How can I eat healthy? This is one of the most common questions people all over the world find themselves asking. The internet is full of answers, but the sheer volume of data available, along with misinformation and contradictory recommendations in books, blogs and social media can make finding the answer to this simple question a very difficult task. In fact, the internet can make the simplest of things look exceedingly complicated.
So without further ado, I’m going to offer you the short answer to this ubiquitous question: a healthy diet is one that includes whole foods such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes and nuts and seeds , restrict refined grains, added sugar and trans fats while limits red meat and full fat dairy. Many studies have found such a diet to be associated with a reduced risk of chronic diseases. An added benefit of such a diet is that it naturally tends to be low in calories, which means you do not need to keep counting calories, or do anything drastic for weight loss!
While we’re at it, let me also highlight what is NOT a healthy diet: a diet that’s high in processed foods, refined grains and added sugar, red meat and trans fats and low in fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes and beans. This kind of a diet has been associated with an increased risk of heart disease, cancer and other chronic diseases.
The components of a healthy diet:
A healthy diet includes right amounts of high quality macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fats) to nourish our body and provide calories for energy. Whole, minimally processed foods not only provide these macronutrients in the right amounts, but also micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and antioxidants for optimal functioning of our body.
Carbs are the main energy source in our food and found in the highest amounts in fruits, grains, legumes and vegetables. Many recent diets promote low carbs, but I’ve talked about why carbohydrates are very important to us here. The only carbohydrates that should be avoided are refined, processed grains such as white bread and rice, and refined sugar. Whole, unprocessed carbohydrates are full of fibre, and provide a wide range of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. This is the reason why all carbohydrates shouldn’t be avoided – only the refined, processed ones should be avoided because those are devoid of any nutritional value and provide only empty calories. The consumption of whole grains have been linked with a lower incidence of and death from heart disease, cancers, diabetes and even some infectious diseases.
Fruits and vegetables are full of vitamins and minerals, as well as fibre which makes one feel satiated and avoids over eating. Fruits and vegetables are also important sources of antioxidants and phytochemicals such as carotenoids, polyphenols and phytosterols. These phytonutrients act as antioxidants that protect cells from free radical damage. Studies have also found flavonoids to improve insulin sensitivity and are good for the heart. These polyphenols also interact with gut bacteria to form other beneficial compounds. The high fibre content in fruits and vegetable is also beneficial. Fibre also helps maintain steady blood sugar levels, allows for proper bowel movements and improves cholesterol levels.
For all these reasons, please eat lots of fruits and vegetables per day (at least 5 servings. More is better). Eating several servings of fruits and vegetables a day has been correlated with a reduced risk of non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, loss of vision from cataract and macular degeneration and some types of cancer such as colorectal, lung, stomach and esophageal.
I’ve already mentioned this but it’s worth repeated over and over again. All carbohydrates are not bad. Only refined, processed carbohydrates are bad for health and should be avoided. Complex carbohydrates from whole, unprocessed carbohydrates from fruits and vegetables (even starchy ones), whole grains, beans and legumes are slowly digested and provide a steady source of energy along with numerous vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre which are highly beneficial to health and which have been shown in many scientific studies to reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer.
Proteins are building blocks involved in the maintenance and repair of body tissues. Protein is necessary for maintaining lean body mass. In the elderly, protein is also important for preventing the loss of skeletal muscle mass, bone mass and reducing the risk of fractures.
Many people worldwide believe that protein from animal sources are superior because those are complete proteins, while plant-based sources of protein are incomplete (that is, they do not provide all the essential amino acids that the body cannot produce on its own) and therefore, inferior. While it’s true that animal protein sources are complete and therefore more easily digestible and bioavailable, that doesn’t mean that animal protein is superior and plant-based protein sources are inferior. The reason for that is that protein as a macronutrient, is not isolated. Protein comes pre-packaged with other macro and micronutrients (such as fats, carbs, sodium content etc) and these other macro and micro nutrients actually play a very important role in our health. The pre-packaged accompanying nutrients in plant-based protein sources are actually superior (more healthy fats such as from nuts and seeds, and complex carbohydrates from beans and legumes) .
A study found that eating more plant-based proteins from beans and nuts and seeds while eating fewer refined carbohydrates reduced the risk of heart disease, while eating more protein from animal sources and eating fewer refined carbs still didn’t reduce the risk of heart disease, seemingly due to the absence of fibre, antioxidants and good fats in animal protein sources. As many of you might already be aware, studies have found red and processed meats to be associated with an increased risk of colon cancer. Another problem with animal protein sources is the increase in acid load on the body which can make the body more acidic (yes, this is very real and scientifically proven). A more acidic body brings with it many problems such as insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, calcium stones, increased bone loss as well as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. So, as a complete package, plant-based protein sources are healthier.
The main structural component of cell membranes is fat. There are 4 types of dietary fats: Monounsaturated, Polyunsaturated, Saturated and Trans fats. The fat content in foods is generally a mix of two or more types of fats. Most plant-based foods and fish have unsaturated fats, while animal foods and a few plant foods have saturated fats. Trans fats are a result of vegetable oils processed in and heated to very high temperatures .
While dietary fats have been maligned since the 1960s, only trans fats are truly bad and should be avoided at all times, and saturated fats should be limited to moderate amounts. Trans fats increase the harmful LDL cholesterol and reduce the beneficial, or good HDL cholesterol. These fats also promote inflammation in the body and damage arteries, causing heart disease. The consumption of trans fats is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, gall stones and dementia. Saturated fats increase harmful LDL cholesterol, but they were also found to increase good cholesterol levels. This is why a moderate amount of saturated fats (or under 8% of total daily calories) can be from saturated fats. Higher amounts of saturated fats in the diet was found to correlate with heart disease.
Mono and polyunsaturated fats from nuts and seeds, whole grains and fish are very good for heart health and form an important part of a healthy diet. Getting most of your fats from unsaturated fats (especially omega-3 fats) instead of trans and saturated fats improves cholesterol levels, improves insulin sensitivity, heart health. Omega-3 fats also help reduce inflammation in the body and support memory and brain health. In particular, the omega-3 and omega-6 fats are called essential fatty acids because they are required by the body but aren’t produced by it (therefore must be obtained from the diet). The most widely studied omega-3 fats are EPA and DHA which are provided by oily fish. Plant-based omega-3s are provided by nuts and seeds such as flax seeds.
Diets including up to 40% calories from fat are healthy provided they contain mainly unsaturated fats, with only up to 8% saturated fats and little to no trans fats.
Micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are required in lesser amounts compared to macronutrients. However, micronutrients are vital for normal growth, metabolism and proper functioning of cells. Micronutrients are available in abundance in whole, unprocessed foods but the processing of foods in modern times has created deficiencies of many essential micronutrients. The deficiency of essential vitamins, minerals and antioxidants resulting from an increased consumption of processed foods (implying a reduced consumption of whole foods) can cause DNA damage and cellular aging and are also associated with diseases such as cancer.
A healthy diet also includes sufficient hydration, especially as water. Water is the main component of our body and a majority of our body weight (75% in infants and 55% in the elderly)Water is essential not only for hydration, but also for carrying micronutrients and electrolytes, and waste products out of the body.
Unfortunately, many people drink less water and depend on other beverages such as soda, coffee or other sweetened beverages, which do not provide adequate hydration and may promote disease. Even fruit juices aren’t totally healthy. I’ve covered more about fruit/vegetable juices here. Fruits and vegetables are best consumed whole, not in juice form.
Caffeinated beverages should be limited, and herbal teas are a good alternative.
Alcohol should be consumed only in moderation, if at all.
To summarize, the basics of healthy eating is very simple:
Eat whole, unprocessed foods such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, and only some animal foods. Avoid refined sugar and refined grains, trans fat and limit saturated fats. If you’ve heard that plant-based foods are better for your health, you’ve heard right (but only when the plant-based foods are whole, or minimally-processed). Finally, stay hydrated by drinking lots of pure water and avoid sweetened beverages and alcohol.