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Eat Smart: Five important goals to improve your diet

By Liz Zack
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After a serious health scare requiring surgery in 2004, Kathy Carlson decided she needed to make serious changes to her lifestyle.

Starting a regular exercise routine was the first step. "I felt so much stronger, but I wanted to make sure that I did everything in my power to stay healthy," says Carlson, a 57-year-old retired information technology consultant from Naperville, Illinois.

That's when Carlson zeroed in on her eating habits and made important changes to her diet -- from giving up caffeine to substituting more nutritious sweet potatoes for white potatoes.

"I made a few changes at a time," says Carlson. "Once I mastered a couple, I moved on to the next bunch. It's such a sense of accomplishment to know that I am having a positive impact, and I'm giving my husband and children better eating habits, too."

Three years after her surgery, Carlson says she has never felt better. "It's amazing how much of your health you have control over. And small choices really do add up."

You can make a fresh start with a few easily attainable nutrition goals of your own. Pick one, two, or all five that we suggest, and make an effort to incorporate the changes into your eating routine. We'll give you everyday ideas for ways to meet these goals -- and keep in mind that even incremental improvements count toward your overall goal.

1. Try New Foods

Like ours, your weekly grocery list probably includes the ingredients for a couple of familiar go-to dinners and recipes but is short on new items.

The benefits: In addition to heightening your culinary prowess, experimenting with new foods expands your nutritional benefits. A diet that includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, and oils also includes "lots of vitamins and antioxidants," says Cathy Nonas, R.D., director of obesity and diabetes programs at North General Hospital in New York, "some of which have yet to be named." So eating a variety of foods ensures you get the most benefits.

How to do it: Sample at least one new ingredient each month. When you eat out, try a side dish or an appetizer that includes a new item, or if one of your dining companions orders something with which you're not familiar, ask for a taste. If you like it, add that ingredient to your grocery list, look up a recipe, and try cooking it at home. "For me," says Carlson, "it was sweet potatoes. I never knew how delicious they were until someone suggested I try them. Now I enjoy them often." (Recipe: Escarole with bacon and white beansexternal link )

2. Cook Dinner More Often

When 6 p.m. rolls around after a busy day, it's easy to turn to takeout or drive-throughs. This year, resolve to have something delicious in reserve, ready for a quick homemade dinner.

The benefits: When you make your own dinner, you control the ingredients and the portion sizes, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D. "When you eat out, you're likely to get more food then you need, especially since many people associate value with huge portions."

Preparing a meal at home also reinforces the importance of the family dinner, especially when everyone is involved setting the table, cooking, and cleaning up.

How to do it: At first, set out to cook dinner at least one more night per week. Keep ingredients for a few reliable meals on hand in the pantry.

Additionally, employ two secret weapons: the electric slow cooker and a cook-ahead strategy. With a slow cooker, you can assemble and refrigerate the ingredients the night before and turn on the appliance the next morning before you leave home. By the time you return, dinner will be ready. (Recipe: Slow-cooker beef brisket with beerexternal link )

You can also cook ahead during the weekend or another day when you have time to prepare an extra dinner. Prechopped and prewashed ingredients from the produce section make this plan proceed more quickly. Assemble casseroles a day or two ahead, and then bake on a busy night when there's no time for prep. Or label and freeze the dish to reheat when needed. Reduce cleanup on busy nights by using paper plates.

3. Eat More Whole Grains

The benefits: Whole grains may help protect against several chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. Whole grains also can help combat high cholesterol, and because they are high in fiber, they are satisfying and make you feel full longer.

How to do it: Add five extra portions of whole grains to your diet each week. Swap white sandwich bread for whole grain, whole-wheat pastas for refined pastas, and brown rice or barley for white rice. (Recipe: Oats and buttermilk snack cakeexternal link )

Carlson has found other ways to work whole grains into her diet. "I sprinkle bran or wheat germ into pasta sauces, soups, and pancake batter. You don't taste it, and you get in another serving of whole grains," she says.

4. Eat Breakfast Every Day

You may skip it because you're short on time (especially on weekdays) or want to shave a few calories, but there's a reason this is called the most important meal of the day.

The benefits: Many studies show that adults who eat breakfast are more alert and attentive at work. "Also, the literature is very clear for both children and adults," says Nonas. "People who eat breakfast are leaner." Perhaps there's an emotional component at work. "When you don't eat breakfast," explains Nonas, "there's a tendency to feel like you're owed something," so you may eat twice as much at lunch.

How to do it: Make time. Rely on dishes that you can prepare in advance, cook quickly, or take to go. If a bowl of cereal isn't enticing, toast a whole-grain waffle instead, or scramble an egg and serve on a tortilla for a breakfast tostada. If you have tasty choices, you'll want to sit down for a bite. Carlson experiments with offerings in her local supermarket. "I've even found delicious waffles that have flax oil and bran in them," she says. (Recipe: Quick breakfast tostadaexternal link )

5. Snack More Healthfully

Little meals between meals are a good way to round out your day's total nutrition. For example, snacks offer an opportunity to add healthful lean protein if it will not be part of lunch or dinner.

The benefits: A diverse diet ensures you get the vitamins and minerals you need without relying just on three meals a day. Filling gaps between meals in a conscious way can also help keep blood sugar levels stable and your energy and mood high.

How to do it: Prepare healthful foods in several nutrient categories. If you haven't had enough protein during the day, for instance, have a protein-rich snack, such as peanut butter on apple slices or mixed nuts. Likewise, to fill calcium gaps, be prepared with yogurt, smoothies, and cheese. Whatever you choose, Nonas says, sidestep calories that don't offer nutritional value. "A pretzel may not be high in calories, but it's not adding to the total nutritional picture." (Recipe: Blueberry-passion fruit smoothieexternal link )

Liz Zack is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York.

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Many studies show that adults who eat breakfast are more alert and attentive at work. They also tend to be leaner.


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