By Teri Spring, Registered Dietician

You have more control over your health than you may know. Taking charge of your health will result in a better you, both physically and emotionally. Here are a few tips you can use to take control of your health:

Fluids. Are you getting enough?

A general rule of thumb is to drink 50 percent of your body weight in ounces. If you think you’re hungry, try drinking a glass of water first. Flavor it with fruit and/or vegetable pieces in a pitcher if you don’t like plain water. Fruits and vegetables are full of water, so you get fluid credit from these foods. About 3-5 cups of produce daily provides about a quart of water (32 oz).

Sugar. Are you getting too much?

Sugar is very inflammatory to the body, leading to chronic diseases, and increases your daily calorie load, leading to weight gain. We should all make every effort to minimize or avoid sugar in our daily diets. Most of the added sugars are from sugar sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, but reading the nutrition label is the only way to know where it is and how much you’re getting. The labels will soon all have a select line for “Added Sugar” because it has become such a wide spread threat to our health.

Watch out for sodium.

Sodium remains a contributor to heart disease. The American Heart Association advises 1500-2000 mg for everyone over 50, all African Americans regardless of age, and anyone with high blood pressure. The problem is not so much with using a salt shaker as it is from processed and cured foods. Avoiding processed, salted or cured, pre-made, restaurant foods and trying to eat “clean” makes a big difference. Read food labels to see how quickly this number adds up.

Eat more fiber.

Our fiber goal is 25-35 gms daily. Fiber foods fill us up and keep waste moving out of the body. Think plant foods -- fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dried beans and legumes, pulses (such as lentils), nuts and seeds. Getting fiber from food is much better than fiber supplements, because you not only get important nutrients, but you also get a variety of types of fiber. A supplement will only have one kind of fiber, but foods have them all. If you’re not a fan of these foods, unprocessed psyllium husks (products such as Metamucil or generic versions) are your best bet to help keep your colon balanced.

Increase your potassium intake

Potassium is an important part of healthy blood pressure, heart function and fluid balance. Current guidelines call for about 4000-4500 mg daily (unless you have kidney disease. Check with your doctor if you are unsure.). The average American eats only 2000 mg of potassium daily. Good sources are fruits and vegetables.

Reach for healthy fats

Healthy fats from plants such as avocado, nuts, seeds, olives and oils from these foods should be part of every meal. A little goes a long way, so aim for one serving per meal (1-3 tsp of healthy oil; ¼-1/3 avocado; 8-10 olives; 10-20 nuts; or 1 tbs nut butter).

Maintain a healthy weight

Work diligently (yes, it is hard work but has big pay offs) for a healthy body weight. Reduce portion size, choose low sugar foods, lots of plant foods, and exercise daily! Move your body, work your muscles and get your heart pumping. Aim for a minimum of 30 minutes a day. Start slow if you’re de-conditioned and build up. It doesn’t have to be at one time, so three, ten-minute sessions count. It can happen if you make it happen. Try not to sit for more than 30 minutes at one time. Even getting up for a few minutes helps.

In general, to help you accomplish this goal of improved health eat a variety of plant-based foods as the cornerstone of each meal and snack. Aim for 3-5 cups of produce every day. Use the USDA’s “Plate Method” of meal planning and make half your plate vegetables, ¼ whole grains and ¼ lean protein. Have a meatless meal at least once a week (the DASH and Mediterranean diet plans are still thought to be healthy plans to follow if you need a guide). Drink up before your body says, “I’m thirsty” because by then you are slightly dehydrated. Get enough sleep and avoid eating close to bed time -- it may disrupt your sleep as your body processes the food.

Because I have spent my 35+ year career working mainly with folks who have diseases, I will tell you again and again that food is the most powerful medicine. Taking prescription medication is not the answer to “fixing” our health -- it treats the symptoms of disease and may help us live with disease, but who wants that? Save money, improve quality of life and save your future by giving your body what it truly wants -- basic foods from “nature’s wrapper,” daily exercise, and adequate sleep. Let’s raise our next generation with these principles to spare them the epidemic of lifestyle diseases that plagues this country. If you want to feel as good as you possibly can, this is a proven way to help you do that.

Making change is always a challenge, but taking one day at a time and making any movement toward healthier lifestyle habits is a step in the right direction. Just start somewhere and build on that -- a little more each day, week and month. You’ll feel better in a relatively short period of time, and will be taking more control over your own health.