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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

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Improve your diet with a positive approach
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By: Susan Raatz

Two-thirds of Americans are now either overweight or obese, which is driving diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and is fueling increases in U.S. health care costs. For example, diabetes now affects an estimated 10 percent of the U.S. population.

Sadly, efforts to reverse this situation have had little effect. Diet advice often begins with the words "don't", "limit" and "avoid". Such advice, while well-meaning, is perceived as overwhelmingly negative, adding yet another layer of anxiety to the goal of improving your diet.

Negative approaches have worked fairly well for reducing smoking (don't smoke). But smoking is an all-or-nothing proposition; everyone must eat. How much, when and where depend on emotions, values, beliefs and culture, not just health needs. Studies have shown that counseling focused on nutrients/foods to avoid, such as total calories, sugar, trans fat, saturated fat, butter, beef and fried foods, is largely unsuccessful.

Focusing on the foods that you should eat is proving to be a better approach to diet modification. In fact, professional dietitians make a point of not classifying foods as "good" or "bad." Studies have found that when recommendations center on the foods to avoid, the good/bad dietary dichotomy is automatically created.

So, what is the best approach?

Accentuate the positive

Make positive changes to your diet to reduce your weight and risk of chronic disease. Start with the recommendations from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines top 10 tips:

  1. Balance calories: Find out how many calories you need each day as a first step in managing your weight. Go to to find your calorie level. Being physically active helps you balance calories.
  2. Enjoy your food, but eat less: Take the time to fully enjoy your food as you eat it. Eating too fast or when your attention is elsewhere may lead to overeating. Pay attention to hunger and fullness cues before, during and after meals. Use them to recognize when you've had enough to eat.
  3. Avoid oversized portions: Use a smaller plate, bowl and glass. Portion out foods before your eat. When eating out, choose a smaller size option, share a dish, or take home part of your meal.
  4. Foods to eat more often: Eat more vegetables, fruits, whole grains and fat-reduced milk and dairy products. These foods have the nutrients you need for health - including potassium, calcium, vitamin D and fiber. Make them the basis for both meals and snacks.
  5. Make half your plate fruits and vegetables: Choose red, orange and dark-green vegetables like tomatoes, sweet potatoes and broccoli along with other vegetables for your meals. Add fruit as a part of main or side dishes or as a dessert.
  6. Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1 percent) milk: They have the same amount of calcium and other essential nutrients as whole milk but fewer calories and less saturated fat.
  7. Make half your grains whole: To eat more whole grains, use a whole-grain product instead of a refined product- such as whole-wheat bread instead of white bread or brown rice instead of white rice.
  8. Foods to eat less often: Cut back on foods high in solid fats, added sugars and salt. These include cakes, cookies, ice cream, candies, sweetened drinks and fatty meats like pizza, ribs, sausages, bacon and hot dogs. Use these as occasional treats, not every day foods.
  9. Compare sodium in foods: Use the Nutrition Facts label to choose lower-sodium versions of foods like soups, breads and frozen meals. Select canned foods labeled as "low-sodium," "reduced-sodium" or "no-salt-added."
  10. Drink water instead of sugary drinks: Cut calories by drinking water or unsweetened beverages. Soda, energy drinks and sports drinks are a major source of added sugar and calories in American diets.

The Bottom Line

While the avoidance approach has long been the standard for reducing weight and disease risk, the tide has shifted. Now, the emphasis is on foods to add to the diet rather than those to avoid. The goal is to emphasize risk-reducing foods, one at time, until they eventually crowd out less-healthful ones. And to enjoy the process.

Last Modified: 8/13/2016
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