En español | By this stage of life, we've all had it with fad diets. That's not to say they don't work. Most of them do, but just for a while. We've been there, done that so many times that it's tempting to just throw up our hands and resign ourselves to living with the extra weight.
But the fact is, the older we get, the more dangerous those extra pounds can be, putting every aspect of our health at risk.
Don't worry: We're not prescribing another Atkins-Paleo-Scarsdale-type diet. Rather, we are suggesting a sane nutrition plan that will help your body function at peak efficiency.
It's called clean eating, and it's pretty fundamental: It means opting for more of the foods we know are good for us — whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and good fats — and less of the stuff that we know is harmful, including salt, sugar and trans fats.
Begin to eat this way and you'll find that, over time, your healthy habits actually retrain your taste buds to appreciate real food, instead of the sugary, fried and fat-laden fare that makes up so much of the typical American diet.
To help you get started, we have outlined our own Eat Clean Rules, with smart shopping strategies, foods to avoid and must-have kitchen staples, plus spices and superfoods that will make you healthier and your body happier, one meal at a time.
The Eat Clean Rules
Eating for health means making better choices. Here are six simple strategies for a smarter diet.
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Rule 1: Get back to basics
The primary tenet of clean eating is to eat more foods in their natural state: unsalted nuts, grass-fed and free-range meats, whole fruits and vegetables. It's common sense, really, but the truth is that much of what we consume today is chemically altered — "the maltodextrins and the high-fructose corn syrups and the stuff that doesn't exist outside of a factory," says Tamara Duker Freuman, a clinical dietitian based in New York. Try to swap in two more servings a day of real food and you'll be on your way to better health.
Rule 2: Think outside the box
Most food that comes in a box is processed in some way, which means it either adds things you don't need or strips away some of a food's essential goodness. Even foods with real ingredients can be less than ideal if they have been processed. So try to choose foods with the least amount of processing. For example, you're much better off eating a fig than a Fig Newton. The closer a food is to its original form, the better it is for you.
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Rule 3: Check the label
"The trick to finding clean packaged foods is to spend a little time reading the ingredients list," says Laura Georgy, a dietitian in Chicago. The healthiest foods are the ones that contain the fewest ingredients. "If you can't pronounce an ingredient, you probably shouldn't eat it," says Michelle Dudash, author of Clean Eating for Busy Families.
Rule 4: Know the enemy
Look for "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil," "hydrogenated vegetable oil" and "shortening" in cookies, crackers and microwave popcorn. The by-product of hydrogenation — trans fat — raises bad (LDL) cholesterol and lowers good (HDL) cholesterol, increasing the risk for heart attack and stroke.
Take out your reading glasses and look for "blue 1," "blue 2," "citrus red 2," "green 3," "orange B," "red 3," "red 40," "yellow 5" and "yellow 6" in baked goods, cereals and condiments. Synthetic food dyes have been linked with tumors in animal studies.
Watch out for "acesulfame-K," "saccharin" and "aspartame" on any food claiming to be "low sugar" or "low carb." Research shows that these may overstimulate our sugar receptors, making us crave sweet foods and making naturally sweet foods — such as fruit — less palatable.
High-fructose corn syrup
Look for "high-fructose corn syrup," "corn sugar" and "corn sweetener" in everything from bread to salad dressing. These concentrated simple sugars cause a cascade of blood sugar and insulin spikes and drops that may have the unintended consequence of making us crave even more high-sugar, high-fat food, no matter how much we've just eaten.
Nitrates and nitrites
Scan smoked meat and jerky for the deceptively healthy-sounding ingredients "celery powder" or "celery juice." They're undercover additives, used to preserve the red color of the meat, and are associated with ovarian and kidney cancers, according to the long-running NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study.
Rule 5: Shop smarter
The following foods are essential for good health. What's more, because they're low in sugar and salt, and high in fiber and savory flavors, a little of any of them will go a long way toward satisfying cravings.
Hummus: The protein in hummus keeps you full longer, and its high iron content increases energy.
Peppercorns: Piperine, the substance that gives black pepper its pungency, blocks the formation of new fat cells.
Tuna and salmon pouches: Cold-water fish support neurological function, are anti-inflammatory and, for those with cardio issues, have a mild blood-thinning effect.
Expeller-pressed canola oil: It's best for grilling and high-heat cooking.
Gelatin: Rich in amino acids — particularly glycine, which supports skin, hair, nail, joint and gut health — unflavored gelatin can thicken soups and sauces.
Sprouted-grain bread: This chewy bread can provide more vitamin C and other nutrients than loaves made with flour. Always choose whole-grain bread over white.
Garlic powder: Nearly as beneficial as fresh garlic, the powdered form strengthens the immune system, reduces cholesterol and fights cancer.
Chia seeds: Add these super seeds to smoothies and salads for a dose of healthy fats, fiber and protein.
Oats: They contain bone-beneficial iron and magnesium, plus fiber, which is a prebiotic — a food that feeds the good bacteria in your gut.
Fermented foods: Miso, sauerkraut and kimchi with live active cultures are full of probiotics, which aid digestion.
Quinoa and whole-grain pasta: These can provide the basis for fast, fiber-rich meals on those evenings when you find you don't have much time to cook.
Seasonal fruits and vegetables: Asparagus, green beans and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower contain sulfur compounds that help you eliminate toxins that cause oxidative damage — the precursor to most disease. Blue and purple berries contain resveratrol, which promotes healthy aging by reducing inflammation and blood sugar, and supporting the cardiovascular system.
Lean meats: Buy chicken and lean beef for the days you know you'll be cooking. If possible, choose grass-fed or sustainably raised options.
Rule 6: Eat at home
After a lifetime of cooking for your family, the last thing you want to do is eat every meal at home. We get that.
But people who eat out frequently, whether at fast-food or full-service restaurants, consume more calories and, ironically, fewer nutrients too, a recent study found. Conversely, people who prepare most of their own meals at home eat better and eat less — even when they eat out. Here are some easy strategies to embrace the clean-eating concept at home.
Redefine home cooking
Simple is best. "Cooking can be bagged greens with some canned beans and chopped-up vegetables; it can be a piece of grilled salmon from the prepared-food section, and you toss it on your own greens," dietitian Freuman says.
Try one-dish meals
We were all raised on stews, so why stop now? "One-dish meals that contain a vegetable, protein and complex carbohydrate are a lifesaver," author Dudash says. Try clean-food combos such as quinoa with chicken, carrots and snow peas, or orzo with salmon and red and green peppers. Simplify further by cleaning and chopping your vegetables in advance for a one-dish stir-fry, omelet or salad.
Take it slow
This is not your mother's Crock-Pot. The newest models of slow cookers allow you to program the time you want your food to be ready — so if you're gone longer than the six or eight hours that most recipes call for, the device won't continue to macerate your food until it's unrecognizable.
Cook once, eat for a week
You did it when your kids were little, and it's still a great time-saver. "Roast multiple fillets of fish or chicken and freeze them in individual or family-size portions," says Ayla Withee, a clinical dietitian and owner of Boston Functional Nutrition. Next time you need a home-cooked meal, just add fresh vegetables and whole grains, heat and serve.
Sub citrus for salt
A splash of acid — lemon juice, lime juice or vinegar — can reduce your need to salt foods. Plus, it provides some immune-boosting vitamin C.
Try new tastes
Go beyond your usual condiments and add a burst of flavor without calories and fat. Try sriracha, pesto, Tabasco, even low-salt soy sauce.