Healthy eating is about more than losing weight or maintaining a certain body weight or slimming down your waist size. In fact, healthy eating can lower the risk for conditions including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure, and even many cancers, not to mention the psychological and mood benefits of feeling good and having more energy.
That’s why we tell patients every day how important healthy eating is for their physical and mental health and well-being, and we encourage healthier eating habits as part of an overall lifestyle change.
So what does healthy eating look like?
Eat lots of colorful vegetables and fresh fruit.
Vegetables and fruits are the most vital parts of a healthy diet. They are naturally low in calories and fat, and provide essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber needed for good health. A diet rich in vegetables and fruits can also reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, digestive disorders, and stroke, as well as lower your blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
Choose a variety of types and colors to give your body a wide variety of nutrients. For example, be sure your diet includes dark leafy greens, as they are a “superfood”, meaning a good source of phytochemicals, fiber, calcium, and beta-carotene. Also choose brightly colored foods like root vegetables and citrus fruits. Fresh fruits and vegetables are usually best, but when buying canned or frozen produce, look for products with little or no added sugar or salt (for example, choose canned fruit packed in its own juices, rather than in syrup).
Experts recommend that half of your diet consists of vegetables and fruits, as indicated on the Healthy Eating Plate designed by Harvard’s nutrition experts. To find out whether you are eating the right amount of veggies and fruits for your age, sex, and level of physical activity, check out the CDC’s handy Fruit and Vegetable Calculator.
Avoid processed foods.
A processed food is a food that has been changed from its original raw form, and this usually involves the addition of unhealthy ingredients like artificial colors, preservatives, sugar, sodium, and trans fats. Most processed foods are usually high in calories and have little nutritional value. In addition, the added sugar and salt may increase your risk of developing high blood pressure or diabetes, and trans fats can heighten your risk of heart disease, high cholesterol, and in the long term, heart attack.
Thus, a healthy diet should include as few processed foods as possible. Rather than chips, crackers, candy bars, or cookies, choose instead to snack on raw vegetables. Opt for fresh meats instead of processed choices like bacon, sausage, or fast food sandwiches, and eat fresh fruit to satisfy your sweet tooth as an alternative to ice cream or candy bars. Avoid frozen and boxed foods. And when you do buy processed foods, look for healthier brands that are low in sugar and salt, and high in fiber and other essential nutrients.
One trick we teach our patients for avoiding processed foods, and for helping you to choose healthier, fiber-rich, and more nutritional foods: shop mostly around the edges of the grocery store – in the produce, meat, and dairy sections – rather than in the center aisles which are filled with processed foods high in sugar, salt, and fat. Try to get most of your list items in those areas, and limit the amount of foods you buy from the rest of the store. Just one small change to your food shopping habits can make a real difference.
Choose whole grains.
Because they are less processed, whole grains are better sources of fiber, vitamins, and other nutrients like potassium and magnesium than refined grains that have been stripped of these nutrients. Research has linked whole grains to a range of health benefits, including lowering cholesterol and insulin levels, reducing risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and improving digestive health.
At least half of all the grains you eat should be whole grains, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Choose whole-grain versions of bread, cereal, flour, pasta, and rice found and labeled as such at most grocery stores today. Barley, brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa, oatmeal, wild rice, bulgur, and millet are examples of whole grains, so look for these on all of your food labels.
Opt for leaner meats.
Although meats and poultry are valuable sources of protein and other vital nutrients, fatty cuts of meat can contain a lot of unhealthy fat and cholesterol. Lean meats and poultry are a better source of protein because they are also rich in iron and B-vitamins, and contain less saturated fat.
When it comes to lean meats, you will need to pay close attention to food labels and cuts of meat and poultry. Check percentages and look for foods with the highest percentage (90% or higher) of lean meat. Choose lean cuts of pork or lamb like tenderloin, chops, and leg. The leanest poultry is white chicken breast meat without skin. Wild game like venison, bison, and rabbit, without the skin, are lean meat options too. And if you are eating beef, choose cuts like round, chuck, sirloin, and tenderloin.
Bulk up on fiber.
Foods that are high in dietary fiber are filling and can help reduce your caloric intake to aid weight loss. Plus, they also help promote regular bowel movement and lower cholesterol levels, as wells as reducing your risk for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. Research has also linked fiber intake to a range of other benefits including treating and preventing constipation, hemorrhoids, and diverticulosis, and supporting a healthy immune system. Nutrition experts recommend 20 to 38 grams of fiber daily, depending on age and gender, and most people don’t get enough.
Whole grains, oatmeal, nuts, barley, and beans are all good sources of fiber, as are vegetables (like celery, carrots, and tomatoes), and fruits (such as apples, pears, and berries). Generally speaking, natural foods that are higher in fiber, so staying away from processed foods can also help increase your fiber intake while helping you eat healthier overall.
We’re here to help.
Eating well and choosing healthy foods is a key part of your overall wellness plan, and we are available to help you along the way should you need it. Our experienced medical professionals focus on coordinated care, long-term preventive strategies, and a personalized plan to provide you with comprehensive medical services for your optimal wellness. Managing your health and learning how to eat well in today’s world of fast, processed food takes time and practice— but you don’t have to go it alone. Contact us today to learn more.