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If your idea of healthful eating is saying no to dessert or to a latté and muffin at your mid-morning break, your diet may still be in desperate need of a tune-up. The truth is that most of us use too many of the wrong kinds of foods and not nearly enough fruits, veggies, and complex carbohydrates. Sure, we know we should eat better, but who wants to exist on tofu and bean sprouts? Fear not! You don’t have to forgo all the food you know and love to improve your diet. Here are eight simple steps to get you moving in the right direction. A few simple changes can make a world of difference.

cut the caffeine

Caffeine is the most widely used drug in the world. It’s a powerful stimulant that often leaves you jittery and irritable. And the calories in those mochas, lattés, and caffeinated soft drinks add up quickly. Fortunately, there are options. There’s a wide variety of healthy beverages available today, including cereal coffees and fruit juices. Just be sure to go easy on the amount of refined sugar you pour into your cereal coffee, and remember that fruit juices also contain a lot of sugar, especially the so-called “juice drinks.”

tame your sweet tooth

You don’t have to eliminate sweets entirely in order to eat more healthfully. The key is moderation.

“It’s all relative to how physically active you are,” explains dietitian Susan Kleiner, author of Power Eating. “Number one, make sure that you’re eating a good diet and not replacing good wholesome nutrient-dense foods with empty calories; number two, that you’re physically active enough to handle the extra calories; and three, that you’re choosing wisely.”

Choosing wisely sometimes means selecting candy that’s plain sugar over one containing both sugar and fat. For example, opt for jellybeans instead of high-fat, high-sugar treats such as chocolate. Better still, consider natural sweets like grapes, strawberries, and cherries, which give you extra fiber and nutrients to boot.

break the fast

Just because we’ve become a nation of breakfast skippers doesn’t mean it’s wise—or healthy—to go without food in the morning. “Mom was right—breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” says registered dietitian Christine Palumbo. If you’re never hungry in the morning, it’s probably because you’ve “trained” your body to get by without breakfast.

“You can eat a light, satisfying breakfast every day,” says Palumbo. “You don’t have to eat breakfast before your workday begins. If you wish, wait until you’re at your desk and munch on a cinnamon raisin bagel and a glass of orange juice.”

pack portable produce

Getting the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables each day is easier than you might think, but you do have to plan ahead. A medium-sized piece of fruit, three-quarters of a cup of fruit, vegetable juice, or half a cup of cooked or canned vegetables or fruits each comprise one serving. Or, even better, buy fresh produce at the supermarket and carry it with you.

Toss an apple, banana, or orange in your purse or briefcase to eat at your desk or during your trip to work. Though second best, canned fruits like pineapple and pears are other convenient options.

A lot of vegetables are portable. A can of tomato juice packs a load of nutrients, and you can buy bags of packaged baby carrots, broccoli, or cauliflower to munch on at work. And don’t forget salads, a key source of vegetables for everyone.

“If you select carefully, you can have a great lunch at a salad bar, but you have to be careful,” says Barbara Gollman. “Start with lettuce and spinach and add bean salad, and it becomes a source of protein, fiber, and satisfaction. Skip things that are coated with mayonnaise like potato salad and select toppings like garbanzo beans (chickpeas), sunflower seeds, carrots, tomatoes, and other vegetables.” You can always include bread or crackers for extra carbs.

stay hydrated

Doctors recommend that we drink at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day and more for those who work out regularly. Yet, on average, people drink just half that much.

“People need to drink more water,” says Gollman. “You have to make a conscious effort to supply the water that you’re losing when you exercise. By the time you’re thirsty, you’re depleted.”

Keep a big glass or bottle of water on your desk, and drink plenty of water before and after your workouts. Feeling hungry? Down a big glass of water first. Sometimes, thirst masquerades as hunger.

trim the fat

Much of the fast food we love—pizza, burgers, fried chicken—is dripping with fat, but most restaurants offer some healthier alternatives. Opt for lower-fat choices like minestrone soup or spaghetti with marinara sauce. Better yet, bring food from home. You’ll save money, too. The popular packaged soups that come in their own bowls are a great choice—just add hot water, stir, and your lunch is ready.

“Some are really loaded with beans, couscous, lentils, and rice,” says Gollman. “They’re very nutritious and have around 285 calories. Add some fresh fruit and vegetables and maybe low-fat yogurt, and you’ve got a great lunch.”

Another hidden source of fat is cheese. “Sometimes women will cut out milk or drink skim milk to save calories but may be eating a lot of cheese, which is much higher in fat and calories,” cautions Kleiner. Cheese should be eaten in moderation.

snack wisely

It’s better, of course, to not eat between meals at all. And sugary snacks only satisfy your hunger temporarily, and they leave you feeling more tired in the long run. Instead, choose healthy treats. You’ll improve not only your energy level but also your mood. Shoot for a satisfying 100- to 200-calorie snack. It should be more than a handful of carrot sticks but less than a full-blown meal.

“It helps to have a combination of protein and carbs,” says Gollman. “If you’re just eating veggies, you won’t be satisfied—it’s just not enough food.”

Choosing snacks that contain both protein and carbohydrates—like yogurt and crackers or nuts with fruit—will boost your energy and keep you feeling satisfied for several hours.

ditch the diet mentality

If you starve on Mondays and Tuesdays to make up for weekend splurges, break that all-or-nothing thinking. Dieting makes you crabby. It increases your chances of overeating and bingeing and actually makes it more likely that you will gain weight. If you’re serious about losing weight, limit the rate of weight loss to a couple of pounds per week and focus on making healthier, lower-calorie choices, taking smaller portions, and boosting your amount of exercise.

See? It’s not that hard. Make these few changes in your diet, and you’ll start feeling (and looking) better without obsessing over every detail.

Going Veggie

Want to eliminate meat from your diet but don’t know where to begin? Going veggie is easier than you might think.

  • Cut down on meat gradually—you’re less likely to feel deprived.
  • Replace meats with other protein sources like beans, tofu, nuts, or dairy products.
  • When dining out, request marinara sauce instead of meat-based sauce at an Italian bistro, vegetable fried rice or stir-fry at a Chinese restaurant, or cheese enchadas or bean burritos at your local Mexican eatery.
  • Having a BBQ? A plethora of veggie burgers are now available that vary widely in taste and texture. Sample several till you find one you like.
  • Try veggie versions of your favorite dishes. Order onions and green peppers on your pizza instead of pepperoni. Or you might whip up a batch of vegetarian chili—just leave the meat out. Chances are, you won’t even miss it!

Kelly James relishes encouraging others to make healthy choices.

Steps to a Healthier 2024

by Kelly James
From the January 2024 Signs