "lean" or "low-fat" microwavable food may seem like the most convenient choice.

Going to a fast-food restaurant is not necessarily the worst food choice – many national restaurant chains have their nutrition facts posted at the counter and many publish nutrition facts online for you to download. Do a little research before you head to the drive-thru and choose the fast foods with the healthiest profiles.

"Lean" microwavable foods offer convenience as well as a label that makes you think healthy, but they are typically very high in sodium. While the calories and fat content tend to be lower with foods like Lean Cuisine and Lean Pockets, one serving may contain up to 30 percent or more of the recommended daily sodium intake of 2400 milligrams – in one meal.

Marci K Campbell, PhD, a Professor of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, suggests looking for microwavable meals higher in protein and with less than 500 milligrams of sodium per serving. She cautions, "If the product contains less than 10 grams of protein it probably won't fill you up or feel like a meal."

Sometimes the lunch convenience factor is more important than choosing the healthiest option – which would be to take the time to make a lunch that is healthy – but requesting nutrition facts from your favorite restaurants and reading nutrition labels are a great strategy for healthy midday eating.

HEALTHY DINNER CHOICES

Try to eat dinner at a regularly scheduled time early in the evening – as opposed to late night dinners. Most dinners are more relaxed than other meals during the day, and you often have more time to spend eating or preparing dinner than other meals. Take the time to include foods from the food groups that you may have missed in earlier meals. Be warned, however, dinnertime can sabotage your diet or healthy-eating intentions because you do have more time to eat – you may end up eating too much. Watch your portion and serving sizes.

Marshella Dickey, a 22-year-old Coach Sales Associate, does not always have time to eat healthy dinners, but makes the most of foods available to her and knows how to avoid the unhealthy food traps of the mall food-court while she is at work. "I try to eat lots of fruits and salads with spinach leaves. If I must eat on the go, I try to find wraps with vegetables and chicken. I also try to have wheat bread and pasta when I can," Dickey says.

Eating out can be a challenge for the health-conscious eater. Aim to have sit-down family meals at home but when you do eat out, try these key strategies to dining out.

HEALTHY SNACK CHOICES

When the mid-morning or mid-afternoon stomach grumblings start, bypass the vending machine chips, candy bars and packages of cookies. Instead, opt for healthy snacks like fruits or nuts. Fresh items, as opposed to processed foods, are always a good choice because you can avoid consuming the added chemicals and preservatives of processed foods.

Nancy Tan, a 22-year-old advertising account executive, is always on her toes with busy deadlines and trying to please clients. She enjoys snacking on fruit or cherry tomatoes throughout the day. She also makes sure to drink plenty of water to keep herself hydrated. "[Healthy snacks and water] really give me the extra lift I need…and constantly going to the restroom keeps me on my toes, too," Tan says.

Campbell suggests also snacking on things like apples, raisins or baby carrots while you are on the go. Snacking on healthy foods in between meals can keep your blood sugar level, prevents fatigue and, more importantly, prevents binge eating.

KNOWLEDGE IS POWER

The key to healthy living is having the facts. Get more nutrition savvy by starting with the food pyramid. Determine your daily nutrition requirements. Read labels to learn serving sizes and nutritional content of the foods you eat. Make sure you are getting the recommended daily food intake your body needs.

Despite the posits and contradictions of "health foods," going back to basics, eating fresh and wholesome foods, and eating in moderation are really the best strategies for a healthy diet.

For more information on healthy eating, visit these links:

Healthy eating on a budget

The 10 calorie reality check

Orthorexia: The consequences of eating too healthy

10 ways to kick-start a new healthy eating lifestyle


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