We all know it's a challenge to eat healthfully in our drive-through, junk-food world. But what about those people who make a living urging folks to improve their diets? How do they manage to pull it off themselves? I asked dietitians from all over the country how they eat well despite life's challenges, and they shared some favorite diet tips they use in their own lives.
1. Enjoy Fast Food Weekly, but Make Smart Choices
This is one of my own favorite tips on how to live in the real world as a dietitian and mother and still aim for healthy eating most of the time. When my now 16-year-old was in kindergarten, I started bringing lunch to my two daughters on Fridays when I had volunteer duty at the school, and "fast-food Friday" was born. My girls are now in high school, and believe it or not, I still do this. (Apparently, they're willing to brave the embarrassment of meeting their mom at the front of the school if it means getting a break from bag lunches.)
The way I see it, this is actually an exercise in moderation. By having it once a week, my girls are exposed to fast food, but it isn't standard fare. They've also learned how to make healthier fast-food choices. Fast-food Friday often consists of BBQ grilled chicken sandwiches on whole-grain buns, bean burritos, or vegetable-topped personal pizzas.
2. Drink No More Than 1 Diet Soda a Day
You find soda everywhere in our culture, whether you're at a fast-food restaurant, gas station, vending machine, or a friend's house. Some people limit sugary drinks but allow themselves boundless diet sodas. This may seem like a great solution, considering that 41% of the added sugar in the diets of American children and teens comes from beverages. In fact, a study by the National Center for Health Statistics found that teens get 327 calories a day from sugary sodas, teas, and energy drinks. But instead of replacing sugary drinks with diet versions, I would rather keep my intake of diet soda and artificial sweeteners to about one drink per day. It leaves more room for hydrating water and healthy green teas!
If you enjoy diet sodas, as I do, try limiting your intake to one can when you want it the most during the day (for me, that's right after lunch or mid-afternoon). So yes, you'll find diet sodas in this dietitian's refrigerator -- but you'll also find plenty of alternatives like mineral water, lots of tea options, freshly squeezed orange juice, and low-fat milk.
3. Pizza Night!
Marcia Yamashiro, RD, a northern California dietitian who counsels people with eating disorders, participates in a weekly "pizza night" with her family of four.
Sound surprising? The truth is that pizza can definitely be a better choice if topped with vegetables instead of fatty meats, especially if it comes on whole grain pizza crust. Ask for extra pizza sauce. (It's rich in phytochemicals from the tomatoes.) Serve the slices with a green salad or some fresh fruit for a more balanced, fiber- and nutrient-rich meal.
4. Avoid Breakfast Cereals With Fewer Than 3 Grams of Fiber
"This way I get my youngest daughter to seek out cereal with fiber, and these are usually the ones lower in sugar, too," says Brannon.
5. Pump Up the Protein
Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, makes a point of eating protein at every meal and snack. She suggests trying whey, soy, or egg white protein for meal replacement smoothies.
6. Keep Score of Fruits and Vegetables
Barbara Quinn, MS, clinical dietitian at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, keeps count of her fruit and vegetable servings during the day. "If I get to the end of the day and a piece of fruit or vegetable hasn't touched my lips, then guess what we're having for dinner!" says Quinn.
One of Brannon's favorite real-life diet tips also involves the produce aisle -- she tries to include a vegetable and fruit at every meal. Gerbstadt says she also tries to add veggies to meals and snacks every chance she gets.
7. Have Alcohol Only on Weekends
"If you enjoy alcohol, be aware that the calories add up quickly -- and one way to control it is to limit consumption to the weekends," says Kathleen Zelman, RD, director of nutrition for WebMD.
So try limiting your liquor to Friday and Saturday nights -- and keep it to a drink or two each night.
8. Have an After-Dinner Drink
Following dinner with a nice, hot cup of tea or a decaf latte can help satisfy your dessert cravings and keep your hand out of the cookie jar, says Zelman. About an hour or two after dinner, many of us get the munchies -- and enjoying a no-calorie or low-calorie beverage can keep your hands and mouth busy during those times.
9. Try Pre-Dinner Produce Munchies
"Before I start cooking dinner, I cut up veggies or fruit for everyone to snack on while I'm cooking," notes Bonnie Liebman, MS, director of nutrition for the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest.
This keeps her family from reaching for less healthy snack foods while they're waiting for dinner and encourages healthy eating in two other ways. Liebman says it gets a serving or two of produce into everyone before there's competition from other foods at dinner -- and people are more apt to like foods when they are really hungry.
10. Count 4 Colors in Each Meal
Jennifer Reilly, RD, senior nutritionist for The Cancer Project in Washington, D.C., makes sure each meal her family eats naturally contains at least four different colors. "Skittles don't count!" Reilly says.
Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, is the author of numerous books on nutrition and health. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.