New federal guidelines: Healthy lifestyles start with more fruit

February 15, 2011 

Less sodium, more fish, smaller portions and -- surprise -- more fruits and vegetables were among the highlights of the updated Dietary Guidelines for Americans released earlier this month by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture. The recommendations come out every five years.

"Most of us were expecting them to drop the recommended sodium levels a bit lower," said Lona Sandon, assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and spokesperson of the American Dietetic Association. "These only said to reduce it to 2,300 milligrams. That's about half of what Americans are typically eating."

Sodium, she explained, raises blood pressure. But it can be counteracted by eating more potassium. That's another recommendation, as are increased amounts of fiber, calcium and vitamin D. Though bananas are known as the princes of potassium, they're not the only ones. So do potatoes, melons, peppers and citrus fruits. Plus they'll give you that recommended fiber, too.

"Fruit is so easy," Sandon said. "It comes packaged in its own organic wrapper."

As for calcium, three cups of dairy products every day is a good guideline, she said. She recommends low-fat or fat-free. As for the fish-three-times-a-week recommendation? Ditch the fried-fish sandwich. Instead, think grilled or broiled. Or think tuna. Sandon likes a can atop lettuce. Or put it in a sandwich (light on the mayo, please).

"The whole emphasis is on the issue of obesity," she said. "Focus on portion control; get away from carb-counting or fat-counting and focus on portions."

Here are some ways Sandon suggests following the guidelines (which can be seen in full at www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines):

  • Share restaurant meals: "What you find in typical restaurant meal is at least two to three times what a standard portion would be. It's not only high in calories but also high in sodium."

  • Order ala carte: "Choose two tacos rather than two tacos with a side of beans, rice and queso."

  • Balance calories consumed with calories expended: "We need to be eating just the right amount for our activity level. If you want to eat more, get your butt moving."

  • Find ways to get more fruits and vegetables into your day: "Add fruit to your cereal. If you're not eating cereal, eat it and add fruit. Put extra slices of tomato, lettuce and onion on your salad. Replace chips with a crispy apple. Put fruit and vegetables on the middle shelf of your refrigerator so you see them when you open the door."

  • Make healthy eating a habit. Start with one or two habits and stick to them, she said. "Make yourself aware of what you're doing and consciously think about it several weeks in a row." Eventually, you'll just do it without thinking, she said.

  • Strive for a healthy overall eating pattern: "It's not just that one piece of cake you ate, but are you eating cake every day?" she said. "We're trying to get people away from the diet-mentality thing and look at this as a lifestyle. These guidelines are intended to be a lifestyle approach: how to make better choices 80 percent of the time."
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