You had every intention of having a salad for lunch and salmon for dinner. But then your day became such a relay race you ended up cozying up to a carton of takeout kung pao. The good news: "To reap nearly all the benefits of a healthy diet, you don't have to be perfect—just good enough," says Leslie Bonci, R.D., the director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "Even small tweaks can make a major difference in your weight and energy level."
Use these tweaks to stay healthy when the real world hits.
Diet Tip 1: Eat More Whole Grains >>
1. THE HEALTH BOOSTER: EAT MORE WHOLE GRAINS
IN A PERFECT WORLD…you eat carbs only if they're made from fiber-rich whole grains to reduce your risk of heart disease.
IN THE REAL WORLD…you're faithful to your morning oatmeal routine but come up short at all your other meals.
A HAPPY MEDIUM Give your snacks an upgrade. Swap those pretzels for whole-wheat crackers or popcorn and you'll hit your whole-grain target in no time. "The truth is, while most women need five to six servings of grains a day, only half of them have to be unrefined," says Keith Ayoob, R.D., an associate professor of nutrition at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. In fact, women who eat just two or three servings of whole grains a day are 30 percent less likely to have a heart attack or develop diabetes than those who rarely consume them, according to Harvard research. (One serving equals a slice of bread, 1/2 cup of cooked rice or pasta, or 3 cups of popcorn.)
When stocking your kitchen with snacks or multigrain breads and pastas, look for a whole grain as the first ingredient.
Diet Tip 2: Fill Up On Produce >>
2. THE HEALTH BOOSTER: FILL UP ON PRODUCE
IN A PERFECT WORLD…you have fruits and vegetables at every meal to get the recommended nine servings daily.
IN THE REAL WORLD…long work hours mean produce spoils before you eat it, and the only green thing you consume on a regular basis is the pickle that comes with your deli sandwich.
A HAPPY MEDIUM Veggify your lunch. Trade your turkey and cheese sandwich for a produce-packed salad with turkey and you can effortlessly squeeze five servings of fruits and vegetables into one meal. "That's the bare minimum you should have in a day," says Walter Willett, M.D., the chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. "Consume less than that over a period of time and you'll likely become deficient in crucial nutrients, like folic acid."
A serving is smaller than you think—it's 1 cup of raw leafy greens or 1/2 cup of other vegetables or fruit. If you're tired of salad, opt for half a turkey sandwich with sliced avocado and tomato and half a can of vegetable soup, which will provide three servings. You'll reach your goal simply by adding 6 ounces of 100 percent vegetable juice (like low-sodium V8) and a pear.
Diet Tip 3: Nix Sweets >>
3. THE HEALTH BOOSTER: NIX SWEETS
IN A PERFECT WORLD… you shun candy, cookies, and chocolate so you won't pack on the pounds.
IN THE REAL WORLD… you get seriously cranky if you don't have your afternoon treat.
A HAPPY MEDIUM You can indulge in a 3 p.m. pick-me-up without doing any dietary damage if you follow two rules. First, choose something with a nutritional boost, such as a dark chocolate truffle, 1/4 cup dried fruit and nuts, or a decadent tasting energy bar (like Kashi GoLean Crunchy Bars). Next, keep portion sizes small. Remember the three-bite rule: The first few tastes of any treat are the most satisfying.
Diet Tip 4: Say No To Red Meat >>
4. THE HEALTH BOOSTER: SAY NO TO RED MEAT
IN A PERFECT WORLD…you ban red meat to save your heart.
IN THE REAL WORLD…you celebrate a few days of healthy eating with a juicy burger or steak.
A HAPPY MEDIUM You don't need to give up red meat entirely. After all, beef is a top source of protein, zinc, iron, and B vitamins. But moderation is key: "Have oversize portions on a regular basis and you'll get too much artery-clogging saturated fat and cholesterol," says Karen Collins, R.D., a spokeswoman for the nonprofit American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.
"You can have up to 18 ounces, or six 3-ounce servings, of cooked red meat a week," says Collins. While that seems generous, it adds up fast, considering that the average restaurant burger or steak weighs in at around 7 ounces. So if you splurge on the steak frites one night, scale back on the deli roast beef sandwiches and meatloaf for the rest of the week. And always choose the leanest cuts: There are 20 varieties that have no more than 6 grams of fat per 3 ounces. At the butcher or meat counter, ask for sirloin, round, or 95 percent lean ground beef. Also opt for select-grade meats, which have less than half the fat of choice- or prime-grade cuts.
Diet Tip 5: Order More Fish >>
5. THE HEALTH BOOSTER: ORDER MORE FISH
IN A PERFECT WORLD…you protect your heart by eating two servings of fatty fish, like salmon, every week.
IN THE REAL WORLD...you rarely head to the seafood counter—fish is expensive and makes the kitchen smell!
A HAPPY MEDIUM Take an omega-3 supplement daily. "This healthy polyunsaturated fat reduces the inflammation that can lead to heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer," says Bonci. According to a recent review from Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans, people who consumed 500 milligrams of omega-3s daily—from seafood or a fish oil pill—were less likely to die from heart disease than those who didn't.
If you're a vegetarian, look for an algae-based supplement, such as Deva Vegan Vitamins Omega-3 DHA ($32; amazon.com). Or whip up an omelet using fortified eggs: A recent study in the journal Food Research International found that people who ate them daily experienced a 32 percent drop in their triglyceride (one type of blood fat) levels after three weeks.
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