Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Trying to Stay Healthy is Hard

Some years ago I lost some weight and improved my cholesterol numbers using basic healthier eating habits: substituting whole grains for white, eating more vegetables and fruit, eating less high fat animal protein, and watching my salt intake just for good measure.  These habits have become second nature, not just to me, but to my family as well.

While my cholesterol levels were never dangerous, they were higher than doctors wanted for me with my family history of heart disease.  Several months ago, although I hadn't gained weight and still follow my healthier eating methods, some of my numbers were surprisingly closer to the danger zone than I and my internist were comfortable with.  Attribute it to mid-life?  Approaching diabetes? Eating less meat so too many carbs?  Whatever the reason, I knew I had no choice but to take action.

The next most obvious step to take was to simply try to lose a little weight and see if that changed anything.  I stuck with my basic eating habits, but tried to cut back portion sizes a little and began keeping a food diary once again.  I also ramped up the exercise as much as my beleaguered feet could handle (this required new running shoes as well as new insoles within them).

After three months, I have lost about 9 pounds and had my blood rechecked and found that my numbers are back closer to the range where we want them to be.  No medication necessary yet!!

This is both empowering and completely terrifying at the same time.  The fact that I can objectively and measurably improve my health by tweaking my diet is comforting.  However, what happens if I can't exercise for a while or slip into larger portions over time?  I had healthy eating habits for years. This heightened vigilance is intense and relentless, and as I age, it looks like it will only get harder to maintain and is not something that I can afford to neglect without repercussions.

Jane Brody's column in today's New York Times has some relevant tidbits that mirror what I've been doing.  While the column overall is a distillation of the Center for Science in the Public Interest's (CSPI) "report card" on the state of the American diet, one line jumped out at me.  Brody quotes Bonnie Liebman, the nutritionist who collated the information for CSPI. "It would not be great to simply replace refined grains like white flour and white rice with whole grains.  We need to cut back on grains, period."

I'm not advocating or practicing a carb free diet by any means, but I am limiting my portions of brown rice and whole wheat pasta a little.  Vegetables still form the basis of our meals and I try to choose whole grains with more fiber and protein such as barley, bulgar and farro.  I'm also paying extra attention to portion sizes of healthy vegetable fats such as avocado, nuts and olive oil.  I continue to eat them all, but am more conscious of how small a serving of each actually is.

The hardest part of portion control remains restaurants.  I am, and have been for years, a big proponent of home cooking.  We don't eat too many meals outside the house, but with my renewed efforts at portion control I've been playing around with some more tricks while out.  Again, coinciding with what I've been doing, Ms. Liebman also says "if you eat what restaurants serve, you will end up like two-thirds of Americans, overweight or obese.  People should assume that restaurants serve double what you should be eating...."  Wow!

If you have any great tips on healthier restaurant eating, please consider sharing them in the comment section!  Sometimes it just comes down to eating less of everything, I guess.

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