When Tamara Naar was 18, she was diagnosed with high blood pressure and put on medication to control it.
Nearly 25 years later, Naar found herself downing four pills a day, seeing a cardiologist and struggling with her weight.
“I was taking all these pills like an old woman,” said Naar, a neonatology nurse at Baptist Hospital. “My blood pressure is hereditary, but I added to it by adding the pounds and eating horribly every day.”
So seven months ago, she signed up for a wellness plan at Baptist that would help her beat what had become a lifetime of bad habits. She got coached on what to eat and how much to eat. A nutritionist took her shopping and introduced her to the joys of cauliflower. She upped her workouts, stopped eating hamburgers three times a week and scaled back on the Cold Stone pistachio ice cream.
Today, Naar is 20 pounds lighter and down to two pills a day. Even she is shocked by how simply changing her eating changed her life.
“It’s not about wanting to lose weight or be skinny. I want to be healthy,” she said. “That was my major thing.”
It may be an old adage, but it’s a goody: you are what you eat. It’s also when you eat and how much you eat. And while we can all sympathize with the need to have things fast and easy in our busy lives, nutritionists say eating well is actually not that hard. It just takes planning and, some would say, a little help from the village.
“It might take a bit more effort initially,” said Sheah Rarback, director of nutrition at the Mailman Center for Child Development. “But once you stock up, it becomes easier.”
If anything gets in the way of our good eating, it’s lifestyle. When you get home from work late, why spend an hour in front of the stove when you can spend two minutes at the microwave? And doesn’t that oatmeal box claim to be a good source of calcium for our kids, never mind the small print listing 14 grams of sugar? A small soda at the movies could satisfy a family of four. Even schools have vending machines.
But no one can ignore the damage being wrought by all this bad eating. More than one out of three adults in the United States — 37.5 percent — are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some of the leading causes of death — heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes — are directly linked to obesity. And childhood obesity has tripled in the last 30 years. With more than a third of kids between 6 and 19 considered obese, the CDC reports, they are at substantially more risk for developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes, bone and joint conditions, and cancer.
So why don’t we just eat better?
“It’s easier for someone to unwrap a granola bar than to unwrap an orange,” Rarback says. “We’ve gone for easiness. Parents want children to get what they need, so if they see an ad saying something is fortified with vitamins, no one’s doing an equivalent [ad] for an orange or bananas.”
But just a few easy changes in our diet will make a world of difference in our health. The key is planning and making informed decisions.
“People get stuck with the same five recipes. Or they feel kids are picky,” said Erin Corrigan, the nutrition manager at Miami Children’s Hospital. “My suggestion is you dedicate half an hour, once a week, to looking over ads at your favorite store, create a meal plan, make a list and go to the store and dedicate only going once a week, unless it’s a real emergency.”
Buy from the outer ring of the supermarket, where most fresh fruits, vegetables and meat are located, she said, and avoid the inner aisles.
“My one caveat is shooting down the middle aisle for beans and pasta,” she said.
When it comes to snacks, get rid of processed foods — or at least buy the ones with the fewest ingredients — and go for fruits and vegetables.
“Cherish the season,” is her motto. If kids want something out of season, it’s OK to buy frozen. Then steel yourself for some complaining and use the opportunity to convey a larger lesson.
“It’s important to teach children that you don’t always get what you want,” she said.
Unless you’re trying to lose weight, nutritionists like to avoid diets.
“We were just laughing about that, like we could sell fairy dust and that’s pretty much what a lot of these fad diets are about,” said Natalie Castro-Romero, the corporate dietician at Baptist who oversees the company’s 15,000 employees.
“One very common thing that happens is people feel overwhelmed and they need a starter to get something going, like a detox, but there’s no truth behind that.”
For some people, small changes can lead to big results.
Fourteen years ago, Juanita Ferguson, 55, had a kidney transplant. So she watched what she ate and always included fruits and vegetables in her diet.
But it was the finer points that Ferguson, a supervisor in the respiratory care department at Baptist, was missing. She bought honey wheat bread, not realizing that at her age she needed much more fiber. She was unaware of her carb intake. And she had no idea that on weekends, when she was completing chores and running errands, forgetting to eat was causing problems.
“I’d just eat once a day, but then my body would go into starvation mode,” she said.
So she developed a meal plan and discovered an app for her phone, My Fitness Pal, that she can set to remind her when to eat and what to eat.
She can also scan food to determine whether she’s met her daily need.
“So after I have breakfast and lunch, and if I’ve had too many carbs, by dinner I know I have to cut back,” she said.
And that kind of tailoring is key, nutritionists say.
“People want me to just tell them what to eat, give them a meal plan. But they’ll only follow it for two weeks,” Castro-Romero said. “So I get them to focus on the foods they’re eating now and improve. One group might be soda drinkers. So we work to decrease rather than eliminate.
“It’s really trying to keep it simple and look at small changes. I like to say small changes produce big results.”
Like using cooking sprays instead of cooking oils, she said. It’s a simple step, but substantially lowers calories.
Parents also need to be aware of the emotional toll on overweight children, Rarback warned. At Mailman, she often treats children in the gastric bypass program, so she has seen, at perhaps a more intense level, how weight can harm them emotionally. Almost all, she said, are home-schooled because of the ridicule they would face at school.
For Naar, the most important change was getting the right information about eating. With the exception of her blood pressure, she led a fairly typical life. When she wasn’t working, she was taking care of her daughter.
Free time was filled with errands and chores. She worked out, usually about three times a week. But she often skipped meals when she got busy, catching up in a single meal.
“So I had to learn how to appreciate and eat properly,” she said. “I’m a nurse and I know about it. But to take care of myself? I was oblivious … But with all the information now, you’re equipped to make the best choices.”