Diet and nutrition plays a large role in health, even more so than exercise. But before you can start eating healthy, you first need to educate yourself. You need to read about what's healthy and what's not; what to avoid and what to eat more of. Below are some details on what you need to know about healthy eating.
Plan your meals
If you want to start eating healthy, then you need to be more deliberate with what you eat. You have to take the time to sit down and plan each of your meals. This means you'll have to look at what's currently in your fridge and cupboard, write down your grocery list, choose healthy ingredients, prepare your own meals, and write a meal diary to keep track of what you consume. A more deliberate approach would allow you to monitor your intake and avoid unhealthy foods.
Trying to plan for each meal wouldn't be easy so try to make the changes gradual. For instance, you can start by adding vegetables to your meals or switching from frying your food to baking it. Little baby steps would also help you stick with your plan as sudden changes usually result in cheating or simply abandoning the strategy.
There's a misconception that eating healthy is synonymous with eating substantially less than what you're consuming now, or that your food regimen would consist of nothing but juice, chicken soup, or whatever other fad diet. In truth, the main basis for a healthy and successful diet is moderation. But what exactly does moderation mean when it comes to eating healthy?
Moderation is about practicing restraint in the portions and variety of your food. This means you can also eat ice cream after your healthy meal, as long as you don't finish the entire container. Don't eat until you're 100 per cent full and incapable of having another bite. Eat only until you're 50 to 80 per cent full. To meet that quantity, eat only half of what you normally consume (that should already be 50 per cent), then see how you feel afterwards. If you're not hungry anymore, stop.
Go for variety in your food choices and try not to completely ban certain foods because this will only result in the temptation to eat them. If you give in, you'll feel terrible and might fail to sustain the effort. The trick is to reducing the amount and frequency of eating unhealthy food and offset it with something healthy.
Focus on fruits and veggies
A large portion of your diet should comprise of fruits and vegetables. They're full of healthy nutrients (e.g. antioxidants, vitamins, minerals) and low in calories. Don't focus on having just one type of fruit or vegetable; consume a variety so that you also get a range of nutrients. For instance, green, leafy vegetables like kale, turnip greens, and broccoli are excellent sources of vitamins A, C and K; citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruit, are rich in vitamin C; and berries such as strawberries and cranberries contain cancer-fighting phytochemicals.
While you can get these same nutrients separately through supplements, it's still better to eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables than to take a food substitute. With fruits and veggies, you get more micronutrients, fibre, phytochemicals, and antioxidants, all of which can't be reproduced in supplements.
Eating behaviour also matters
Healthy eating isn't just what you consume but how and when you do so. Think of food as sustenance; fuel; a means to an end. You shouldn't live to eat, but eat to live. Living to eat can result in overeating and even compulsive eating. It shouldn't be something that you get addicted to.
To establish healthier eating habits, try to do the following:
- Relish each bite so that you'll chew your food more slowly. Eating quickly can lead to obesity or acid reflux (i.e. gastro-oesophageal reflux disease).
- Eat breakfast, and then have smaller frequent meals throughout the day. The breakfast would get your metabolism going, then having smaller frequent meals would keep you from getting too hungry and overeating. Don't space your meals longer than five hours.
- Avoid having meals late in the evening. If you're hungry before bedtime, have something light like some fruit or a glass of milk.
- Listen to your body. As mentioned earlier, don't eat until you're 100 per cent full. Aim for 50 to 80 per cent so that you still have room for water.
Choose healthy carbs
There are generally two types of carbohydrates that you should know about: good carbs and bad carbs. Good carbs like whole grains, vegetables, beans, and fruits are rich sources of fibre and help control insulin and sugar levels; bad carbs like sugar and refined grains, on the other hand, provide calories but have hardly any or no nutrients.
To have a healthy diet, you should eat a variety of good carbs. Try a number of different grains to get more nutrition and find out which ones you like better. Look for the terms "100 per cent whole wheat" or "whole grain" in the packaging to find out if you're really getting good carbs. And as its name suggests, bad carbs are to be avoided.
General types of fat
You might initially think that you need to stay away from fats, but you actually need them; the good ones, at least. You should incorporate foods rich in eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)--types of omega-3 fatty acids that can lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and decrease the risk of coronary heart disease.
Sources of EPA include herring, cod liver, salmon, sardine, breast milk, and certain kinds of edible seaweed. Meanwhile, you can get DHA in Bluefin tuna, anchovies, salmon, caviar, algae, pacific oysters, and swordfish.
Stay away from all manner of trans fats and saturated fats. The former increases your bad cholesterol and lower your good cholesterol, while the latter are the actual solid fats we see in foods. For instance, the fat in any meat-based dish is saturated fat. To have a healthy diet, you'll have to reduce or avoid foods rich in saturated fats and trans fats. This includes whole milk dairy products, red meat, candies, cookies, and processed foods.
Consuming too much of these foods can lead to cardiovascular disease.
Calcium is key
You need calcium for healthy bones. The recommended daily amount of calcium for adults is 1,000 milligrams, but if you're over 50 years old, you'll need 1,200 milligrams. You can get calcium through supplements, but as we've mentioned earlier, it's better to get your daily needs through proper nutrition. Foods rich in calcium include dairy products (e.g. milk, cheese), beans (e.g. kidney beans, baked beans, black beans), and green and leafy vegetables (e.g. kale, celery, broccoli, cabbage).
The importance of protein
Being present in every cell of your body, protein is one of your most important building blocks. It helps build muscles, causes muscles to contract, fights off infection (as antibodies), functions as hormones, serves as a source of energy when you've run out of carbohydrates, and many more. Because of this, you need to have enough protein in your diet.
But how much protein is enough?
The National Health and Medical Research Council recommends that the average Australian adult male should eat 0.84 grams of protein per day for each kilogram of body weight. The average adult female, on the other hand, should consume 0.75 grams per day for each kilogram of body weight. To illustrate, a woman weighing 70 kilograms should eat 52 grams of protein per day, while a man weighing 90 kilograms should consume 75 grams per day.
Take note, however, that daily consumption could change, depending on factors like pregnancy, lactation, and amount of physical activity.
Control your salt and sugar intake
While we've talked about moderation earlier, there are mainly two substances that you need to limit to maintain a healthy diet: salt and sugar. Having too much sugar in your diet can result in weight gain, increased risk of diabetes, a weaker immune system, and higher insulin levels that can lead to heart disease, cancer, myopia, and polycystic ovarian syndrome.
An excessive amount of salt, in contrast, can cause hypertension, osteoporosis, dehydration and bloating, heart diseases, kidney illnesses, acid reflux, damage to your upper digestive tract, gastric ulcer, and imbalance of your electrolyte and hormone levels.
Here are a few suggestions on how you can reduce your salt and sugar intake:
Stay away from canned or pre-packaged foods
Canned or pre-packaged foods (e.g. TV dinners) come with unhealthy amounts of sodium to lengthen its shelf life. If you currently don't have a fresher option, place the contents in a sieve then rinse it with water before cooking to remove the sodium and other preservatives.
Choose fresh over canned
While you can wash the sodium out of canned food, it's still better to buy fresh or even frozen instead of commercially prepared food.
Eat naturally sweet food
Instead of having cake, donuts, or cookies, go for naturally sweet food like citrus fruits, berries, and honey.
Go for low-sodium products
When doing your groceries, look for products labelled "salt reduced" or "no added salt". But don't stop there: compare similar products and choose the one with the lowest sodium content.
Cook with herbs, spices, and other non-salt flavourings
Start weaning yourself off salt by cooking your food with herbs and spices like garlic, basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and many other non-salt flavourings that can add taste to your dishes.