Obesity and bad eating habits have been a public health problem for decades. Yet, the numbers don’t lie: People are not making the necessary changes. More than one-third – 34.9 percent or 78.6 million – of U.S. adults are obese, according to a study by the Journal of American Medicine.
There is no trend of decline in the prevalence of overweight and obesity in the country, the authors of the research say. About 40 percent of the male participants were overweight and 35 percent were obese. As for women, 30 percent were overweight and 37 percent were obese.
“They face barriers to eating healthy such as making time to plan, using their money wisely, and having access to healthy foods,” Lainey Younkin, MS, RD, Registered Dietitian at Lainey Younkin Nutrition in Boston, says.
Nikki Ostrower from Nao Nutrition in New York puts some of the blame on processed foods. “They are addictive.” There is a lot of information out there which is very confusing. People get sick and tired but can’t figure out why until they got to the doctor, she adds, and their blood tests show borderline diabetes, high blood pressure, high risk of heart disease, to name a few.
There is also the emotional factor, along all others, that line up. “Many self-medicate with food, Maria A. Bella, MS, RD, CDN, registered dietician and founder of Top Balance Nutrition. “When we feel lonely, scared, defeated, food is a quick fix.” People generally do not perform destructive behaviors unless they serve a purpose and over-eating is no different, she adds.
Healthy eating is not about calorie count, deprivation, guilt or even will power. “Weight loss and maintenance is about understanding physiology and science and creating a life,” Bella says. That includes exercise routine and meal plans based on how the body works versus fighting biology and blaming ourselves for everything.
Rome wasn’t built in a day and so won’t your good habits, but you have to start from somewhere. Learning how to make healthy choices, Ostrower says, is the key.
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“I allow my clients to eat what they want as long as 80 percent of the time they fill half of their plate with fruits and vegetables and include protein and a healthy starch,” Younkin says. “The other 20 percent of the time, they can indulge in what they want, as long as they boost their activity the next day and get right back on track with vegetables at the next meal.”
“Eliminating items without replacing them with fun alternatives such as banana pancakes or ice cream, spiralized vegetables, roasted root vegetables, carrot fries, cauliflower pizzas, is a recipe for failure,” according to Bella.
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The concept of cheat days is too negative, Ostrower says, it should be eliminated. “It causes a feeling of guilt when you want to be gentle with yourself.” There is nothing wrong with having varied meals and indulging on a sweet treat every once in a while.
“I don't call them cheat days, Younkin says, “because that keeps people in a dieting mentality and I work to move people past the "D" word and into a healthy lifestyle.” When people's lifestyles become healthy, they learn balance and moderation and they no longer feel guilty, she adds.
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“Most of my clients cook two days of the week - Sunday and Wednesday,” Younkin says. “If you double or triple the portion, you will have enough for dinner but also to bring the leftovers for lunch the next day.”
That saves you a lot of time and frustration. Ostrower calls it “Fail to plan, plan to fail” or “Plan your work, work your plan.” It takes 10 minutes, she adds, to plan a meal. Make big portions of things you like so you have leftovers and you don’t have to think about cooking for 24 hours. One roast chicken, for example, can be turned into four meals with a salad or in a wrap.
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“I usually suggest spreading out fiber from natural foods throughout the course of the day to avoid stomach discomfort,” Bella says. Some people also tolerate cooked produce better than raw. “Cooking does not eliminate or reduce the fiber content,” she adds. Think berries (8 grams of fiber per cup) with a cup of yogurt for breakfast or black beans with egg whites; edamame with lime juice and red pepper flakes for a snack; black bean/split pea/or lentil soup for lunch; root vegetable stew for dinner, pumpkin parfait for dessert.
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Another trick is to eat from a small salad plate as opposed to a dinner plate, Ostrower adds. This is called “portion distortion.” Your look at the food and think “this is great, my plate if full,” as opposed to thinking you’re depriving yourself. “Deprivation never works,” she adds.
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Salt is associated with higher blood pressure because it holds excess fluid in the body. That creates additional burden on the heart, increasing the risk of stroke and other problems. “Two of the biggest sources of sodium in the American diet that many people don't realize are bread and cheese,” Younkin says.
Frozen foods, salad dressings, cereal, soda (diet as well), and tomato sauces for pasta also have a lot of salt in them, Ostrower warns. “Read the labels,” she adds.
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Bella cites restriction as one major reason why people end up overweight. “During times of ‘dieting,’ people focus on restriction. “It's not about calories in and calories out,” she adds. “Every meal and snack should have some protein - you can have ten egg whites for breakfast, a lean filet for dinner and three cans of tuna for lunch and still be losing weight.” Protein suppresses ghrelin, the hunger hormone. “It’s easy to remember because the name reminds me of a growling stomach.”
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“There is nothing wrong with carbs, but it is better to get them from fruits and vegetables aiming for six colors of produce per day,” Bella says. “And people also tend to confuse heart-healthy with weight-friendly pouring olive oil on their food, over-eating avocado and nuts!” Eat more lean protein and produce, and limit your healthy fat consumption to very small quantities with meals, especially during weight loss. “I have not seen a fat deficient person yet,” she adds.
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The body needs enough calcium to convert vitamin D. The two need each other for optimal bone health and for bodily functions such as muscle contractions and blood clotting.
If you are not lactose intolerance, organic milk is one of the best sources of calcium. But don’t get the reduced fat versions, Ostrower says. “They are loaded with hormones and antibiotics.”
Other good sources of calcium are, according to Bella, oysters, sardines, almond milk, fortified tofu, almonds, dark leafy greens, Lactaid brand milk/yogurt. “I would recommend staying away from orange juice.” They eliminate fiber and provide empty calories leaving us ravenous, she adds.
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Setting up to five very specific goals at a time has been very effective in motivating people to keep healthy eating habits, Bella says. "Eating healthier" is too general of a goal - nothing gets done.
“Writing down main reasons for achieving success in your phone and referring to them whenever tempted to cheat” is another good idea, she adds. “Nobody knows why you are looking at your phone in the middle of dinner, but this trick allows you to re-focus.”
“Look for a [cereal] brand with 150 calories or less, at least 5 grams of fiber and as much protein as possible,” Bella says. “If people love cereal, I suggest eating it with Greek yogurt or Icelandic yogurt for additional protein instead of milk.” A cup of milk or yogurt brands that are not strained has 8 grams of protein. “One container of strained yogurt has 16-20 grams leading to increased fullness,” she adds.
Don’t be afraid from the word “fats.” Dietary fats are essential to give your body energy and to support cell growth, according to the American Heart Association. They help protect your organs, the body absorb some nutrients and produce important hormones.
“Nuts, seeds, and olive oil are fantastic sources of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids,” Younkin says. “Flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts are also healthy plant sources of omega-3s.”
Ostrower adds to this list grass-fed butter, coconut oil, avocado and full-fat yogurt.
Drinking enough water is a great idea in general, but it may also prevent you from overeating. Hunger is often confused for hunger. “The hypothalamus in our brain is not smart enough to differentiate the two signals,” Bella says. “It is important to stay hydrated. Half of the caffeinated beverages during the day count towards the total water intake. Herbal teas and sparkling water all add up.”
Focusing on company and conversation also helps slow down as well. Eating slowly doesn’t always work, but when it does, the reason has as much to do with the brain as with the gut, according to Harvard medical School. Stretch receptors in the stomach are activated as it fills with food or water; these signal the brain. Leptin is produced by the body’s fat cells; it suppresses appetite and stimulates energy expenditure.
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If you’re tempted to try certain kinds of food you know are not very good for you, such as cheesecake, enjoy a piece and see how it feels, Ostrower says. “Eat a slice of pizza too if you want, but then continue eating healthy throughout the rest of the day.”
“If someone wants to have an occasional order of fries and this is their vice, please do it,” Bella says. “I highly doubt one food item is ruining the efforts.” Most often, it’s the accumulation of other things. “I suggest starting your meal with protein and vegetables,” she adds. “You may even have a glass of wine and having starches such as bread or a few bites of pasta last.”
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“It’s all about having accountability and understanding,” Ostrower says. People feel like they need to be strict and then they go in the opposite direction and binge. “It’s about living in the grey and having support for motivation.”
People need someone to listen to them, according to Younkin, “cheer them on, give them ideas, and tell them that eating healthy is possible despite their perceived barriers.”
Suggestions to start a meal with a dessert can easily be found online but don’t fall for them. Start with protein from veggies, which will provide volume, to suppress hunger, Bella says. “If you are desperate for sugar or starch, please finish your meal with it.” Starting your meal with sugar or starch is a recipe for disaster - bingeing, hunger and weight gain. “I admit that if I have one cookie in the afternoon, I will in 99.9 percent of cases finish the entire box.”
There are many ways you can eat sweet stuff and not gain weight.