Food matters. Food can comfort us in hard times, help us celebrate special occasions and bring family and friends together around the table. Certain foods remind us of our childhoods, college dorms or travels to foreign countries. Food is an integral part of our everyday lives but it’s easy to forget the main purpose of food - to provide nutritional support and fuel for our bodies.
An optimal diet is one that consists of a variety of foods that contain the essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals a body needs to thrive and stay healthy. That’s not to say that food shouldn’t be pleasurable - it definitely should! It is possible for food to bring both joy and better health.
The question is what type of diet can contribute to (an increase in?) our physical and mental health? What types of food should we eat less of, more of and why?
Eat less (highly) processed food
Any food that has been packaged, prepared or changed in some way is considered a processed food. It’s not feasible or even advisable to stay away from all food that has been processed. Frozen veggies, canned beans, and bagged salads are all “processed” but are also healthy additions to our diets.
The real danger to health lies in the extra salt, fat and sugar that many highly processed foods contain. Frozen pizza, deli meat, microwaveable meals, and most products in the snack aisle fall under this category. The amount of added sugar and high levels of sodium these products contain are adversely affecting our health and contributing to the increase in cases of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.
Even if you mostly avoid these types of foods, it’s likely that you’re eating more salt and sugar than you realize. Food manufacturers use these ingredients to extend shelf life and make low-fat foods taste better.
Bread, cereal, canned soup, pasta sauce, yogurt and fruit juice all contain either added sugars, salt or both. You don’t have to stop eating these foods altogether - you just need to pay attention to the ingredients list and nutrition label to make sure you’re choosing the most healthful option.
Look Out For:
If sugar is one of the first three ingredients, it’s very likely that the food contains more sugar than you need in your diet. Check the nutrition label for the amount of added sugars- and avoid
Avoid trans fats altogether- they have been shown to raise your LDL or “bad” cholesterol and lower your HDL or “good” cholesterol. Keep saturated fat at 5%DV (daily value) or less.
The American Heart Association recommends that adults consume around 1500mg of sodium per day. The average American currently eats more than 3400 mg per day. (https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sodium/how-much-sodium-should-i-eat-per-day) Look for foods with 5%DV or less of sodium.
A long list of ingredients with words that are hard to pronounce is a good indicator that the food has been heavily processed and should be avoided or eaten only occasionally.
The best way to reduce your consumption of salt, sugar and fat is to eat a diet of mostly whole foods and to be vigilant about reading the labels at the grocery store.
Eat Less Meat
According to the US Dept of Agriculture, in 2018 the average American ate a record breaking high of 222 pounds of red meat and poultry. They recommend 5 to 6.5 ounces of protein daily, but Americans are currently consuming around 10 ounces per day. The recent trend of a diet heavy in proteins helps to explain the steady increase of meat consumption, but is this sustainable or even healthy?
There are environmental and ethical issues to take into consideration as well, but if you look at meat eating solely from the perspective of how if affects your physical health, consuming less is beneficial. Research has shown that eating large amounts of red meat and processed meat (think deli meat) increases the risk of death from heart disease, diabetes, or stroke. (https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/meatless-meals/art-20048193)
However a diet rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and nutS and seeds can still provide the recommended amount of protein while also reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and other chronic illnesses. (mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/mediterranean-diet/art-20047801)
Eat More Fruits and Vegetables (whole foods)
When meat and heavily processed foods are removed or minimized from your diet, what’s left? Luckily, a lot! With a handful of whole grains and hundreds of different types of beans, fruits and vegetables, a whole foods diet is varied, delicious and good for your body.
According to Dr. Kavid Katz at Yale University's Prevention Research Center, "A diet of minimally processed foods close to nature, predominantly plants, is decisively associated with health promotion and disease prevention." https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/03/science-compared-every-diet-and-the-winner-is-real-food/284595/
What do these types of foods contain that others don’t?
Dietary fiber, or roughage, contains the parts of plants that our bodies can’t digest. Getting enough fiber, which is found only in foods that come from plants, is essential to our health.
While the average woman in the US currently consumes around 15g per day, the American Heart Association suggests women should be getting roughly 25g per day. https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/040212p40.shtml
Fiber not only improves digestion and gut health, it can also lower cholesterol, stabilize blood sugar levels, help prevent diabetes and colorectal cancer, and help maintain a healthy weight because it makes you feel full faster.
Get rid of trans fat, limit saturated fat, decrease omega-6, increase omega-3 (flax, walnuts, fatty fish), increase MUFAs https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/092208p36.shtml
Nutrients and Phytochemicals
While not essential to human survival, phytochemicals, or chemical compounds found in plants, are being researched for their ability to help prevent chronic diseases.
There are thousands of these compounds (Carrots alone contain more than 100!) and the easiest way to take advantage of the health benefits that they provide is to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. Try to include a rainbow of colors in your diet for maximum benefits