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Most people don’t think about their eating habits until they put on a few extra pounds, but the food we eat has a direct effect on our health and how we feel. Poor decisions at mealtime can lead to serious medical conditions, such as pre-diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
“We all fall into habits,” says Bethany Thayer, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and manager of wellness and program strategies for Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, Mich. “They can be healthy or unhealthy.”
The key to changing a bad habit is being conscious of it and planning ahead to make a better choice. Think it sounds too tough? Here are some simple dietary tweaks you can make today to improve your health:
- Eat smaller amounts more frequently. Drivers often fall into the habit of eating one or two large meals because they’re doing so much driving. But those who eat larger meals to save time often make less-healthy choices. What’s more, a larger meal sends blood rushing to the digestive system, making it harder to stay alert. “The brain needs a constant supply of glucose,” Thayer says. “By eating every three to four hours, you’ll feel better, think better and be more alert. You feel better when you’re eating on a regular schedule.”
- Kick your nutrients up a notch. Add veggies when you eat at a restaurant. You’ll not only boost your intake of valuable vitamins and minerals — which may help prevent cancer and stroke — but also add much-needed fiber, which can help ward off ailments such as constipation, diverticulitis and diverticulosis. “Add lettuce and tomato to a sandwich, or have some cucumbers and green peppers,” Thayer says. Be a bit adventurous. Look beyond the usual choices at the salad bar and throw in some broccoli or cauliflower florets for added crunch and a boost of vitamins C and A. And while you’re at it, grab some fresh fruit for dessert.
- Watch out for hidden salt. Processed foods are often high in sodium and low in potassium, both factors that contribute to high blood pressure, according to Thayer. Though dietary guidelines recommend no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, it’s not uncommon for Americans to ingest between 6,000 and 10,000 milligrams per day.
To easily slash sodium, try to eat more foods in their natural state. For example, a cucumber contains just 12 milligrams of sodium, Thayer says, but that same cucumber pickled has a whopping 785 milligrams. Swap out salty chips or a side order of fries for steamed vegetables or a salad with dark leafy greens, and you’ll easily reduce your sodium intake. Plus you’ll boost your iron intake, which helps ward off fatigue caused by anemia. If eating veggies is a struggle, ask for your favorite low-sodium salad dressing on the side, and dip each bite individually instead of smothering your entire serving. You’ll get flavor without loading up on extra calories, fat and sodium.
- Overhaul your liquid fuel. Coffee and caffeinated beverages can improve alertness, but too much caffeine can raise blood pressure and have a dehydrating effect. It’s important to stay hydrated on the road not only for alertness, but to avoid constipation. Consider limiting artificially-sweetened sodas, which may cause a decline in kidney function. Your best bet? Plenty of water. Water flushes toxins out of the body and helps keep the ears, nose and throat moist.
Above all, better eating habits are about staying conscious of the food choices you’re making. “When you’re putting healthy food in the tank, you’ll end up healthier,” Thayer says.