Simple Ways to Eat Smarter

Simple Ways to Eat Smarter

Words by Paige Townley

There are numerous reasons to eat healthy. A healthy diet usually leads to a decreased risk of many health problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity, as well as many other chronic diseases. But oftentimes, a healthy diet isn’t easily attainable in the South. From sweet tea to fried chicken, Southern cooking isn’t exactly synonymous with healthy eating. But actually, there are plenty of ways you can cut the calories without cutting the flavor.

Monitor Sugar Intake

One of the main dietary components that sabotage the diet—especially children’s diets—is sugar. It’s important, especially for parents, to be mindful of what the sugar content of a food or beverage really is. Typically, most sugar is consumed from beverages, not sweet treats. Oftentimes, it’s assumed that simply cutting down on sodas is the answer for reducing that sugar content, but the reality is that many juices have just as much sugar. “The sugar content of your soft drink is very much the same as the sugar content of orange juice or apple juice,” says Children’s of Alabama’s Dr. Dan Feig. “The sugar content of grape juice is actually 30 percent higher.”
It’s a common misconception that juices are a healthy, Dr. Feig adds. In actuality, he says, a 16-ounce bottle of fruit juice has the same sugar content as approximately eight chocolate chip cookies. A sweetened mocha latte has the same sugar content as 2.5 glazed donuts. “Part of the challenge in terms of sugar control, which can equate to calorie control in many cases, is that people just don’t realize how many calories they are actually consuming,” he adds.

For children specifically, approximately 50 percent of all sugar intake is from sugar-sweetened beverages. Instead of soft drinks or juices, kids and adults alike should be consuming much more water, with no more than one serving of sugar-sweetened beverage each day.
To help with the transition, Children’s of Alabama’s Clinical Nutritionist Janelle Schirmer recommends switching to unsweetened versions of your favorite beverage. “It can be a big challenge when you’re used to drinking a lot of sugar-sweetened beverages to swap overnight,” she says. “If you are preparing your own tea or lemonade at home, start out by adding in only half of the actual sugar you’d normally include. That will help your body begin to wean itself from the sugar. The goal is to remove the sugar completely, but just starting out with half can be helpful. Flavored water is another really good option. They are unsweetened but offer flavor and carbonation, making them a great alternative to soda.”

Rethink How You Cook

Fried foods may be our go-to in the South, but instead of avoiding some of our favorite traditional foods completely, simply rethink how you prepare them. Instead of frying, opt for baking or grilling to cut down on the calories and added fat. “Air fryers have become pretty popular, and that is another great option that means using less oil and fat but still offering that desired crispy texture,” Janelle says.
If you are going to fry food, try making the swap from white flour to whole wheat flour for the batter, which means the addition of a little more fiber.

Be Conscious of Portion Size

A good rule of thumb is making sure that at each meal, half of the plate consists strictly of fruits and vegetables. Obviously when it comes to the vegetables, they should be steamed, baked, or grilled instead of fried. “So often we fill our plates with much more protein and starch, so we’re missing out on fruits and vegetables,” Janelle says. “About a quarter of our plate should be protein and a quarter should be starch, with the rest being fruits, vegetables, or a mix of both.”

Make Your Own

It may take a little more time and effort to make your own food from scratch instead of a store bought pre-processed option, but doing so is not only a great way to involve the kids in cooking, but also making a dish healthier. For example, the ever-popular Southern staple macaroni and cheese could be made at home with whole grain noodles or even legume-based noodles, which means more fiber and protein and is much more nutritious than the typical box noodles. “Use that as a base and then top with low-fat cheese and you still have the favorite side dish but a version that’s much more nutritious,” Janelle says. “Just a few swaps here and there go a long way.”