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updated 8/31/2007 4:44:06 PM ET 2007-08-31T20:44:06

For many people, the beginning of school and a new season make September feel like the start of a new year. Researchers say this “starting over” time of year, when routines are in flux, is a perfect opportunity to pick one or two habits to change.

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Sometimes it’s easier to focus on starting a new habit than stopping an old one. One habit that can bring many benefits is to eat vegetables and fruits at every meal. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, five or more servings of vegetables and fruits a day could prevent 20 percent of today’s cancers.

Trials of the DASH diet, which includes eight to ten servings of vegetables and fruits, show drops in high blood pressure even without changes in exercise or weight. And because these foods are usually low in calories, filling up on them makes weight control easier.

Researchers say that the more specific your goal, the more likely your chance of achieving it. A specific goal of five, seven or nine daily servings is more likely to be reached than a vague goal of “eat more vegetables.” An even more specific goal, such as fruit at breakfast every day or vegetables at lunch, may bring more success.

At breakfast, try different kinds of fruit on your cereal. Grab a piece of fruit for a mid-morning snack as you head out the door. If you eat out for lunch and are offered chips or fries on the side, ask for fruit salad, grapes or sliced tomatoes instead. Even if the fruit and vegetable options are not on the menu, most restaurants are happy to make the substitution. At shops that sell big sandwiches, order just half along with a salad or big bowl of vegetable soup.

Whole grains are more widely available than ever, but many of us are stuck in habits that don’t include them. Including at least three servings of whole grains daily is linked with a 20 to 30 percent drop in risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Make whole-grain pasta and brown rice your new staples to keep on hand. Take a few minutes browsing the cereal aisle to identify the whole-grain cereals that can replace your current choices. Switch purchases of sandwich bread and rolls, tortillas and pita bread to whole-grain versions.

More and more evidence shows that regular physical activity is one of the best all-around health protective steps we’ve got. If the thought of “exercise” has been a block for you in the past, decide to get past it now. Experts say that even two or three ten-minute blocks of any moderate level of movement (like brisk walking) scattered through the day can make a difference.

While the weather is nice, experiment with different ways to create these opportunities. Start getting off the mass transit or parking ten minutes away from work. Meet a friend for coffee, but begin with a walk around the block or mall before you sit. Take a ten-minute “walking break” mid-afternoon when energy levels start to drop and see how re-energized you feel.

If you’ve been struggling with gradual weight gain or weight you can’t lose, take a gamble that you may have an excess of what the Dietary Guidelines for Americans call “discretionary calories.” Instead of gearing up for another diet, pick a couple of places to cut a hundred extra calories or so. Switch one regular soda to water, unsweetened tea or diet soda. Change ice cream from a nightly to a twice weekly event, or instead of a bowl of ice cream, try serving it in a small custard cup and savor the smaller portion.

The possibilities are endless, so why let this opportunity to start just one or two new habits that can make a real health difference slip by?

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.

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