Notch one up for better health with a plan to stay slim for life Joe Crea Plain Dealer Food and Restaurants Editor 01/23/02 As I embark on the scary path to a more healthful diet, here are some of the precepts I'll be following in my own kitchen and while dining out. But first, something to chew on. Years back in an interview, Cleveland television icon Paige Palmer told me, "Where it comes to muscle, if you don't use it, you lose it." Start thinking of willpower as a muscle. Don't kid yourself that "oh, but I don't have any willpower." You either exercise willpower or you don't. So exercise it, and your resolve will strengthen. 1. You're in it for life New York Times personal health columnist Jane Brody once told me, "Forget about dieting. Choose an intelligent lifestyle and stick with it. Practice living healthfully for the rest of your life, and you'll probably never need to diet again." Evelyn Tribole, a respected author and columnist, put it another way. "We used to talk about 'extending life,' but what's the point of living into old age if you're miserable?" she asked. "Instead, focus on extending your health for as long as you possibly can." 2. Before you cook, think Just a few unconscious actions in the kitchen can add up to a whole lot of unwanted calories and fat. But a few conscious strategies can improve your diet in big ways. Make trade-offs that you can live with. I happen to dislike (OK, loathe) diet soda, but I'll happily sip water with a lemon wedge. Take it from there. If you dislike fat-free dressings, stick with your regular salad dressing but use half your normal portion, and measure it. Think of it as a balancing act. Make room in your diet for things you really love by omitting those you can live with out. Plan out what you'll be preparing - and not just for a single dish, but in context with other meals of the day. There's nothing wrong with a phenomenally decadent meal occasionally; what wreaks havoc is habit. Integrate more low-fat ingredients and meals into your repertoire. That way, when you splurge on a porterhouse and sour cream on the spuds, it'll be a real treat, not just part of a poor eating pattern. Remember the classic French tactic known as mise en place, or "everything in its place." Assemble everything before you light the burner. You'll not only speed and streamline meal preparation, you'll find ways to trim fat and calories by making smart substitutions. Attach a measuring spoon to the neck of that bottle of oil. It's easy to dump a few hundred extra calories into dinner by free-pouring oil or indiscriminately adding butter or cream - especially at about 120 calories per tablespoon, all of them from fat. Here's a case where less is more. Learn to enjoy a hint of butteriness or real cream, rather than letting foods swim in fat. While you're at it, invest in a good nonstick sauté pan and a can of cooking spray. And reduce the heat at which you cook. If you moderate cooking temperatures, you'll find that foods give off some of their natural juices, reducing the need for excess fat to prevent sticking and scorching. 3. As you eat, focus How many thousands of calories have you consumed while reprimanding the kids, honking at an errant driver who cut you off or arguing with somebody on the telephone? Think about it. Under many circumstances, often as not, we barely taste what we're eating, let alone enjoy it. So, focus. When you eat, pay attention to the flavor, texture and aftertaste. Sure, you can carry on a nice dinner conversation, but keep it leisurely so that you enjoy the meal as much as the talk. Come to think of it, maybe it's high time to return a bit of sanctity to the term mealtime. Eating is more than a biological function: it's nourishing, satisfying, social and even spiritual business. What's more, when you actually take time to chew and savor, chances are you'll slow down, achieve satiety and reduce the likelihood of overeating. One colleague's absolute rule is that she never eats dinner before going to bed. That's a sure way to add on the pounds. Strive to eat dinner no later than two to three hours before bedtime. 4. When you dine out, speak up When it comes to eating outside the home, many of us maintain a sort of celebratory spirit. It's an occasion! Go for the blue cheese! Dessert? Sure! Well, wake up. Considering that the average American consumes more than four out of 10 meals outside the home, it isn't a party they're attending - it's life. So quit kidding yourself that every trip past a drive-through window is Thanksgiving, and exercise some wisdom. Speaking up means shouting down your urge to supersize the fries. It means ordering grilled chicken instead of the cheesesteak. And it means politely but clearly stating your preferences when you speak with the server. Dressing on the side. Onions sautéed with a splash of wine rather than a lump of grease. No salt. Hold the mayo. 5. Every day, exercise In reporting on nutrition topics, rarely have I spoken with a well- regarded source who doesn't affirm one cardinal rule - that weight loss and maintenance require both dietary prudence and an increase in physical activity. Without both, any regimen is doomed. For me, it's back to the swimming pool and hiking. For you? Do whatever you really enjoy (assuming your destination isn't the recliner). Because if you pursue physical activity that is fun as much as it is "exercise," you're more apt to stick with it. Back when I lived in California, my former newspaper ran an article about an aged gent whose health had deteriorated badly. A procession of physicians had studied his case, but could find no root cause for his poor health save one: inertia. Finally, one gutsy doctor sent him home with this advice: Start walking. Well, the man cursed and fumed, but his wife of umpteen years sided with the audacious doc. So poor was his health that he protested he'd never make it around the block. "So walk around the dining room," his life mate countered. He did. Feeling silly and sore, he got up and circled the dining room table. After a few laps he collapsed, winded. But the next day he got up and did it again. And again, and again. Within weeks his circulation improved, and so did his spirits. After a while he was indeed rounding the block; then he began tackling hills and canyons. He was in his 80s. The human body possesses stunning recuperative powers. In study after study, the evidence is clear: Cardiovascular disease can be reduced or reversed with a healthy diet and lifestyle. Lung function improves after you quit smoking. Vitality can return. But there's just one hitch. You've got to do your part. Think can-do. Plan on succeeding. Leave your fear behind. Go forth confidently. Are you ready? I am. Join me. © 2002 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.