Over 82% of us are too stubborn to give up the foods we like in order to live a healthier lifestyle. We love our French fries over the choice of a salad. A frozen pizza or fast food drive-through can be easier on a busy night. Why choose an available banana over the hidden candy bar?

Lack of time and energy can often play a part in our food struggles and making a complete food overhaul can also be overwhelming. However, Lakes Regional Healthcare’s Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Beth Samuelson says she finds people have better results when they start incorporating little changes.

“A person can make small changes and continue to add to those changes as they make healthier choices in their life,” she said. “All changes are easier when a person is willing to make them.”

Samuelson works closely with each person coming to her for help. Because each individual comes from different nutritional spectrums, she finds out where each is at and helps them make specific adjustments.

One particular question she always asks is what kind and how many beverages are consumed in a day. Soda pop, Gatorade, energy drinks, and coffees with add-ins can contribute significantly to calories and provides very few nutrients your body needs.

“We talk about how many more benefits you’d receive if you are eating your calories, rather than drinking your calories,” Samuelson added. “So, in a coffee, make a small change and treat yourself to a specialty creamer once every other day and then once a week. Drink a sparkling water over regular pop, or rather than drinking six bottles of pop in a day, take it down to one and then every other day. When you make little changes, it is not so overwhelming. They aren’t giving up the foods they love, they are just reducing it.”

Moderation is important but can also be a matter of perspective. A cupcake a day may be moderation for one person, while a cupcake a week is moderation for another. Finding moderation for you is important.

Include Fruits and Vegetables on the Plate
Another issue for many people is 68% of individuals won’t eat fruits and vegetables twice a day. However, the American Heart Association recommends eight or more servings a day.

“Only 11 percent of the population in Iowa will eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables in a day,” she said. “Many people don’t consume fruits or vegetables; they didn’t grow up eating them and they have to redefine their tastes.”

Her recommendation is to add vegetables and fruits to meals and replace other food items that shouldn’t be a part of a meal or snack. Start by adding one vegetable or fruit a day. Add an apple or small bag of carrots as a snack. If frozen pizza is on the meal schedule, a salad can enhance the plate. Include a fruit at breakfast or make a smoothie, which the later could provide two to three servings of vegetables and fruits. A smoothie is also a good way to include vegetables or fruits children wouldn’t normally eat.

“There are so many healthy antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins in vegetables and fruits that our body needs. Green vegetables also have detoxifying principles, which is something our body needs to get rid of the garbage we put into it,” she said. "Each color has it's own health benefits."

Managing Cravings
Many of us fight cravings and struggle to resist food temptation. We wonder why we have no willpower. Samuelson says sometimes those struggle days are more about our body being physically hungry, rather than not having willpower.

“When a person isn’t feeding the body properly, it leads to cravings,” she said. “If you have black coffee for breakfast and a side salad for lunch, your food intake isn’t sufficient and you will end up binging later. This is a common problem with women. We feel we should be able to resist temptations but what we really need is adequate intakes and good nutrition.”

Another craving issue is the people who live in a chronic state of dehydration.

“No wonder a person is hungry; thirst is masking as hunger,” Samuelson said. “I will start them by drinking at least 24 ounces in a day and increase from there. Many people don't even drink any plain water in a day.”

She also recommends eating protein, whether it is beans, eggs, a vegetable, meat or Greek yogurt. Another food source to include is fiber.

“If you aren’t getting adequate fiber or protein, you tend to crave sweets or are hungry all of the time,” she added. “This isn’t a willpower thing but a physiological issue. The body is saying it wants good nutrition.”

What is True Hunger?
Another thing to consider is not all food cravings are actually true physiological hunger. When the body is facing true physiological hunger, anything sounds good; eating an apple or bowl of brussel sprouts. However, other hunger feelings aren’t necessarily related to “true hunger.”

Another feeling is called mouth hunger, which is a pleasure-seeking activity. A person enjoys the taste and it feels good to eat. The creamy sweetness of ice cream brings them happiness.

“In this case, there are lots of other things out there that also bring joy, whether it’s quiet time, going out with people, exercising, sewing, etc. We need to find another enjoyable activity to replace mouth hunger,” Samuelson said.

Heart hunger impacts other people, as food is used to fill an emotional void – sadness, loneliness, rejection, stress, anxiety, or depression. The individual wants the hurt feeling from past trauma to go away so food is used as a coping tool.

“A person struggling from heart hunger needs to identify what emotions are associated with the food consumed and may need additional counseling to address those issues,” Samuelson said. “Food is only secondary. Food is supposed to nourish and strengthen us. Food shouldn't be a sad thing.”

Easy Meal Planning for Families
Using the healthy plate model where half of your plate is filled with fruits and vegetables is a start. For families, life can be crazy busy and time and energy can be limited. Samuelson recommends easy meal prep and planning ahead. There are days where a frozen pizza is not a problem, but then add a salad. Have strawberries and vanilla for dessert. A can of green beans with no salt or drain off the liquid is realistic and economical. Broccoli goes well with macaroni and cheese or balance chicken nuggets with a vegetable and fruit. Add a taco night with beans, tomatoes, lettuce and meat.

“Whatever you do, none of the prep or planning has to be hard,” she said. “Think balance when creating a meal plan.”

Another thing to consider is to remember we as parents aren’t failing when our child won’t eat vegetables or fruits. She says to call it tiny tastes and suggests a child try a tiny serving – like a grain of rice. The little boy or girl may find they actually like the food but a tiny taste is less overwhelming than finishing a whole portion.

“Don’t be afraid to experiment because you don’t know what kids are going to like and everyone has a different palate. Plus, a small piece isn’t as scary and you eliminate the battle between child and parent,” she said. “It can take 20 times of trying something new before liking a food, so never give up trying.”

Seasonings can help many people like different types of foods, whether you add salt, savory seasoning, or Cajun seasoning. A little bit of butter or olive oil on vegetables adds to the flavor and enhances our ability to absorb the phyto-nutrients in the vegetable. A pinch of sugar or honey to vegetables while cooking reduces the bitterness many children dislike, without changing the nutrition. Samuelson said her grandma always added a pinch of sugar to her vegetables and they always seemed much better.

Another way to hide vegetables and fruits is to add them to smoothies. She said a purple smoothie looks enticing but they don’t know cauliflower is also included.

Samuelson has also found how children tend to eat different foods for others. They may try a baked bean or dried cranberry and actually like it.

“All kids learn differently about what they like so you can’t group them in a little box,” she added. “Everyone is very different—diversity is a way of nature.”

Incorporating a Healthy Lifestyle
Besides making healthy food selections, exercise is important to a healthy lifestyle. The idea is to make exercise fun rather than drudgery. A person needs to find what they enjoy most or what is the most motivating, whether they attend group fitness sessions or walking laps at the mall. Others like pickle ball or cross country skiing.

For those with limited time, there are 7 minute apps available online that can easily be added to a day and are known to make you sweat. “It’s important to remember how there’s a difference between busy and active,” she added. Samuelson also recommends a fitness tracker and work on increasing steps, starting at 2,000 or 5,000 and gradually add more. Just start somewhere.

For older individuals, Samuelson says exercise is very important for their health and for social interactions. Many enjoy the group classes or walking at the Bedell YMCA, while others walk at the mall. The senior center or a church would also be an option during winter months.

Samuelson is a part of the Dickinson County Hunger Coalition and Healthy Hometown, focusing on nutrition and exercise. They are creating a resource guide that show people what is available in the county, involving nutrition or exercise. The information will be coming out later this year.

“There are a lot of people who really care about people being healthy in our county,” she said. “There are many very giving hearts.”

We all know how real the daily food battle can be! Take small steps in becoming healthy and suddenly those small steps become larger and a healthy lifestyle is the norm. For assistance in establishing a balanced nutrition plan or need help managing a food allergy, contact Samuelson at beth.samuelson@avera.org.