5 simple dietary changes everyone should make

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS, for MDLinx
Published January 16, 2020

Key Takeaways

You’re motivated to make dietary changes to improve your health. But, the prospect of going from carrot cake to carrot sticks seems tough to swallow. Rest assured that healthy dietary changes can be achieved through baby steps.

The American Psychological Association concurs: “Unhealthy behaviors develop over the course of time, so replacing unhealthy behaviors with healthy ones requires time. Many people run into problems when they try to change too much too fast. To improve your success, focus on one goal or change at a time. As new healthy behaviors become a habit, try to add another goal that works toward the overall change you’re striving for.”

With this advice in mind, here are five small steps to build on for a healthier and more fulfilling life:

1. Eat one extra serving of fruits or veggies per day

The immune system’s first response to injury, infection, or irritation is inflammation. Chronic inflammation has been linked to many types of severe health conditions, such as heart disease, stroke, and various autoimmune diseases. Simply eating one additional serving of fruit or vegetables a day could help combat inflammation.

“Fruits, vegetables, and food legumes contain high levels of phytochemicals that show anti-inflammatory effect, but their mechanisms of action have not been completely identified,” wrote researchers from China in a review article. “The phenolics and triterpenoids in fruits and vegetables showed higher anti-inflammatory activity than other compounds. In food legumes, lectins and peptides had anti-inflammatory activity in most cases.”

The authors suggested that phytochemicals found in fruits, veggies, and legumes could be included in pharmaceuticals targeting inflammation. However, they acknowledged the need for more human study data on the anti-inflammatory activity of phytochemicals from fruits, vegetables, and food legumes.

2.  Make heart-healthy food swaps

It should come as no surprise that a healthy lifestyle and diet are key in the battle against heart attack and stroke. But, which foods should you focus on incorporating into your diet for improved cardiovascular health?

According to the American Heart Association, try the following:

·         Whole grains

·         Diverse fruits and veggies

·         Skinned poultry and fish

·         Nuts

·         Legumes

·         Non-tropical vegetable oils (ie, avoid coconut oil)

·         Low-fat dairy

Keep in mind that you don’t have to go overboard. Simply eating a handful of walnuts, peanuts, or almonds a day, for instance, could be beneficial for your ticker. Furthermore, you can add nuts or legumes to your salad for a crunchy twist, or use them as a meat substitute in pasta. Swap out your white bread for whole-grain or rye bread, and switch from whole milk to 2%.

3. Consume a healthy breakfast

Every physician feels like there’s not enough time in the day. Skipping a healthy breakfast may seem like a way to save a few minutes. But, the benefits of breakfast are well worth the investment.

In four prospective studies—the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, the Nurses’ Health Study, the German EPIC cohort, and the Aichi Workers’ Cohort Study—regularly consuming a healthy breakfast was related to better glycemic control. Moreover, ditching breakfast was linked to impaired glucose metabolism and increased risk of type 2 diabetes.

Although the full health benefits of breakfast consumption remain to be elucidated, researchers have shown that eating breakfast can improve weight control, cardiometabolic health, and brain function.

Keep in mind that breakfast need not be a giant to-do. A bit of fruit and a serving of oatmeal, bran flakes, or other whole grains can do the trick.

4. Limit your intake of sugar-sweetened beverages

Nearly all of us tend to slip from time to time and indulge in an iced sugar-sweetened beverage. But, drinking sugary beverages should be the exception and not the norm. After all, sugar-sweetened beverages are notoriously bad for you.

In one prospective study out of Korea involving 5,775 participants without hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, or cancer, drinking sugary sodas and the like was linked to increased rates of hypertension during a 10-year span. These effects were most pronounced among obese people.

And if that weren’t enough to make you swear off sugar-laden drinks (including sweetened fruit juice), consider this: Eschewing one sugar-sweetened soda (or extravagant latte) per day can result in about 10 pounds of weight loss over a 1-year period.

5. Pass on the salt shaker

Because lots of foods are already loaded with salt—like restaurant fare or processed meals—you should avoid reaching for the salt shaker for extra seasoning.

“Excessive dietary salt (sodium chloride) intake is associated with an increased risk for hypertension, which in turn is especially a major risk factor for stroke and other cardiovascular pathologies, but also kidney diseases,” wrote the authors of an article published in the Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology book series.

The WHO recommends that the average person eat no more than 5 g of salt per day. Of note, lower intake levels are recommended for African Americans, middle-aged and elderly folks, and people with chronic conditions (eg, diabetes, hypertension, and kidney disease).

“[H]igh salt intake or preference for salty food is discussed to be positive[ly] associated with stomach cancer, and according to recent studies probably also obesity risk. On the other hand a reduction of dietary salt intake leads to a considerable reduction in blood pressure, especially in hypertensive patients but to a lesser extent also in normotensives as several meta-analyses of interventional studies have shown,” the authors noted.

Instead of adding salt for extra flavor, consider healthier alternatives like basil, cinnamon, nutmeg, chives, or mint.

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