The coming of a new year represents an opportunity to turn over a new leaf. How about ringing in 2010 with a fresh start on healthy eating? Not sure where to begin? The following is a simple guide that will put you on the path to a healthy new year.

Control weight by controlling calories
Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is a cornerstone of good health. Lots of us have tried and failed with diets, often repeatedly. And unfortunately, exercise on its own doesn’t usually cut the fat either. That’s because burning calories is just half the story. Yes, weight control is about calories going out, but it’s also about calories coming in. Bringing those two into balance enables you to gain control over your weight.

How do you achieve that balance? If you take in as many calories as you expend each day, there’s nothing left to be channeled into fat cells, and your weight will be stable. Even better, if you are battling the bulge, by regularly taking in about 500 fewer calories than you burn each day, those extra fat reserves you’re packing will be tapped as an energy source, and the extra weight will gradually come off.

Most adults gain about 1–2 lbs every year. So goal #1 for 2010 is to put a stop to gaining weight. After that, if needed, the next step would be to knock off a few lbs. So if your weight has been inching upwards of late, try a combination of boosting your activity level a notch and paring back on calories a bit.

The benefit is not just aesthetic — how you look — it’s about being healthier. Trimming extra lbs can lower blood pressure and reduce the chance of diabetes, heart attack, and stroke as you get older. Also, keeping body weight in check may help lower your risk of various cancers, including those of the breast, colon, kidney, pancreas, and esophagus.

Change the carbs you pile on the plate
You need carbs for energy, especially when you’re physically active. But make them the right types of carbs. Yes, sports drinks, energy gels, and energy bars have their place around tough workouts and athletic events, but when you’re not in the throes of exercise, the go-to carbohydrate sources should be whole grains, vegetables, and fruit.

Whole grains, such as oatmeal, whole wheat bread, and brown rice, are important because your body doesn’t digest them as quickly as it does more refined carbs. And that’s a good thing. Whole grains tend to keep blood sugar and insulin levels more stable and, therefore, help keep hunger in check. That can help you maintain your weight and may even help with losing weight. Whole grains also help keep blood cholesterol levels under control, which helps keep your heart in good shape.

Faster transit time is another benefit you can attribute to whole grains. The indigestible fiber in grains helps speed the passage of digestive wastes through the intestinal tract. A speedier commute means the cells that make up the inner lining of your digestive tract spend less time in direct contact with potentially toxic compounds in digestive waste. In addition, though we don’t metabolize fiber as an energy source, friendly microbes that reside in our colons love the stuff. These beneficial microbes grow and prosper by feeding on fiber, and in doing so they inhibit the growth of potentially pathogenic microorganisms. They also produce and release compounds that help protect the cells of your intestinal tract. These benefits are believed to explain, at least in part, why fiber-rich diets are linked to lower risks of cancers of the digestive tract.

Vegetables and fruit are the other healthy carbohydrate sources that need to be front and center on your plate. These natural health-food powerhouses can be loaded with essential vitamins and minerals, fiber, and other important dietary factors. The potential health benefits of eating plenty of fruits and vegetables each day include lower blood pressure, better eye health, fewer digestive problems, and a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer. The fact that fruits and vegetables are good for you is probably no surprise, but that health experts recommend we get 5–9 servings of them every day might be. For a lot of us, this many servings would be closer to a week’s supply! A simple way to reach that goal from Day 1 in 2010 is to have a piece of fruit and a vegetable serving at each meal.

Healthy fats instead of no fats
For decades the health experts told us that low-fat diets were the way to healthier hearts and leaner bellies. But the promised benefits never materialized. In fact, here we are today with nearly two-thirds of Americans either overweight or obese and with heart disease still the #1 killer. It turns out that the single-minded focus on cutting out fat was probably overstated. The reality is that fats are an indispensable part of our diet. In fact, they are second only to carbs as a source of calories in what we eat from one day to the next, and they play an important role in making us feel full and satisfied after eating. So instead of forgoing fats, which often just leads to scavenging for other sources of calories in a desperate attempt to feel satisfied, we can eat our rightful share of fat — but the catch is to consume fats from healthy sources and not go overboard.

Fat sources that provide mostly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats get a thumbs-up. These fats include olive, canola, soy, corn, sunflower, peanut, and other vegetable oils; soft margarine (especially those free of trans fats); nuts; seeds; avocados; and fatty fish such as salmon and herring. These healthy fats improve cholesterol levels when eaten in place of saturated fats, trans fats, or, for some people, highly processed carbohydrates. Also, the omega-3 fats from fatty fish like salmon or tuna offer an extra benefit. Research suggests that these special polyunsaturated fats can help protect the heart from serious rhythm problems.

Conversely, limiting your intake of saturated fats, trans fat, and cholesterol is a good idea. The best ways to reduce saturated fat and cholesterol intake are to cut back on the consumption of red meat, use nonfat or low-fat dairy sources in place of full-fat versions, and use olive oil or canola oil in place of butter when possible. You can further limit cholesterol intake by not overdoing it on eggs (an average of one egg per day is usually good for healthy individuals). To reduce trans fats, read product labels and avoid restaurant-prepared fried foods if those eating establishments are still using trans fats.

Navigating protein and dairy foods
Protein is needed for the repair and building of muscle tissue in response to being physically active, and for overall good health. A good way to judge a protein source is to consider what else you’re getting when you eat that particular protein. For example, a slab of well-marbled prime rib is loaded with protein, but it’s also loaded with fat, much of it the not-so-healthy, saturated variety. Nuts, seeds, beans, and tofu are excellent sources of protein that also provide fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Nuts and seeds typically contain healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Fish is a great source of protein, and the fatty varieties are rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fats. Chicken and turkey, without the skin, are good sources of protein yet are low in saturated fats. Egg whites are high in protein and cholesterol free; they can be substituted for whole eggs in omelets and baking. When you do have red meat, choose lean cuts, trim visible fat, and consume moderate portions — and have it occasionally rather than regularly.

Dairy products are also good sources of protein, as well as of calcium. The full-fat versions are higher in calories and saturated fats, so select low-fat or fat-free varieties instead.

Keep these in check
Sugared soda pop and fancy coffee concoctions are simply calories in a can or cup — extra calories that can quickly add up to extra lbs. They do little to make you feel satisfied. Make the switch to lower-calorie alternatives for 2010.

Sweets are occasional treats. Avoid the temptation to make them permanent fixtures in your diet. Here again, they mostly provide calories and offer little in the way of essential nutrients or fiber. As a result, overindulging can expand the waistline.

Resolve to make a healthy start in 2010
Make a resolution to eat more healthily this new year:

  • Control calories to stop weight gain and trim lbs
  • Eat more whole grains
  • Consume 5–9 servings of vegetables and fruit
  • Don’t avoid fat entirely; instead, consume healthy fats in moderation
  • Pick protein and dairy sources based on the fat baggage they bring
  • Find alternatives to calorie-laden beverages, and rein in the sweet tooth