How to Become a Healthier Omnivore

Tips to help you navigate the meat and dairy aisle at the store

In this second installment of a two-part series, Scripps Whittier Diabetes Program dietitian, Kelly Barger, gives tips to help you navigate the meat and dairy aisle at the store to find healthy shopping choices.

Among wellness experts, there’s little room for debate when it comes to your diet. The healthiest way to eat, according to the US Department of Agriculture and registered dietitians, is to make produce and whole grains the centerpiece of your plate. The article 6 Simple Food Swaps for Better Health covered how to fill up your cart with all the plant-based foods that should form the bulk of every healthy diet.

But shopping, cooking and eating aren’t purely rational processes. “Most Americans grew up with meat as the center of the meal, and cannot imagine giving it up completely,” says Kelly Barger, a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and clinical supervisor with the Scripps Whittier Diabetes Program. “The good news is that meat and dairy products can find a place in a healthy, varied diet. The secret to healthy omnivorous eating is balance.”

Fish as the foundation

As animal-based sources of protein go, fish is a winner. Whether fresh, frozen, canned in water, or packed in shelf-stable pouches, seafood is chock-full of heart healthy omega-3 oils. Tuna, salmon, cod, sardines and sea bass are all great choices.

Barger recommends eating fish at least 3 times per week. That’s easy if you add a few ounces of shrimp to a breakfast scramble, or make a tuna salad sandwich for lunch prepared with low-fat dressing. To keep sodium low, sauté or bake fish for a delicious and healthy entree.

Managing milk and dairy

When you find yourself in the dairy aisle, look for fat-free or low-fat varieties of milk and cheeses. Regular processed cheese products like spreads and American cheese tend to be higher in fat than their counterparts in the specialty cheese section. Hard or soft, all cheeses are packed with calories, so keep your portions small.

Choose light or nonfat plain yogurts. You can snack on them with banana slices or a few berries from the freezer.

Focus on lean meats

When you get to the meat section, the key is to keep selections fresh, not manufactured. "Processed meats of all kinds — like bacon, sausages, lunch meats, ham and bologna — are full of sodium,” says Barger. Instead, aim for 4-ounce servings of skinless chicken or turkey, pork loin, or 93 percent or leaner ground beef or poultry.

To keep things in ideal balance, limit your consumption of red meat to two servings per week. Incorporate more poultry, fish and vegetarian protein sources like tofu, beans and nut butters. This approach can also save money as well as calories, potentially improving your financial health as well as your physical wellness.

Ideal portions and preparations

In a nation overflowing with all-you-can-eat buffets and restaurant meals that can contain two to three times the recommended number of fat and calories for a whole day, appropriate serving sizes are critical.

“Animal products especially should be measured and portioned with great care,” says Barger. A three- to four-ounce portion of meat or fish is roughly the size and thickness of an average-sized adult’s palm. Cheeses (both hard and soft) should be indulged in only occasionally, just one ounce at a time.

Preparation also counts. Pan-sautéing, steaming, broiling and baking are the healthiest ways to prepare any kind of dish. Avoid deep frying and heavy cream sauces, and remember that broth-based soups pack a lot of satisfaction per spoonful.

Find a physician

A Scripps Health primary care or metabolic disorder specialist can help you design a way of eating for optimal health.