Health and Fitness: Food

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health diet and nutrition tips habits

According to an audit by researchers at the University of California–Berkeley, one-third of the calories in the American diet come from junk food, sugar-sweetened drinks, and alcohol. We’ve seen the effects for years in our expanded waistlines, and felt it in our bodies. “If you eat the typical American diet,” says Caroline Apovian, the director of the Nutrition and Weight Management Center at Boston Medical Center, “you’re bloated, you’re eating a lot of salt and a lot of calories, and your insulin levels are high.” Not only that, scientists have recently begun to observe what this diet does to our brains. After feeding laboratory rodents a high-fat, high-carb diet for just three days, researchers discovered that the animals’ brains responded just as they might have if they had suffered a brain injury. The phenomenon, known as gliosis, involves a full-scale immune response and the inflammation of the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that, among many other things, is responsible for making us feel full. According to the study, which was published last year in The Journal of Clinical Investigation, these changes caused accelerated weight gain in the rodents. And alarmingly, when the authors of the study used their MRI machines on obese people, they found the same immune-inflammation response.

The lesson: The way many of us eat, thoughtlessly stuffing ourselves full of the endless array of fatty snacks and sugary drinks that are available at all hours, is truly dangerous. Here are a few ideas for changing course. —Casey Lyons

How to Eat Mindfully

Adapted from Diana Cullum-Dugan’s seven-week seminar, regularly held in Watertown.

health diet and nutrition tips habits

1. Eat When You’re Hungry

We’ve been trained from kindergarten to eat at specific times of the day, but that’s not necessarily when we need sustenance. Wait until you’re slightly hungry (but not ravenous) before you dig in.

health diet and nutrition tips habits

2. Make Eating an Event

Tune into your body’s needs, and tune out distractions. Quiet the noise—turn off the TV, shut down the computer, clear the table, dim the lights—and dine peacefully. In a serene setting, we can take care to nourish, rather than merely fill up, our bodies.

health diet and nutrition tips habits

3. Enjoy Your Food

In our haste to squelch hunger, we often fail to focus on the pleasures of the meal. Take the time to savor what you’ve prepared. Is it salty? Sweet? Crunchy? Linger on the textures and flavors that brought you to the table in the first place, and you’re likely to eat less and make more-healthful choices.

health diet and nutrition tips habits

4. Mind Your Manners

Once upon a time, fast eaters got the most of meager offerings. But now that food is plentiful, try to slow down, dine politely, and give your body a chance to notify your brain when you’re sated.

health diet and nutrition tips habits

5. Stop Before It’s Too Late

The French don’t say, “I’m full.” They say, “I’m no longer hungry.” That’s the right approach: Stop eating when you’re comfortable, not when you’re stuffed. Another thing to remember: Snacking is okay, if you do it right. Keep nutritious options—nuts, dried fruit, carrots—handy, or you may find yourself noshing a candy bar, thereby violating rules one through four. —Rachel Slade

The Right Stuff

Katherine Tucker, a professor of nutritional epidemiology at Northeastern, recently helped develop the Oldways African Heritage Diet, a highly nutritious regimen based on a number of traditional African ingredients. We asked her to pick a few of her favorites.

health diet and nutrition tips habitsPhotos via Thinkstock

Collard Greens

This leafy green is chock full of magnesium, which, along with potassium, helps lower blood pressure. It’s also an excellent source of vitamin K, which is important for bone density, and its cholesterol-lowering powers are unmatched in the produce aisle (yes, even compared with kale).

health diet and nutrition tips habits


Like the sweet potato, this root veggie has high levels of carotenoids, which are antioxidants and anti-inflammatories that protect against chronic disease.

health diet and nutrition tips habits


This common seasoning, which has been touted as a superfood, is an anti-inflammatory, and new studies suggest it has powerful anti-cancer properties.

health diet and nutrition tips habits

Black-Eyed Peas

These beans provide a big dose of dietary fiber, which promotes good bacteria in the gut and adds cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber to the bloodstream. They also contain a shot of vitamin B6, which scientists theorize is important in preventing cognitive decline and heart disease. Pair black-eyed peas with whole grain rice to form a complete protein.

health diet and nutrition tips habits


Use this gluten-free whole grain in flour form for baking. It’s a tremendous source of magnesium.

Fast Food, Good Nutrition

Need to grab a bite on the run? These days, healthful food is available just about anywhere. Below are a few options worth trying.

Dunkin’ Donuts
Egg White Veggie Flatbread

This breakfast option has 280 calories, nearly 200 fewer than any other breakfast sandwich on the Dunkin’ Donuts menu.

Uno Chicago Grill
Farro Salad

The minimally processed, whole-grain farro in this salad delivers more nutrients than others on the menu. Plus, it’s dense, filling, and only 90 calories.

Panera Bread
Chicken Caesar Salad

Two other salads at Panera have fewer calories (the caesar and “classic”), but the addition of a few ounces of chicken makes this one satisfying enough for dinner. And it’s just 430 calories and 21 grams of carbs.

If You Do Only One Thing: Quit Sugar

We’ve known for a long time that sugar contributes to disorders like obesity and diabetes, and that a diet high in refined sugar reduces spatial-learning performance and the ability to make new memories. And yet, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, on average Americans eat nearly their own body weight in added sugar each year. Too much sugar, as Caroline Apovian, of the Nutrition and Weight Management Center, puts it, “is a poison.”


Check out all of our health and fitness coverage for more ways to live a healthy lifestyle.