By Kristin Kirkpatrick, R.D. for YouBeauty.com
You read about it in newspapers and listen to it on talk shows all the time -- The Obese States of America. The prevalence of obesity and chronic disease has steadily risen over the past 25 years.
According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System from 2009, the number of obese Americans in some states exceeds 30 percent. Compare that to obesity trends from 1985 where the highest percentage of obesity in the entire country was 14 percent. As Americans struggle now more than ever to button their jeans, researchers are beginning to identify the health implications of excessive fat accumulation.
So how did we allow ourselves to get to this point? Many of the poor habits we've developed are the result of a society that makes it so easy to be lazy and sedentary. And for many, preparing fresh meals at home, taking the stairs or engaging in physical activity seems to be too much of a challenge. Compared to just five years ago, Americans are burning fewer calories per day. Additionally, we are eating very differently. We have been programmed to stop at the drive through, order takeout and grab a high-calorie energy bar because it's, well, easy, and we're swamped. Finally, we are completely confused about what to eat and who to get advice from. Celebrities are giving diet tips and labels on some food items are creating a smoke and mirrors effect, making unhealthy foods sound like they're actually healthy.
The good news? The solutions to our life-threatening health problems are much more accessible than we often realize. The key to achieving good health involves three steps: eat right, be physically active and manage your stress. Accomplishing these three steps is all about making small but simple changes that do not require much effort.
I also refer to this as "nutrition by accident," which includes five of my "get real" rules. These rules will help you get on the fast track to a wholesome, healthy lifestyle in no time.
1. Avoid foods that don't make sense. Browse your pantry and look for labels that read "fat free" or "sugar free." Are the items you're choosing fat free or sugar free in nature? If not, they've been modified to meet the special label requirement and the modification may actually mean more fat, more sugar or more refined grains. For example, peanut butter is packed with healthy unsaturated fats that increase satiety and regulate blood sugar. When manufacturers reduce the fat content in peanut butter, they add other ingredients such as corn syrup, sugar and hydrogenated vegetable oils. In nature, a peanut does not contain these added items and therefore, the product does not make sense. Sticking to 100-percent peanut butter with 100 percent of the fat is the best approach to eliminate unnecessary ingredients and additives.
2. Don't get seduced by front of package claims. Unfortunately, there are no strict regulations enforced for the front of food packages so food companies are at liberty to make claims that stretch the truth. So part of eating healthfully entails being an educated shopper so you can outsmart the genius marketing that often accompanies many food products. It is essential to flip over the package and analyze the ingredients and nutritional content. Avoid the smoke and mirrors on the front packaging and go straight to the source -- the nutrition label on the back.
3. Ditch your health halo. Frozen yogurt or ice cream? The "healthy" choice seems to be the frozen yogurt, right? Obviously, one serving of frozen yogurt is lower in fat and calories than one serving of ice cream. However, studies have found that eating a lower calorie option, like frozen yogurt, may lead a person to consume more calories overall. The reason for this is because we tend to eat more of a product when we consider it to be "healthier," or when we give it a "health halo."
4. Be aware that your environment affects how much you eat. External factors, such as the shape of foods, plates and glasses, the colors of the wall, the number of people in the room, the loudness of the music and the lighting can largely affect how much food you shovel into your mouth at each meal. Studies have found that a person may consume significantly less by eating more slowly or using smaller plates or bowls. Also, what's out of sight is out of mind. Store your junk food on either the very bottom or top shelf of the pantry. And when the waiter at your favorite restaurant asks if you want to see the dessert menu, don't give yourself the opportunity to peruse!
5. Your plan may look different than the next gal's. We are all different and our plans to get healthy may need to be tweaked to fit our own needs. Your gender, health status, weight, allergies, medications, job and exercise routine should all be factored in. Your best bet is to meet with a registered dietitian in your area to get an eating plan that works specifically for you and your needs.
The takeaway message is easy: Stick with whole foods that are minimally processed, eat until you're no longer hungry (not stuffed), use smaller plates and glassware and limit convenience foods to reduce overall sodium intake. With these simple solutions, you'll be on the fast track to a slimmer, healthier you.
For more on diet and nutrition, click here.
Related on HuffPost:
HuffPost Lifestyle is a daily newsletter that will make you happier and healthier — one email at a time. Learn more