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How to Be a Healthy Eater

Mom of Belal, 5, and Bashir, 2

Before she became a mother, Zaimah was a healthy eater. But two kids later, she found herself in a diet disaster zone. "I was trying to lose the rest of my pregnancy weight and got swept up in the whole low-carb diet craze," she explains. "I'd devour bacon and eggs for a few days, then start feeling deprived and scarf down a whole box of cookies. That left me a bloated, cranky mess." In fact, Zaimah still won't eat certain carbs—like bread, fruits, and starchy vegetables—because she's convinced they're bad for her. "But I'm willing to start eating them again if it'll help me lose those extra five pounds."

The Real Diet Dirt

It's true: A low-carb diet can help you lose pounds. But&-and this is a big but-it will only work if you are 100 percent committed. "Once you start sneaking carbs you defeat the entire purpose of the diet," says nutritionist Joy Bauer, R.D., author of Cooking With Joy. "That's why most people who try low-carb diets eventually fail-these plans are just too restrictive to maintain." Even worse, dieters usually do exactly what Zaimah did: Break down and binge eat.

Her Eat-Right Action Plan

  • Choose the right carbs. First and foremost, Zaimah needs to reintroduce fruits, vegetables, and whole grains into her diet. Not only do they help stabilize blood-sugar levels-which in turn will give her energy levels a big boost-but they're lower in calories and are loaded with fiber, which will help her feel fuller longer.
  • Pick better sources of protein. "When I saw how much fat was in Zaimah's diet, I almost fainted," Bauer says. "She'd have eggs and bacon for breakfast, sausage for lunch, and a burger for dinner." Bauer was also distressed to learn that Zaimah's father suffered from kidney failure. "High-fat and protein diets can increase your risk of kidney problems. She should not be eating like this considering her family history!" Bauer's advice: Zaimah needs to limit her red-meat intake to once a week and stick to leaner sources of protein. Some good choices include turkey or soy sausage, low-fat turkey baloney, and fish.
  • Don't deprive yourself. Here's the bad thing about dieting: The more you deny yourself the foods you love, the more you're going to crave them. And when you do give in, you're more likely to scarf down two or three times the amount you normally would. "Allow yourself one small indulgence every day, but try to keep it between 100 to 250 calories," Bauer suggests. "In the long run, it won't make or break a diet."
  • Embrace a little fat. Fat can make up 25 to 30 percent of your diet, but it has to be the right kind. Zaimah needs to limit saturated fats—found in red meat and whole-fat dairy products—since they're linked to an increased risk of heart disease. Instead, she should opt for the monosaturated fats in olive oil, avocados, and nuts, and the omega-three fatty acids in canola oil and fish like tuna and salmon, which have been shown to keep the heart and blood vessels healthy.

One Month Later

"I'm in shock—I lost five pounds!" exclaims Zaimah. "Eating the right kinds of carbs-and cutting back on all that meat-really made a difference!" That's not all: In just a few days she noticed that she wasn't as tired and that she even had enough energy to start jogging. Zaimah also discovered that she liked many of the healthier foods Bauer recommended, including salmon, egg-white vegetable omelets, and almonds. Finally-and most important-she stopped bingeing on entire boxes of cookies. "If I really want a few french fries, I'll eat them. I now know that there are healthier ways to lose weight than by completely depriving myself."

Mom of Samantha, 12, Thomas, 9, and Sara, 2

Sheila wants to lose 20 pounds. But she's always snacking on the junk food she keeps around the house for her kids. "If it's salty, I'll eat it," Sheila says. It also doesn't help that her husband and kids want only burgers, pork chops, fried chicken, and pasta with cheese sauce for dinner, and refuse to even try vegetables. "My goal isn't just to fit into my 'skinny' jeans," Sheila says. "I'd also like to develop better eating habits."

The Real Diet Dirt

Yikes, this family's diet is in need of an overhaul! "Sheila says that the kids won't eat vegetables. Well, she's the adult, she's in charge, and she needs to make changes, starting with serving some sort of vegetable at every dinner," Bauer says. "Even if her kids turn up their noses, she needs to try again the next night." Sheila should also limit the amount of starches on the table. Bauer recommends making only enough so that each person gets one serving. If they're still hungry once that's gone, they'll be more likely to try the vegetable.

Her Eat-Right Action Plan

  • Enlist her husband's help. Sheila needs to get her spouse on board with their new eating plan if she hopes to improve her kids' diets. "Even if her husband can't stand vegetables, he needs to eat them at dinner," Bauer says.
  • Get the snack food out of the house! "Sheila needs to stop buying chips that are loaded in salt," Bauer says. "Her kids certainly don't need to be eating all this junk-and once it's gone she won't be tempted to binge on it." She can make snacktime healthier for everyone by stocking the kitchen with soy chips, light microwave popcorn, rice cakes with peanut butter, edamame (soybeans), and baby carrots to dip in salsa.

  • Rethink restaurant food. One of Sheila's biggest eating pitfalls is dining out on the weekends. "She needs to eat smarter at restaurants," Bauer says. "For starters, don't let the waiter put the bread basket on the table. Most people can't resist the temptation." If she must indulge when she goes out to eat, her best bet is to order a healthy entree, then split either a fatty appetizer or dessert with her husband. Always ask that sautes and stir-fries be cooked in lemon, olive oil, or wine—not butter. Finally, opt for one glass of wine or light beer instead of a mixed drink. "Sweet mixers are loaded with calories," Bauer says.
  • Keep busy after 9 p.m. Once the kids go to bed, Sheila turns into a nocturnal eating machine, devouring everything in her refrigerator. "She needs to give herself an activity each night, such as going for a walk, calling a friend, or taking up knitting, to get her mind off food," Bauer says. If Sheila really craves something sweet, Bauer suggests eating three or four frozen chocolate kisses.

One Month Later

Although she won't weigh herself, Sheila says her clothes are definitely looser. That's not all: She's started walking with the stroller for an hour every day while her older kids are at school, and she's joined a gym. She's also stuck to her guns about changing her family's eating habits. To her surprise, her children have become fans of their healthier snack options, and they've come to expect greens on the dinner table. "Not only do I always put out a plate of vegetables-but my kids will actually take a bite or two!" she says.

Mom of Elizabeth, 20 months

Rachel has a demanding job as an attorney and spends all of her free time with her toddler, so her nutritional needs are a low priority. "I rarely eat breakfast, lunch is hit-and-miss, and our family dinner is usually Chinese or Mexican take-out," she explains.

The Real Diet Dirt

What good are you to your family if you're always hungry and low on energy? "You have to put yourself and your needs first when it comes to food," Bauer says. "Eating a well-balanced diet will give you the fuel you need to care for your child and do your job-and it will boost your immunity." Those aren't the only reasons Rachel needs to be selfish when it comes to mealtimes. "She needs to set a better example for her daughter," Bauer says.

Her Eat-Right Action Plan

  • Make mealtimes important. Rachel needs to turn dinnertime into a family ritual. Bauer recommends that she try to cook dinner at least once a week. The family also needs to make mealtimes more relaxing. "Dinner isn't supposed to be something you rush through," Bauer says.
  • Graze on the go. Rachel is often too busy to prepare meals, so Bauer gave her some suggestions for eating on the run. "Eat a piece of fruit and a small yogurt for breakfast, or try peanut butter smeared on wheat bread." For lunch, Bauer recommended a slice of pizza topped with vegetables. Finally, Rachel needs to incorporate two small, calcium-rich snacks into her schedule, such as a cup of low-fat cottage cheese, string cheese, or a skim latte or cappuccino.
  • Get your fill of fiber. "Veggie-based soups like tomato and minestrone are a no-fuss, high-fiber option," Bauer says. If Rachel's ordering Chinese or Mexican, she should opt for chicken and broccoli or steamed vegetables, or a bean burrito-sans the sour cream and cheese.
  • Pump up the water. Rachel drinks about 40 ounces of diet soda a day. "Not only is that amount of caffeine unhealthy, but the phosphorus in soft drinks leaches calcium from your bones," Bauer explains. Instead, Rachel needs to down at least four glasses of water throughout the day.

One Month Later

"I used to hit a wall in the late mornings and the midafternoon when I'd feel sluggish and tired," Rachel says. "Just eating more and drinking lots of water made me feel so much better." And she's found ways to sneak in meals even when she's tied to her desk at work. "I keep instant oatmeal on hand and make it with skim milk," she explains.

Copyright © 2005. Reprinted with permission from the April 2005 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.