Healthy Eating: Learn to plan diet yourself

By Carolyn O’Neil, for the AJC

“Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime.” — Author unknown

This proverb came to mind when I was answering a request to provide more specific nutritional comparisons of menu items in a restaurant review ranking system — kind of like “order this, not that.”

I agree it is helpful to share where to look for the most fish or eateries with the best selection of healthful items or best attitude toward special diet requests. But I think it’s more helpful to teach strategies to help diners identify the healthiest choices on the menu no matter where they’re eating.

When I discussed the “give a man a fish” concept with registered dietitian Marisa Moore, who is president of the Georgia Dietetic Association, she laughed knowingly. “Too often people don’t want to think for themselves. They want me to catch the fish, cook it up and serve it to them on a plate.”

Dietitians want to teach you how to put nutrition know-how to work so you can make menu choices that meet your needs. Some people want to avoid sodium, some are concerned about cholesterol or food allergens and a whole bunch of diners want to cut calories where they can.

A good foundation

March is National Nutrition Month and this year’s theme, chosen by members of the American Dietetic Association, is From the Ground Up. You can start learning how to eat better by building a basic foundation. Here are a few food and nutrition lessons to start.

Most Americans don't eat enough vegetables, so try adding them to more dishes you eat. Photo: Phil Skinner,

Most Americans don't eat enough vegetables, so try adding them to more dishes you eat. Photo: Phil Skinner,

Focus on fruits and veggies. Recent research suggests that just 27 percent of adults get the recommended daily three servings of vegetables. “Boost your veggie intake when you’re out: opt for the roasted beet appetizer, add broccoli and mushrooms to your pasta dish or request grilled asparagus as a side to your entree,” Moore advises. Remember that frying vegetables or adding a tablespoon of butter, margarine or olive oil adds 100 calories per serving.

Make calories count. “Too often, people think of foods as good or bad and that only those on the ‘good foods’ list are OK to eat,” says registered dietitian and ADA spokesperson Toby Smithson. “When you’re choosing between options, focus instead on the one with more of the vitamins and nutrients that you need. Sometimes foods with fewer calories aren’t always the healthiest options.” Use a smart phone to check out a restaurant’s Web site to see how much calcium is in that cafe latte. (It can be 40 percent of your daily needs.). To figure out how many calories you need to achieve a healthy weight, visit Moore says small changes in calorie control can lead to big rewards. “Cutting back on just 100 calories (or burning an extra 100 calories) a day can result in a 10-pound weight loss in a year.”

Tantalize your taste buds. A healthy eating plan emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or fat-free dairy and includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans and nuts. Those are the basics, but Moore encourages exploration. “Keep your quest for healthy eating exciting by trying a new [and healthy] cuisine.

Among others, Japanese, Indian, Greek and Middle Eastern cuisines all offer lots of healthy options.” Try a fish you’ve never eaten before or sample a new vegetable preparation when dining out. Smithson says go beyond your usual go-to list.

Trick yourself with treats. There’s no reason to go hungry or give up favorites just because you’re trying to eat more healthfully. Moore gives a dietitian’s stamp of approval to the occasional splurge. “Having dessert or a piece of bread won’t ruin you or your diet. It’s what you do on a regular basis that determines your overall health. Banish the guilt and balance the occasional indulgence with a healthy diet daily.”

For more tips on building your healthful diet from the ground up, during National Nutrition Month and all year long, visit Eat Right.

Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and co-author of “The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!” E-mail her at carolyn@carolynoneil

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9 comments Add your comment


March 9th, 2010
11:45 pm

Wonderful, wonderful post!!! It’s so important to be able to navigate a restaurant menu on one’s own. For me, it’s been a true key to success with weight loss.


March 10th, 2010
2:11 am

There’s an interesting post over at the Health Journal Club that makes the case that people should just not eat anything that wasn’t a food 100 years ago. Gets rid of the aspartame, bleached GM flour, high fructose corn syrup garbage they try to pass off as food these days. If interested you can read on it here,

[...] Better Health has a great post today about planning out your own diet and what to focus on.  Even though these are core concepts, they are very solid and should be the foundation of any diet plan. [...]


March 10th, 2010
2:54 pm

It is true that if ou don’t take care of yourself no one else will. Before going to the restaurant and choosing meals from their ‘healthy menu’ section you have to learn the basics of healthy nutrition to make sure your restaurant meal complies with the healthy rules.

Paleo Diet

March 10th, 2010
3:46 pm

100 Years? Try 10,000 years –

Vick=Dog killing Thug

March 11th, 2010
10:27 am

This is a good link also about a series of books that list good things to eat instead of bad. Lots of free info. Happens to be in a womans magazine but works just as well for the men.

Ken Leebow

March 12th, 2010
3:07 pm


Thanks for the article. Once you get the hang of it – dieting – it actually is very easy. The one thing I learned is that it’s all about health. Losing weight and maintaining the weight-loss is great, but the health aspect of it is much more important.

I like to say: “Invest in your body and it will pay daily dividends.”

Ken Leebow

Honey P.

April 4th, 2010
12:47 pm

I’ve tried lots of low-fat diets for a couple of years but none of them made me feel satisfied. Although, there are lots of diets,like Atkins diet but it’s making me feel weak and unhealthy. But when I tried Medifast Diet,i feel like I’m on the right kind of diet plan. It doesn’t make me feel weak.

The caloric intake is around 800-1000 calories.It’s a bit pricey, but there are lots of coupons available on the internet
Even if you don’t pay full price.You just have to choose a diet plan which your body reacts positively.No one knows your body better than you do…


May 12th, 2010
3:57 pm

All great points. Eating “real food” is truly important. So many people include processed foods in their healthy eating plans. It’s great to see tips like these shared.