Spring cleaning is a tradition for deep cleaning our homes and living spaces, but we can’t neglect our most important living space: our bodies! If you find that you’ve gone back to old habits or slipped up on your healthy New Year’s resolutions, you might consider doing a “spring clean” for your diet and kitchen.
The best way to break a cycle of unhealthy eating is not to restrict or completely ban certain foods. Instead we want to focus on making small, simple changes to bring balance and mindfulness back to our diet. Commit to following these four tips for a cleaner diet this spring. Let’s get started!
Ditch the added sugar and refined carbs.
Why? High intake of added sugars and refined carbohydrates is a major risk factor for many chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and weight gain. Cravings for the types of foods that contain a lot of simple or added sugars also tend to kick off a cycle of stronger cravings.
How? Remember that added sugars are not equal to natural sugars. Lactose, sucrose, and fructose are three types of common natural sugars. They are found in foods like milk and dairy products, fruits, honey, and maple syrup. Added sugars are just that; they are added to foods and products through cooking or processing and generally are not the same form as natural sugars. The end result is that a high amount of extra calories are added, but no extra nutritional value.
The best way to reduce intake of added sugars is to get familiar with food labels and ingredient lists and make a habit of reading them. There are four grams of sugar in one teaspoon, and though the average person consumes about 22 teaspoons each day, the recommended limit from the American Heart Association is six teaspoons for women and nine teaspoons for men.
Skip the salt.
Why? Americans eat far more than we should. The recommended limit is 1500-2300 mg per day (depending on risk factors), but the average person has up to 3400 mg per day! High sodium intake is linked to high blood pressure, but new research is emerging that too much sodium has a negative impact on our organs and can lead to other health conditions.
How? Again, check your food labels and ingredient lists first. The greatest contributors of sodium in the standard American diet are highly processed foods and packaged convenience foods. Restaurants are also notorious for excessive salt in their dishes. It is all but impossible to stick to a reduced sodium diet when dining out, so commit to cooking meals at home as often as you can. Pump up the flavor with spices and herbs instead, and go easy on condiments and dips as these tend to be high in sodium content as well.
Reinsert healthy fats
Why? We need fat in our diets, but it needs to be the right type of fat. Saturated and trans fats can have negative effects on health, while a correct balance of unsaturated fats is associated with many health benefits. Fat in the diet is also needed for the absorption of essential nutrients like Vitamins A, D, E, and K so the goal is not to eliminate fat completely.
How? Look for unsaturated fats in foods like nuts, olive oil, avocados, and fatty fish. Reduce the amount of trans fat from margarine, highly processed or fried foods, and saturated fat from animal products. Remember that 1 gram of fat contains 9 calories, and total fat intake should account for about 20-35% of your total calories. Aim to get the majority of fat in your diet from sources containing unsaturated fat (think plant sources or fish).
If you find yourself struggling to get enough through diet alone, a high-quality Omega-3 supplement may be something to consider.
Fill up on fresh foods.
Why? We want to go back to basics and fill up on the types of foods that taste great and provide the nutrients our bodies need to thrive. Minimizing intake of highly processed foods is the best way to limit the things we don’t want (added sugar, high sodium, trans fat, artificial ingredients) and fuel up on the things we do want (vitamins, minerals, fiber, phytonutrients).
How? Get creative! Start with your shopping list – find ingredients that are seasonal or local and go from there when it comes to modifying your favorite recipes. Make fruits and vegetables the main attraction, and add in lean proteins and starches that complement the flavors. A good rule of thumb: the shorter the ingredient list, the better. And even better than that: foods without a food label like fresh produce, grains from the bulk bins at the grocery store, and locally sourced meat when available.
A few other tips that work well with this plan:
- Spring clean your kitchen and pantry – out of sight means out of mind, so remove tempting items from your cabinets and replace them with better options. Clear out foods that are expired, and consider donating what you know you will not use. Set up your environment to make the healthy choice the easy choice!
- Stay hydrated – skip the soda, caffeine, and other calorie-dense beverages for water. Consider making this detoxing and refreshing Rosemary Lemon Water recipe.
- Don’t forget to get moving! Exercise can improve your mood and fitness level, and Spring is the perfect opportunity to get out and discover (or rediscover) your favorite ways to get active.
- Keep a food or exercise journal – this is a great tool to help you discover what works well for you and what doesn’t. But don’t just leave it as a list of what you’ve done for the day. Make sure you also add notes about your mood, how you felt before and after, and other clues to help tune in to emotional eating, stress, and other factors that influence behavior. Then, use this information to develop a plan you can sustain long-term.
When we do small things consistently to help keep our homes clean, the mess rarely gets out of control. We can apply this same simple guideline to eating and avoid the need to completely overhaul every aspect of our diets. Keep these tips in mind throughout the year; if you ever need to “reboot” just plan to follow them more strictly for a one to two week period to get back on track with healthy and balanced living.