When it comes to healthy eating, Alexandria wellness educator Cheryl Mirabella encourages her clients to load up during meals, but she offers a caveat. "Crowd out your plate with good stuff," said Mirabella who has offices in Alexandria and Warrenton. "If you’re eating nutrient and fiber rich foods, you’re naturally going to be more full and more satisfied and therefore you might not be reaching for the junk food as often."
In observance of National Nutrition Month, Mirabella is offering suggestions for making wise food choices. She and other health experts say that that while trading in salt-laden potato chips for potassium-packed baked spuds might be challenging, making positive dietary changes is easier than one might think, and is worth the effort.
"I believe that food is medicine and we can use it as a way to prevent diseases and heal our body," said Mirabella "If we eat foods that are full of nutrients we’re going to give our body everything it needs to do what it does naturally. Food can be a very powerful medicine in terms of disease prevention and reversal."
Begin by simplifying food choices. "The first step is focusing on what isn't food and then finding cleaner options," said Nina Elliot, an Arlington-based personal trainer. "All the additives ... that are in many of our favorite foods can contribute to obesity and health challenges. Replacing processed foods with whole foods may take a bit more work in the kitchen and a little more grocery money, but the health benefits are tremendous."
Add fresh fruits and vegetables to each meal. "Vegetables are high in antioxidants," said Mirabella. "Frozen fruits and vegetables are an excellent choice too. They are affordable and they're nutrient rich because they’ve been picked at the peak of their freshness. They went from the field to the freezer, so the nutrients are locked-in."
Watch for hidden sodium. "Deli meat for example, is highly processed and high in sodium," said Paulette Helman, a registered dietician in Potomac, Md. "You’re better off baking a chicken breast with a little lemon juice."
Choose whole grains. "Whole grains are healthier than plain, white processed grains," said Jean Glossa, M.D., medical director, Fairfax Community Health Care Network and Molina Healthcare. "The closer the food is to the way that it came out of the ground and the less processed it is the healthier it is. But that doesn’t mean than by switching to whole grains you can eat an unlimited amount of it. Portion size is still important."
When it comes to protein, keep it lean. "Ideally with every meal and snack, you want to have protein," said Mirabella. "For example, you might have eggs for breakfast and toss in spinach or broccoli and a little feta cheese. If you have an apple for a snack you might dip it in a little bit of peanut butter so that you get protein and healthy fat along with carbohydrates from the apple. Lean cuts of meat are good, but you want to stay away from saturated fat.
Nutritionists say gradual adjustments work best. "Making small changes is more manageable than overhauling one’s diet all at once," said Elliot. "[They are] more likely to lead to the next positive change … which means people are [more] likely to want to continue improving … their diet."
Plan ahead. "Try to eat three meals and two healthy snacks each day," said Mirabella. "That is a great way to keep your blood sugar in balance so you can make healthier food choices all day long."