We all want to eat a healthy diet that helps us feel good and helps prevent chronic diseases. Yet many of us are making food mistakes that can keep us from getting the biggest nutritional bang from our food buck.
Here are some common diet mistakes that even food-savvy consumers make:
Healthy Eating Mistake No. 1: Buying Fresh Produce for the Entire Week
Instead, buy fresh produce every few days and supplement it with frozen fruits and vegetables. Frozen produce is harvested at its peak and flash-frozen immediately, which protects the nutrients from breaking down for up to a year in the freezer. Look for frozen produce with no sauces or syrups added.
Healthy Eating Mistake No. 2: Buying Too Much Processed Food
Processed foods tend to have more sodium and saturated fat, and less fiber and nutrients. Instead, start with fresh, whole foods as much as possible. When you do choose convenience products, look for those that contain whole grains (like whole-wheat bread and hot dog buns, whole-grain tortillas, and whole-grain blend pasta), have no trans fat, and are low in saturated fat (like bottled marinara made with olive oil, light salad dressing made with canola or olive oil, and some broth- or tomato-based soups.)
Healthy Eating Mistake No. 3: Eating Out or Ordering Takeout More Often Than Not
"According to our research, the average American adult purchases a meal or snack from a restaurant 5.8 times per week," says Annika Stensson, director of media relations for the National Restaurant Association.
Indeed, 46.4% of the American food dollar is spent within the restaurant industry. And much of that goes for takeout: Roughly 58% of restaurant traffic in 2001 was specifically for takeout and delivery, according to National Restaurant Association statistics.
One reason to eat more meals is to help prevent obesity. In a recent Agricultural Research Service study of men and women ages 31-50, those who got more of their total calories from conventional fast-food restaurants were likely to have a higher body mass index (BMI).
Of course, cooking at home more often isn't always easy. Here are several strategies that can help keep you from frequenting the drive-through:
- Start with a well-stocked pantry and refrigerator. Some of my favorite ingredients to have handy for whipping up quick dinners are whole-grain pasta, bottled marinara and pesto sauces, whole-grain tortillas, shredded reduced-fat cheese, and canned refried beans.
- Get that slow cooker out of hiding and start collecting some slow cooker recipes you want to try. Invest a few minutes in the morning to assemble the ingredients, set the slow cooker on LOW, and leave for work. When you arrive home that evening, dinner is ready to be served.
Try some fun and easy dinner options like soup and sandwich night, breakfast for dinner night, pasta night, salad night, baked potato bar night, or homemade pizza night (using whole wheat Boboli crust, whole wheat bagels, or tortillas for the crust).
Healthy Eating Mistake No. 4: Not Taking Advantage of Food Synergy
Do you peel your apples or tomatoes? Do you eat your veggie-rich green salad with fat-free dressing? Do you like to peel and chop your garlic right before adding it into your stir-fry or sauce? If you answered "yes" to any of the above, you are decreasing the availability to your body of important nutrients found in these foods.
That's because there are all sorts of relationships between the various components within certain foods and between certain foods, a concept called "food synergy." For example, certain phytochemicals in apple peel account for most of apples' healthy antioxidant activity, so peeling apples isn't the healthiest way to go.
Also, it's a good idea to let your minced or chopped garlic rest for 15 minutes before proceeding with cooking, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research. This helps ensure that the enzymatic reaction that begins when garlic is chopped releases as much of the antioxidant allyl sulfur as possible -- and thus maximizes the cancer-fighting benefits.
If you're dressing a salad or making a homemade marinara sauce, make sure you include some healthy fats, like avocado or olive oil. Eating a little "good fat" along with your vegetables helps your body absorb healthy phytochemicals, like lycopene from tomatoes and lutein from dark green vegetables. So enjoy your salad with some avocado or a light dressing made with canola or olive oil. And add a drizzle of olive oil when you are whipping up a batch of spaghetti sauce.
And when it comes to tomatoes, for maximum nutrient value, don’t peel them, and eat them cooked and processed.
Healthy Eating Mistake No. 5: Avoiding High-Fat Plant Foods
The three foods that come to mind are avocados, nuts, and olives, which are relatively high in calories and fat but low in saturated fat. These foods contribute smart fats to our diet, and they come with fiber and phytochemicals, too.
Moderation is the key here. So enjoy a quarter of an avocado on sandwiches and in salads, or a handful of nuts as a snack or added to your salad, cereal, or pasta. Use a light drizzle of olive oil in cooking. And add olives to salads, sandwiches, and casseroles, or eat them as a snack.
Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, is the "Recipe Doctor" for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic and the author of numerous books on nutrition and health. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.