We’ve all seen the reports and nodded meekly when our doctors (or more likely Dr. Oz) told us it was past time to pass on the salt, ditch the cookies and eat the darn brown rice, already. But when it comes to culinary matters, knowing what’s good for us and choosing to drive our forks into it is hard. After all, most Americans eat almost twice the amount of sodium that they should, but far fall short of the recommended daily fiber goals. And the CDC reports that more than 70 percent of adults get 15 to 21 percent of their daily calories from added sugars, when the recommended limit is 10 percent.
Hard, yes. Impossible, definitely not.
“It took me months to wean myself off salt, but taste buds do adjust if you do it gradually,” says Kim Larson, a registered dietitian (totalhealthrd.com) and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
That’s right, even nutrition experts admit to having to buckle down and overhaul their food choices. So take heart knowing you’re in good company trying to change your eating habits. These taper tactics will set you on a course where satisfying meals intersect with better health.
Divide and conquer. You don’t need to be a math whiz to master this tip; simply use less sugar. Let’s say you normally take your coffee or tea with a teaspoon of sugar. Tomorrow, try 3/4 of a teaspoon; a few days later, drop it down to 1/2, and so on. The same idea holds true when you’re baking a batch of cookies or whipping up Sunday morning pancakes—whatever amount of sugar your recipe calls for, just use less and less until you find a new level of acceptable sweetness.
Find flavor elsewhere. If salt is your default flavor enhancer, you’re missing out on some easy ways to make your favorite foods taste better. Shallots, garlic, citrus zest and fresh herbs or dried spices (like cardamom, tarragon, basil and cinnamon) all pair well with rice and pasta, meats and fish, soups and sauces. Plus, these additions come with health-boosting nutrients. “Just because these things aren’t in a shaker doesn’t mean they’re difficult to use,” says Larson. “You don’t need to be a trained chef to quickly zest a lemon or chop up some herbs for your meal.”
Befriend a cookbook. Added sugars and salt love to hide out in store-bought condiments, sauces, salsas and salad dressings, says Larson. While you probably don’t want to start making your own ketchup, additive-free pasta sauce, salad dressing and salsa are easy recipes to master.
Look out for "healthy" traps. Yogurt is a prime example of a good food with a bad side. Yes, it contains calcium and probiotics, which are good bacteria for our guts, but unless you’re buying “plain,” you’re getting more than 2 teaspoons of added sugar per cup (some even have 5 teaspoons per serving!). Plain yogurt, on the other hand, has lactose, a naturally occurring sugar. Instant oatmeal is another sweet pitfall. Yes, it’s easy to microwave a pre-flavored cup of this healthy whole grain. But a quick scan of the labels on name-brand instant oatmeals flavored with maple and brown sugar reveals they have upwards of 11 grams of sugar—that’s nearly 3 teaspoons. You’re better off buying the plain instant variety and jazzing it up yourself with real fruit.
Stick with water. Soda, sweetened ice tea, energy drinks and many fruit juices contain shockingly high amounts of added sugar: According to the Harvard School of Public Health, most 12-ounce sodas contain the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar. Ditto for orange juice, and sports drinks deliver about 5 teaspoons. Even 100 percent fruit juice is a sugar bomb—packing in 10 to 12 teaspoons of sugar without the beneficial fiber boost. That’s a lot of sugar. If these beverages are part of your daily routine, start by cutting yourself off at just one a day. Then begin pouring the drink into a small, 4- to 5-ounce juice glass. If you truly can’t tolerate plain old H2O, try spiking water or seltzer with a squeeze of lemon or other fruit.
Go halfsies. Whole grains do deliver more nutrients and beneficial fiber than their refined counterparts, “but they are an acquired taste,” says Larson. The best way to befriend them is to do so gradually. Take, for example, your noontime sandwich: Choose a whole wheat bread for one slice and keep your beloved white bread for the other half. Use the same logic when preparing any rice or pasta dish, even recipes for baked goods. This step-by-step approach has the added benefit of giving your digestive system time to adjust to the increased amount of fiber.
Skip the alternate routes. Sugar substitutes and low-calorie or low-fat versions of foods may seem like a smart idea, but in reality they can backfire. Cheese is a good example—most low-fat cheeses have added sodium to make up for the flavor loss. You’re better off choosing the full-fat cheese but cutting back on the serving size. (Another trick: Select aged cheeses, which have more intense flavors so you’ll—ideally—be satisfied with a smaller portion.) As for artificial sweeteners, most are sweeter than the real thing. So if your goal is to retrain your taste buds, this tactic will only ramp up your sweet tooth.
Vary your prep methods. There’s nothing wrong with boiled or steamed broccoli, except it begs for some oomph. Grill and roast that same floret, however, and a robust flavor is cooked right in, no salt necessary. This applies to just about any vegetable.
Keep the chicken skin on. At least when you’re cooking the bird, keep the skin on. According to the experts at the Harvard School of Public Health, most of the fat in chicken skin is the healthy, unsaturated variety. So keeping the skin on during the cooking process means you’ll wind up with a meal that has more natural flavor and less need for salt.
Never say never. Tweaking your palate to the point that you’re completely content to eat less sugar and salt and more whole grains “doesn’t mean you can’t look forward to a favorite food from time to time,” says Larson. So instead of going cold turkey and never looking back, give yourself permission to occasionally have a decadent slice of cake, or to savor your favorite restaurant’s signature dish—no matter what’s on the ingredient list—as part of a special occasion.