Not surprisingly, diet is the most important foundation upon which to build your “healthy house.” But just what is a healthy diet?
Thousands of studies have explored this question over the past 50 years. While there is much known about how to best fuel our bodies and what nutrient deficiencies look like, we still have a lot to learn – especially when you consider how our nutritional needs change as we age, our unique genetic makeup, and many other factors.
There is, however, good nutritional advice that everyone can follow.
Our diets today tend to be too high in calories and too low in good nutritional value. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) from the Centers for Disease Control, reported that 9 out of 10 Americans fall short on essential nutrients in their diets. The nutrients most missing in our diets are potassium, fiber, vitamin D, calcium, magnesium, vitamin A, and vitamin C.
Studies show that people with healthy dietary patterns including whole grains, fruits, and vegetables rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber have lower risk of developing chronic conditions. When people eat a diet based on highly refined foods they tend to consume too many calories and too little nutrition—which leads to excess body weight and nutrient gaps.
Creating a good diet can be easy. Focus on:
- Fruits and Vegetables: If you are typical, you don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables contain many of the nutrients (such as antioxidants) we need to combat aging and chronic diseases. Try to include colorful and, when possible, organic and seasonal fruits and vegetables at every meal (including breakfast). Eat at least seven servings per day.
- Whole Grains: Whole grains are all the non-white grains (such as oatmeal, whole wheat, brown rice). Grains not only provide fiber, but much-needed nutrients (including B vitamins, iron, magnesium, and selenium). Many whole grain choices are non-GMO (for example, wheat, barley, buckwheat, and oats), and, if organically grown, are less likely to have pesticides than conventionally grown grains, so choose organic when possible. If you are avoiding gluten, great gluten-free options include quinoa, brown rice, or get a little adventurous and give millet or bulgur a try. Another option is to consider the “cousins” of the whole grains: legumes such as beans, lentils, and peas. Go for quantity and quality!
- Dairy: Men and women between the ages of 18 to 50 need about 1000 mg of calcium per day. Women over age 50 and men over age 70 should increase that total to at least 1200 mg per day. Dairy foods are the most commonly consumed calcium sources. It takes 4 servings of dairy products, such as milk or yogurt, to reach 1200 mg of calcium per day. If you don’t consume dairy, consider fortified soy products and increase dark, leafy green vegetables. Consider a calcium supplement to meet your needs without calories.
- Protein: Aim for protein at each of your three meals. Try to include plant proteins in your diet, such as beans, lentils and other legumes, and soy foods such as tofu. For non-vegetarians, choose lean protein options including fish, skinless poultry, lean red meats, eggs, and nuts.
- Fats: When cooking, use primarily monounsaturated fats (such as olive oil). Limit saturated and trans fats whenever possible. Most people’s diets are lacking in the omega-3 fatty acids ALA, EPA and DHA. To get these important fats, plant options for ALA include flaxseed oil, avocado, chia seeds, walnuts, sacha inchi oil and more. For EPA and DHA, eat fish 2-3 times a week and/or supplement with fish oil when you are not eating enough fish or if you are concerned about contaminants in fish.
- Avoid processed foods and any food that is high in sugar, salt, and fat. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. Mayo Clinic recommends up to 1 drink per day for healthy women of all ages and men above the age of 65, and up to 2 drinks per day for healthy men under the age of 65.
Remember that getting proper nutrition can be difficult due to the distance our food travels, the soil it is grown in, and the various ways processing may destroy nutrition. In addition, each life stage (from child, to adult, to elderly) has different nutritional needs. The potential for significant nutritional gaps and our ever-changing needs underscore the importance of supplementation.
Our health and well-being requires the integration of nutrition, exercise, and healthy lifestyle choices throughout our lives. We all have “bad food” days, and that’s okay. Try building healthy habits one day at a time.