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By Diana T. Torres

Changing bad eating habits doesn’t have to be a chore. The experience can be a time where you discover new foods that are healthy and fun to eat. Eating natural foods helps our bodies operate at the highest level. We feel and look better, our minds are clearer and we have more strength, endurance and energy.

If the idea of making a complete overhaul is frightening, start by taking small steps. Begin by cutting out fast foods and practicing portion control. Next, start a food diary so that you have a clear picture of what you are eating. Make a list of all the foods you buy and where you buy them. If the supermarket you frequent sells processed foods, look for supermarkets that also offer local grown and organic foods. It will make it easier to stick to better choices by shopping in health conscious markets.

Real foods – pure foods are the most beneficial to eat. Organic foods are free from harmful pesticides and other chemicals. Local grown foods are seasonal, fresher and not over-processed. You can usually find local grown foods at farmers markets or at a store specializing in local grown and organic foods. In addition, local farms provide heirloom fruits and vegetables not available in conventional supermarkets.

Once you have figured out your eating pattern create a menu in advance for each day or plan it for the week. Preparing foods at home or purchasing healthy ready-made meals ahead of time will keep you on track. Prepare healthy snacks and place them in snack-sized baggies or containers, and keep them in the refrigerator for quick access. Take a few of these prepared snack packets to work! Chop vegetables and create a dip using organic low-fat sour cream or yogurt; or prepare a mix of nuts and raisins or dried fruit. Experiment with vegetables, fruits and spices to create snacks you know you will eat.

We all need a little treat occasionally and healthier versions are available in the organic marketplace. In fact, you will find a variety of ingredients you can use to create great tasting desserts. Just remember that portion control is important. Take a small serving and put the rest away. It will prevent you from going overboard.

The key to a healthy diet is variety and balance — protein, vegetables, whole grains and fruits should be included daily.

Here are a few suggestions to follow:

Water: The body is composed of about 60% water and needs replenishing each day. Drinking 6 to 8 eight-ounce glasses of water a day is the standard recommendation. The best water is premium bottled or purified water. Tea, fruit juices diluted with water or sparkling water with lemon, are also healthy choices.

Protein: Wild caught fish, organic dairy and eggs, organic, free-range or pastured chicken and turkey; nuts and beans are all healthy choices. If you have a taste for red meat, search for grass-fed beef and lamb or pastured pork.

Fiber (Carbs): Eat whole grains such as brown rice, oatmeal and coucous, pasta (whole wheat, brown rice, spelt).

Fats – The Good the Bad and the Ugly:

Good fats: Monounsaturated fats lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) and increases HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol). Polyunsaturated fats lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol).

A healthy diet must include fats — good fats. Organic extra virgin olive oil, organic expeller pressed canola oil, avocados and nuts (walnuts, almonds and cashews) or nut butters from this group are all healthy sources of fat. Omega-3 fatty acids prevent obesity, heart disease and diabetes. They are present in foods such as wild salmon, sardines packed in water or olive oil, herring, black cod, and flaxseed. Grass-fed beef and lamb are also good sources of omega 3’s.

Bad Fats: Saturated fats and Trans fats raise bad cholesterol. It’s best to avoid all hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, margarine, palm or palm kernel oil, vegetable oil or shortening, corn oil, cottonseed oil, safflower, sunflower or soybean oil.

Hot tip: For a healthier soft-spread, combine equal portions of organic butter and extra virgin olive oil, and mix until creamy; keep refrigerated.

Sugar: Avoid high fructose corn syrup — corn syrup of any kind, white processed sugar, and artificial sweeteners. To sweeten foods try using honey or organic evaporated cane sugar, or natural fruit preserves.

Salt: Sea Salt is the better choice (has more mineral elements), but use in moderation.

General eating tips: Take your time when you eat, enjoy your food — eat slowly. Create a food schedule where you are eating at regular intervals and possibly at the same time each day. Remember to practice portion control; I can’t say this enough. We really don’t need to “super size” everything or to eat constantly. Most of the time we’re thirsty but grab food instead.

If you’re having a hard time, try to find a registered holistic nutritionist to help you sort everything out, and prepare a healthy list of options. Let family and friends know that you’ve changed your eating habits and would like their support. You may inspire them to make the same changes, and create a buddy system.