Should I go vegan? Or adhere to the ‘Paleo’ diet? Is ‘Atkins’ dangerous? And what is the ‘Keto’ diet? Do I need to ‘detox’ every month? Should I only eat raw foods? Should I go gluten free? Dairy free? Fat free?
It can be maddening trying to figure out the healthiest way to eat. Especially since the Standard American Diet or SAD is, well, just that. It’s no secret that many Americans have less than ideal diets…full of overly processed foods, and way too much sugar, salt, and saturated fat. And when we’re trying to eat well on the go, we get conned into thinking a meal replacement bar, shake, or frozen dinner is a stellar option when it’s usually not.
So what’s the answer? Well, it’s complicated. There is no one ‘right way’ to eat. What might be the perfect diet for me, may not give you the level of nutrition you need. Something I may think is amazing, you might be allergic to. We are all different, which means we all have different nutritional needs.
That being said, let’s talk about some of the basics that we can all agree on (barring medical conditions, such as diabetes or Chron’s disease, which may require different guidelines). Fresh fruits and vegetables are your friends. They are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and glorious fiber. Most vegetables are also low in calories while high in nutritional value. Fruit generally contains more natural sugar and can be higher in calories, but is still loaded with nutrition. And there are many great options if you’re looking for low sugar content. Take berries for example – high in antioxidants and nutrients, but low in natural sugar (and delicious!). And fruit is a great option when you’re trying to satisfy a sweet tooth without loading up on refined sugar and empty calories.
For example, a bowl (1 cup) of strawberries has just 49 calories, 7 grams of natural sugar, 3 grams of fiber, and is packed with great nutrients such as vitamin C, potassium, folate, magnesium, calcium, and B vitamins. Whereas a small bag (1.7oz) of M&Ms has 230 calories, 9 grams of fat, 31 grams of refined sugar, and no nutritional value. For a quick guide to nutritional information for common fruits and vegetables, go to: www.fda.gov
Fiber is fabulous! It prevents constipation, which keeps the colon cleaner and healthier, cuts down on allergic reactions to food, and helps stabilize blood sugar levels. It also helps you feel full, which is an important part of feeling satisfied. Fiber = efficient digestion.
I know lots of people who say that eating healthy is too expensive. So let’s look at our best case – worse case options for fruits and veggies. Best option: organic fruits and vegetables from your local farmer’s market or Community Supported Agriculture. This produce is picked when it’s ripe (or almost ripe), and is often more nutritious because it’s grown in more nutrient rich soil. Not always an option, I know. Most grocery stores have plenty of organic options these days. Remember, organic makes a difference not just for your health, but also for the health of our soil and planet. If organic is too expensive or unavailable, try for locally grown. If you live somewhere that’s difficult, try ‘grown in the USA’ or look for produce that had to travel the least distance to get to you. Food that has to travel long distances is picked well before it’s ripe and won’t be nearly as tasty. Buying what’s in season is another way to get the best produce at the best price. If fresh fruits and veggies are out of your price range or unavailable, frozen is your next best option. I often use frozen spinach for recipes where I need to cook it anyway. And frozen fruit is great for making smoothies. As much as you can, try to steer clear of canned fruits and vegetables. They are often loaded with sugars, salt, and preservatives.
The wonderful thing about fresh veggies is that you can do so much with them! Leave them raw and have them as a snack with hummus, make a big salad, throw them on the grill, roast them in the oven, make a stir-fry, a soup, vegetable burritos, or pot pies…the list is endless. And it doesn’t need to be fancy. Last night I tossed whole carrots from my friend’s garden with olive oil and herbs, and roasted them to go with herbed quinoa; easy, delicious, nutritious, and ready in 30 minutes.
And fat? Yes, please! Our bodies need fat and cholesterol to function properly. We just need the right kind of fat. Think avocados, nuts, fish, olive oil, flaxseed oil… Many of these healthy fats also contain Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs), which are important for circulation, limiting inflammation, and maintaining good blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Your body functions best when it is in a state of homeostasis, or balance. So high-fat, no carb diets like ‘keto’ or extremely low-fat diets both throw the body out of balance and lead to impaired health and a depressed immune system.
What about grains? Gluten? Unless you have a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, bread is not your enemy. While bread is getting a pretty bad rap these days, I think we can all agree that not all bread is created equally. Stay away from processed white bread and opt for sprouted grain breads or freshly baked whole grain breads instead. In my house it’s homemade sourdough that makes us happiest. I only make it every few weeks, not only because of the time it takes, but also so we don’t over do it. It’s hard to say no to fresh bread dipped in olive oil! Practice moderation; you certainly don’t need bread with every meal, or even every day. And when you’re choosing grains, go for whole grains – think quinoa, brown rice, barley, wild rice, and oats. Eat foods made with refined grains (bread, muffins, cookies, crackers) sparingly. These can be high in calories, but won’t leave you feeling full for long. Get the recipe for a delicious whole grain (farro) salad on my Recipes page.
Most importantly, listen to your body and use your best judgment. Pay attention to how your body feels after you eat certain foods. Do you feel sluggish, or energized and upbeat, foggy, or ready for whatever comes your way? Food makes a difference! You certainly don’t have to give up cake or hamburgers, just be sure that you’re eating less junk food and a whole lot more of the good stuff.
Make your health a priority and give your body the nutrition it needs. I guarantee your body will feel better, look better, and last longer if you do.