Step One: Tame the Munch Monster
The holidays are coming! You know what that means: family gatherings, office parties, the sharing of gifts, joyful celebrations...and the most stressful time of the year. Shopping, feasting and visiting take their toll and the days between late October and early January can line up before us like the hurdles of an obstacle course. To make the last holiday season of this millenium your healthiest yet, prepare for Y2K and make your New Year's resolutions now. Implement them now. Remember how you felt on January 2 of '99? It doesn't have to happen again. You don't have to enter the Third Millenium worn out and over-stuffed. You can come through the next ten weeks feeling invigorated, in control and looking forward to the year ahead. The key ingredient is planning. Don't let the holiday spirit catch you off-guard. Know your enemy and set your goals. It doesn't take an iron will. It takes understanding.
What you eat has a major impact on how you feel, especially at this time of year, because food is such a major part of the holidays. It's not usually the meals that do you in. It's the snacks, sweets, appetizers, eggnogs and other alcoholic beverages. The U.S.A. is without a doubt the land of the Munch Monster. One-third of the food consumed in this country is nutrient-poor junk food, mostly eaten as snacks. The math is pretty simple. If one-third of your calories come from foods that are devoid of nutrients, either you're going to become malnourished or you're going to gain a lot of weigh, or both..
Taming the Munch Monster calls for some steps that may surprise you:
(1) Don't go hungry--if you're eating out, going shopping or going to a party. Hunger is a slippery slope on which it's really hard to balance. The scene is pretty familiar: you're famished and you're waiting for a meal at a restaurant or a friend's home or shopping for gifts or food. What happens? You eat a basket of rolls, gobble up the hors d'ouvres, grab whatever fast food is handy or buy more food at the market than you really need. Plan your day so you eat before you shop and stow a healthy snack in your bag. When eating out, have a light and healthy snack before you leave home.
(2) Stock your shelves with nutritious food. Deprivation does not work.. The key to healthy eating is an ample and ready supply of the right foods. The right foods supply working calories, calories that bring along with them vitamins, minerals, protein and nutrients like essential fatty acids (EFAs), carotenoids and bioflavinoids, which have gotten so much attention in the nutrition research literature lately. Don't buy foods made with white flour, added sugars (this includes corn syrup), or added fats (especially bad are the hydrogenated vegetable oils-they increase the risk of heart attacks more than butter does). Beware of gourmet muffins no matter how "healthy" they look; they're usually loaded with extra fat. Healthy convenience foods include seasonal fruits like apples and pears, vegetables like carrots or radishes or broccoli florets, a handful of almonds or walnuts or sunflower seeds, some plain low-fat yogurt with fruit or apple sauce mixed in for flavor, or stuffed grape leaves from a Greek or Middle Eastern deli.
(3) Keep water or seltzer handy at all times, especially when you're shopping. It prevents dehydration, a problem made worse by coffee or tea. Drinking water before a meal won't decrease what you eat, but a drink can stave off the munchies if they grab you at the wrong moment. A dash of fruit juice turns plain seltzer into a refreshing spritzer.
(4) If there's one rule about eating that you never violate, make it: eat consciously. Don't eat standing up-except at parties where there's no choice. Don't eat in your car, on the run, while reading, watching TV, talking on the phone or checking your e-mail. (It's OK to eat while engaged in conversation.) Respect your food. Chew it slowly, savoring its flavor, texture and aroma. You'll enjoy it more-and, astonishingly, you'll wind up eating less.
Step Two: Find the Diet Style that Works for You!
Holidays are feast days and food is as much a part of the season's celebrations as gifts and gatherings. You want to stay healthy through it all and enter the next millenium with lots of energy and few regrets. Finding a good diet to guide your palate into the next century seems sensible. It can also be confusing. Our government has established standards for healthy eating. Although they're easy to follow, most of us fall short of them. The architects of the Federal diet built a food pyramid with starchy foods like bread, pasta and rice as the base, dairy products, fruits and vegetables, meat, fish and poultry in the middle, and foods that are mostly made from sugar or fat at the top, where they supply no more than ten per cent of our daily calories. These guidelines have the enthusiastic support of almost all university-based experts in nutrition.
During the past three years, half a dozen books have become huge bestsellers by telling us that the government got it wrong. We need more protein and less starch than we're eating-or than the government wants us to eat. They also claim that fat in the diet is not so bad and may even be good for us. About ten million people have bought these books and many of them will swear that they lost weight without a struggle and, in addition, increased their mental and physical energy. Before the explosion of high protein, low carbohydrate diets, there were two other schools of thought that challenged the official standards. The first is associated with Nathan Pritikin and Dean Ornish. They advocated very low fat, vegetarian diets. Ornish demonstrated improved blood flow to the heart in people following his program and is now setting out to prove that his diet can prevent prostate cancer. In between high protein and high carbohydrate lies "the zone," a carefully calculated balancing act based upon the magic formula, 40-30-30, which stands for 40% carbohydrate, 30 % protein and 30% fat. Despite its claims of uniqueness, 40-30-30 in practice creates a fairly ordinary formula for weight loss, but it does supply more protein and less starch than the official standards call for.
So, what's right for you? The official standards, high protein/low carbohydrate, high carbohydrate/very low fat, or 40-30-30? The first thing to understand about all of these diets is: they all want us to eat less sugar. This is so important, because the amount of sugar eaten in this country has been increasing steadily for over two decades. Sugar is a major factor in the epidemic of obesity that is sweeping the US. When dietary fat was declared a bad thing back in the '80's, all sorts of low fat, high sugar snacks and desserts appeared on our shelves. The result is that people ate more calories, with sugar leading the way.
If you're looking for a healthy diet plan, start by eliminating foods that contain added sugar, whether it's white or brown. Sugar hides in foods under names like "corn sweetener," "dextrose" and "fructose"(actually any ingredient ending in "-ose" is likely to be a type of sugar).
Fruit juice and honey contain sugar, of course, but unlike other sources of sugar, they also contain beneficial nutrients called carotenoids and bioflavinoids that appear to decrease your risk of heart attacks, cancer and stroke. If you need extra sweetness, get it from foods sweetened with pure fruit juice or juice concentrate, or use a small amount of honey. On average, we Americans consume about thirty teaspoons of sugar a day, which provides six hundred calories. We can do a whole lot better. The next step in healthy eating is to eliminate foods that contain "hydrogenated (or partially hydrogenated) vegetable oils." These manufactured fats are now known to be the most dangerous fats that we eat, increasing the risk of heart disease and breast cancer far more than eating meat. You'll be surprised at how many packaged foods contain these. If you concentrate on eating foods that do not contain these two ingredients, you will have taken a giant step toward improving your diet and your health. Then you can ask yourself, should I eat more meat or less meat, drink cow's milk or soy milk or no milk, raise or lower my carbohydrates?
I have spent the last twenty years helping my patients answer questions like that. Experience has taught me that no single diet plan is right for everyone. You might consider a high protein, low carbohydrate diet if your answer to any of the following statements is "yes": (1) I have to eat frequently or I feel weak or shaky. (2) I often feel bloated or swollen. (3) I need a big breakfast to get me through the morning. (4) I feel strong and alert after eating a steak. (5) I just can't lose weight, no matter how little I eat. Because these diets have been demonstrated to increase the loss of calcium from the body (increasing the risk of osteoporosis) and to put stress on the kidneys and the liver, you should discuss this type of diet with your doctor before starting it. High protein diets may be dangerous for people with kidney or liver disease. There is no evidence that a high protein, low carbohydrate diet either increases or decreases the risk of developing heart disease or cancer.
You might consider adopting a very low fat, vegetarian diet if you are attracted to it for philosophical reasons, if heart disease or colon cancer seems to run in your family, or if you answer "yes" to any of the following statements: (1) After eating a steak I feel sluggish or bloated. (2) I am usually constipated. (3) A piece of fruit can give me energy for hours.
If your daily diet shuns foods made with sugar and hydrogenated oils, and if you identify a special need for more (or less) protein and fat, you'll sail through the holidays.
Step Three: Use Nutritional Supplements to Help You Stay Healthy This Winter
The 1990's brought us three major advances in nutritional science. Understanding these advances can help you choose supplements that strengthen your immune system and support your ability to handle stress. Just remember that supplements are not substitutes. They work best when added to a healthy diet.
(1) Change Your Oil! There are bad fats and good fats. The good ones are known as essential fatty acids, or EFA's, and they're concentrated in certain special oils. Our bodies can't make EFA's but we need them for our cells to function properly. EFA's are divided into two families called Omega-6 and Omega-3, because of subtle but important differences in their chemical structure. We need both families in our diets because we lack the ability to covert one type into the other. The past century has witnessed a significant decline in our consumption of Omega-3's due to changes in agricultural practices, food processing and diet. Unless you eat fatty fish like sardines, herring or salmon twice a week or mix ground up flax seeds into your breakfast cereal every day, it can be hard to get from food the same level of Omega-3's your great grandparents were eating. Although they knew nothing of EFA's, your great grandparents knew enough to increase the family's Omega 3's in winter by passing around a bottle of cod liver oil. Recent scientific research has proved the value of Omega 3's. Flax seed oil (which is sold in health food stores) decreases the frequency, severity and duration of respiratory infections in children and fish oil extracts have been shown to relieve menstrual cramps and arthritis pain and to help people suffering from conditions as varied as psoriasis, asthma and colitis. Fish oils may also improve concentration and memory, lower levels of triglycerides in the blood, reduce blood pressure and help people who have undergone coronary by-pass surgery prevent future heart attacks.
I have recommended Omega-3 supplements to my patients for over twenty years, especially during the winter months. Not only do they support a healthy immune system, they often help symptoms like dry or rough skin, dry hair and soft or brittle nails. The usual preventive dose is one-half teaspoon to one full tablespoon of flax seed oil per day, depending upon age. This equals two to ten capsules. Among fish oil extracts, the key ingredients are a pair of Omega-3's called EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). The best preventive dose supplies about 500 milligrams of EPA and 300 milligrams of DHA per day (usually about 3000 milligrams of total fish oil extract). I don't often recommend cod liver oil, because it may contain more vitamin A than is needed and vitamin A can be toxic. People taking prescription medications should consult their physicians before starting an Omega-3 supplement. Always let your doctor know if you're taking nutritional supplements of any kind.