Too often we get caught up in the nitty gritty details of nutrition and find ourselves lost in a complex maze of information overload. For most of us, it is best to take a giant step back and zoom out. In doing so, you will see that you don’t have to be a nutrition expert to understand how to eat a healthy diet for optimal wellness. After years of research and training, I have established five straightforward guidelines to help simplify nutrition for my clients.
Reduce processed food
Reducing your consumption of processed foods (anything that comes in a box, bottle, or other packaging) is the single most important thing you can do for your body. This one change can reduce obesity, type-2 diabetes, high cholesterol, excessive inflammation, and digestive disorders. Processed foods are designed to sustain shelf life, meet a price point, conform to trends, and appeal to your cravings. In general, these food products lack antioxidants, phytonutrients, and fiber while containing excessive amounts of additives, sugar, and poor quality fats. Most processed foods contain a long list of ingredients that are near impossible to identify or tie to their original source. These food-like products are both calorically-dense and nutrient-poor, which is why it is said that Americans are “overfed and undernourished.” Reduce your consumption of processed food to less than 10% of your diet, with 90% of your diet being fresh, single ingredient foods that are generally found along the perimeter of the grocery store or at the farmer’s market.
Increasing your vegetable intake is the second most important thing you can do for your body. Vegetables are nutrient-dense, low-calorie, high-fiber foods, which support weight loss and digestion while reducing inflammation. Vegetables fill you up and give your body what it needs to function optimally. Eating plenty of vegetables helps you naturally manage calorie intake because you get so much more food per calorie. To put this in perspective, here are a few comparisons of 100 calorie equivalents: 10 potato chips ‘vs’ 3.5 cups of broccoli, 1/2 Pop-tart ‘vs’ 5 cups bell peppers, 10 mini-pretzels ‘vs’ 14 cups of baby spinach! Without a doubt, you get significantly more food and nutrition per 100 calories of vegetables. Starting today, make at least 50% of your lunch and 50% your dinner vegetables. Emphasize leafy greens and a variety of different colored vegetables for a broad range of nutrient diversity.
The American diet is over-abundant with sugar, which has lead to high rates of obesity, type-2 diabetes, and heart disease. Just about all processed foods contain sugar, but the most problematic by far are sugary drinks. Soda, sports drinks, and juice typically contain the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar per serving. These liquid sugars are especially harmful because they are highly concentrated, making it is easy to consume large doses of sugar calories in very little time without feeling full. Start reducing your sugar intake (and waist line) by replacing sugary drinks with water or sparkling water and replacing juice with a piece of fresh fruit. As for other sweet treats and desserts, indulge occasionally and purchase only one serving at a time (one scoop of ice cream, instead of a pint). The World Health Organization “recommends adults and children reduce their daily intake of free sugars to less than 10% of their total energy intake. A further reduction to below 5% or roughly 25 grams (6 teaspoons) per day would provide additional health benefits.” Sugar is addictive, so as you reduce your consumption expect cravings to last about 7-14 days. After two weeks of consistently low sugar intake, it gets much easier and you may notice cravings disappear altogether.
Eat high-quality food
Food quality matters and this is about understanding the life of your food before it arrived at the grocery store. Some keywords to look for are organic, grass-fed, and pastured. Organically grown plant-foods will be free of toxic pesticides, have more nutrients, and often taste superior to their conventional counterparts. Similarly, animals that have been raised humanely in their natural environment, such as grass-fed beef, wild fish, free-range poultry and pastured eggs, yield a superior product to their conventional “equivalents.” These animal products will contain more omega-3, less omega-6 and less toxic byproducts. Improving your dietary omega balance and reducing exposure to toxic byproducts decreases inflammation, boosts the metabolism, supports brain function, and improves heart health. Thanks to consumer awareness and demand, you can now find organic, grass-fed, wild, and pastured in just about any health food store and even some conventional grocery stores.
Be a mindful eater
There are three parts to mindful eating: before, during and after you eat. Before you eat, be mindful of why you are reaching for food. If your impulse to eat is a reaction to boredom, stress, anxiety, or other trigger, address the emotion directly by taking a brief walk outside, calling a friend, relaxation breathing, or meditation. If you are truly hungry, then go ahead and eat. While you eat, be present with your food: smell it, taste it, savor it, and chew it well. I challenge you to eat one meal this week completely free from distractions or multitasking (notice what this is like). After you eat, tune into how you feel. Your body is constantly providing feedback regarding energy, mental clarity, digestion and satiety. Start noticing which foods work best for the specific needs of your body and customize your diet accordingly.
Hopefully at this point you are feeling more at ease with the topic of nutrition and thinking of at least one change you can make right now. Start small but stay consistent, adding in one new change every 1-2 weeks. It takes about three weeks for a change to become a habit, at which point it gets a lot easier. Feeling better is the best reward and this will positively reinforce your efforts. If you need more guidance, contact me for a complimentary consultation to discuss personal nutrition coaching.