Health experts routinely chastise Americans for poor dietary habits. But in recent years, some good news finally is emerging from kitchen tables across the land.
A 2014 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that Americans are eating better overall, including:
- Making better use of available nutrition information
- Consuming fewer calories coming from fat and saturated fat
- Consuming less cholesterol and eating more fiber
Despite these improvements, millions of Americans still find improving their diet to be a nearly impossible chore. So with the dawn of a new year, why not try an easier approach?
Instead of trying to radically change your diet overnight, start small, says Elizabeth Reid, a registered dietitian/nutritionist at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
“If you can stick with a few small changes, they can cascade into even greater changes,” she says.
Following are six foods to gradually eliminate from your diet over the next 12 months.
1. Processed snacks
Food processing includes any change made to a food before it is ready to eat. Many processed foods contain high levels of sodium, which contributes to high blood pressure and is bad overall for the heart, vascular system and kidneys.
Other processed foods contain high levels of sugar, which may contribute to weight gain, Type 2 diabetes and other health problems. Finally, processed foods often are high in fat, particularly heart-unhealthy trans fatty acids and saturated fat.
Instead of eating processed snacks, Reid urges you to switch “more to foods as they exist in nature.”
So, rather than indulging in a food with processed cheese, eat an apple with a piece of high-quality unprocessed cheese.
“It tastes good, it feels like a special snack and it’s better for you,” Reid says.
2. Lunch meats
Lunch meats are another type of food loaded with sodium. In addition, the World Health Organization announced in October its finding that eating processed meats – such as lunch meat, bacon and hot dogs – increases your risk of getting cancer.
Instead of buying a package of processed deli meat, Reid urges you to go for the real deal. For example, purchase and cook a fresh, unprocessed turkey breast, and use the meat in your sandwiches.
“We are so fortunate to have many food choices in this country, and we can set ourselves up to make good choices,” Reid says.
3. Canned soup
Grandma always told you that a bowl of chicken soup was the perfect antidote to a nasty cold. And soup itself can be healthy.
But canned soup is a different story and – once again – it all comes down to sodium.
The average can of Campbell’s regular condensed soup contains 2,030 milligrams of sodium, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit watchdog and consumer advocacy group that advocates for safer and healthier foods.
That is more sodium than an average adult should consume in an entire day. If you want to eat soup, make it from scratch. Or, look for low-sodium canned soup alternatives.
4. Unhealthy oils
While oils are not actually a type of food, they are found in many of the foods we cook and eat. Not all oils are created equal.
The National Institutes of Health urges people to avoid certain types of oils when cooking. These include oils that have more than 2 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon, and oils that contain hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats.
You can find that information on the nutrition information label. But in general, it is best to avoid coconut oil and palm oil. Also avoid cooking with solid fats, such as butter, shortening or lard.
Reid urges you to switch to healthier oils such as olive oil, avocado oil and grape seed oil.
5. Ice cream
We leave this until last – because for many, it will be the toughest.
Who doesn’t love a bowl of rocky road or vanilla ice cream? Unfortunately, ice cream is loaded with added sugar.
Reid says excessive sugar intake has been linked to inflammation that can affect your risk of both cancer and cardiovascular disease.
A 2014 study published in JAMA: Internal Medicine found that people who got 17 to 21 percent of calories from added sugar had a 38 percent higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than those who consumed 8 percent of their calories from added sugar.
In addition to its added sugar content, ice cream is high in saturated fat.
If you just can’t bear the thought of going cold turkey on your favorite cold treat, at least switch to healthier frozen yogurt, sherbet or low-fat ice cream.
Take a slow and steady approach
Reid acknowledges that many people find it difficult to change their diet. She encourages you to take the process slowly, and not to be too hard on yourself.
In fact, sticking to “all or nothing” thinking is one of the most common factors that derail people when trying to make major changes, she says.
“I really like the idea of getting people to make small, consistent changes,” she says.
The key is to be patient, she says.
“It takes a good three weeks to change a habit,” she says. “You’ve got to give yourself a break and start moving yourself in the other direction.”