How would you define a nutritious diet? So many opinions, so little consensus. One of the most frequent concerns that my patient’s report to me is confusion on nutrition advice. Eating well should not be complicated or difficult but it somehow became both. A primary cause of this hyper-confusion is money-hungry food companies that position themselves as nutritious or make various health claims that their products don’t live up to. In an attempt to reduce nutrition confusion let’s start with the basics.
#1: Don’t Confuse Dieting and Deprivation
Just as over-consumption can lead to weight loss failure, adopting a rice cake and diet coke type of diet will eventually slow down your metabolism, not to mention increase the risk of chronic disease. Repeated cycles of gaining and losing weight are referred to as weight cycling, which is a common outcome of yo-yo dieting. A 2010 review suggests that weight cycling may be associated with elevated levels of chronic inflammation and thus, an increased risk of chronic disease. Whether you are trying to lose weight or maintain it, don’t deprive yourself of food. Aim for five small meals a day and choose quality whole foods.
#2: Look Further than the Number of Calories
Eating for a healthy, vigorous life involves more than merely adding up daily calories or points. Food is so much more than numbers! Physiologically speaking, maintaining calorie balance overtime is essential for a healthy weight however; it does not guarantee that the body is fed with adequate nutrition. Choose foods based on nutrient-density, meaning foods that provide valuable calories that are packed with plenty of vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, and healthy fats with minimal trans/saturated fat and added sugar. Nutrient-rich foods provide the proper information to your cells and may help prevent disease. So check out foods like broccoli, purple cabbage, sardines, wild salmon, lentils, avocado, and walnuts!
#3: Don’t Sub Veggie Chips for Veggie Sticks
Don’t fall for the veggie chips, wafers, crackers, and even veggie pasta, that are gaining a presence outside the produce section of the grocery store. Many of these new products contain a vegetable powder blend or dried veggies towards the bottom of the ingredient list. At the end of the day, veggie chips are still chips and their content is fairly comparable to regular old tortilla chips. The best advice is to stick to the regular-old-produce section for your veggies. Real vegetables contain a rich source of vitamins A, C, potassium, magnesium, fiber and other important nutrients that you wont find in the processed veggie chips.
Try incorporating non-starchy vegetables into your diet in every meal of the day—add spinach to an omelet or smoothie, pack fresh veggies with hummus for a snack, add salads to lunch and dinner, try jicama fries, cauliflower rice, or spaghetti squash or zucchini as a pasta replacement.
#4: Choose Whole Fruit Instead of Juice
Fruit drinks of all kinds – orange juice, apple juice, grape juice, etc. – are one of the major sources of added sugar in the American diet. The truth is that research suggests fruit drinks are much higher in added sugar compared to whole fruit, which causes a spike in blood sugar and secretion of fat-storing insulin. This high is shortly followed by an extreme crash in blood sugar levels which can lead to feelings of exhaustion, brain fog, hunger, moodiness, and sugar cravings. Aside from sky-high levels of sugar, fruit juice is stripped of the fiber that is found in whole fruits. Fiber is one of four shortfall nutrient that is inadequately consumed in the Standard American Diet (SAD) but is so crucial for gut and heart health.
The solution is fairly straightforward: avoid fruit juice of any kind and focus on eating low glycemic fruits such as berries, kiwis, and apples. Don’t overdo your fruit intake because remember, even though it does not contain added sugar fruit eventually breaks down to fructose.
#5: Limit Sugar Consumption
Excess sugar intake is a major driver of obesity, type II diabetes and chronic disease. A recent study found that a high intake of added sugar is associated with an increased risk for death caused by heart disease. The problem is that sugar is everywhere in the food supply and often hiding on the ingredient list in one of it’s many forms. Choose food in it’s basic, least processed form to help reduce sugar. This means choosing oats as steel cut oats instead of instant oatmeal packs with added sugar or purchasing coconut yogurt that is plain, unsweetened rather than just “plain”.
#6: Choose Grains Wisely
For those who have an extremely high vegetable intake, you may consume enough fiber through plants and follow a paleo diet. For those who are not consuming enough fiber from vegetables, whole grains can be a significant source of dietary fiber intake. A research study published in Nutrition Research in January 2014 found that adults who consumed whole grains ( > 3 oz. per day) were 76 times more likely to have the highest intake of fiber compared to those consuming no whole grains at all. If you are anything like the typical American, your diet could use more fiber. The Institute of Medicine Adequate Intake (AI) guidelines for fiber intake are 25 grams per day for women and 38 grams per day for men. This can be achieved by eating more fruits and vegetables and by selecting foods that are 100% whole grain—such as non-gmo popcorn, brown rice, quinoa, and oatmeal. If you are eating grains the most important thing is to avoid any refined grains such as white rice.
#7: Avoid Reduced-Fat Products
To set the record straight, consuming foods that are high in fat does not translate to gaining more fat cells in the body. In fact, fats are the main source of fuel for the body and they aid in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K and carotenoids. These properties of healthy fats are lost during the process of producing “reduced fat” products. With reduced fat products, food manufacturers remove fat and replace it with added sugar, creating a diet nightmare.
Reduced fat foods are not necessarily lower in calories and they also tend to be higher in sugar. When dressing your salad, opt for olive oil and vinegar over reduced-fat dressings. The key is to choose foods that are rich in healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds, sardines and salmon.
These seven basic tips will ensure that you are creating a nutritious foundation for your diet and that you are well equipped to choose food confidently during your next trip to the grocery store.