Small steps make it easier to get healthy, says dietician 

While many of us strive to maintain a healthy diet, we’re bombarded daily with complicated diet fads and celebrity news that remind us of our not-so-healthy decisions.

But rather than feeling defeated, making small adjustments can guide us into better habits and healthier lifestyle, says Maira Quintanilha, a registered dietician for Alberta Health Services.

She suggests the following five tips to help you reduce sugar, salt and fat in your diet.

1. SHOP WITH A LIST

Quintanilha says the start to making healthier decisions in food is preparation and stepping away from processed foods. “Get an idea of what your meals will look like,” she suggests. “Even if you shop for the next three days and look for the best options, that’s a start.”Once clients become more knowledgeable about the benefits of healthy eating and preparing foods they begin to include more natural products into their shopping and diets.

Photo by Shannon Galley 

In addition to starting with a list, reading labels will help you choose products with low sugar, salt and fat content, as well as those high in vitamins, explains Quintanilha.

Nicole Boisvert, marketing co-ordinator for Community Natural Foods, says that many of their customers are people seeking to eat healthy or organically once a health crisis is brought to their attention. Boisvert says clients often make a “series of small steps after coming to the store, and then branch out.”

Once clients become more knowledgeable about the benefits of healthy eating and preparing foods they begin to include more natural products into their shopping and diets.

In 2012, the Environmental Working Group — an environmental health research organization -introduced the “Dirty Dozen” list of 12 produce products, such as apples and spinach, that use the most pesticides.

Boisvert says, “Purchasing these organically is a good stepping stone to get into organics.”

Both Quintanilha and Boisvert agree that with grocery shopping, cooking time, convenience and price plays a factor into consumers eating healthy.

2. Use herbs and SPICES — CUT SALT

Using herbs instead of salt is a healthier choice when cooking.

Photo by Shannon Galley Quintanilha says using different herbs and spices can decrease the amount of salt used when cooking while improving flavour and taste.

“Basil, cilantro and parsley can be used, and you can get creative,” says Quintanilha.

Although purchasing several flavor enhancers may come at a cost, Quintanilha suggests taking the step a little further and growing your own herbs in a vase by a window.

3. CHOOSE THE BEST COOKING METHOD

When it comes to home-cooked meals, Quintanilha says the way food is prepared can be a small step that leads to reaching your goals.

For those that do not have time to cook — or dislike it — Quintanilha says, when eating out you can still make better decisions. The most important thing to consider when dining away from home is cooking methods.

“Choose salmon or chicken that is baked or broiled, not fried,” Quintanilha says. She also advocates “getting a vegetarian option or looking ahead at the menu online to help make a better decision.”

Kitchen manager of The Coup restaurant, Ev Foley, says their vegetarian menu tends to surprise the mix of clients that come into their location on Uptown 17th Avenue.

“There are a lot of healthy people, but we get big dudes who have never tried anything like it before,” Foley says. “They’re surprised they like it.”

The restaurant tries to use locally grown products as much as possible to give “food a better flavour,” according to Foley. The Coup’s cooking methods strive to be healthy with their recipes including steamed and roasted methods to cook and hold in nutrients of produce.The Coup’s cooking methods strive to be healthy with their recipes including steamed and roasted methods to cook and hold in nutrients of produce.

Photo by Larissa Pinhal 

Quintanilha says in addition to cooking methods, reducing the portion size can be key to taking in less salt, sugar and fat.

“Aim for a healthy plate. Half veggies, a quarter rice and a quarter meat,” says Quintanilha.

The overall size is important too. So if you’re eating out and the restaurant doesn’t offer half sizes, stretch your dollar and take half of it to go for the next day’s lunch, she suggests.

Meanwhile, a small decision like a tomato sauce ¬over a cream sauce — which will cut fat and salt – can help you to achieve your goal. Quintanilha says, “It is a step at a time that sets people for success.”

4. MAKE SUBSTITUTIONS – REDUCE FAT

While cooking may be a challenge for some, Quintanilha offers some tips for bakers wishing to make their cakes, cookies and muffins on the healthier side.

“Interesting ideas have been tested by dieticians to reduce fat in baking by substituting [for] oil,” says Quintanilha.

Quintanilha advises using applesauce or mashed pumpkin instead of oil, which will not change the texture of baked goods.

“Making one substitution can have an impact on the final product without changing the recipe completely,” she says, adding that these changes can also improve taste.

5. COOK UP YOUR OWN SAUCE – DECREASE SUGAR

While salt is one obvious concern, reducing sugar is also important.

Quintanilha says consumers have no control over premade products and their sugar content.

“Sauce has added sugar that can be cut by making your own at home,” she says.

Fresh fruits and vegetables can be used to make homemade sauces, this can decrease sugar intake over store bought sauces.

Photo by Shannon Galley Natural sugars from fruits and vegetables are plentiful when making a sauce or marinade, says Quintanilha.

Further, she again stresses the importance of reading labels when shopping for canned produce.

“Avoid added sugar. Canned fruit is healthy, but you have to be sure it is canned in water instead of syrup.”

Be realistic

To make positive changes, Quintanilha stresses the importance of being realistic with diet and healthy eating goals, advocating “be specific, track and attain” as fundamentals in ensuring achievement.

The dietician encourages small steps and a gradual process to better eating habits — whatever they may be. And by using these tips at home, she says, the dangerous trio of sugar, salt and fat can all be kept in check.

“I understand that people are busy and the task of cooking is daunting, but you are more likely to be eating healthy if you are preparing at home,” she adds. “At the same time though, you can still make better choices elsewhere.”

lpinhal@cjournal.ca