11 Healthy Habits, Plus Packaged Food Picks, from a Nutritionist
If you’re looking for practical and nonjudgmental advice about healthy eating: Nutritionist Maya Feller’s voice is both refreshing and reassuring. This is true on the page—Feller is the author of The Southern Comfort Food Diabetes Cookbook—and over Zoom.
While all this time cooking at home can be wonderful for some, it can potentially exacerbate other people’s already fraught relationships with food. “Perfection is not the goal,” says Feller. “Sustainability and satisfaction are.” Her measured, long-term approach provides nutrition education from an antibias, patient-centered, culturally sensitive perspective, with real-food-based solutions. “Our food and nutrition habits are not defined by one stand-alone moment, but rather, the habits are shaped by the choices we make over time.”
Feller shared with us her tips for cultivating healthy habits right now—some quick hacks, product recs, and a few bigger ideas that challenge how we can think about food.
Mind Your Liquids
Proper hydration is needed for every system of the body to function properly. And limiting your intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and liquid carbohydrates can also support overall health. I lean on refreshing drinks I can make at home, like iced herbal teas (hibiscus and tulsi are good choices), and water infused with herbs, cucumbers, ginger, or jalapeño. I also enjoy zero- and low-sugar beverages, like Reed’s Zero Sugar Ginger Ale and Elements functional wellness drinks. Also, Hella Cocktails Bitters & Soda Dry Aromatic—having grown up drinking bitters with water, this combination is incredibly appealing to me. The combination of clove, allspice, bitterroot, and orange peel is heavenly!
Fiber, found in all plants, is beneficial for gut health, blood sugar regulation, and cardiovascular health. Foods like dandelion greens, garlic, onions, leeks, and chickpeas are rich in prebiotic fibers that pass through the GI tract undigested and ferment to act as nutrition for the good bacteria. The end result is supportive of a healthy microbiome.
One of the easy ways I add fiber to family meals is with Banza Plant-Based Mac & Cheese. It’s made from chickpeas and is a great source of plant-based protein and fiber—two times the protein and three times the fiber of conventional pasta. Yolélé Fonio is another great option: This quick-cooking ancient grain from West Africa cooks similarly to couscous. And it has triple the iron, protein, and fiber of brown rice.
Lean In to Flavorful Chef’s Helpers
Go beyond prechopped veggies and flavorless packaged mixes. Prepared simmer sauces and condiments can reduce prep time in the kitchen and produce a flavorful and nutritious meal. Brooklyn Delhi is hands down one of my favorites with an excellent ingredient list—the condiments and simmer sauces make potatoes and greens sing. Saffron Road makes simmer sauces that are delicious and go well with hearty veggies and greens that wilt easily, and meal pouches that can be rounded out with a side. Maya Kaimal simmer sauces can take a fillet or whole grilled fish to another level.
Become a Spice and Herb Connoisseur
Boost your antioxidants and phytonutrients by adding herbs and spices to your meals. Herbs and spices have been used for centuries, and many have health benefits beyond increasing the desirability and flavor of a meal. My kitchen is always stocked with curry powder, turmeric, cumin, sweet and smoked paprika, black pepper, dried dill, dried thyme, nutmeg, chili flakes, Aleppo pepper, cayenne, and dried ginger. Kalustyan’s in NYC ships within the US and has an incredible array of spices. My favorite premade spice blends are the adobo and sazón from Loisa—they bring any vegetable, bean, grain, or protein to life.
Know Your Swaps
If you’re trying to modify or potentially increase the nutritional value of a meal, consider swapping a single ingredient. When building a balanced plate, swapping can be as much about changing the nutrient profile as it is about trying something new and having fun. Always ask yourself why you are making the swap; this will guide your choices. Try swapping canned tuna for canned sardines with a kick of flavor. They are a protein powerhouse and a good source of calcium, vitamin D, iron, and EPA and DHA omega-3s. A starchy vegetable like winter squash is a great swap for whole grains like brown rice. There are over fifty varieties that are known to be antioxidant-rich (hello, vitamins C and E) as well as being good sources of fiber, magnesium, and potassium. They keep well for months and are delicious.
Love Your Adaptogens and Superfoods
Adaptogens are natural substances, usually found in plants, that are commonly known to help our bodies adapt or to enhance our bodies’ reactions to stressful situations. There are many functional foods and spices, such as mushrooms and turmeric, that have adaptogenic properties. When we don’t have access to these, there are supplements that can be supportive. It’s important to consult your health care practitioner and read and understand the package directions when using supplements. And remember that a supplement is not a magic pill or a cure-all. If you have a new or worsening symptom, discontinue use and reach out to your primary care provider.
I like to use powdered adaptogenic blends and superfood supplements in smoothies, in baking, and in unexpected meals for an added nutrient boost. Some of my favorites are NOW Beet Root Powder, which can help us reap the benefits of nitrate-rich beetroot, known to increase the internal production of nitric oxide. MBG Veggies+ packs sea vegetables, which are helpful for supporting the thyroid, due to their iodine content. And Four Sigmatic Superfood Protein is an incredible blend of vegan protein with chaga, reishi, cordyceps, lion’s mane, and turkey tail—all mushrooms with wonderful properties.
Get Fancy with Seasonal Produce
Eating seasonally is always in season! You are supporting the supply chain, thereby supporting farmers. You can take it a step further and support local farmers by participating in a CSA or visiting a farmers’ market. Spring and summer overflow with softer, sweeter greens, berries, and stone fruit. And fall and winter are known for their colorful winter squash and hearty vegetables. Farmers’ markets and CSA boxes are an excellent way to experiment with unfamiliar fruits and veggies. As we head into fall, I’m excited to try these Brussels sprouts sliders—still deep and earthy, but this time as a bite-size bun. Chickpea patties or seitan can be swapped for a roasted mushroom slice to add some extra umami. Kohlrabi slaw makes an excellent side dish, is loaded with vitamin C and fiber, and helps maintain glucose and cholesterol levels. This Hasselback butternut squash gives a new twist to the traditional potato dish and is easy to prepare.
Don’t Overlook the Grab-and-Go options
There are many well-balanced and delicious grab-and-go items designed to be enjoyed when we are in a pinch. GoMacro offers a variety of organic, vegan, gluten-free packaged bars with a generous amount of plant-based protein (four to sixteen grams per bar), whole grains, and dried fruits. Wonderful Pistachios—pistachios are an excellent source of unsaturated fat, and they are teeming with fiber, plant-based protein, B6, and antioxidants. If you’re craving cheese and crackers, Mary’s Gone Crackers (seaweed and black sesame) and a vegan, tree-nut-based cheese like Dr. Cow makes an easy and satiating midday snack with lots of essential nutrients.
Be an Informed Consumer
Health claims are just that—claims. They are meant to draw in the consumer with the promise of a specific outcome. While some label claims are regulated by the FDA and USDA, others may be sourced through independent companies or organizations and used by manufacturers voluntarily to inform consumers of what is in their product. Labels and claims may or may not be meaningful, and some are just used as marketing efforts. For example, the Non-GMO Project label is widely recognized and trusted to ensure a product is grown or manufactured without the use of GMOs, whereas the labeling of water as gluten-free is merely a marketing tactic. Two resources to know are Consumer Reports, which details the meaning and validity of well-known food labels and health claims, and CSPI (Center for Science in the Public Interest), which is an independent, science-based organization focusing on consumer and food-safety advocacy.
Create Time for Rejuvenating Sleep
Sleep is a biological need. When we are sleep-deprived, every system in our body is impacted. Setting yourself up for a good night’s sleep requires a solid wind-down routine. Some things that have helped me are avoiding large meals or brisk exercise for three to four hours before bedtime, limiting screen time for one to two hours before bed (especially the news or anything anxiety-producing), and keeping my room dark and cool. I also enjoy the soothing scent of lavender essential oil (either in a diffuser or a few drops rubbed on my pillow) and a calming cup of lemon balm or chamomile tea.
Honor your Cultural Foodways
Foodways are the intersection of your culture, history, and traditions. They shape how you think about and interact with food. Our relationship with food is intertwined with our environment, our likes and dislikes, and our foodways. Food is a major part of our identity, and as a common thread within communities, it strengthens, nourishes, and unites us as people in solidarity and tradition. Honoring cultural foodways reinforces our identities while honoring the connection to our familial roots. Remember there is no one plate that is the pinnacle of health. Finding and honoring your foodways while prioritizing your health will look different for each of us. So embrace your cultural foods, fill your pantry with flavor and spices, get acquainted with your kitchen, and learn to make the foods that give you pleasure.
Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN, is a nationally recognized nutrition expert. In her Brooklyn-based practice, Maya Feller Nutrition, she provides medical nutrition therapy for the management and risk reduction of noncommunicable diseases. Feller received her MS in clinical nutrition at New York University, where she is adjunct faculty. She is the author of The Southern Comfort Food Diabetes Cookbook.
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