A bewildering variety of diets are popular today. Most of these diets have scape-goated a particular type of food as being responsible for ill-health or weight gain. Carbohydrate-rich foods, high-fat foods, low protein foods, have all been targeted as culprits for the nation’s high rates of obesity, cancer and cardiovascular disease. Most of these diets fail to tell you what foods should be included in your diet. Instead, they emphasize what should be avoided in order to lose or maintain weight, and the greater goals of using food to live longer and to perform better are overlooked.
What makes one diet plan better than another? A good diet strategy should aid in achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, be affordable, help ensure better long-term health, and must include foods that are commonly available and which the person likes. There is a great deal of evidence available from large epidemiologic studies such as the Nurse’s Health Study which indicate that what you eat does indeed affect long and short term health. Below are some suggestions for improving overall health and for reducing risk of disease.
Eat more vegetarian sources of protein [beans, nuts, low fat dairy] and less animal meats.
Daily intake for Americans often looks something like this: egg and bacon on a hard roll for breakfast, sandwhich made with cold cuts at lunch, and a 6+ ounce piece of meat with a small amount of starch and minimal vegetables for supper. It is not necessary to eat meat so frequently, if at all. Most get plenty of protein and too much protein can draw calcium out of the bones—a concern particularly for women. Instead try to eat smaller portions of animal products, and increasingly incorporate products made with legumes such as rice and beans, bean soups or chili, hummus, tofu, low fat yogurts, nuts and seeds.
Eat more fruits and vegetables.
Phytonutrients are naturally occurring chemicals which promote health. These chemicals act to retard cell damage and biological aging, and consequently are related to lower rates of chronic disease.
Dark yellow, red or green fruits and vegetables are associated with decreased risk for cancer, heart disease, hypertension, and eye disorders. These foods are low in calories and provide fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. Each day strive to eat a dark green vegetable, a yellow or orange fruit or vegetable, a red fruit or vegetable, beans or nuts, and a citrus fruit, such as oranges. Frozen or canned vegetables are often as good for you as “fresh” from a supermarket, since the produce may have been picked weeks—or months—earlier.
Get more unsaturated fat and less saturated and trans fatty acids.
Some fats are good for you! There is a proven benefit of unsaturated fats, which are oils that are liquid at room temperature. While all fats are equivalent in calories, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats should be substituted wherever possible. Dip bread in olive oil rather than spreading with butter; sauté foods with olive, canola or peanut oils rather than using shortening; use natural-style peanut butter rather than most commercial brands [which are higher in trans-fatty acids] and avoid foods whose label states “partially hydrogenated oil”.
Eat more whole grains and less refined grains and sugars.
Whole grains, fruits, and vegetables should should provide the bulk of daily calories. Milling removes most of the vitamins and minerals from grain, and almost all of the phytochemicals. Consuming whole grains reduces the chance of heart and bowel diseases, as well as many cancers. Make sure that the word “whole” is listed with the first ingredient. Try whole grain breads, cereals, pasta [or pasta made with 50% whole wheat], brown rice, steel-cut oats, kasha, bulgur and barley are all good choices. Try to vary the diet away from pasta, white rice and peeled potatoes: the more variety the better!
Here are some particularly good food choices. All are readily available, relatively inexpensive and easy to prepare as well as healthy choices.
Surprised? Eating up to 1 egg each day does not increase the risk of heart disease. One large egg contains only 75 calories and provides the highest quality protein available. Eggs are also good sources of chromium, choline, vitamins B12, D and K [essential for healthy bones], folate, carotenoids and protein. So don’t hesitate to include a few eggs each week.
- Skim or 1% milk.
Whole milk is high in calories and saturated fats. However, non-fat milk has only 85 calories per cup and is rich in protein, vitamin D, riboflavin and, of course, calcium. Try nonfat or low fat yogurts mixed with fresh fruit and nuts or in fruit smoothies.
Citrus fruits in general are great sources of vitamin C, folate and antioxidants such as flavonoids and carotenoids.
Tomatoes and tomato products are so widely available that they deserve a spot on the list. In addition to being good sources of fiber, vitamins C and A, and potassium, they are rich sources of lycopene a cancer-fighting compound. Thankfully, cooking the tomatoes into a sauce enhances the cancer-fighting effects!
- Fish, such as salmon, tuna, sardines or bluefish.
These varieties of fish are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids which have been shown to be protective against cardiovascular disease. They are low in calories and total fat, but are high in protein, and vitamins B6, B12, and B3.
Walnuts and almonds are rich in alpha-linoleic acid, unsaturated fats, protein, omega-3 fatty acids and magnesium. Eight walnut halves, or 14 almonds supply about 100 calories, so don’t eat nuts by the bagful. Instead, eat a small handful in place of chips or crackers when looking for a filling healthy snack. You can also choose other nuts, or natural-style peanut butter.
- Legumes, such as soybeans, lentils, peas or beans.
Not only are these foods high in protein, fiber and anti-oxidants, they are also low in fats and inexpensive. Try substituting vegetarian baked beans, vegetarian chili, or dishes with tofu for foods usually made with meat.
- Olive oil.
Olive oil, canola, soy and peanut oil are low in saturated fats and high in monounsaturated fats. Use in cooking, and stay away from fast foods and commercial baked products such as muffins which are often made using fats that are high in artery-clogging trans-fatty acids. Vegetable oils are some of the few sources of vitamin E.
- Whole grains breads.
Make sure “whole grain” appears as the first ingredient. Whole wheat, corn, rye, spelt, and oats are good sources of phytochemicals, magnesium, fiber, manganese, pantothenic acid, as well as vitamins K, B6 and B3.
Dark green vegetables tend to be rich in vitamins A, K, C, and folate, magnesium, fiber, and various classes of antioxidant compounds such as carotenoids. Foods and eating should be fun. There is no single perfect food. Feel free to mix up the diet, while sticking to a few simple guidelines. You’ll end up feeling better, performing more consistently, and as an additional bonus—be protected from chronic diseases for years to come!