We live in a complicated nutritional landscape, surrounded by fad diets and superfoods. Though we are all eager to make better choices, few of us have time to sort through the latest research. Is the new trend a breakthrough or misleading hype? Fortunately, good nutrition does not have to be complicated. Instead of getting caught up in the latest craze, stick to the basics. A few simple tips on how to eat healthy can jump start your journey towards a happier, healthier life.
Importance of Balanced Nutrition
Healthy food is about more than managing your weight or the energy you need to function. There is hardly an aspect of physical or mental wellbeing that is unaffected by how you eat.
- Immunity. Proper nutrition fosters a healthy microbiome, gut barrier, and white blood cells, ensuring our body is ready to trap, attack, and destroy invading pathogens at any time.
- Mood & Cognition. In order to send messages between synapses, the brain relies on neurotransmitters. These chemicals are important to thought and mood, allowing us to process information and regulate emotion. However, their production requires the special blend of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids we get through a balanced diet.
- Stress. A healthy diet curbs production of stress hormones such as cortisol while simultaneously increasing levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood and creates feelings of well-being and happiness.
- Blood Sugar Control. Eating balanced meals helps keep our energy levels stable throughout the day, promotes good brain health, balance mood, and prevents unwanted sugar cravings.
- Aging. Maintaining good nutrition throughout your lifespan lowers the risk of chronic health problems such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, as well as certain forms of cancer.
A wholesome diet leads to robust, long-term health, allowing us to remain active and independent throughout our advancing years. What’s more, these benefits can be achieved by following a few simple tips on how to eat healthy.
Tips on Choosing Healthy Foods
Do not listen to the slogans, buzzwords, and promises of the food industry. Eating well does not require any special products. The essential nutrients you need can be found in ordinary items at your local supermarket.
Minimally Processed Foods
Short of growing everything yourself, avoiding processed foods is a challenge. Practically everything in the supermarket has been altered in some way, though not necessarily to the same extent. Some items have only been altered in order to preserve them, through either cleaning, packaging, pasteurizing, fermenting, freezing, or vacuum sealing.
However, none of this affects the food’s nutritional content. Whether fresh or frozen, fruits and vegetables picked at the peak of their season, so they have just as much nutritional value.
While there is no sticker for minimally processed foods, they still have nutritional labels. Chopped broccoli, for example, will still have nutrition facts listed on the back, making it easy to avoid food that has been highly processed. Any product made with additives you do not recognize or would not use at home (e.g., monosodium glutamate, sodium nitrate) is probably unhealthy. So is anything with added sugars, such as high fructose corn syrup, or made from refined flour. Generally, one of the best tips to eat healthy is count the components on the nutrition label. The fewer listed, the more whole food it contains. Whole foods are packed with nutrients that work together to serve your health, which is why people who eat them tend to enjoy longer lives and lower rates of disease.
Protein is a rich source of acids, enzymes, vitamins, and minerals. It allows your body to build, maintain, and repair tissue and plays a vital role in mental health, strengthening memory and cognition while also elevating your mood. While animals are the main source of protein, plants contain some as well.
High-quality proteins contain a complete amino acid, are easily digestible, and have high biological value, meaning a large proportion of them can be absorbed by the body. They should also be low in fat and sodium in order to minimize obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Some of the best protein sources are:
- Fish. Salmon, sardines, trout, halibut, and herring are not only lean, but also high in omega-3 – a fatty acid that benefits your heart, brain, and lungs. In addition, omega 3 prevents plaque from building up in your arteries and keeps skin fresh and supple.
- Poultry. Besides being primarily low in fat, chicken, turkey, and game birds are high in B vitamins. Humans rely on vitamin B in order to maintain their eyesight, red blood cells, metabolism, nerve function, and mental acuity.
- Dairy. Low-fat dairy products like yogurt, skim milk, and light cheese contain whey and casein, two unique proteins that provide both an immediate and prolonged release of amino acids.
- Tofu & Soy. The only high-quality proteins not made from animals. They contain all nine essential amino acids, as well as antioxidants and compounds that fight inflammation.
Besides being rich in nutrients, high-protein diets also help manage our weight and balance our blood sugar. Protein is slower digesting, so you feel full longer and thus are less likely to overeat at mealtimes.
Despite its bad reputation, fat is an essential nutrient. It provides energy, protects your organs, and assists in maintaining body temperature, not to mention helping you absorb vitamins, produce hormones, and generate new cells. However, not all fats are created equal. While some are healthful, others are not.
- Trans Fat. Adding trans fats is an easy way to improve a food’s taste, texture, and shelf life. However, it also wreaks havoc with your cholesterol. There are two types of cholesterol. Bad cholesterol, known as low-density lipoprotein (LDL), builds up in your arteries, increasing your risk of stroke, heart attack, and hypertension. Good cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL), removes excess cholesterol, reducing your risk of stroke, heart attack, and hypertension. Trans fats are dangerous because they raise LDL while lowering HDL.
- Saturated Fat. Saturated fats are found mostly in animal products: beef, pork, and butter for example. They are solid at room temperature and loaded with LDL.
- Unsaturated Fat. Unsaturated fat is found in plant foods and products derived from them. They are loaded with HDL. Food high in unsaturated fat not only lowers your risk of cardiovascular disease, but may reduce your risk of inflammation, diabetes, and arthritis as well.
Unsaturated fats are widely available, healthful, and easy to incorporate into your diet. Popular sources include:
- Olive, Safflower, and Sesame Oil
- Fish, especially salmon, mackerel, herring, tuna, and anchovies
For adults, 20-30% of calories should come from fat. However, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans also recommends limiting saturated fat to 10 percent of total calories. If you are eating too much, look for ways to swap in unsaturated fats. Try eating whole eggs or cooking with olive oil instead of butter. Once you start searching, you will be surprised by how many opportunities you find.
Fiber Rich Foods
Occasionally called bulk or ruffage, fiber is an undigestible nutrient that helps regulate digestion, weight, bowel movements, blood sugar, and gut health. Recommended fiber intake differs for men and women. Women need about 25 grams a day while men need 38, though unfortunately few reach the recommended amount.
If you are searching for new ways to boost daily fiber intake, check out some of our recipe ideas. Otherwise, you will want to focus on foods with the highest concentration of fiber.
- Split Peas (16 G/Cup)
- Lentils (15.5 G/Cup)
- Black Beans (15.5 G/Cup)
- Lima Beans (13.2 G/Cup)
- Baked Beans (10 G/Cup)
- Chia Seeds (10 G/Cup)
- Green Peas (9 G/Cup)
- Raspberries (8 G/Cup)
- Whole Wheat Spaghetti (6 G/Cup)
- Barley (6 G/Cup)
One of the best tips on how to eat healthy is make fiber part of every meal. Be careful, however. Adding too much fiber to your diet at once can cause bloating, cramps, and diarrhea. Instead, add fiber gradually and increase your water intake.
Tips on Avoiding Unhealthy Foods
Many of the products targeted at consumers are not designed to be healthy, but are instead hyper palatable, designed to make us overeat. Unless consumed in moderation, they dramatically increase your risk of chronic disease while simultaneously decreasing the chance you will be able to live independently as you grow older.
Highly Processed Foods
There are three types of food processing. Primary food processing turns crops and livestock into edible foodstuffs. Harvesting, butchering, milling, and pasteurization are part of this process. So are the steps taken to ensure food remains fresh until it reaches the consumer, such as canning, freezing, and irradiation.
Secondary food processing takes these ingredients and transforms them into something more palatable. This is the stage where flour and sugar are refined, oils are extracted, grains fermented, and meat ground into sausage.
Finally, tertiary food processing combines these products to create packaged foods, often adding chemicals to preserve or enhance their taste, color, texture, and shelf life. These foods are sold ready to eat or require only minimal preparation. Potato chips, TV dinners, frozen pizza, ice cream, cookies, breakfast cereals, and instant soups are examples of this type of highly processed food.
Highly processed foods are undoubtedly tasty but often contain little nutritional value. Most of the vitamins, minerals, and fiber have been stripped away and sodium, refined carbohydrates, and unhealthy fats left in their place. What’s more, because they are so nutrient poor, these foods are rarely satiating. Even after consuming a large amount, you feel hungry straightaway because you are not getting the vitamins and minerals you need to stay healthy.
Added sugar is different from natural sugar. Natural sugars are found in whole, unprocessed foods: fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, and milk. They are absorbed slowly, providing your cells with a steady stream of energy throughout the day. And because they are found in foods rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, they can even bolster long-term health.
On the other hand, added sugars are refined so they can be broken down and absorbed quickly into the bloodstream. This creates a rush of energy, followed by fatigue, headaches, and intense food cravings. In addition, these sugars short circuit our hunger signals, making it more likely we will overeat. Over time, this combination can lead to inflammation, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and fatty liver disease.
Almost all processed foods contain added sugar. Everyone knows about the dangers of sweets but they are generally unaware how many other foods companies enrich this way.
- Salad Dressing
- Spaghetti Sauce
- Teriyaki Sauce
- Breakfast Cereals
- Canned Soup
- Iced Tea
- Protein Bars
- Baked Beans
- Deli Meats
The American Heart Association recommended 25-36 grams of added sugar per day, but the average American consumes 4-5 times that instead. One of the reasons it is so difficult to avoid is companies hide it behind different names.
- Corn Syrup
- Sorghum Syrup
- Corn Sweetener
- Brown Sugar
- Malt Sugar
- Fruit Juice Concentrate
- High-Fructose Corn Syrup
Therefore, if you need tips on how to eat healthy, start by reading the nutrition label of everything you buy. If sugar is listed as one of the first five ingredients, you are probably better off setting it back on the shelf.
Processed meat is any meat that has been smoked, cured, fermented, dried, or canned. These techniques extend its shelf life but introduce chemicals and carcinogens at the same time.
- Sodium Nitrate. Added to preserve color and flavor. It also stops bacterial growth but increases risk of stomach and bowel cancer.
- Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons. Mostly found in smoked meats, charred meats, and cooked drippings. Like other forms of carbon, doctors have linked them to several types of cancer.
- Heterocyclic Aromatic Amines. These chemicals form when meat is cooked over an open flame or at high temperatures. They are present in pre-cooked meat products and are also a known cancer risk.
Processed meats are typically high in salt and fat, particularly saturated fat, making them a leading contributor to obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Anything that has been cured or salted or lists nitrates on the label should be avoided, particularly:
- Hot Dogs
- Corned Beef
- Beef Jerky
- Deli Meats
To ensure you are eating high quality proteins, stick to fresh meat from your local butcher. Beef and pork smoke a lot, so focus on chicken, turkey, fish, or eggs as your main protein sources instead. If you do buy red meat, choose leaner cuts and opt for grass-fed when available.
Vegetable oil is a leading source of omega-6, another essential fatty acid. In small quantities it helps regulate our heart, brain, and metabolism. However, in large quantities, it has been linked to weight gain, diabetes, osteoporosis, dementia, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, cancer, and autoimmune disease.
Omega-6 occurs naturally in plants, nuts, seeds, meat, and fish, but only in low concentrations, generally 2-7 percent by weight. However, extracting and refining vegetable oil raises its concentration to as much as 66-75 percent by eight.
Fortunately, not every type of oil is equally harmful. Olive and avocado oil contain relatively small amounts of omega-6, while sunflower oil, corn oil, soybean oil, cottonseed oil, peanut oil, and canola oil can have dangerously large amounts.
Final Tips on How to Eat Healthy
Our food choices undoubtedly impact our health. Whether it is long-term or day-to-day, if you want to keep looking and feeling your best, you need to pay attention to what you are putting into your body.
Jasmine El Nabli MS RDN is a Registered Dietitian who empowers and educates individuals through her scientific, holistic approach to health and happiness. With the right tools, skills, and knowledge, she shows people how to create healthy and sustainable eating habits through small changes to daily life.