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Eat smart
Learn how to change your eating habits for the long haul

By DAVID LEWELLEN

 

Eating well is hard. But switching from the kind of diet that most Americans eat to the kind that nutritionists want you to eat is even harder.

You probably know what you should do, but getting there is intimidating. The solution is to break it down into much smaller steps. You can’t change everything today, but you can change a few things — and build on those changes as time goes on.

Eat breakfast

"It’s important to eat something within an hour of getting up, so your body knows it will be fed," says Deanna Norelli, a registered dietitian who formerly worked at Pro Health Care in Pewaukee. That initial burst of food helps set your metabolism at a higher level for the day.

Today: A piece of fruit, a breakfast bar — grab something as you dash out the door. "Time is not a good excuse, because there are so many convenience foods," says Jennifer Motl, a clinical dietitian at Columbia St. Mary’s in Milwaukee.

This week: Think about variety. "I’m a big fan of shakes on the fly" and of protein for breakfast, says Tommy Grabowski, physical fitness principal at Vita in Fox Point. Sometimes he’ll throw ingredients into the blender the night before; sometimes he’ll do an instant shake from powder or a can.

This year: Establish breakfast as a habit. You don’t have to progress to bacon and eggs and oatmeal (although they’re nice if you make time), but make sure you continue to eat something.

Fruits and vegetables

You already know that you should be eating more of them, but we all need some help in making it a habit.

Today: Take the apples and oranges out of the fridge. Put them in a bowl on the counter or table where you won’t forget about them. Many people do buy fruit, Motl says, but if it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind.

This week: Buy frozen fruits and vegetables. They won’t go bad while you forget about them or defer your good intentions. Wisconsinites get into off-season fruit blahs, but "you can get frozen blueberries year-round, and they’re the best fruit you can eat," Norelli says.

This year: Look at cookbooks or Web sites for new fruits and vegetables and new ways to cook them, and do some experimenting. Boredom is a major factor that keeps people out of the produce department, according to Anne Marie Weiss of Highlander Fitness in Brookfield.

Fill yourself up

Changing your eating habits cannot be about deprivation; if you’re constantly longing for what you can’t have, sooner or later you’re going to eat a lot of it. The best solution is replacement.

Today: Drink water. Not juice, alcohol, or a fancy coffee drink, but water. "People are eating when they’re actually thirsty," Norelli says.

This week: Add vegetables to a calorie bomb — for instance, broccoli and peppers mixed into your pasta alfredo. "They sort of dilute the calories in the dish," Motl says. "You eat less pasta and cream sauce, and hopefully more vegetables."

This year: Read labels to add whole grain to your diet. Bulky fiber will give you a better feeling of fullness, but you have to check the manufacturers’ claims. Norelli’s guideline: If "whole" isn’t the first word on the ingredient list, don’t put it in your cart. "If an Oreo is made from whole grain, it’s not health food."

Eat out carefully

So many good intentions come to grief at McDonald’s — or at Applebee’s or Cheesecake Factory or even Bartolotta’s. Keep the same awareness of food in a restaurant that you do elsewhere.

Today: Skip the bread. It’s there on the table and it’s tasty, but it’s not the reason you came to the restaurant. Save your calories for the star attraction, and order a noncaloric drink to keep yourself busy until the entrée arrives.

This week: Plan on a doggie bag. Milwaukeeans like to get value for money at the restaurant, and local portions are large. Grabowski suggests that when you put in your order, ask for half the entrée on your plate and half in a to-go box.

This year: Check the Web sites of any restaurant where you dine more than occasionally. Nearly every chain now posts nutrition information for the dishes on its menu, and you are sure to find nasty surprises. Panera, for instance, serves more upscale food than McDonald’s, but "some of those sandwiches have more calories than a Big Mac," Norelli says. "How many calories is that mocha? Is it really worth it?"

Change food rituals

How often do you really feel hungry? Chances are it’s not nearly as often as you put food in your mouth. We eat for all kinds of other reasons, and you need to be aware of them.

Today: Sit down. It doesn’t get simpler than that. Even if it’s not a three-course dinner with the family gathered together, take 10 or 15 minutes to sit at the table. Food deserves your undivided attention. "Think of the texture, of the color, of the feel of it going down your throat," Weiss says. Eating more slowly will make you aware of your own fullness sooner — and consciously enjoying food will probably make you satisfied with less of it.

This week: Do something physical after dinner, Weiss says, even if it’s walking five minutes down the block. The purpose isn’t really to burn calories — it’s "to realize that you’re full and get your mind away from eating."

This year: Look at the nonmeal eating occasions throughout the day. For instance, maybe you eat when you get home from work, not because you’re hungry, but because you’re bored or stressed. "Think about ‘Hey, what else do I like to do?’" Motl says. "You could take a walk, take a hot bath, talk to a friend, pet the dog or cat."

TV is another major culprit. Motl says that if she’s not paying attention, she can easily eat an entire bag of microwave popcorn while she watches TV, after which "I feel physically ill and bloated." Her solution is to pour some of the popcorn into a bowl before she sits down, to make herself more aware of portion sizes.