A study published earlier this year in The Lancet found that 20% of deaths globally are linked with “suboptimal diet.” These poor eating habits are responsible for more deaths than smoking, the study reports, and 45% of these deaths strike people under age 70.
The top trouble spots? Too much sodium and not enough whole grains, fruits, nuts and seeds, vegetables, and omega-3 fatty acids from seafood. These dietary risks are connected with our top killers—heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
The study encourages people to focus on eating more healthy foods, rather than eliminating unhealthy foods. That’s a tactic our experts support, too. Liz Wyosnick, a registered dietitian in Seattle and owner of Equilibriyum, says she finds recommendations to add foods in are easier for people to follow.
And Dahlia Marin, a registered dietitian nutritionist with Married to Health in Newport Beach, California, encourages her clients to choose mostly plant-based foods that crowd out processed grains, sugars, fats, and animal products. She says people like this approach: “They get to eat more, learn new recipes, and expand their palates.”
Liem Quang Le, a doctor of acupuncture in Tampa, Florida, who holds a masters’ degree in human nutrition and functional medicine, tries to focus on why his patients need to make dietary changes, which he says improves motivation. “Food and diet is such a personal topic,” he says. It helps when people know how the change will affect their health.
For those of us in midlife or older, changing our diet can be tough. Making healthier choices can mean changing a lifetime of habits, customs, and cultural influences. “But small changes are doable,” says Aastha Kalra, a physician in Westchester, New York, who specializes in medically supervised weight loss and diabetes reversal.
These changes are important, too. “Food is medicine, and diet has a huge role in good health,” Kalra says. Here are seven things to try:
1. Eat every 3.5 to 4 hours
“Skipping meals tends to mean overcompensating later,” Wyosnick says. It’s harder to make smart food choices when you’re hungry.
2. Start with your favorite healthy foods
“First, choose among the healthy foods you enjoy, because it’s a lot easier to get behind a plan containing the foods you like,” says William Li, author of Eat To Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself. “When planning a meal or ordering from a menu, start with the vegetable. Then, build your choices around that.”
3. Cook at home more
For most of us, the meals we prepare ourselves are healthier than those we choose in restaurants. Wyosnick concedes that making this change means more work.
“Usually the healthier choice will take more effort, forethought and time. Many clients struggle with finding time to cook, or to pack their snack, or to plan their meal breaks,” she says.
She works with her clients to help them structure their days and fit in meal planning and prep time.
4. When you eat out, ask for healthy upgrades
Marin suggests swapping:
- hand rolls with veggies in place of rice at sushi restaurants
- cut cucumbers or carrots to replace pita bread at Mediterranean restaurants
- cabbage instead of tortillas at Mexican restaurants
- veggies to replace some of the pasta at Italian restaurants
5. Add vegetables to your lunch and dinner
“I encourage my clients to eat any and all vegetables that they love,” says Wyosnick. She points people to her top choices—cruciferous veggies like cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, kale, bok choy, and Brussels sprouts, and alliums like onions, garlic, shallots, leeks, chives and scallions.
6. Upgrade your sandwich
Switch to whole-grain bread, or replace one or both slices of bread with lettuce or another green, leafy vegetable.
7. Make it easy on yourself
Here’s how, says Marin:
- Keep a chopped veggie tray on hand for snacks
- Add frozen or no-added-salt canned veggies to your soups, frozen meals, or pasta
- Mix leafy greens into just about any dish