By Doug Brown
Get rid of the junk food. Pay attention to portion size. Congratulations.
In practice, though, following a diet that would make nutritionists sing can be more like pulling-off a perfect soufflé – it’s fraught.
Everybody overslept on a school day, the refrigerator is bare, but lunches must be made. So its a rush job for the kids – microwaved burritos, bags of chips, Snickers bars. The plan at work was a bowl of vegetable soup at the place across the street, but you forgot about the long-planned barbecue lunch with an old friend. You went with the ribs, a slab of cornbread, a pile of bacon-scattered baked beans, and a Coke.
Dinner? You hadn’t thought about it until you walked in the door. The refrigerator remains bare. The kids are ready to gnaw on the furniture. So you get pizzas delivered, down another soda, or a few glasses of wine, and collapse in bed.
Hear that? it is the sound of nutritionists groaning.
It doesn’t need to be so very, very unhealthy. Bad food days happen – preferably not at the same time as bad hair days – but proper planning can keep them at a minimum.
“Whatever you do, cook,” said Boulder nutritionist Lisa Lanzano. “Cook in bulk. If you know weekend dinners could be complicated because of kids’ sporting events, prepare for that. Make dinners and put them in the refrigerator or freezer. You don’t want to go through the fast-food drive-thru.”
She also recommends drafting shopping lists. Start with recipes, and then shop based on the week’s menu. Make menu-planning a priority. If you know you will be sitting in bleachers for a few hours, watching a child’s sporting event, make the list while the kids run back and forth. Knowing what you are making, and then heading to the grocery store with a list of ingredients, goes a long way towards eating healthfully.
“Make things you like, but make them healthy,” said Lanzano. “For pasta, use whole wheat pasta instead of white. Use brown rice. Go with sauces that are light on sodium and sugar.”
Planning for a healthy diet even extends to the precarious patch of hours between lunch and dinner, when the vending machines in offices across the nation get raided. Many otherwise fine diets get wrecked somewhere around 3 o’clock, when bags of cheese puffs, super-sized candy bars and cans of soda become “little snacks.”
Too often, she said, the little snacks are more like meals, in terms of calories. And they rarely offer much in the way of nutrition – just sugar, sodium and fat.
“I tell my clients, the only thing between a snack and a meal is the size,” said Lanzano. “If you are reaching for pretzels to snack on, and that wouldn’t be part of a meal, maybe we should have half a sandwich instead. Who says you can’t have lentil soup and crackers for a snack? You just have a cup instead of a bowl.”
The boss brought in a tray of sandwiches on enormous sub rolls, and you want one (but you also are trying to eat sensibly)? Don’t just scarf it down. Instead, tear out the cottony dough between the more crisp outer edges of the roll. You won’t miss the dough – it’s largely flavorless – but you will still be holding a sandwich in your hands.
You can even control portion size at many restaurants. At Chipotle, for example, you can order that burrito in a bowl, instead of wrapped in a tortilla. And you can also request half the quantity of rice, but double the beans – a good move, nutritionally.
A healthy diet isn’t just all about beans, rice and hollowed-out sandwiches, though. Don’t forget dessert. Lanzano said too many people think they must eliminate sweets from their diet to be nutritious. The approach usually backfires. Instead of getting rid of sweets, they end up splurging in unhealthy ways – hello, three pints of caramel swirl ice cream on a Thursday night.
“Plan for the treats. Plan for the fun foods, so you are not depriving yourself,” said Lanzano. “If people have dessert with meals they are better off than if they have sweets between meals. Let’s say I have two Oreos with lunch, versus nabbing a whole pack of Oreos from the vending machine later in the day. Eating them with lunch was a much better option.”
Eliminating sweets from diets is usually impractical, she said, and does not achieve much. A few cookies a day isn’t going to cause much damage to health, but getting rid of the fun stuff can mess with people’s commitment to eating well.
“It’s what is missing from a lot of nutritional advice,” she said. “It only teaches people how to avoid the foods they love, rather than how to eat them. It leads to binging.”