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Get Smart: A Savvy Approach to Eating

Spring is the perfect time to adopt a lighter, healthier diet that will set a fresh course for the rest of the year

While there were many doubters, spring did finally arrive. With it comes the opportunity to rediscover the lighter side to eating well. "Spring is a good time to put more thought into what we're eating," says Kristen Bentson, D.C., M.S., owner and creator of YouAnew Lifestyle Nutrition in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. More thought doesn't mean more work. "Instead of focusing on what you shouldn't be eating, focus on the amazing variety of fabulously healthy foods that are easily available," she says. "Mindset matters."

So wrap your mind around this revamped approach to food and kick-start healthy changes that will stick year-round.

SNIFF OUT HIDDEN SUGAR You probably won't be surprised to read that Americans have a serious sweet tooth. But it's alarming to discover that, on average, we're taking in about 475 calories of added sugar every day. That's 30 teaspoons. Added sugar isn't confined to boxed cereals or packaged baked goods; it's also hiding out in jars of pasta sauce and containers of yogurt. And it's not just high fructose corn syrup that you need to be on the lookout for, says Bentson. Evaporated cane juice, organic cane syrup, brown rice syrup, honey, agave and other trendy sweeteners may be natural, but they're still sugar.

All this sweet stuff is contributing to the obesity epidemic, while also raising your risk of developing diabetes and other health problems, according to the National Institutes of Health. To reign in the amount of sugar you consume, aim to top off around 25 grams (or 6 teaspoons) each day. Natural sugars in fresh fruit, vegetables and dairy — thankfully — are good.

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GET REAL Seek out more foods made with real ingredients. In the rice and couscous aisle, for example, skip the pre-seasoned boxes and pick up the plain varieties of grains. Then add your own herbs and spices at the stove. Over in the snack section, choose bags of popcorn kernels over the microwave stuff, and do your popping over a stove. A little bit of real butter drizzled over the fluffy kernels will be better than the strange-sounding ingredients in the processed bags. And when facing dozens of oatmeal varieties, the simplest — and smartest — option is the "old-fashioned" kind. That way you can be in charge of the flavor options and better control the final calorie and fat counts. You get the picture.

REDEFINE SNACKING Somewhere down the road, snacks and treats got tangled together, but the two should be viewed as very different entities. A snack is a small portion of well-balanced food that ties you over between meals, says Joan Salge Blake, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "Think of snacks like mini-meals, with lean protein and fiber to fuel your body," she says. A treat, on the other hand, is an indulgence and should be limited. Her advice is to think of treats as something to enjoy on a special occasion — not something to add to your weekly grocery list.

DON A CHEF'S HAT Another thing to view as a treat should be eating out, says Bentson. Even if the restaurants you frequent include calorie counts on the menu, chances are high that you'll eat more than if you sat down to a home-cooked meal. A University of Texas at Austin study found that dieters consumed 253 more calories and 16 additional grams of fat when they ate out. This tip, of course, does require some advance planning, but you can put your smartphone to use by downloading apps that let you create weekly menus and shopping lists, plus store recipes. Two apps to consider: Paprika Recipe Manager and Meal Board.

MORE SPRITZING, LESS POURING Congrats if olive oil is now one of your cooking staples. Many adults have gotten the message that healthy fats have many protective health benefits. But it's easy to overdo a good thing. "While oils like olive, avocado, walnut, almond and sesame are great for your heart, hair and overall health, they are really high in calories," says Bentson, "It's common to take a 50-calorie pan of veggies and turn it into a 500-calorie meal by dousing it with oil before roasting. To avoid the high calories and still get the health benefit, I recommend using an oil sprayer like the Misto."

EASE INTO WHOLE GRAINS Multiple studies have shown that upping your intake of whole grains helps lower your risk for a host of health conditions, including cardiovascular, infectious and respiratory diseases. The extra fiber found in whole grains is especially important for men and women in their 40s and 50s, which is generally the time when heart disease and digestive concerns enter the health picture. Fiber helps manage cholesterol levels and keep the digestive system moving properly.

The good news is, you don't have to give up your favorite baguette or linguini dish entirely. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans urge us to get at least half of our daily grains from whole grains. This move ensures we're getting the key nutrients that get stripped away in the refining process, while also giving our taste buds time to readjust. So the next time you're cooking pasta, try mixing your favorite standby with its whole grain version. You can do the same thing when making sandwiches (use one slice of whole grain bread and one slice of white bread) or baking (use a blend of all-purpose and whole wheat flours). If you've already made the switch to whole grain bread and pasta, branch out and try making dishes with quinoa, barley, wild rice or farro.

PUT DOWN YOUR FORK The best way to avoid overeating is simply to slow down. "Remember that it takes 20 minutes to register the sensation of fullness," says Bentson. "If you're finished with a meal in five minutes, you can go three more rounds before your brain even starts to catch up. And by then, you've exceeded what your body really needs. Simply put your fork down between bites."

Tags: diet