9 Nutrition Essentials

Fad-free strategies to make your diet its best ever

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  • Walter Willett

    Meet our 2009 Nutrition Advisory Board

    We are pleased to announce our panel of scientists, dietitians, chefs, and other culinary experts who will advise us on nutrition topics and issues covered in our 2009 “Nutrition Essentials” series. Get to know each of them here.


#4: Save room for treats.

“Food is meant to be pleasurable, and part of the pleasure is treating yourself,” says another authority from our expert panel, Heather Bauer, RD, CDN, founder of Nu-Train, a nutrition and counseling center in New York City, and author of The Wall Street Diet. “Any way of eating that doesn’t allow for the occasional indulgence is not sustainable.” Even the current version of the USDA Dietary Guidelines allows goodies. For example, a typical 2,000-calorie diet includes 265 calories that can be “spent” on treats―anything from a (five-ounce) glass of wine and a (one-ounce) square of chocolate to a scoop of ice cream. If the rest of your diet includes smart options like fat-free milk and lean cuts of beef, plus plenty of produce and whole grains, you’ll have room for these so-called “discretionary calories” to enjoy as you wish.

How to do it: The key is to make even your discretionary calories nutritionally sound. Enjoy nuts (which offer satisfying protein, fiber, and beneficial fats) as a snack, or make hot chocolate with unsweetened cocoa, a touch of sugar, and fat-free milk for added protein, calcium, and vitamin D. Or try the Mango Lassi, below, which offers filling protein and calcium, plus a touch of sweetness, for a midmorning pick- me-up or after-workout snack. At just 137 calories, you’ll still have room for a sensible dessert after dinner.

View Recipe: Mango Lassi

#5: Be savvy about salt.

Sodium plays a key role in muscle function and maintaining the body’s fluid balance, but it’s easy to consume too much. Over time, excess sodium can elevate blood pressure levels, raising the risk of heart disease and stroke.

The USDA recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) sodium daily for adults under age 50―the amount in one teaspoon of salt―but most Americans consume an extra 2,000 to 4,000mg daily, largely from processed and prepared foods. Reducing intake to reach that 2,300mg goal is important for everyone, but crucial for those predisposed to develop high blood pressure, especially African Americans, overweight people, or those with a family history of the condition.

It’s also important to adjust sodium intake with age. Systolic blood pressure (the top number on a blood pressure reading) rises an average of four points per decade. (The USDA recommends no more than 1,500mg daily for those over 50 and no more than 1,200mg for those over 70.)

How to do it: Clients often ask how to make meals taste good without using the saltshaker, Bauer says. First, focus on fresh, whole foods. “Fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and meats may naturally contain minimal amounts of sodium, but that’s hardly the sodium found in many processed foods,” Bauer says. When you do use processed foods, look for no- or reduced-sodium versions to help avoid adding extra sodium to your dish, as with the less-sodium chicken broth we call for in the Dijon Mustard Chicken Fricassee below. Finally, enlist the aid of herbs and spices, which can help enhance foods’ flavor without the need for extra salt. “Enliven dishes with savory salt-free seasonings like fresh or dried basil, oregano, parsley, or cilantro; fresh ground spices; and garlic,” Bauer says.

View Recipe: Dijon Mustard Chicken Fricassee

#6 Eat foods that are good for you―and the planet.

Sustainability has become a buzzword in the culinary world, as chefs and home cooks search for ways to minimize their impact on the planet. It’s easy to become bogged down in the many issues dealing with how food affects the environment, and choosing among them can be confusing. Should you consume all organic foods? Only eat local foods? Avoid foods with hormones or antibiotics?

“You can’t do it all,” says panel member Marion Nestle, MPH, PhD, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University and author of What to Eat. “You have to pick the issues that matter to you.”

Many experts agree that consuming a diet rich in a wide variety of plant foods is a smart first step toward sustainability. The simple reason: Fruits, vegetables, and grains require fewer resources to produce. Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories to a vegetable-based diet can help cut the equivalent of greenhouse gases produced by driving 1,160 miles, according to researchers writing in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. The health benefits of eating this way are well documented, too. Consuming higher amounts of produce can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol to improve your cardiovascular health, according to studies like DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension).

How to do it: Place as much emphasis on produce-based side dishes as on meat entrées. For example, the rice recipe below includes peas, potatoes, green beans, onion, and carrot, all in one colorful and flavorful dish.

View Recipe: Mixed Vegetable and Rice Pilaf

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