Healthy Life, June 2016

Simple Meal Tips for Staying Fit

by Pennington Biomedical Research Center
Dr. Catherine Champagne
Dr. Catherine Champagne

LSU football players don’t rush into Tiger Stadium without first reviewing the films of their opposing team. You likely wouldn’t head out for a dinner date without (at the very least) first brushing your teeth and putting on a nice outfit. And you probably would never start a work presentation or project without first putting thought and effort into the task.

Any mission that you plan to succeed in requires just that—a good plan.

So why should eating healthy be any different?

Dr. Catherine Champagne, professor of dietary assessment and nutrition counseling at Pennington Biomedical Research Center, says the key to building a healthy diet is preparation.

“First of all, you have to know what you are eating. You really need to be counting your calories,” Dr. Champagne said. “That’s the only way to truly know how much you are consuming.”

Sure, counting calories may not exactly be your idea of a good time, but it doesn’t have to be difficult.

Dr. Champagne suggests starting with recipe guidelines. If you are preparing lasagna in a casserole dish, some of us would likely pull it out of the oven and cut a large slice, depending on how ravenous we felt. Instead, Dr. Champagne urges that the dish should be immediately portioned out—if the recipe calls for 12 servings and you cut the lasagna into 12 even pieces, you’ll have a better idea of the caloric content of your food and will be less likely to underestimate what you are actually eating.

If you’re preparing individual servings, Dr. Champagne advises that measuring cups and scales can be very helpful, and they often pair nicely with a variety of smartphone apps that help you count calories.

bigstock-Pasta-Meal-1095251“You don’t need to use these tools every time you eat something, but they give you a good idea to start with of how much of a food is in an actual serving. You’d be surprised how many people are eating twice or three times the actual serving size because they’ve never measured out a single serving,” Dr. Champagne said.

When you’re at the grocery store, Dr. Champagne suggests trying to stick to the outside perimeter of the store as much as possible, where much of the lean meat, fresh fruits and vegetables and other nutritious products are stocked. While you’re there, stick to your grocery list, which is far easier to follow when you shop on a full stomach.

“More things seem appealing when you’re hungry, and you might not have a craving for that snack or sugary dessert now, but once it’s inside your house, you are very likely to eat all of it,” Dr. Champagne said.

At home, Dr. Champagne believes the best way to start the day is by eating breakfast. She says the National Weight Control Registry shows that people who are successful at losing or maintaining weight normally eat breakfast.

What if you’re not a “breakfast person”? Not to worry! Dr. Champagne says that as long as you’re getting some form of nutrition into your system, even if it’s not typical breakfast food, you’ll reap benefits. If you’re someone who can’t stomach the idea of eating when you first wake up, Dr. Champagne said you will also find benefits of eating breakfast even if it’s around 9 or 10 o’clock in the morning.

“That way you’re not famished and tempted to severely overindulge,” Dr. Champagne says. “Oftentimes we see many significantly overweight people who only eat one meal per day and many times it’s dinner. By that time they’re so hungry it’s easy to gorge.”

When it comes to a diet regimen, Dr. Champagne says the most important aspect is choosing one that fits your lifestyle and that you can stick to for the long term. For herself, she consumes a relatively low-fat diet with larger portion of fruits and vegetables, some whole grain carbs and low in refined carbs.

“Fat has more than twice as many calories per gram than protein or carbohydrates,” Dr. Champagne said. “That means if I wanted to eat a higher-fat diet, I would have to eat much smaller portion sizes. If you just can’t live without that high-fat flavor, you can keep it in your diet, but you will certainly need to downsize the amount of food.”

To satiate her need for flavor on her dietary regimen, Champagne avoids full-fat products and sticks with light mayonnaise, light salad dressings and tries to roast or bake her meats instead of frying them.

Dr. Champagne also suggests cutting down on trips to restaurants, which are almost always packing food with hundreds—maybe even thousands—of extra calories to ensure flavor, and serving customers larger than normal portion sizes. If you decide to eat out, check out the menus online and decide what you’ll eat before you get to the restaurant and are tempted to order something that doesn’t fit in with your nutrition plans.

There are also great cooking and flavoring guidelines which dietitians like Dr. Champagne commonly suggest to help stay within your goals:

Butter and Margarine:

  • Spread it
  • Use a little jam instead of butter on toast, waffles or pancakes.
  • Use roasted garlic cloves on bread or to flavor potatoes.
  • Try the low-fat or fat-free versions of these foods on your baked potato:
    • Ranch dressing
    • Sour cream
    • Plain yogurt
    • Cottage cheese
  • Only use a teaspoon size amount of butter on bread, potatoes or rice.
  • Keep the butter off the table.
  • Try light butters.

High-Fat Gravy:

  • Use tomato sauces for meats.
  • Make light gravy by pouring off the fat and thickening the meat juices.
  • Use a package mix to make gravy.
  • Instead of gravy, baste meats wit broth, lemon juice or wine.
  • Refrigerate the meat drippings and broths and then remove the hardened fat before making gravy or sauce.
  • Try experimenting with different spices instead of gravy.

Salad Dressings and Mayonnaise:

  • Try the low-or non-fat versions.
  • Make your own low-fat dressing.
  • Dilute regular dressing with low-fat yogurt, vinegar, water or juice.
  • Use mustard, ketchup or a very thin layer of mayonnaise on sandwiches.
  • Beware of salads made with mayonnaise; use just enough to moisten the tuna, potato or macaroni.
  • Substitute mayonnaise with low-fat yogurt.


  • Instead of frying or deep-frying, try baking, broiling, steaming, microwaving, roasting or grilling.
  • Sauté using non-stick cooking sprays or broth, flavored vinegar or wine.
  • Drain off excess fat.
  • Use evaporated skim milk instead of cream for soups or sauces.

Add Flavor to Vegetables With These Items:

  • Lemon juice
  • Vinegar
  • Onions and garlic
  • Very lean ham
  • Herbs and spices
  • Bouillon cube

To succeed on the mission to eat healthy, start with a solid plan.  The first step is to know what you are eating in order to make healthy and informed choices.

Looking for healthy recipe suggestions? Check out the tasty and good-for-you ideas devised by Pennington Biomedical’s research kitchen dietitians:  Here’s to your health!