Junk Food? Not Interested!

Here’s how to train your palate to appreciate healthy fare

March 2011

As a teen, Kristin Kirkpatrick was hooked on snack bars that were full of fat and sugar. “I ate way too many of them,” says Ms. Kirkpatrick, who grew up to be a registered dietitian. “It took me years to figure out how to have a healthy diet and enjoy foods that I didn’t even know existed.”

If you’re similarly addicted to goodies that aren’t really good for you, you may want to follow the advice that Ms. Kirkpatrick gives to participants in the Lifestyle 180 program at Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute. Cooking is one of the many skills that participants learn in the year-long program. “They’re shocked at how good the food is,” she says. “They think that healthy doesn’t taste good, that eating unhealthy is much tastier. Not true.”

Made with turkey breast and soaked chia seeds, which provide much-needed moisture, the meatballs are topped with homemade tomato sauce and served on a whole-grain bun. “It’s like a hoagie with 100 percent whole grains, high-lycopene tomato sauce and great lean protein. And everybody’s always surprised that it tastes so good,” says Ms. Kirkpatrick, the institute’s Wellness Manager.

Simply put, when you get used to the taste of healthy food, the alternative is no longer as appealing, she says, recalling one Lifestyle 180 participant who started the program with a long-held devotion to potato chips. After a few weeks of eliminating salt from her diet, the woman put a chip in her mouth and grimaced because of the intolerably salty taste.

Lessening sodium intake is one of the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released earlier this year. The report also advocates increasing your daily servings of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. “This is the first time that the dietary guidelines said we have a healthcare crisis,” Ms. Kirkpatrick says. “People have to take responsibility for their own health.”

One easy way is to know exactly what’s in the food you’re buying. Here is Ms. Kirkpatrick’s quick guide to label reading:

  • Be wary of the hype. “For most people, the first and only thing they look at is the front of the package. But the ingredient label on the back of the package, by law, has got to tell you exactly what is contained in the product – no bells and whistles that the front of the package has. The front of the package is trying to sell you.”
  • Look at the top ingredients, which is the bulk of what you’re eating. “The fewer ingredients, the better it is. Look at a typical energy bar – on average, it can have 65 ingredients!”
  • Determine whether a claim makes sense to you. “Reduced-fat peanut butter does not make sense as the majority of calories in peanuts comes from fat.”
  • Know that less is better. When purchasing frozen fruits or vegetables, it’s important to read the labels carefully to ensure that you are getting all the nutrients that they provide without added sugar or salt. “Frozen fruit should be nothing but fruit. The same with broccoli – don’t buy vegetables with salty sauces.”
  • Be aware of the Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15. These lists rank fruits and vegetables according to the amount of pesticides they retain. “Eating healthy doesn’t mean you have to eat everything organic, but you may choose to purchase particular items based on the recommendations if they’re within your budget.”

Beyond labels, Ms. Kirkpatrick offers these other tips for healthy eating:

  • Don’t consume artificially sweetened drinks with abandon. “Artificial sweeteners are not going to kill you, but if you drink artificial sweeteners all day in the form of flavored drinks, you’ll never lose that propensity for ‘I need sweet.’ If you don’t get out of the habit of having sweets, eventually you’ll go for the real stuff. The goal is getting yourself less addicted to sweets.”
  • Buy local. “So many nutrients are lost in transit. In winter, blueberries may come from places more than 1,000 miles away. Instead, go for frozen blueberries. They’re cheaper, and they probably have more nutrients as they are frozen at peak ripeness. In summer, there are blueberry patches all over. That’s the time to buy fresh.”
  • Decrease your portions of unhealthy foods; increase healthier options. “If you’re terrified of giving up your favorite food, fit in more appropriate portions. It’s not, ‘I’m never going to eat ice cream again.’ Instead, you may focus on more appropriate portions and less frequent ice cream trips. I think that’s better than having ice cream every night and having it with a tremendous amount of guilt. That’s not a way to live.”

Pursuing a healthier way of eating is “not about eliminating, it’s about empowering yourself,” Ms. Kirkpatrick says. “So many people diet and so many people fail. If you view changing your food habits as a diet – and say things such as, ‘I’m never going to eat carbs again’ – ultimately you’re doomed to failure.”

Instead, try different nutritious foods until you find the ones that you enjoy. “This requires going out of your comfort level and experimenting with new foods.”

As a teen, Ms. Kirkpatrick’s weakness was for Little Debbie Nutty Bars. But like the Lifestyle 180 participant who lost her taste for salt, Ms. Kirkpatrick hasn’t had the snack in years. “My palate is more attuned to healthy foods,” she says. “But 20 years ago, if someone said they’d put a nutty bar in front of me and I wouldn’t want it, I would have thought they were crazy.”

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