10 Ways to De-Junk Your Diet

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The typical American diet is full of cheeseburgers, pizza, soda, cookies and cake. Unfortunately, you’d be right, even if you wanted to be wrong. The latest research shows that we need to limit refined grains, saturated fat, added sugar and salt. And considering half of all adult Americans live with a preventable chronic condition in which diet plays a role, it’s time for us to kick junk food to the curb and start eating foods that support a vibrant, healthy lifestyle. Don't know where to start? We asked nutrition experts to share 10 ways you can de-junk-ify your diet.


DE-JUNK: Salad Dressing

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Did you know that salad dressing is a significant source of sodium? It doesn’t seem fair that in making an effort to eat more vegetables, people are actually piling on the salt. Too much sodium can raise your blood pressure, tax the kidneys and at the very least leave you feeling bloated and dehydrated. You need to eat salads, though, if you love a specific salad dressing, reducing sodium could be as simple as cutting back on how much you pour over your greens. The American Heart Association estimates that reducing sodium could save more than half a million lives over the next decade.


SMART SWAP: Salad Toppers

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Try topping your next salad with something other than salad dressing. The fat in salad dressing helps the body absorb beneficial fat-soluble nutrients like vitamins A, D, E and K, so instead of dressing, try adding sliced almonds, avocados, salmon or hemp seeds. Salad dressing also helps bring all the various elements of a salad together, and you can add a splash or two of red wine vinegar for a similar effect. Finally, salad dressing often adds a zippy flavor to salads; an alternative is to include tart fruit -- yes, fruit -- to your bowl of vegetables. Rene Ficek, RD, lead nutrition expert at Seattle Sutton’s Healthy Eating, recommends berries for their antioxidant power. She shares, “Anthocyanins are potent antioxidants responsible for the reddish pigment in foods like strawberries, cherries, blackberries and raspberries. These antioxidants scrub away harmful free radicals that can damage cells, cause inflammation and fuel chronic disease.”

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DE-JUNK: Cheese

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Cheese is delicious and can provide some positive nutrients like protein and potassium. However, regular cheese is also the number-one source of saturated fat and a major source of sodium in the diet, two nutrients Americans already overconsume and that carry with them negative health implications. While it has its place, cheese is a bit too ubiquitous. For example, it’s nearly impossible to find a deli sandwich without cheese as a standard component (go ahead, give this a try next time you’re at a sandwich shop). Bring cheese intake down and your heart will thank you for the break from the concentrated punch of saturated fat and sodium.


SMART SWAP: Cheese -- Savor or Swap Out?

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Love cheese? Who can blame you? When you do partake, make it a treat that you truly savor. For example, enjoy an occasional cheese board with a variety of decadent cheeses sliced into small pieces alongside fresh fruit and unsalted nuts. For everyday meals, there’s room to swap out cheese that’s added (nearly automatically). In sandwiches, reach for flavorful condiments like mustard, which is low-calorie and contains some antioxidants, and for salads, swap in healthy fats to replace the cheese (see the slide on smarter salad toppers). You can also consider adding small portions of fermented vegetables to up the flavor impact (a little goes a long way). Rene Ficek, RD, says, “When foods are fermented, they create benefits like lactobacilli, which enhances the growth of beneficial bowel bacteria.” Examples of fermented vegetables include sauerkraut, miso, tempeh and kimchi.

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DE-JUNK: Cookies and Cake

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Grain-based dessert foods like cookies, cupcakes, brownies, doughnuts, piecrusts and pastries are a triple threat -- a top source of calories, added sugars and sodium in the American diet. A small amount of empty calories from these kinds of foods is OK if you love them, but most people eat far more than what is considered healthy. These are definitely special treat foods to spend your discretionary calories on, so if you look at your regular diet, and grain-based sweets are on the menu more than once or twice a week, it’s definitely time to cut back. Tried-and-true methods include eating these foods less often or in smaller portions -- preferably both. Save on eating these empty-calorie foods and your heart and your waistline will thank you. For something naturally sweet and rich in nutrients, reach for whole fresh fruit instead.

Read more: 15 Reasons to Kick Sugar


SMART SWAP: Antioxidant-Rich Foods

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Instead of empty calories, reach for foods that are naturally sweet and rich in antioxidant nutrients. Joy Bauer, M.S., RDN, founder of Nourish Snacks, says, “They help protect your cells from day-to-day wear and tear (i.e., sun, stress, toxins) and can help boost heart health and brainpower.” Bauer shares her favorites, noting, “Some of the most powerful antioxidant foods are dark chocolate, cherries and berries.” To make it easy, Bauer recommends keeping the freezer stocked with frozen berries. She says, “I use them for smoothies, microwave them for a warm compote, mix them in with healthy muffin batters, top a nonfat Greek yogurt and use them as pancake toppings.” For dark chocolate, she recommends enjoying a small square after dinner, sipping a cup of hot cocoa, blending cocoa powder into your yogurt or making a homemade trail mix with cacao nibs, whole-grain cereal, nuts and dried berries like blueberries and cranberries.

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DE-JUNK: Pizza, Bread and Pasta

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Pizza, which often includes cheese and meat, is the second-highest source of saturated fat in the American diet (regular cheese is the first). More often than not, pizza dough is made with refined white flour, another food component that health experts recommend Americans cut back on. For better pizza, make it at home with whole-grain dough, top it with plenty of vegetables and go light on the cheese. Many breads and pastas also pack plenty of refined grains and are major sources of hidden sodium in the diet. Go for whole-grain versions for better nutrition, and also consider cutting back on how much real estate bread and pasta own on your plate. Build meals around larger portions of vegetables instead.

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SMART SWAP: Vegetables

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When asked what American diets could use more of, Kimberly Gomer, M.S., RD, LDN, director of nutrition at Pritikin Longevity Center and Spa, said, “That’s an easy one -- definitely vegetables!” The typical American diet is heavy in refined grains and meats, but Gomer notes, “A plant-based diet, with veggies as the star, contributes vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients to our diets.” She adds, “If all folks do is add five or more servings of vegetables per day to their diets, they will receive so many wonderful health benefits.” Everyone knows they should be eating more vegetables, but if you need a little more motivation, Gomer reminds us: “Vegetables help with inflammation, which is a problem for our bodies; plus, the fiber we get from vegetables helps with blood sugar control, lowering cholesterol, preventing cancer and making weight management easier.”

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DE-JUNK: Sodas and Fruit Drinks

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Combined, sugar-sweetened sodas and fruit drinks account for nearly half of all added sugar intake -- 46 percent. Added sugars are just empty calories, as opposed to naturally occurring sugars in healthful foods, such as fruit or low-fat yogurt. Sodas are number one in the added-sugar department and alone are one of the top-five sources of total calories in the American diet. The good news is that cutting soda out of the diet is one of the simplest ways to drop pounds, and most people know they should be cutting back anyway. In contrast, fruit drinks may confuse consumers into thinking they’re healthy. After all, fruit is healthy. However, fruit drinks are mostly sugar and water and do not carry the same benefits as 100-percent juice or whole fruit. Look out for drinks that look like fruit juice, but are labeled with any of these terms: drink, beverage, punch, -ade, cocktail or delight. Water is always a solid choice for good hydration, and adding lemon, cucumber or melon to a glass of water adds an aromatic note without the empty calories.

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Washington, D.C.-based dietitian Charmaine Jones, M.S., RDN, LDN, offers an offbeat alternative to sugar-sweetened fruit drinks: a naturally sweet beet-and-fruit smoothie. She says, “If you love smoothies, why not make them vibrant with beets?” She recommends simply slicing up a beet stalk and adding it to a smoothie for “an extra boost and sweetness without the added sugar.” She says, “Beets are one food you should add to your diet. Beets are rich in antioxidants and have been shown to boost metabolism when you exercise by improving blood flow and helping to lower blood pressure.” Jones explains that beets are rich in nitrates that ultimately get converted into nitric oxide, which relaxes and dilates the blood vessels so that blood flows more easily, lowering blood pressure. Additional smart alternatives to sugar-sweetened beverages include water, tea, whole fruit or 100 percent juice.

Read more: Charmaine Jones’ Beet Smoothie Recipe

What Do You Think?

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If you’re like most Americans, your average week probably includes too much red meat, deli meat, refined grains, sodas and sweets and not enough vegetables, fruit, seafood or whole grains. There’s room for improvement. Are you ready to de-junk-ify your diet? What will be hardest to eliminate? What will be easiest? (Hint: Easy changes are a great place to get started.) What foods are you excited to eat more of? Do you have a favorite fruit or vegetable, or do you have a favorite unsweetened iced tea that will now stand in for your daily soda habit? We’d love to hear how you’ll be changing it up for better health. Let us know in the comments below.

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10 Superfood Swaps for Picky Eaters

credit: Matthew Mew/iStock/Getty Images Matthew Mew/iStock/Getty Images

The typical American diet is full of cheeseburgers, pizza, soda, cookies and cake. Unfortunately, you’d be right, even if you wanted to be wrong. The latest research shows that we need to limit refined grains, saturated fat, added sugar and salt. And considering half of all adult Americans live with a preventable chronic condition in which diet plays a role, it’s time for us to kick junk food to the curb and start eating foods that support a vibrant, healthy lifestyle. Don't know where to start? We asked nutrition experts to share 10 ways you can de-junk-ify your diet.


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