Evaluating Your Family’s Diet and Making Changes for the Upcoming Year

Improving Your Diet
source: Elana's Pantry

The following is a guest post from Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD of Raise Healthy Eaters:

Spring is the perfect time to chuck what you don’t want — and keep what you do. And while you are going through all your stuff, don’t forget the most neglected part of the house: the items in your fridge and pantry.

It’s a good idea to go through the food staples in your house every year and decide if they are worth repurchasing. The goal is to make smart changes that maximize nutrition without compromising taste.

Let’s go through each nutrition topic below and see how you can make some tweaks to the foods you buy (or simply feel good about the choices you are already making):

Get More Whole Grains

Whole grains are more nutritious than refined grains, so it makes sense to maximize your grains where you can. “Whole grain” basically means that the entire grain is intact (bran, germ and endosperm) while “refined grains” have the healthy stuff removed, leaving the starchy endosperm.

Take a take a look at your cereals, breads, pastas, rice, waffles and any other grain product you have. Claims such as “100% whole grain” with “whole wheat/oats/brown rice” as the first ingredient are what you want. Be wary of claims such as “made with whole grain” which only requires that 10% of the product contain whole grains.

The Whole Grains Council has a stamp to help you identify whole grain products. Typically, a whole grain serving contains 16g and the stamp will let you know how many grams are in a product (to qualify products need at least 8g). Dietary guidelines recommend 3 servings daily so 48g (for adults) is the goal.

Remember, this means that at least half of your grains should be whole, leaving room for the refined grains you love.

Lower the Sugar

Sugar helps enhance the taste of food but it is easy to consume more than our bodies need. According to a 2009 report from the American Heart Association, average sugar consumption is 22 teaspoons (tsp.) per day ( 355 calories) when they recommend 5 tsp. for women (80 cal) and 9 tsp. for men (144 cal). Ouch!

Check your cereals, snack bars, yogurts, beverages, salad dressings and jarred pasta sauce. My rule of thumb for cereals and bars is 10g or less per serving. Products like yogurt and milk are tricky because they contain natural sugar (lactose) which doesn’t count as added sugars. To find out how much sugar is in them, compare the sweetened product to the same brand that is plain. You’ll have to do some quick subtraction to get the answer. Remember, each teaspoon of sugar provides about 5g of sugar.

As far as beverages go, choose 100% fruit juice over juice drinks that contain added sugars. And look for hidden sugars in pasta sauces and salad dressings, keeping the total to less than 5g of sugar per serving.

Don’t go crazy counting teaspoons or grams of sugar. Instead, find creative ways to lower the sugar in your diet without giving up taste. It’s all about experimentation.

Focus on Fat

Animal fats including butter, cream, full fat dairy products and high fat meats are high in saturated fats, which has been linked to heart disease. When possible, lower the fat of animal products by choosing fat-free or low fat milk, yogurt and cheese and lean cuts of meat.

On the other hand, fats contained in vegetable sources are beneficial for health, including olive/canola oil, avocados and nuts and seeds. But not all vegetable fat sources are created equal. Some health experts believe the American diet has become too high in omega-6 fats (soybean, corn and cottonseed oils) and low in omega-3s (see below), causing an increase in chronic diseases due to inflammation. Check your salad dressings, snack products and spreads to see the type of fat that is used to make them. When possible, choose items with canola and olive oil, which are low in omega-6.

While decreasing your omega-6 fats, you’ll want to find ways to get more omega 3s. Choosing plant sources like flax and walnuts is a good idea, but you also need the essential fats (DHA & EPA) found mostly in marine sources. So eat fish twice a week, buy DHA-rich eggs and, if need be, supplement with fish oils. For more details see Kids & DHA: The Complete Guide for Parents.

Check the Sodium

Dietary Guidelines recommend Americans consume 2400mg or less of sodium daily. Sodium can creep into the diet through products with a long shelf life including canned/packaged goods, cured meats and frozen meals.

Frequency is key. An occasional high sodium food or meal is not a problem, it’s the total sodium consumed over time that matters. So check the labels and try out reduced/low sodium products when appropriate. And don’t forget to watch the salt shaker. One tsp of salt contains 2,300 mg sodium. For more on sodium, see the American Heart Association.

Include Super Foods

Certain foods stand out nutritionally, containing more vitamins, minerals and antioxidants for every calorie they provide. When you find yourself in a food rut, try a recipe with some super foods to spice things up.

Fruits, vegetables and beans (black, kidney, garbanzo and northern) top the list of super foods. Dietary Guidelines recommend Americans get 3 cups of beans per week because they are nutrition-packed and include protein, antioxidants, fiber, iron and B vitamins.

Colorful vitamin C-rich fruits such as strawberries, kiwi, cantaloupe and oranges help increase the absorption of iron at meals while blueberries, blackberries and cranberries pack an antioxidant punch.

Don’t forget vitamin A-rich dark green and orange veggies such as spinach, kale, carrots and butternut squash.

Have you taken the time to evaluate your diet and consider changes you want to make for the upcoming year? Are you trying to reduce sugar, add more green veggies, eat less meat or something else?

Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, mother of two and creator of Raise Healthy Eaters, a blog dedicated to providing parents with credible nutrition advice. Subscribe to her site and get special benefits including a free meal planner and healthy grocery guide.