Caroline Shugart column mug

It’s a sign of the times that choosing the food in our diet has become a complicated activity.

The American hot dog has ingredients that vary quite a bit depending on the brand: pork, beef, turkey, chicken, soybeans and often a combination of these ingredients. There are “lite” salad dressings, soups, crackers and ice cream. Nutrition studies, weight loss drugs and the latest, greatest “health food” products are discussed on television, in newspapers and on social media.

Is it reasonable and predictable to be confused and frustrated by all these choices and the glut of information? Yes. We all can’t be experts in everything, so we depend on others to sort it all out … a registered dietitian, your physician, your high school health teacher, the waiter, Aunt Louise or the actor in the food commercial. Yes, it’s confusing and frustrating.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention writes an annual report of national trends in our health statistics. The facts are dismal. In the adult population, age 20 years and over: 11 percent have heart disease, 30 percent have high cholesterol, 33 percent have high blood pressure, 36 percent are obese, 12 percent have diabetes and 6 percent have cancer. Heart disease, influenced dramatically by diet, is the leading cause of death in the United States, and the American Cancer Society estimates that 35 percent of all cancers — the second leading cause of death — are related to dietary choices.

The good news is that we can do something positive about these numbers. Even simple and subtle dietary changes can improve our health dramatically. Numerous reputable health organizations have developed helpful guidelines for eating. To summarize, they recommend: reduce our dietary fat intake; increase our whole grain, fresh fruit and vegetable intake to increase dietary fiber; reduce our sugar and salt intake; and reduce our alcohol intake.

By the way, this is the absolute opposite of what commercials and advertisers, spending millions of dollars, encourage us to eat.

Let me translate these recommendations into lifestyle and daily food choices. The biggest problem with our typical American diet is that we eat too many concentrated sources of empty calories in the form of fat and sugar. When I was a child, a typical home-cooked breakfast consisted of bacon, fried eggs made with bacon fat, buttered white toast with jam, orange juice and milk. I remember dinners of pot roast, gravy, corn and cherry pie with lots of ice cream. Yes, they were home-cooked meals, but they were laden with excessive fat and sugar.

Today, with our hectic schedules people often eat on the run and snack on convenience foods that are loaded with fat, sugar and salt. American kids are served sugary, refined cereals and heavily sweetened yogurt. Mindless eating in front of the television has become an American norm. Sugar-soda replaced water consumption years ago. We choose these concentrated sources of calories because they are cheap, available and taste good to us.

Yet there are many delicious foods available that are nutrient dense — high in fiber, vitamins and minerals — and low in fat and sugar, like lemon pepper chicken breasts without the skin served on brown rice, baked potatoes with salsa in place of butter, bean burritos on whole wheat tortillas instead of refined white flour tortillas, colorful multi-veggie salads topped with garbanzo beans and specialty vinegar in place of oil-based dressings and fresh fruit medleys with cottage cheese. Instead of thinking you are giving up your favorite foods, try to enjoy new foods, new cooking techniques and easy food substitutions that are tasty but healthier. This is important because if you don’t like your new recipes, you won’t continue to use them and you will fall back into the same dangerous dietary patterns.

In place of your typical high-fat Saturday breakfast, simple modifications can lead to a healthier and delicious meal. For example, try lean smoked turkey breast — dry fried in a non-stick skillet — in place of bacon or sausage. Scramble your eggs using one fewer egg yolk and add chopped bell peppers and onions. Have herbal tea in place of sugary juice. Serve whole wheat toast with fruit-only jam. Add fresh melon or apple slices to your plate. For a quick breakfast, add a sliced banana, walnuts and skim milk to a shredded wheat, oatmeal or whole grain nugget cereal.

With any of these changes, your diet is becoming more nutrient dense. These are all positive changes which bring about improvements in blood lipid and sugar levels, creating a healthier, leaner, lovelier you. Bon appetit and be well.

Caroline Shugart is a nurse, dietitian, and personal trainer. She can be reached at caroline.shugart@gmail.com.

Caroline Shugart is a nurse, dietitian, and personal trainer. She can be reached at caroline.shugart@gmail.com.