As a lot of advertising and hypes on supplements, medications and specific diets are continuously bombarding us on TV, the internet, magazines and so on, it is becoming very confusing to know what to eat to stay healthy. Personally, I like to keep it very simple.
- EAT FOOD. Unless you have very specific needs, allergies or a disease and need to be followed by your doctor, you will find all the nutrients needed to a healthy diet in natural food. Our parents and grandparents ate foods from their garden, the local store, worked more physically, walked everywhere and in general were more healthy and fit: diabetes, obesity and heart diseases were under control. Supplements and ultra-processed food were unknown and not needed. According to the Heart Association and for the sake of your health, it is important to know the difference between processed and ultra-processed food. Definitions vary, but the US Department of Agriculture says that anything that changes the fundamental nature of an agricultural product- heating, freezing, dicing, juicing- is a processed food. Which means some can be quite good for you, especially if processed at home, or the frozen bag of cut-up vegetables for example. However ultra-processed food takes things further. Definitions also vary but it can be summed up as “snacks, drinks, ready meals and many other products created mostly or entirely from substances extracted from foods or derived from food constituents with little if any intact food”. Examples include chips, soft drinks, sweetened cereals bars, but also dishes such as rice or pasta dishes for which all you have to do is add water and put in the microwave. Ultra-processed food can be cheap, convenient and tasty but they usually have lots of refined carbohydrates, saturated fats and salt, not to mention industrial additives. They also tend to pack a lot of calories into each bite, which means you are likely to eat a lot before feeling full. A growing amount of research also suggests that ultra-processed foods now make up half the diet of U.S. adults. The basic problem with ultra-processed food is they have not been designed with health in mind. Manufacturers prefer to make taste, cost, shelf life and mouth-feel the priority. With such goals, thousands of trace nutrients get stripped out and additives such as emulsifiers and stabilizers are tossed in. Although considered safe, the long-term effects of those additives are not completely known. Heavy processing also strips out fiber, altering how the body digests food and affecting friendly gut bacteria.
- NOT TOO MUCH. Portion size is important. If you are eating nutrients and fiber rich food, you will feel full faster and digestion will take longer so you will not feel hungry as quickly. Bigger is not always better. Coming from Europe and still owning a dinnerware set from there, the size of my dinner plates is about the size of the U.S. salad plates!
BALANCED HEALTHY PLATE. Eat natural food of all colors, all taste, all texture, processed as little as possible and in moderation. A good guideline I like is what the Harvard T. H. Chan school of Public Health, nutrition department called “The Healthy Eating Plate”, (see illustration). Here are the recommendations: about half of your plate should be vegetables and fruits: aim for color and variety and remember a fruit or vegetable flavored snack does not fit the bill, even the fruit juice is not good enough, go for the real thing. A quarter of your plate should be whole and intact grains, such as whole wheat, barley, quinoa, oats, brown rice, etc. The last quarter of your plate should be a source of protein such as fish, poultry, beans and nuts. A lot of healthy versatile protein sources can be mixed into salads and pair well with vegetables on a plate. Healthy vegetable oils like olive, canola, soy, corn, sunflower, peanut should be used but partially hydrogenated oils, which contain unhealthy trans fats should be avoided. Drink water, coffee, or tea but skip sugary drinks (that includes the sport drinks and energy drinks), limit milk and dairy products to one or two servings per day and limit juice to a small glass per day. STAY ACTIVE: the red figure running across the Healthy Eating Plate’s placemat is a reminder that staying active is also important in weight control and fitness.
The main message is to focus on diet quality. We survive on three primary macro-nutrients: carbohydrates, protein and fats which all serve a critical function to our overall health. Any diet that severely restricts any of those nutrients has consequences and is often not sustainable for the long term. The type of macro-nutrients in the diet is more important than the amount (especially if you are extremely active). Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, lean meat or fish are healthier choices. Non processed or slightly processed foods should be your first choice: learn to cook at home from natural ingredients, keep it simple, shop the perimeter of your grocery store, read the labels (the less ingredients, the better). Please note that the Healthy Eating Plate encourages the use of healthy oils and therefore recommends the opposite of the low-fat message which was promoted for decades.
Now as this may seem overwhelming, set up some tiny goals to start. If indeed ultra-processed food makes up 50% of the diet of the adult US population, it should not be hard to replace some of it with a nice home cooked and tasty dinner from basic food, or to replace a snack with an unpeeled fruit or raw vegetable.
Copyright © 2011, Harvard University. For more information about The Healthy Eating Plate, please see The Nutrition Source, Department of Nutrition, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, www.thenutritionsource.org, and Harvard Health Publications, www.health.harvard.edu.