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I’ve been on this journey to healthier living for a few weeks now. I’m feeling better and enjoying being a part of the WritersButt Challenge. Even the sore muscles feel good!

But I’ve run into a problem. More than once I’ve stopped with my fork full of food on its way to my mouth and thought, “Should I be eating this?” Or stopped with a scoop full of grinds hovering over the coffee maker and wondered if I should be drinking coffee? Nutrition is just as important as exercising. If I was going to do this the right way, I needed to make sure I was eating health, too.

I’m sure I’m not the only one that stares endlessly into their fridge wondering if I need to clean the whole thing out and start over. So I asked August McLaughlin, to join me today and answer some of the newbie questions I have.

Me: Any time I’ve tried to lose weight and research online about healthy nutrition, the one thing I always see pop up is “Drink more water.” What is the benefit for drinking water? And why so much of it?

AM: Great question, Jennifer. Staying well hydrated is important for many reasons. It’s helpful for weight loss because many people mistake thirst for hunger, and end up eating more than they need or prefer to. Foods are also hydrating, though, so while sipping water throughout the day is important, so is eating plenty of fresh foods, like fruits and vegetables.

Me: I like to mix it up some during the day. What other beverages can I not feel guilty about drinking?

AM: Herbal teas, hot or iced, are a great beverage choice. Or add a splash of fruit juice or fruit slices, such as apples, to water for fun and flavor. 🙂

Me: Apple slices in my water – that’s a good idea! What’s your thoughts on coffee? I only drink it when I need a boost of caffeine. But when I do, I add Truvia and one International Delights creamer. Is there a better source to get that boost from or is it okay to have a cup now and again?

AM: If you’re not overly sensitive to caffeine, having one two cups of coffee early in the day is fine. Just avoid sugar and cream-rich drinks. Some of those Starbucks creations are like drinking doughnuts. 😉 You could also swap out coffee for tea. Green tea is more hydrating than coffee and higher in antioxidants. I love teas in general.

Me: I’m in the beginning stages of learning how to eat more healthy and I’m starting with eating a better breakfast. What are a couple of suggestions that you could give for breakfast ideas?

AM: Healthy breakfasts are a GREAT place to start. People who eat them tend to eat healthier overall and have better weight control, moods, energy—the list goes on. Choose healthy foods you enjoy, whenever possible. Some of my favorites are steel-cut oats served with yogurt or almond milk and fresh fruit, toasted Ezekial bread topped with almond butter and banana slices, scrambled egg with veggies, and healthy smoothies.

And if you’re in the mood for non-breakfast food, go for it! Just make sure most of your breakfasts include:

– Fruits and/or vegetables

– Complex carbohydrates: whole grain breads, cereals, quinoa, oats, sweet potato…

– Lean protein: low-fat milk or yogurt, fish, chicken breast, tofu, beans…

– A touch of healthy fat: nut butter, nuts, flaxseeds, canola oil, salmon…

Me: Everybody grabs a snack now and then. What suggestions do you have for healthy snacks?

AM: Totally. I do! Snacks can enhance weight control and wellness if you approach them properly. Choose foods containing carbohydrates and protein for the best energy and appetite control results.

Some examples:

Apple or pear slices topped with nut butter

Greek or all-natural/organic yogurt with fruit

Air-popped popcorn seasoned with natural herbs (or low-fat microwave popcorn)

Whole grain English muffin or tortilla topped with low-fat tuna salad, turkey or hummus and veggies

Fruits and vegetables (as many you desire ;))

Baked sweet or white potato and a glass of low-fat milk

Small handful of mixed nuts or seeds

Me: Sandwiches are a quick fix for lunch on those busy days around my house. We usually try to buy whole wheat bread, but sometimes we switch it up. What kind is the healthiest choice for breads, or maybe you have a suggestion for an alternative?

AM: I’d go for sprouted grain breads, such as Ezekial brand. Also, make sure that your whole grain foods list whole grains as the top ingredient or state “100 percent whole grain” on the label. (“Made with whole grains” isn’t as nutritious.) Other healthy bread options include whole grain pitas and tortillas. You can also go for lettuce wraps—the darker the greens, the better.

 Me: When I’m grocery shopping, what do I need to pay attention to on the nutritional charts? Calories or Sugars?

AM: I’d focus primarily on whole foods. If your cart is loaded with fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, brown rice, beans, lentils, sprouted whole grain bread, fish, eggs, etc., you’ll end up eating a fiber and nutrient-rich diet. Fiber keeps us fuller longer between meals and highly processed, refined foods do the opposite. So the more whole foods you eat, the better.

When you purchase prepared foods, focus on ingredients. Where the calories come from is more important than the number. And sugars within whole foods are different, and healthier, than added sugars. So when you’re buying cereals, breads or other starches, make sure they contain primarily healthy, natural ingredients you can pronounce. All starchy foods also contain fiber, so a cereal with less than 3 grams of fiber per serving, for example, isn’t your best bet. Think WHOLE. 🙂

 Me: My husband loves to cook on the grill. In addition to veggies, we usually have chicken or pork. What are some things to watch out for when preparing them (marinades and such) for grilling?

AM: Ooh… Grilling is an awesome way to go. And I’m glad you incorporate veggies! Again, the healthiest marinades are natural. Use lemon juice, fruit zests, herbs and spices. Bragg’s amino acid is a great natural, lower-sodium soy sauce substitute. Some sweetener  is fine. If you want to add some honey or agave, which has a milder impact on blood sugar than cane sugar, go for it.

 Cooking Light has some terrific marinade recipes based on natural ingredients.

Me: I know this is bad, but I like to add butter to some of my veggies. Even when they are grilled – I’ll add a bit of butter while their on my plate. Is there a better alternative to butter?

AM: Some butter isn’t bad. It contains saturated fat, which Americans tend to over-consume. Going overboard can lead to inflammation, high blood pressure and cholesterol problems. So if you overall diet is low in saturated fat (and higher in healthy fat sources, like olive oil, nuts and seeds), a pat of butter even daily is fine. It’s healthier than stick margarine and shortening, which contain trans-fats.

Me: Popcorn is one of my husband’s favorite snacks when watching a movie. We have an air popper which I know is better than popping it in oil. But what about the butter flavoring? Do you have healthier suggestions?

AM: Great choice! Popcorn is a healthy whole grain. I love the flavor of extra-virgin olive oil, which you can spritz on after popping. You can also season popcorn with chili powder, garlic, Italian herbs or even cinnamon and a touch of stevia (a natural, plant-based sweetener without calories). If you’re really into butter, you could start by swapping out regular butter with Land O Lakes Olive Oil Butter. It’s made of olive oil AND butter, so even melted, you end up with lots less saturated fat. Think drizzle, not drown. 😉

Here’s a recipe from Yummly.com for zesty, herb-seasoned popcorn.

Me: How late is too late to eat at night?

AM: Food eaten at night doesn’t turn into fat any easier than food eaten at other times. That said, eating large amounts or sugary or fatty foods right before bed can cause discomfort and disrupt sleep. And poor sleep can increase the appetite and waistline. I’d suggest eating your last meal at least 2 to 3 hours before bed. A healthy bedtime snack is helpful for some people. Foods containing carbohydrates and tryptophan boosts calmness, so having whole grain toast topped with hummus, oatmeal with milk or a baked sweet potato before bed could help you sleep.

Me: When you find yourself hungry during that time, what suggestions do you have to help curb those late night cravings?

AM:  Either have a balanced snack or sip herbal tea. If you get a mean case of the munchies, have popcorn. It’s very low-calorie and high in nutrients; just avoid the fatty ingredients before bed.

 It’s also important to know why we’re eating. Many people munch at night out of habit, boredom or to cope with stressful emotions. It’s okay to eat for non-physiological reasons on occasion, but it shouldn’t be the norm. Pausing and asking yourself why can really help. If you’re bored, get busy doing something fun and engaging. Play a game. Go for a walk. Take a bubble bath. If you’re stressed, do something relaxing. If you’re a hard-core emotional eater, which is extremely common, don’t be afraid to seek help.

If you do overeat or eat something less-than-nutritious, carry on. No one’s perfect. Healthy lifestyle is all about gradual changes, making healthy choices most often (or as often as we feel capable right now), seeking pleasure in healthy habits and allowing flexibility. It shouldn’t feel like a horrendous job. Bleh. Who wants that?!?

Me: Whenever I’ve tried to change my eating habits in the past, the amount of changes has always been so overwhelming. The gradual process, making small changes here and there and taking baby steps, makes so much more sense to me. It allows me to break a small habit and replace it with a better one, and then move to the next step. Trying to do it all at once is probably what caused me to not be successful in previous attempts. Thank you so much for joining me today!

Can you think of any questions I might have missed? I’m sure August would be happy to answer if you post them below. Also, have you ever had to make nutritional changes? What were they and how did you do it?