Although it’s widely accepted that cigarette smoking dramatically increases one’s risk of cancer, heart disease and other chronic illnesses, most Americans aren’t aware that poor diets have the same effect. But it’s true. The American Cancer Society reports that like smoking, dietary factors contribute to about one-third of the nation’s 500,000 approx cancer deaths each year.
Despite the numbers, many of us opt for processed and prepared foods that usually lack the nutrients and fiber found in whole grains, fruits and vegetables–foods that comprise most of the food guide pyramid (11 to 20 servings of the pyramid’s recommended 15 to 26 servings) and are considered the basis of good nutrition by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
“What we’re seeing is a lot more money being spent on foods prepared outside the home. …People lack time or feel they lack time to prepare meals, and they also have more disposable income to spend on eating out,” says Alexis Williams of the American Cancer Society’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Promotion branch. She adds that processed foods often carry higher fat and salt contents than foods we’d prepare for ourselves.
Better eating habits can be adopted through small changes over time. Keep these tips in mind when food shopping and dining out.
- Eat a variety of foods. “There are so many nutrients in our foods, ones that we know of and ones that the scientific community seems to be uncovering as the years go by. Eating a variety of foods will help to cover the things we know about and the things we’ll hopefully find out about in the future.
- Be adventurous. Every couple of months, try a fruit or vegetable you haven’t cooked or eaten before. Many supermarkets and produce stands now stock exotic varieties.
- In addition to fresh fruit, eat dried varieties–cranberries, mangoes, peaches, apricots, figs, papayas, prunes and grapes (raisins). Recent, albeit preliminary, studies have shown that raisins protect against heart disease (think wine) and colon cancer.
- Buy low-calorie and reduced/low-fat/fat-free cheeses, milk and yogurt. (An average slice of cheese contains as much fat–mostly saturated–as a cup of whole milk. In fact, more than two-thirds of the calories from most cheeses come from fat.) Use yogurt to replace some or all of the mayonnaise or sour cream in a recipe.
- Substitute white rice, white bread and white pasta with whole grain varieties, such as brown rice and whole wheat spaghetti.
- Regard meats as side dishes and choose only lean cuts–”round” or “loin” trimmed of external fat.
- If you buy frozen entrees, choose those with less than 13 grams of fat per serving and lower sodium contents (if they come with seasoning or sauce packets, use only half).
- Buy and order water instead of regular or diet soda. Too much sugar and caffeine can stress your body. Sodas also add unnecessary calories to your diet.
- When eating out, order foods that are steamed, broiled, baked, roasted, poached, lightly sautéed or stir-fried. Don’t hesitate to ask your server how dishes are prepared.
- Order appetizer sizes of dishes or save part of your order for another meal (see sidebar on portion control).
- Ask for sauces, salad dressings and gravies on the side, so you can control the quantity.
- Water can leach out water-soluble nutrients, so microwave, steam or blanch vegetables. These methods use little to no cooking water, or brief cooking time in the case of blanching. If you choose to boil foods, use 1/2 cup water for a pound of vegetables, or just enough to prevent scorching.
- Leave peels on vegetables during cooking because many nutrients reside just beneath the skin and are preserved when protected by skin. In addition, cook most vegetables until just barely tender or crisp-tender to retain most of their nutrients and keep their colors bright and flavors fresh.
- When cooking with fats and oils, use only polyunsaturated and monounsaturated oils, such as polyunsaturated margarine and safflower, soybean, sunflower, corn, sesame seed, canola and olive oils.
- Don’t add fats or oils to foods you microwave because microwave cooking produces moisture. (Fat can even be drained from microwaved food by placing the food between two paper towels during cooking.) Foods that cook well in moist heat: chicken, fish, ground meat, vegetables, sauces and soups.
- Sauté or stir-fry foods using a small amount of oil or broth, and avoid frying, which often involves batters that absorb cooking fat and pile on calories.
- Don’t cook meat in its own fat drippings. Roast on a rack and cook at 325 degrees Fahrenheit to increase fat drip-off, and avoid searing, which seals in fat. Broil and microwave meats too.
If you’re already eating well (and exercising regularly), you may be wondering what more you can do to reduce your risk of disease. Some experts recommend taking dietary supplements, but others advocate meeting nutritional requirements with foods rather than pills because the value of supplements is unclear.
“For the majority of people, if they eat a diet that’s balanced with a variety of foods and in the portions that are discussed in the food guide pyramid, they should get the nutrients they need. People who don’t eat a balanced diet may benefit from a multivitamin, she says, “but certainly not excessive doses of vitamins,” adding that more studies especially need to be conducted in the area of antioxidants.