Besides looking for the calorie and fat content, how much time do you dedicate to reading food labels? The next time you go grocery shopping, take an extra minute to see what ingredients are in food products before you toss them into the shopping cart. You may be surprised at how often you come across less-than-healthy ingredients. Studies show that high fructose corn syrup (found in everything from juices to ketchup), trans fat and saturated fat are linked to serious health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Eliminate these ingredients from your diet as much as possible, along with anything that says hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated.
Recommendations: Choose almond butter over margarine or butter. Check labels for unhealthy ingredients; do your research to substitute.
Sodium in our diet is inevitable. It can be found in almost everything we eat — not to mention that many people enhance their food with salt for extra flavor. Dietary guidelines recommend consuming a maximum of 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, and only half that if you have high blood pressure. Although the body needs salt to function, too much salt can lead to hypertension, which increases the chance of developing kidney disease or stroke. To avoid the health risks associated with a high sodium diet, you can take control of your salt intake daily.
Recommendations: A low-sodium diet doesn't mean bland food. Use onions, garlic, lemons and bell peppers to flavor your food, along with salt-free seasonings (e.g., Mrs. Dash). Use red wine vinegar instead of salad dressing.
Processed foods (such as processed meats, high-sodium canned goods, frozen dinners and prepackaged meals) are convenient and may fit easier into your busy lifestyle than spending hours cooking meals in the kitchen from scratch. But the risks associated with processed foods (cancer, diabetes and heart disease) makes cooking seem like a minor task. Processed foods that are filled with ingredients such as bad fats, salt, food dyes, high fructose corn syrup and MSG, should be eliminated from your diet.
"If you look at what composes a bad diet, the standard Western diet has high processed foods, high processed meats and is really lacking fruits and vegetables and the wrong kinds of fats," says Dr. Ric Saguil, family practitioner at First Health Associates in Arlington Heights, Illinois. "If you invest in eating better every day, then you will save yourself in the end."
Recommendations: Replace white sugar with stevia. Eat more salads with fresh veggies and fruit. Drink coconut, rice or almond milk instead of regular milk.
Are you a lover of bread, rice and pasta? Eliminating all carbohydrates from your diet is not beneficial to the body -- the body needs carbohydrates for energy. However, experts recommend replacing refined carbs with whole grains and whole-wheat products because they are less processed, have more nutritional value, and are high in fiber and antioxidants, which help to prevent disease.
Recommendations: Make sure whole grain is listed toward the top of the ingredients in any processed food you buy. Replace refined carbs with brown rice, oatmeal, barley and whole-wheat bread and pasta.
Not only do colorful fruits and vegetables make a pretty and appetizing plate, but they are also known for their vitamins, minerals and properties that can help protect the body from diseases. Dr. Saguil recommends eating five to seven servings of fresh fruits and vegetables daily, including colorful vegetables, which help to protect the body from cancer. Dark-green vegetables (such as kale, collard greens, bok choy and spinach) are nutrient-dense foods and are also highly recommended.
Recommendations: Make a fruit smoothie or a fruit salad. For a snack, chop up bell peppers or carrots and eat them with a dip, such as hummus.
Red meat is high in saturated fat, but if you must include beef in your diet, make sure that you opt for leaner forms of meat. Lean meat is a good source of protein and iron and has less saturated fat and cholesterol.
Recommendations: Reduce your intake of red meat by replacing your ground beef with lean ground chicken or ground turkey. When choosing lean meat, don't fry away the nutritional value -- bake or broil your lean meat instead.
All fat isn't evil and unhealthy. Our bodies need fat to survive. Although a box of doughnuts may not make the healthy fat list, there are still good fats out there that won't sabotage your diet and can help you stay healthy, such as nuts and olive oil.
Recommendations: Use olive oil instead of vegetable oil when cooking. Grab a handful of almonds for a quick snack. Slice up avocadoes (also known as a belly-bulge buster) in your salad.
"Nutrition is supposed to be the first step in treating disease," Dr. Saguil says. "Statistics show that one person is dying every minute in the United States from a heart attack. Can we take care of that with a diet? We sure can."
Making the right food choices isn't always easy — especially when temptation rears its ugly head from the candy aisle at the grocery store or during a monthly chocolate craving. But tweaking your diet today can save you a lot of trouble down the road.
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