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Use these seven simple strategies to help cut sugar, processed foods and even portion sizes for an instant nutrition boost.
The Renew You Challenge is the newest health and wellness experience from Renew by UnitedHealthcare® to help inspire you to take charge of your well-being every day. Every weekday in October, we’re sharing new ideas to help build up your body, mind and spirit.
Want to eat better, feel better and live a longer, healthier life? Don’t worry about completely erasing added sugars, processed foods and refined grains from your meals. Instead, try reducing them by just 10%.
“It might sound small, but a 10% change can play a big role in improving your overall health and fending off disease,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Vicki Shanta Retelny.
Plus, if you’re trying to lose a few pounds, research from JAMA suggests that the most essential feature of an effective weight-loss eating plan is sustainability. And it’s easier to stick to small tweaks than drastic changes, Retelny says.
Here are some tips you can try today to cut down on salt, portion sizes and more — without cutting a bit of flavor.
Tip #1: Sweeten Foods Yourself
Presweetened coffee and iced tea beverages are convenient. So are instant oatmeal packets and yogurt cups. But processed foods and drinks like these account for 90% of Americans’ added sugar intake, per one 2016 BMJ Open study.
But you don’t have to skip sweetness entirely. Just buy plain versions and add your own sweetener, Retelny suggests. Even if you add honey, pure maple syrup or agave nectar to your snack, chances are you’ll still wind up eating less sugar than with a presweetened version, she says.
Tip #2: Hit Your Five a Day
It’s such a simple rule, but how many of us consistently eat five servings of fruits and veggies every day? Now’s your time. Focus on eating at least one vegetable at every meal, and enjoying a piece of fruit for a snack or dessert.
Because of their fiber content, fruits and vegetables help crowd out and reduce your intake of sugar- and salt-filled processed foods. Plus, the extra fiber can help you naturally trim your portion sizes, Retelny says. In one 2017 Nutrients study, people who increased their daily fiber ended up snacking less without even trying.
Tip #3: Make at Least Half of Your Grains Whole
We all know we need to lay off white, refined grains and eat more whole grains. If you’re having a hard time making the switch, try keeping both on hand, Retelny says. You may find that you prefer white versions for some snacks (like toast) and whole grains for others (like sandwiches).
Another half-and-half approach to grains is mixing your white and whole-wheat pasta, she says. Since they each have slightly different cooking times (white cooks faster), boil them separately, then combine.
Tip #4: Create Your Own Baked Goods
While cookies may never be a true health superfood, prepackaged baked goods tend to be high in saturated and trans fats, not to mention sodium and preservatives, Retelny says.
If you make them from scratch, though — even with a decadent recipe — you’re apt to end up with a sweet treat that’s far healthier and better tasting than a snack you’d grab off a supermarket shelf.
And here’s another cool benefit: When you put forth effort in the kitchen, you’re less likely to overeat or mindlessly eat high-calorie and high-sugar foods, she says.
Tip #5: Drink More Water
You’d be surprised how often thirst comes off as hunger. Being mildly dehydrated can give you nagging headaches, make you feel shaky and bring on belly growls, Retelny says.
Here’s the problem with eating in response to thirst: It does little to quell the symptoms and a lot to promote overeating. Both at and between each meal, make it a point to drink at least one full glass of water. That way you’ll be sure you’re eating out of hunger, not thirst.
Bonus: A 2018 study in the journal of Clinical Nutrition Research suggests that drinking water immediately before meals can significantly reduce how much you eat.
Tip #6: Break Out the Measuring Cups
No, you don’t have to measure your food for the rest of your life. But if you want to become more aware of your portion sizes, try measuring things out for a week or two. This simple exercise will reveal how much you’re currently serving yourself, Retelny says. Chances are you’re eating much more than you think.
The next time you’re in the kitchen, measure out your foods to match the serving sizes listed on the packages, just like you’d do when following a recipe. The result: You’ll reduce your portion sizes while also relearning what “one serving of rice” actually means.
Find a New Favorite Dish
Looking for healthier new recipes to tempt your taste buds? Try some of these delicious ideas to liven up your table. Browse Renew's collection of recipes and get cooking. UnitedHealthcare® Medicare Advantage members can find them here. Not a member? Learn more here.
Tip #7: Fill Your Spice Cabinet
Salt isn’t the only flavor enhancer in your kitchen. Time to expand your collection of herbs and spices — and rediscover the ones you forgot you had. They’ll not only help you reduce your sodium intake, but also likely make your dishes taste far better than they ever did with the salt shaker.
Herb and spice blends tend to be particularly handy; just check the back label to make sure they’re sodium free, Retelny says.
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