Eating Healthy Is Easier Than You Think

Let me preface by saying that I am neither a nutritionist nor a medical doctor, but in the early days of my psychotherapy practice, I specialized in weight management and compulsive eating issues. I studied nutrition so that I could responsibly guide my clients toward better eating habits. I am repeating here only things that I was taught by health professionals or have read in reliable professional publications.

In two earlier posts (“Obesity Is One of the Last Bastions of Prejudice…” and Dieting is the Best Way to GAIN Weight) I talked about how both our bodies and our psyches fight us when we try to lose weight the traditional way. I suggested that the first goal should be to eat healthy in order to be healthy. In today’s post I offer suggestions on how to do that.

It isn’t as hard to eat healthy, or at least healthier, as many people think it is. All it really takes is some knowledge and developing the habit of being aware of what you eat.

Let’s start by setting a simple goal. Every day, for the next month, can you try to do one thing to improve your eating behaviors? The idea here is to change gradually, so it isn’t such a wrenching experience. But one does have to stay on track; it’s easy to get distracted.

Below I will be giving you lots of Helpful Hints to change these behaviors. Do them in whatever order appeals to you, starting with the changes you think will be the easiest to make to get the momentum going. I’d suggest making a list for yourself, numbered 1 through 30, and check them off as you go. But make sure you keep doing the things you changed earlier in the month! You’ll want to refer back to the earlier posts as well. I actually ended up with 30 HH’s which was not intentional but it’s cool that it worked out that way.

Complex Carbohydrates are Your Friends:

Yup, you heard me right. Simple carbohydrates are the enemy, not carbohydrates in general. Simple carbohydrates are: refined sugar, sugary drinks, white flour, all baked goods made with white flour and refined sugar, white bread, white pasta, white rice, peeled white potatoes (do you see a trend here; if it’s white it’s probably not all that good for you).

These are harmful because they represent calories with little or no nutrition nor fill-you-up benefits to show for those calories.

Complex carbohydrates are vegetables, legumes, fruits and whole grain products. These are all high in fiber, which fills you up as well as being good for your system, and they are chock full of nutrients. Ideally we should be eating at least five to nine servings of vegetables/fruits and three to five servings of whole grains per day.

HH#17 (see the first two posts for HH#1-16):  Fresh vegetables are best but honestly most of us don’t have time to stop at the farmer’s market or grocery store every few days to get them. The next best thing is frozen (without any fancy sauces, just the veggies). If you eat canned vegetables, STOP! Many of the nutrients are lost during the canning process and salt, artificial preservatives and sometimes sugar are added.

If you’re like me and you’re not fond of veggies, eat even more fruit. They have many of the same nutrients. Fresh is best; frozen (with no sugar added) is fine; canned is okay IF it’s packed in fruit juice, not a sugary syrup. More on how to make fruits and veggies more enticing in a little bit..

HH#18:  Start reading labels when you shop. This will slow down the shopping process the first few times but after awhile you’ll know which products are good and which need closer examination before they go in your cart. If the first or second item on the ingredients list is sugar, corn syrup or any other kind of sweetener, put that item right back on the shelf!

Now about those whole grain products. Key word is WHOLE. If the bread wrapper says “wheat” bread, keep going. You want the “whole wheat” bread. Okay, I can hear you whining from all the way over here. “But I don’t like the taste of wheat bread.” That is only because you are not used to it. It doesn’t taste the way you expect bread to taste. Soooo…

HH#19:  Make the switch to whole grains gradually. Start with that wheat bread that isn’t whole wheat. It’s taste will be closer to what you are used to because it is made of at least half white flour. Change the bread you eat one meal at a time. Breakfast toast is wheat for a few days, then add your lunchtime sandwich to the closer to whole grain category. Once you’re used to the taste of the ‘fake’ wheat bread, it will not be hard to make the switch to the whole grain breads.

Look for brown rice (now comes in the quick cooking variety just like white rice) and whole grain spaghetti. These tastes are not as drastically different from the white versions, just a bit nuttier. And you will be amazed how much faster you get filled up, and how much longer that meal sticks with you. This is because these products haven’t had all the fiber processed out of them!

In the first Obesity post, I talked about how our bodies are programmed for more primitive times. Part of that programming is that we become satiated faster when food is boring (like the dried meats and berries we had to eat during the lean winters in cave-person times). Soooo…

HH#20:  Keep the meats and starches (that are higher calorie) boring but spice up the variety of the fruits and veggies to make them more appealing. There are lots of easy ways to make them exciting. (See my friend, Ginger Calem’s blog for some great veggie recipes!)

Now let’s work on eliminating liquid calorie consumption. We can take in a tremendous amount of calories without realizing it as we attempt to quench our thirst throughout the day. The worst offenders are carbonated beverages. Not only are they pouring empty calories into you but the carbonation leeches calcium from your bones!

The artificially sweetened ones are not better. Now you’re getting unnatural chemicals along with those calcium-leeching bubbles. And research has found that people drinking artificially sweetened soft drinks gained more weight over time than those drinking regular soft drinks (not sure how that works, but hey, that’s what the research has found!)

So let’s get rid of the soft drinks completely (except as an occasional treat). Again, you can wean yourself gradually. I used to be addicted to Cokes, drank them morning, noon and night. But when I took those nutrition classes I mentioned earlier and found out about that whole calcium-leeching thing, I switched over to water and tea.

HH#21:  When you are thirsty, drink water FIRST! We need a lot of water to flush out our systems and most Americans don’t drink nearly enough of it. If you don’t like what comes out of the faucet, then drink bottled water, but again read the labels. Avoid the ones with added minerals (designed to make you more thirsty) or flavorings with either sugar or artificial sweeteners.

HH#22:  Other beverages that are okay: fruit juice cut half-and-half with water (fruit juice is very good for you but it is high in calories), moderate amounts of tea or coffee (unless you are pregnant). If you are used to dumping a bunch of sugar and creamer into such beverages, again wean yourself slowly back (a half teaspoon of real sugar is only 8 calories). If you drink iced coffee or tea, make your own! Don’t drink the bottled stuff. They’re chock full of sweeteners. I have a Mr. Coffee Iced Tea Maker and I love it! Makes great iced tea with minimal effort.

We try to keep it simple at our house.

Last but not least, before we move on to the subject of proteins and fats, do not completely deprive yourself of yummy treats. Deprivation almost inevitably leads to rebellion and overindulging (see Dieting post). But if you have trouble eating sweets and similar foods in moderation…

HH#23:  Get them out of the house. Only allow yourself to have these treats when you go out, and then only when you truly want them. Don’t make a habit of always getting dessert when you eat out, but if you want dessert, cut back a bit on the rest of what you order. And consider sharing that dessert so both you and your companion can enjoy with less guilt.

Myths and Misconceptions about Protein, Dairy and Fats:

Can you guess what one of the biggest malnutrition problems in the United States is?

Calcium. Children and women of any age need three to five servings of calcium-rich foods a day for healthy bones. And dairy products are, by far, the most calcium rich. But drinking milk has gotten replaced by sodas in a lot of Americans’ diets.

Sure you can take calcium supplements (not a bad idea) but our bodies absorb calcium far better from food than from a pill. More on how to get enough calcium into your system in a minute.

A common myth about healthy eating is that we need a lot of protein. We actually only need small amounts of protein at one time, but we need to consume protein frequently throughout the day in order to repair our muscles and organs.

Proteins are made up of amino acids. All animal proteins, including human protein, are made from the same amino acids. Different plants, however, are made up of different amino acids. No plant has all of the amino acids humans need to build new human protein. So animal proteins are referred to as complete proteins (they have all the amino acids we need) and plant proteins are called incomplete proteins (some of the amino acids we need but not all of them).

The human body has no mechanism for storing protein for later use. As we eat protein, it either gets transformed into human protein to rebuild muscles and organs or it gets broken down into its chemical components. What does this mean? It means that excess protein that our body does not need right at that moment as protein gets turned into… Drum roll, please. Carbohydrates!

Those carbohydrates then get burned as fuel for energy or get stored for later energy needs. In other words, eating extra protein instead of carbohydrates does us no good because our body just turns the excess protein into carbohydrates.

Here’s the chemistry (don’t worry, I’ll keep it simple ’cause chemistry makes my head hurt). The four basic elements that make up all proteins (some amino acids will have other components as well) are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen (which tends to hang out with the hydrogen in the form of H2O, i.e., water) and nitrogen. If the protein is not needed at that moment by our bodies, then the nitrogen is removed from the protein molecule. What we have left is carbon plus hydrogen and oxygen (water) or carbo-hydrates. The nitrogen then becomes waste material and is excreted in our urine.

Not only does excessive protein do us no good, it can actually be harmful. For one thing, getting rid of that excess nitrogen is hard on the kidneys and can sometimes trigger kidney disease. And excessive protein interferes with the absorption of calcium (lots of research has been done on this recently). So our society’s movement toward more protein and less carbs in our diets is a major factor in the calcium deficiencies we’re now seeing in this country.

HH#24:  Eat a small portion of animal protein (meat, dairy or eggs) or carefully-balanced plant proteins at every meal. Fill up the rest of your plate with whole grains and veggies or fruits. Snacks should also include some protein, and not just because your body might need those amino acids right then. Protein fills us up better than carbohydrates and it takes a bit longer to digest so it stays in the stomach, keeping us feeling full, for a longer time.

The best way to balance plant proteins to get a complete set of amino acids is by combining legumes–beans, peas and nuts–which are high in plant protein, with corn or whole grains, which have the amino acids the legumes lack. Here are some ideas on how to do this: corn and bean chowder, brown rice and beans, peanut butter on whole grain bread. Note: peanut butter on white bread has no protein value to us humans because the peanuts are an incomplete protein!

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of protein, eggs get a bad rap in our society. They have the best quality protein available. Their cholesterol content is on the high side but there are a lot of other nutrients (B vitamins, antioxidants, etc.) that are good for your heart. These compensate for the cholesterol. Most of the fat and cholesterol is in the yolk, so eating just the whites (or two or three whites to one yolk) can be a healthy alternative for folks prone to high cholesterol.

Avoiding fat as much as we can is not a bad idea but there are several things to keep in mind. Fat takes even longer to digest than protein so a little bit with each meal will keep us more satisfied for longer. Also our bodies do need some fat.

HH#25:  Again, read labels. Look at the ingredients list and compare the calories. Low-fat or non-fat products often have other things added to them to make them taste okay–things like extra sugar or salt!

HH#26:  Salad dressings can be a major source of excessive fat calories with little to no nutritional value. Put your dressing in a dish on the side rather than on the salad. Dip your fork tines in the dressing and then stab some salad. You’ll get a more even distribution of the dressing so that each bite is tasty, but you’ll use a good bit less dressing.

Last but not least on the subject of fat is the issue of how much nutrition you are getting along with that fat. Which brings us to cheese. Cheese also gets a bad rap it doesn’t deserve. If you can find a low-fat cheese that tastes good and doesn’t have a bunch of other crap added to it, go for it. (I use American cheese made from 2% milk rather than whole milk for sandwiches.) But cheese is so nutrient rich, and filling, that it is worth the fat calories!

photo by PB Obregon (see Wikimedia Commons for license)

HH#27:  So make sure you get three or more dairy servings a day. Cheese, milk and yogurt do double duty. They are the best sources of calcium out there, by far, and they also fulfill the animal protein requirement. Yay! Let’s hear it for dairy!

A Word or Two  (or 50 or so 🙂 ) about Absorption:

It is not enough to eat the foods that are high in the nutrients we need. We also have to avoid eating them with other things that will prevent absorption.

Two things improve calcium absorption. One is vitamin D. Milk and calcium supplements are often fortified with it these days. Which is good because one of the side effects of people being more careful about sun exposure (the normal way our body manufactures vitamin D) is that many people now are deficient in this vitamin. Also research has found that calcium supplements are better absorbed if they are taken with a meal.

A lot of stuff interferes with calcium absorption. Some foods that are high in calcium unfortunately are also high in substances that bind with calcium and make it hard for humans to absorb it. Legumes (beans, etc.) and dark green leafy vegetables like spinach are high in calcium and are often touted as good alternatives to dairy products. But these foods are also high in oxalic acid, which interferes with calcium absorption. And legumes contain another substance that binds calcium and lessens absorption, phytates.

Oxalic acid is also found in some berries and in chocolate and tea. Tea also contains tannins (as does red wine) that bind with calcium. And last but not least, sodium causes the kidneys to secrete more calcium in urine. Are you beginning to understand why it’s so hard to get enough calcium into our systems.

As already mentioned excessive protein interferes with calcium absorption as well. And calcium interferes with the absorption of the iron–another important and often deficient nutrient–from meat and other protein-rich foods.

Is your head spinning about now? Let me see if I can simplify this a bit.

HH#28:  Avoid drinking tea with a meal or eating chocolate with high calcium foods (chocolate milk is yummy but less calcium will be absorbed). As much as possible, either eat dairy or some other kind of protein at any given meal/snack. To maximize calcium absorption, try to avoid legumes and large amounts of wheat bran at those meals/snacks where you are consuming dairy (see sample menus below).

HH#29:  Slowly cut back the amount of salt you add to foods. As you do your taste buds will adjust and will pull more of the natural flavor out of the food. Check sodium content when reading labels. If it seems excessive, avoid that product.

HH#30:  Last but not least, eat smaller meals more often, with snacks in between so you never get ravenously hungry and you always feel satisfied. And you will also be giving your body those frequent small doses of protein needed to rebuild muscles and organs.

Okay, Now You Are Ready to Lose Some Weight!

Say what? Wasn’t that what all this healthy eating was about anyway?

Yes and no. Eating healthy should be your first goal. Once your eating behaviors are healthier, you need to do two things in order to lose weight.

One, increase your physical activity (see Obesity post for why this is absolutely essential) to a minimum of thirty minutes of aerobic activity (you should be sweating and breathing heavy but not dying) five times a week, or one hour or longer of activity three times a week, minimum! More is better but you don’t have to kill yourself. (Always a good idea to check with your doctor before starting an exercise program if you have been fairly sedentary.)

Second, you need to reduce your calorie intake. But not too drastically as this will just trigger a set point adjustment downward that will be disastrous (see Obesity post). The ideal is to lose one to two pounds a week (much more likely to stay off!) One pound of fat equals 3,500 calories so you want to reduce your caloric intake by 7,000 calories per week, or about 1000 calories a day.

Note: This is simple math, folks! You cannot lose weight without reducing the number of calories you take in versus the number of calories you burn!

Start by tracking your ‘new normal’ healthy eating. Write down everything you eat for a week. At the end of the week, figure out the calories of the foods you ate (either by checking their labels or by using this handy-dandy calorie counter from WebMD).

Now average the total calories for a day by dividing the week’s total by seven. Your goal is to get at least 500 calories below that each day, and preferably closer to 1000 calories less per day. But don’t do this by cutting out a meal or skimping on breakfast. You’ll notice that the breakfasts in the sample menus below are generous. This is the meal that will set the tone for the day. If you skimp here, you will likely be hungry all day.

If you hit a plateau (and you probably will), do NOT reduce your calories further. Instead, increase your activity level and hang in there. (And put the scale in the attic for a bit–see Obesity post–because you will be building muscle again. This is good because muscle burns calories every minute of every day.)

If you’re not in the mood to look at menus, then please jump down to the comments (or click on the little speech bubble at the top).

What do you think about all this? What’s your greatest obstacle to eating healthy likely to be?


Three sample menus:  Calorie counts are in parentheses with total at the end. I’ve thrown in some processed foods for lazy cooks like me. The first total number of calories would be an appropriate weight-loss level for most males or weight-maintaining level for most females; the second count would be an appropriate weight-loss level for most females.

Menu #1:

Breakfast:  3-egg white, 1-yolk omelet with onions and green/red peppers (sauteed in olive oil), and diced tomatoes (200 total), whole wheat toast with olive oil-based soft margarine (120 per slice), 4 oz. orange juice or other juice (55) = 375-495 calories depending on whether you have 1 or 2 slices of toast. (No dairy because high protein of eggs would interfere with calcium absorption)

Mid-morning:  8 oz. glass of 2% milk (130) or 4 oz. low-fat, fruit flavored yogurt (110)

Lunch:  Cheese, tomato and lettuce sandwich: 1 oz. of your favorite whole milk cheese or two slices 2% American cheese (100-120), two thick slices of tomato (15), three leaves of romaine lettuce (15) on whole wheat bread (2 slices, 120) with light mayo (thin layer, 35; thicker layer, 70) – sandwich is 285-340 calories; one fruit cup in 100% juice (60) = 345-400 calories.

Afternoon snack: one 1″ square cube of cheese (60-70), one medium-sized apple (95) or small bunch of grapes (104) = 155-174 calories

Dinner:  Stouffer’s Farmer’s Market vegetable lasagna with whole grain pasta, two 2″x2″ pieces (280), small spinach, tomato and broccoli florets salad (60) with 1 ½ tbsp. lite dressing on the side (60) = 400 calories

(If you eat dinner early, have less afternoon snack and a lite snack mid-evening–glass of milk or piece of fruit or one piece of toast)

Roughly 1500-1600 calories for the day (to reduce calories further, eliminate OJ with breakfast, have just one slice of toast, move fruit cup from lunch to afternoon snack instead of apple or grapes, and reduce by ½ to 1 square the lasagna at dinner = 1200-1330 calories)

7-8 fruits/veggies; 5-6 whole grains; 3 dairy; iron from eggs and spinach salad

Menu #2:

Breakfast:  (my hubby’s favorite) 1 cup steel-cut oatmeal (150) mixed with ½ cup low-fat, plain yogurt (75) and ½ cup fresh fruit (50), OR with 4 oz. low-fat, fruit-flavored yogurt (110); 4 oz. OJ or other juice (55) = 315-330

Mid-morning:  8 oz. Glass of 2% milk (130) or 1″ square of cheese (60-70) and 4-5 rye crackers (65-80) = 130-150 calories

Lunch:  2 tbsp. Peanut butter (200) on whole wheat bread (120), thin layer of margarine or jelly (60) so peanut butter doesn’t stick to roof of mouth :-); small box of raisins (90) = 470 calories (peanut butter/wheat makes complete protein; no dairy because peanut butter/wheat and raisins would block absorption)

Afternoon snack:  Fruit cup in 100% juice (60) and 1″ square of cheese (60-70) = 120-130 calories

Dinner:  3 oz. fillet of Wild Alaskan salmon (make sure it’s wild Alaskan, much better for you than ‘Atlantic’ which is actually farm raised, not wild), baked (180), 3/4 cup of brown rice (162), 1 cup steamed veggies (zucchini, carrots, tomatoes, peppers) drizzled with olive oil and basil (80) = 422 calories

Roughly 1450-1500 calories for the day (To reduce further, eliminate OJ with breakfast, drink 1% milk, reduce peanut butter by ½ tbsp., reduce jelly or margarine on sandwich, have fruit cup instead of raisins at lunch, ½ piece of fruit with cheese for snack, cut servings at dinner a little bit = 1200-1300 calories)

5-6 fruits/veggies; 5 whole grains; 3 dairy; iron from raisins, salmon

Oops, on Day 3, you oversleep and are in a hurry.

Breakfast:  ½ cup canned fruit, drained (50) mixed with 4 oz. container of fruit-flavored low-fat yogurt (110) = 160 calories (can be shoveled in while getting dressed) If time, add a piece of wheat toast and margarine (120) = 270 calories

No time to make a sandwich so toss the leftover vegetable lasagna from two nights ago, a box of raisins, a medium apple and another yogurt in lunch bag.

Mid-morning:  apple (95) and 2nd low-fat yogurt (110) = 205 calories (you are making up for a too-light breakfast)

Lunch:  two 2″x2″ squares of veggie whole-grain pasta lasagna (280)

Afternoon snack:  box of raisins (90)

Dinner:  (eaten early because light on calories during the day) 2 cups corn and navy bean (with carrots and celery) chowder (300), 6-12 rye or wheat crackers or 1-2 slices wheat bread with margarine (100-240) = 400-540 calories

Mid-evening:  8 oz. Glass of 2% milk (130)

Alternate Dinner:  Skinless chicken breast, baked with garlic and herbs (110), medium baked potato–eat the skin; that’s where most of nutrients are (115) with 2 tbsp. margarine (120), 1 cup steamed broccoli (30) with 1 tbsp. margarine (60) = 425 calories

1275-1440 calories for the day (To reduce, cut portion of chowder to 1 ½ cups, just have 4 crackers or dry bread, dunked in chowder; or have smaller potato, use less margarine – 1140-1300 calories)

7-8 fruits/veggies; 3-4 whole grains; 3 dairy; iron from raisins, legumes or chicken

This should give you the idea. Please let us know what you think in the comments.

(Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.)

We blog here at misterio press once a week about more serious topics, usually on Monday or Tuesday. Sometimes we blog again, on Friday or the weekend, with something just for fun.

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  • Reply
    Ginger Calem
    November 6, 2012 at 3:48 pm

    Lots of good info here, Kassandra. Thank you very much for the shout out. I appreciate it. So many people ask me, ‘what should I eat’, ‘what’s the best diet’ and they do want it simple. So I tell them the healthiest diet includes:

    Meat, vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds, a ‘little’ starch and NO sugar.

    Proteins from: lean meats and eggs
    Carbs from: a plethora of veggies and some fruit (limit fruit if you are truly trying to lose weight)
    Fats from: nuts, seeds, healthy oils (coconut and olive), avocados

    Stick to that and anyone will be on the right track!

    This was a great series. Thank you.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      November 6, 2012 at 7:00 pm

      Hey, Ginger, thanks for stopping by and thanks for all your support. Your approach is definitely keeping it simple!

  • Reply
    Pat O'Dea Rosen
    November 6, 2012 at 8:15 pm

    I bookmarked this post because I know I’ll be referring to it again and again. Thanks, Kassandra.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      November 7, 2012 at 12:45 am

      I’m delighted that you found it so helpful, Pat!

  • Reply
    Coleen Patrick
    November 6, 2012 at 10:10 pm

    Great info here! I’m usually good at healthy eating but this morning I ate mini candy bars before I logged my daily words. I would like to blame NaNo. 🙂

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      November 7, 2012 at 12:49 am

      LOL I’ll buy that excuse this month! And of course those candy bars do have a very loud voice, calling to us no matter where we hide them. 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by, Coleen!

  • Reply
    Emma Burcart
    November 7, 2012 at 12:31 pm

    I feel lucky to have been raised on healthy foods. I like the taste of vegetables and don’t like fast food. Eating healthy isn’t the big issue for me. It’s getting to the gym after a long day of work that I find tough. It was so nice during the summer when I could work out at noon after a morning of writing and be done with my day. It’s the whole job thing that gets in the way of my being the healthiest that I can be.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      November 7, 2012 at 7:29 pm

      I know what you mean, Emma. Getting myself to exercise is the toughest part. And like you I do much better when I can get it done early in the day. That dang day job can be so annoying sometimes. 🙂

  • Reply
    Marcy Kennedy
    November 7, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    You’ve put together a ton of great info here. I’m glad you mentioned egg whites. I’m actually not a fan of eggs whole (something about the taste of the yolks doesn’t appeal to me), but I love egg whites.

  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    November 7, 2012 at 7:32 pm

    Thanks, Marcy! I’m the exact opposite on the eggs. I love the yolks, so when I ran across that tip to use two or three whites to one yolk, I thought, ‘Yay! That’ll work.’ I can’t taste the difference in scrambled eggs or omelets.

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