Health Column: Eating healthy 101 – back to basics

Healthy eating is not just about losing weight.  Learning how to “eat smart” is about making food choices to reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. You can improve your health with what you eat to boost your energy, sharpen your memory and even stabilize your mood.

Healthy eating habits can be learned and it’s important to slow down and think about food as nourishment rather than just something to gulp down between activities. Eating with other people, particularly children, has numerous social and emotional benefits and allows you to model healthy eating habits. Eating in front of the TV or computer often leads to mindless overeating.

Take time to enjoy mealtimes. Chew your food slowly, savoring every bite. We tend to rush though our meals, forgetting to actually taste the flavors and feel the textures of what’s in our mouths.

Listen to your body.  Are your really hungry? Thirst can often be mistaken for hunger. Try a glass of water first. Stop eating before you feel full. It actually takes a few minutes for your brain to tell your body that it has had enough, so eat slowly.

Don’t skip breakfast. A healthy breakfast can jump-start your metabolism.  Eat small, healthy meals throughout the day, rather than the standard three square meals, to keep your energy up and your metabolism going.

Eat healthy carbohydrates and fiber, especially whole grains, for long-lasting energy. Healthy carbs digested slowly help you feel full longer and keep blood sugar and insulin levels stable. Unhealthy carbs, such as white flour, refined sugar and white rice digest quickly and cause spikes in blood sugar levels and energy.

You need good sources of healthy fat to nourish your brain, heart, cells, hair, skin and nails. Foods rich in certain omega-3 fats called EPA and DHA are particularly important and can reduce cardiovascular disease, improve your mood and help prevent dementia.

Choose monounsaturated fats — from plant oils like canola oil, peanut oil and olive oil, as well as avocados and nuts, like almonds, hazelnuts and pecans, and seeds, such as pumpkin and sesame — or polyunsaturated fats, including Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, found in fatty fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies and sardines.

Protein gives us energy to get up and go and keep going. Protein is broken down into the 20 amino acids that are the body’s basic building blocks for growth and energy. A lack of protein in our diets can slow growth, reduce muscle mass, lower immunity and weaken the heart and respiratory system.

Focus on quality sources of protein, like fresh fish, chicken or turkey, tofu, eggs, beans or nuts. Whether or not you’re a vegetarian, try different protein sources, such as beans, nuts, seeds, peas, tofu and soy products. They will open up new options for healthy mealtimes.

Calcium and vitamin D are essential for strong, healthy bones. Vitamin D is essential for optimum calcium absorption in the small intestine. Recommended calcium levels are 1,000 mg per day or 1,200 mg if you are over 50. Take a vitamin D and calcium supplement if you don’t get enough of these nutrients from your diet. Great sources of calcium include dairy products; dark green, leafy vegetables; dried beans; and legumes.

If you succeed in planning your diet around fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and good fats, you may find yourself naturally cutting back on foods that can get in the way of your healthy diet — sugar, salt and refined starches. Aim for at least five portions of fruits and vegetables each day. Eat fresh and local produce whenever possible.

Healthy eating starts with great planning. You will have won half the healthy diet battle if you have a well-stocked kitchen, a stash of quick and easy recipes and plenty of healthy snacks. Shop the perimeter of the grocery store.  In general, healthy eating ingredients are found around the outer edges of most grocery stores — fresh fruits and vegetables, fish and poultry, whole grain breads and dairy products.

Try to cook one or both weekend days or on a weekday evening and make extra to freeze or set aside for another night. Challenge yourself to come up with two or three dinners that can be put together without going to the store, using items in your pantry, freezer and spice rack. A delicious dinner of whole grain pasta with a quick tomato sauce or a quick and easy black bean quesadilla on a whole wheat flour tortilla could act as your go-to meal when you are just too busy to shop or cook.

John Sweeney is director of nutritional services at Eastern Long Island Hospital.