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Choosing a healthier eating pattern

What is a healthy eating pattern? How do I start eating healthier? These are among the most common questions asked of dietitians.

First, starting to eat healthier does not mean going on a “diet.” The foods and beverages we choose to eat and drink daily, whether home or away from home, makes up our eating pattern. In a nutshell, every bite we take and every sip we drink at every meal, every day, all add up to an overall eating pattern over time.

Everyone has their own eating style based on budget, preferences, culture and traditions. There is more than one way to maintain a healthy lifestyle, so do not let the term “healthy” be a speed bump to making long-lasting changes to your life.

The benefits of making minor changes and choosing a heathier eating pattern far outweigh the risks and include: maintaining good health; supporting a healthy body weight; meeting nutrient needs; and reducing the risk of lifestyle-related diseases such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Committing to healthier eating patterns not only benefits you but will influence your home and your children.

What is a healthy eating pattern?

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines key recommendations include the following.

Eating more of a variety of vegetables: dark green, red and orange, peas and beans; eating more fruits, especially whole fruits; grains, at least half of which are whole grains; fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese and/or fortified soy beverages; and a variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, peas and beans, and nuts, seeds and soy products.

Eating less of saturated fats and trans fats, added sugars and sodium (salt). Use food labels as a guide to make smarter food choices; check servings and calories. Strive to make your calories count. Choose to consume less than 10 percent of calories per day from added sugars, less than 10 percent of calories per day from saturated fats and less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day of sodium. If alcohol is consumed, it should be consumed in moderation (i.e. up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men; and only by adults of legal drinking age).

How to start?

Changing habits can be challenging, and it is no secret that making changes to eating patterns can be overwhelming. Hence, it is important to never forget that every food choice is an opportunity to move toward a healthier eating pattern. Start by making small shifts in food choices across and within all five food groups by swapping current typical choices for more nutrient-dense food choices. Foods in nutrient-dense forms not only meet calorie needs but provide adequate protein and contain essential vitamins and minerals, as well as dietary fiber and other naturally occurring substances that may have positive health effects.

Start by making small changes with one meal, then the next. Eat the MyPlate way, creating a balanced and nutritious meal from all five food groups (grains, protein, fruits, vegetables and dairy). Continue to make these small changes over the course of a day, week and month and as a lifelong goal can make a big difference and improve quality of life.

Here are some tips for realistic, small changes that can add up to making a big difference and help you and your family adapt healthier eating patterns over time:

Eat more nutrient-dense snacks such as fresh fruit and low-fat cottage cheese or low-fat yogurt; celery/carrot sticks with hummus instead of nachos and cheese or chips.

Eat fresh fruits such as apples, bananas or strawberries instead of fruit products with added sugar.

Choose whole grains such as whole wheat or multigrain bread or brown rice or quinoa instead of refined grains such as white bread or white rice.

Choose unsalted snacks such as nuts instead of snacks with added sugars or salt.

Choose oils such as olive oil instead of solid fats such as butter or margarine.

Drink beverages with no added sugar such as water, fruit/vegetable-infused water or unsweetened tea. Stay away from beverages with added sugars such as sodas, sweetened tea and coffee drinks.

Eat the foods you enjoy, but the key is to do it in smaller portions.

Remember, change can be difficult so do not be discouraged because your eating pattern is not what you would like it to be; or because you have started and have “fallen off the wagon.” No one is perfect. Choosing to eat healthier foods is a powerful choice that you can make daily to reduce the risks of lifestyle-related diseases. Why not start with your next meal?

Michelle Smith-Hawley, RDN, LDN, is a clinical dietitian at Vidant Beaufort Hospital and can be reached at michelle.smith-hawley@vidanthealth.com or 252-948-4933.