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March 27, 2017

The Diet Changes That Really Matter

by John Hastings

Want to make your head spin? Try listing the foods that make up a healthy diet. With the way nutrition news keeps changing, you may have a hard time remembering whether an item is must-eat or avoid. Northwell’s clinical dietician Diana Cusa, MS, RDN, sees the confusion first-hand in her work at Plainview Hospital with patients recently diagnosed with heart disease and diabetes, so she likes to keep her advice simple. For National Nutrition Month, here are the three easy dietary changes she says will have the biggest impact on your health:

1. Stop avoiding fat. Fat used to be a big no-no for dieticians, but that’s changed, Ms. Cusa says. “You actually need fat in your diet,” says Mrs. Cusa. Your body uses it for energy, and it also helps you absorb certain vitamins, like A, D, E and K. What’s more, fat actually helps you maintain a healthy weight, because it helps you feel full after a meal. The important thing is to eat healthy amounts of the right kinds of fat, Mrs. Cusa says. Limit the saturated fat you get from red meat and butter, while you make sure your diet includes a good amount of unsaturated fat -- the kind in olive oil, fish, sunflower oil, avocados and nuts.

2. Dial back on added sugar. Completely eliminating sugar is not just unnecessary but impossible, says Mrs. Cusa, since it’s naturally present in so many healthy foods, like fruit (which contains sugar in the form of fructose) and dairy (lactose). But the sugar that’s added to processed foods jack up your calorie count while delivering little benefit nutritionally. What’s more, although it’s easy to spot added sugar in products like soda and breakfast cereal, it also hides in plenty of items that don’t even taste sweet. “Bread and even commercial spaghetti sauce can contain added sugar,” she points out. Checking the Nutrition Facts label on packaged foods can help you keep added sugars at a healthy level. For women, that’s about 25 grams a day; men can have about 36 grams.

3. Mostly eat food you make yourself. The processed food industry wants to maximize sales, so their products are highly engineered, with a lot more sugar, salt and other flavorings than you’d add yourself. By cooking with primary ingredients – fresh or frozen produce, herbs and lean meats like chicken and fish – you can dramatically reduce the amount of sugar and salt you consume, without even trying. You’ll also avoid chemicals added to lengthen the shelf life of processed food. Best of all, chances are that you’ll find that you prefer your homemade meals, Mrs. Cusa says. When her patients make the switch, she says, “They definitely enjoy the food more.”