It's not unusual to let your attention to healthy eating lapse a bit in the winter. After all, who can see you in those cozy -- and bulky -- woolen sweaters? But spring is here, and it's time to get back out there and show the world what you're made of. Just making a few small changes in your everyday diet can add up to big changes in a healthier, fitter you. Here are four easy tips to get you started.
1. Vegging Out. "Volume is where it's at," says Victoria Shanta Retelny, RD, LD, of Northwestern Memorial Hospital Wellness Institute in Chicago. That means filling up on foods that give you the most bang -- or in nutrition-speak, satiety -- for the least amount of calories.
In a recent study, Penn State scientists led by Barbara Rolls, PhD, reported that eating a large low-calorie salad as a first course may help lower the amount of calories eaten in the rest of the meal. Researchers found that when individuals ate 3 cups of low-calorie salad before lunch, they ate less at the entire meal -- taking in 12% fewer calories -- than when they did not eat a first-course salad. The low-calorie salads included iceberg and romaine lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, celery, and cucumbers, fat-free dressing, and light mozzarella cheese. According to the study results, big portions make you feel as if you've eaten a lot, even if you're eating a low-calorie item.
2. Get Hot. First thing in the morning, that is. Hot cooked cereal like oatmeal has about one-fifth the calorie density of dried cereal, says Jay Kenney, PhD, RD, weight-control expert at the Pritikin Longevity Center and Spa in Aventura, Fla. Hot cereal has just 300 calories per pound; dried cereals pack in a whopping 1,400 to 2,000 calories per pound. "Hot cereal is more filling," Kenney says. "It keeps you fueled well into late morning, helping you avoid the 10 a.m. munchies."
Eating a high-fiber breakfast can also help stave off diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers, says Victoria Shanta Retelny, pointing out that even though the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend three servings of whole-grain foods daily, USDA surveys show that fewer than 1 in 10 people consume the recommended amount of whole grains.
3. Think Green. When it comes to beverages, green tea is a healthier choice than soda, says Molly Kimball, RD, sports and lifestyle nutritionist at the Ochsner Clinic's Elmwood Fitness Center in New Orleans. One can of regular soda has about 140 calories, says Kimball, which translates into 9 teaspoons of sugar. Green tea, on the other hand, has 0 calories (if you skip the pre-sweetened variety).
Study findings reported in the January 2005 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition report that substances known as catechins, which are found in green tea, may stimulate the body to burn calories, in turn decreasing body fat. These same catechins are also rich in anti-inflammatory and anticancer properties, giving green tea even more of a punch. An added bonus: Green tea can be as satisfying as a frosty cold soda. Look for different varieties; pear green tea, for example, served iced, will make a tasty and refreshing drink in the hot months to come.
4. Chocolate Break. "One square of good-quality chocolate can go a long way in curbing cravings," says Ochsner Clinic's Molly Kimball. That means, yes, chocolate is not only permitted in a healthy eating program but actually encouraged. But stick to dark chocolate, says Kimball. Not only does the stronger flavor give you more satisfaction for every bite, but the antioxidant properties of dark chocolate have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure, and diabetes. Dark chocolate is also a good source of magnesium, iron, and potassium, and it boosts serotonin, which can have a positive influence on your mood
"Having a piece of chocolate every day is relaxing, indulgent ... and healthy," says Kimball. "Not to mention, it tastes good!"