What should I eat?

USDA plate icon

Finally, the US government has released a simple, sensible visual to replace the outdated food pyramid. The basic message is that half of one’s plate each meal should be comprised of fruits and vegetables,while the other half should include a balance of grains and lean protein. If you’ve been avoiding milk in order to skip the calories, you might be happy to know the new guidelines also include three servings of dairy per day.

Go to choosemyplate.org for nutrition tools, such as recommended calorie calculators, menu planners, personal diet analysis, and tips for including more fruits and veggies in your family’s diet.

If you’re interested in the science of balanced, healthy eating, two great resources are Skinny Chicks Don’t Eat Salad, by Christine Avanti, and Body for Life for Women, by Pamela Peeke, MD. Both books demystify the relationship between carbs and protein, and explain in simple terms why it is important, not only for general health but also for weight loss, to eat a balance of “good carbohydrates” (found in veggies, fruits, and whole grains) and lean protein. Both explain why a carb-free or extremely low-carb diet not only wreaks havoc with your health, but also hinders long-term weight loss and maintenance. Both explain the dietary dangers of the “lonely carb,” carbs which enter the body unaccompanied by protein, thus causing spikes in blood sugar, and the resulting conversion of food to body fat (the bottom line: any time you eat a carb, combine it with a protein–so take your strawberries with string cheese, your multigrain bread with tuna). And both books encourage both dieters and those who simply seek to maintain their weight to eat enough calories, explaining why those severe calorie restriction diets so many of us have tried over the years actually make us fatter.

Peeke’s book also underlines the importance of weight training for weight loss. Because muscle burns fat, a slow, healthy diet and exercise program that helps you lose fat and build muscle (as opposed to a rapid-loss program that results in loss of muscle and water weight) will actually boost your metabolism. When your body has more muscle, it has a higher resting metabolic rate, which means you burn more calories around the clock. So a few times a week, you should add weight training to your cardio routine. You don’t need a gym: hand weights at home will do the trick. I personally love using kettlebells, which give a great cardio workout and work several muscle groups simultaneously.

More common sense tips (that nonetheless bear repeating) from the USDA can be found at choosemyplate.gov. One of the best ways I’ve found to get a handle on one’s eating habits is keeping a food diary; most of us consume more calories a day than we think. Keep an online food diary at livestrong.com or download the livestrong app to track your food and exercise on your phone. An inexpensive pedometer is a great motivational tool to help you add more steps to your day. And for an integrated platform that logs food, exercise, and sleep with the help of a tiny wireless device you wear around the clock, check out fitbit — I love mine!

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