Meadville Tribune

Our Health

November 15, 2013

Small changes the key to getting weight under control and improving your life

Holiday season tips let you enjoy food without going overboard

MEADVILLE — I just returned from speaking at the 2013 Lifestyle Medicine Conference in Washington, D.C. I was inspired by this event to get back to our prevention roots by addressing the pillars of health — diet and exercise — and also facilitating other lifestyle interventions — smoking cessation and stress management.

These sorts of lifestyle changes have served as the framework for my recommendations for more than 25 years now. Maybe, just maybe, now that doctors are working on paying more attention to these interventions and learning more about them, we can change the way day-to-day primary care medicine is practiced.

In terms of lifestyle medicine interventions, diet, it turns out, is both clearly the most important and the most controversial of this type of approach to medicine. There is no controversy over whether a healthy diet impacts health and disease substantially, but rather “which” healthy diet is the best prescription.

I’ve always used a balanced, evidence-based approach when helping people change their eating habits. Eating, and food, is a very personal matter for many, and I simply don’t believe that “one diet should fit all.” Cultural influences as well as food preferences or tolerances all factor into what one may choose to eat.

Diet and nutrition research has evaluated several aspects of the diet and many key nutrients, and it has come to various conclusions. Although there are many dietary approaches to wellness and disease prevention, a few are supported by evidence (DASH diet, Mediterranean Diet, a plant-based/vegetarian diet).

Yet, there is no question that certain foods, namely plants, will do most people some good. While a plant-only diet may not be for everyone, heading toward a more plant-based diet can be. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are currently under review, and I’m sure the 2015 version will include the recommendation to eat more fruits and vegetables and more intact grains — that’s sometimes difficult to understand how to do when food marketers label products with simply “whole grains.”

There was some disagreement at this conference whether “small steps” are worth doing. The argument is that drastic steps lead to more drastic results, which are true in theory; but in real life, I still believe that for most of the public, small changes can be helpful.

So this holiday season, I challenge you to make a few small changes in what you choose to eat and how you cook. You don’t have to lead a vegan lifestyle to gain the health benefits of plants and whole foods. Just try a few new things and see how it goes. As Dr. David Katz likes to say: ”Add years to your life, and life to your years.”

n Hosting Thanksgiving this year or bringing a dish? Go wild with healthy vegetable-based side dishes. Change up old favorites — try this green bean casserole made with real mushrooms, stock and walnuts instead of the fat and sodium-laden canned soup variety — — or try the simple green bean salad with walnuts recipe on the page here. Try whole wheat bread for your stuffing and add in good things like dried cranberries, chopped apples, wild rice and walnuts. Use fat free broth and a small amount of olive oil to replace other fats.

Add whole grains. Instead of, or in addition to, traditional rolls, try baking with whole-wheat flour. For instance, use whole-wheat flour in place of white flour for your skillet corn bread recipe. Make a rice or barley pilaf with chopped mushrooms, nuts, onions, carrots and spinach.

Nuts and seeds are plants too! Add nuts to your oatmeal or granola in the morning. Try a mixed grain cereal or mix chia seeds or ground flax into oatmeal with fresh fruit. These seeds are high in fiber and heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids. If chia seeds aren’t for you, simply have a small handful of nuts as an afternoon snack, toss toasted nuts into salads or add to quick bread recipes — such as a pumpkin or banana nut bread.

Have a meatless meal one to two times per week. Include either beans or intact grains into the dish. Canned beans are quick and convenient and rinsing them before preparing removes quite a bit of sodium. Make a simple dish — pasta with beans. Cook small pasta — such as elbow macaroni — add a can of rinsed beans and toss with tomato sauce and a sprinkling of parmesan cheese. For tasty recipes and more about vegetarian nutrition, visit

Add a green tossed salad to any meal. Use a variety of dark leafy greens — Romaine, baby spinach, arugula. Add fruit and nuts — chopped mission figs or dates, chopped walnuts — instead of just traditional tomatoes, onions and cucumbers. Make your own simple dressing by whisking 2 tablespoons of lemon juice or apple cider vinegar into 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Add a pinch of salt and fresh or dried herbs or a teaspoon of prepared dijon mustard.

Add legumes to your weekly repertoire. Beans and lentils are high in fiber and protein. Cooked lentils to any grain dish that you usually make (a rice pilaf) or soup. You can also simply toss them with any roasted vegetable for a quick side dish or meal.

I like to cook a batch of lentils and then freeze half to quickly use at another time. Lentils are loaded with fiber and antioxidants and are a plant source of protein and iron. Follow package directions, but it is usually a 1:2 ratio of lentils to water. They are easy to cook — just rinse in a colander, then bring to boil, cover and reduce hit to simmer for about 20 to 30 minutes.

Remember, you can still continue your favorite holiday food traditions. Just work on adding a few new dishes to the table this season. Step outside of your comfort zone and try some new recipes and new ingredients over the next two months and enjoy the rewards of feeling well!

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