Science

There’s nothing especially magic about living well: The steps we need to take are logical and pretty well-known. But that doesn’t mean a health overhaul comes easy. Too often, despite our best intentions, the pounds pile on. Muscles turn to Jell-O. Stress rules the roost, and sleep is a fitful exercise in tossing and turning and checking the smartphone at 3 a.m.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The difference between failure and success boils down to approach and mindset, to selecting the right habits to tweak and -- crucially -- using the latest science to kick out bad habits and forge better, long-lasting new ones.

Most important of all: This isn’t a temporary fix. It’s a new -- and far more rewarding -- way of living. Read on if you're ready to get started.

Diet

When it comes to eating right, focus on the things that matter and don't sweat the other stuff

 (Larry Crowe / AP)
(Larry Crowe / AP)

In this time of organic, gluten-free, non-GMO flaxseed muffins, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by food choices. We have more options than ever — and more chances to wonder if we’re really eating right. Some choices matter, but other things aren’t nearly as important as they may seem. When building a healthy diet, it helps to know: What things should you sweat over, and which just aren’t worth the worry?

Sweat it

Fiber: Sure, a diet high in fiber — the indigestible roughage from fruits, vegetables and grains — will help keep you regular. But that’s just a bonus. Dietary fiber protects the heart: A 2013 study in the journal BMJ estimated that each 7 grams of fiber a day cut the risk of heart disease by about 10%. Importantly, fiber also creates feelings of fullness, making it easier to stick to a reasonable diet.

“After calories and portion sizes, fiber is the main thing that I tell my clients to watch out for,” said Marina Chaparro , a dietician in Miami and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She said she encourages clients to read labels when buying bread, cereals and other grain-based products. If there’s 3 or more grams of fiber per serving, it’s likely a winner.

Note that “soluble” fiber (found in produce and oats) and “insoluble” fiber (found in wheat and other grains as well as produce) are good for heart and health. Fiber supplements can be helpful too, but they don’t pack the nutritional punch of high-fiber foods.

Sugar: Twenty teaspoons of added sugar sounds like the makings of a decadent cake, but it’s actually the amount the average American eats each day . The American Heart Assn. recommends cutting back to just 6 teaspoons (24 grams) of added sugar for women and 9 teaspoons (36 grams) for men. The latest government guidelines , from 2015, suggest about 12 teaspoons (50 grams) for anyone on a typical 2,000 calorie diet.

There’s good reason to watch sugar: Too much raises the risk of diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Because sugar often lurks in sodas, fancy coffees, sports drinks and juices, Chaparro said she urges clients to drink water — the original sugar-free beverage. (And, by the way, she said that “natural” sugars such as honey and agave syrup aren’t better for you than the white stuff.)

Oils: These fall into two categories: heart-friendly and heart-not-so-friendly. The best oils — including canola, safflower, peanut, olive and mixed vegetable oils — are packed with polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats that, according to the American Heart Assn., can help lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease. Polyunsaturated fats also seem to ward off diabetes by increasing sensitivity to insulin, said Martha Belury , professor of human nutrition at Ohio State University. “There’s definitely a place for healthy oils in a good diet,” she said

Belury recommends avoiding cooking with tropical oils such as palm oil and coconut oil — these have more saturated fat, which in large amounts can lead to clogged arteries. And one more thing: Belury and other nutrition experts recommend that we increase our intake of oils rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help protect the brain as well as the heart. Good sources are fatty, cold-water fish as well as nuts and seeds.

Don't sweat it

Gluten: Lots of people shun gluten — a protein found in wheat, barley and some other grains — for no good reason, Chaparro said. Unless you’re one of the rare people with celiac disease or a sensitivity to gluten, the protein can be a no-sweat part of a healthy diet, she said. “It frustrates me to see healthy people avoiding gluten when they don’t need to.”

She notes that gluten-free diets can lack some of the fiber and vitamins found in whole-grain foods. “There’s a perception that gluten is a villain,” she said. “But the lack of gluten in a food doesn’t tell you anything about its nutrition.”

Organic: In general, there’s no health reason to seek out that organic sticker at the grocery store, Belury said. Studies find that non-organic foods are just as tasty and nutritious. Belury recommends picking foods that look fresh and giving them a good wash — after all, even organic foods can have pesticide residue that you don’t necessarily want in your meals.

The organic label may matter with milk, though. A 2016 study in the British Journal of Nutrition reported that organic milk contained about 50% more omega-3 fatty acids than did non-organic milk. Organic milk also had slightly more vitamin E and iron.

Multivitamins: Despite millions of dollars’ worth of studies, there’s no good evidence that multivitamins have anything to offer the average, healthy person. They don’t seem to protect against any disease, they don’t boost energy and they don’t help people live longer.

“Unless you have a really poor diet, you can spend your money on something else,” Chaparro said. Still, she added, multivitamins can be a good insurance policy for vegetarians and other people who have large dietary gaps.

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