Sometimes, healthy eating seems more difficult than nuclear science. There's so much misleading and contradicting information out there. Even scientific studies and researches can contradict each other.
So what should you believe? What does healthy eating actually entail? The truth is, there are a few key principles to follow if you want to improve your health or lose weight. Better yet, these few healthy eating principles can help you maintain weight more easily.
And these principles are far more simple than you might have imagined.
1. There's no “bad” food or “good” food, just nutrient-dense food
Dieting doesn't work.
And there's a reason why. Diets aim to banish some foods from your life completely. Restricting yourself too much ends up backfiring soon since you're not creating a sustainable relationship with food.
You can't be afraid of food. Sometimes, it's completely okay to eat cookies, go out for pizza or ice cream. You should always enjoy life.
Instead of aiming to banish some foods, start choosing foods according to their nutrient density.
Nutrient density means the amount of nutrients in comparison to the food's caloric content. E.g. avocado is very nutrient-dense because it contains a vast amount of nutrients (like vitamins) for its very low caloric content, while a soft drink is not nutrient-dense because it's high in calories, but doesn't contain any essential nutrients.
To build a healthy eating pattern, start including more nutrient-dense foods in your daily diet, aiming to have at least 70-80% of your diet consist of nutrient-dense food.
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2. Avoid additives
Just a few thousand years ago, humans got their food from nature. Sadly, these days our food resembles a chemistry lab, not an actual natural food.
Additives have become the norm. Even so much that many consumers adamantly stay true to their favorite snacks, even if it contains potentially harmful additives.
Things like lecithin, TBHQ, stabilizers, emulsifiers, colorants, and many other additives don't have any place in a normal human diet. There's only one reason why manufacturers use various additives: to make mass production easier (and cheaper for them).
Additives have been touted as safe for human consumption but only to a certain degree. What's troublesome is that:
- Most people consume way more than they should (since some additives are in almost every item you consume).
- There's not enough research available to prove that additives don't have any negative effect on humans if consumed for tens and tens of years as a part of a regular diet.
- The human body is not actually meant to metabolize all of these additives. We are built to process carbs, fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals, not things like monosodium glutamate, benzaldehyde, or butylated hydroxyanisole.
- Some studies have already proved several additives to have some potential adverse effects, including having a potential carcinogenic effect. There's still a very limited amount of studies conducted on additives but the current findings aren't very positive.
To protect your health, avoid all foods with additives in them. By just following this principle, you'll limit your diet to whole natural foods like vegetables, fruits, fresh meat, and dairy products, whole grains, nuts, seeds, etc. Healthy food comes from nature and doesn't need a mile-long ingredient label.
And more importantly, your body is your temple. Don't poison that temple with toxins.
3. Don't go crazy with protein
Protein is undoubtedly known as one of the most useful nutrients, especially for those who are looking to build muscle. Almost everyone has seen fitness gurus promoting protein powders, shakes, or supplements.
However, overconsuming protein can do a lot more harm than good. And what's more, your body doesn't actually need that much protein to begin with.
The problem with consuming too much protein doesn't even lie in possible health issues but simply in the way your body metabolizes protein.
The thing is, excess protein will be stored as fat.
Yes, that's right. If you consume too much protein (a.k.a more than your body needs), it will get stored as fat. And excess amino acids will get flushed out of your body when you go to the toilet.
One study even found that when people avoided carbs and replaced their carb intake with protein, they actually gained weight. And not because of having a bigger muscle mass.
Protein is one of the essential nutrients but a normal balanced diet will have enough protein anyway. Consuming too much protein has its own risks. Do yourself a favor and stay away from protein powders and supplements that don't really do anything good for your body.
4. Eat the rainbow
Have you ever been stuck when buying fruits and vegetables, not knowing which ones you should eat? Or how to balance your meals?
There's one surprisingly simple technique that helps to figure out how to buy your veggies and how to arrange them for your meals. That technique is called eating the rainbow.
All fruits and vegetables have some specific health perks due to specific antioxidants in their content. Those antioxidants also happen to give the veggies their color.
For example, purple fruits and vegetables (like purple cabbage or blueberries) get their color from anthocyanins. Orange vegetables like carrots get their bright color from carotenoids, tomatoes and red peppers get their color from lycopene.
Each of those antioxidants plays a crucial role in fighting off free radicals and help our health in a myriad of ways. From improving your vision to reducing inflammations to strengthening your heart or helping your cells renew.
Understandably, it's difficult to keep in mind which veggies have certain antioxidants. So, to make things easier, choose vegetables and fruits according to their color. Try to add a bit of green, red, orange, yellow, and purple to your daily diet. That's it – just shop for veggies by their color and arrange the colors on your plate.
This way, eating veggies is not troublesome at all. It's actually a bit fun to see if you can “hit” your rainbow every day!
5. Don't avoid carbs
Carbs are not evil.
Despite the numerous diets, starting from Atkins, claiming the opposite, your body actually needs carbohydrates. Carbs are one of the essential nutrients together with fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals.
The thing with carbs is that most people put an equals sign between carbs and white bread or sugar.
But carbs are actually in things like whole grains, vegetables, and fruits – foods that you should consume every day!
Fibers are a subgroup of carbs and the human body needs fiber for a multitude of tasks. Unfortunately, many Americans are lacking in fiber because their diet consists mainly of simple carbs that break down to sugar, without having much fiber in them.
You shouldn't avoid carbs, but instead, you should avoid foods with a high glycemic index (foods that increase your blood sugar rapidly) and low fiber count. White bread, candy, fries, pastries, and many other foods like that have a high glycemic index while foods like lentils, beans, fruits, peanuts, and vegetables have a low glycemic index (and a great dose of fiber).
Don't be afraid of carbs and don't try to reduce your carbohydrate intake. Instead, switch your regular white bread for whole grains and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables that provide many essential vitamins as well.
6. Learn the difference between appetite and hunger
Your mind can play amazing tricks on you. But those tricks are not always the best for your body and overall health. One of those tricks is appetite.
When you feel the need to eat, there's a difference in whether that need is due to hunger or appetite.
Hunger is a need for food (physiological response) while appetite is a desire for food (psychological response).
What's the difference? Well, hunger is something we can't control. It comes from the physical need for food when there are no nutrients in the small intestine anymore, stomach contents have been emptied, etc.
But appetite is completely in our head.
Things like social get-togethers, time of day, stress and anxiety, availability of food and many other factors can trigger appetite, even if we don't actually have hunger. In other words, we might eat due to our emotional response even if the body doesn't actually have a physical need for new nutrients.
Even just a thought or an imagine of food might trigger appetite. But it's all in your head.
Since food is so easily available these days, overeating and obesity are real problems. And all of that due to appetite.
Once you learn to differentiate between appetite or hunger, it will be far easier to control your portions and eating habits.
Next time, when you feel you could eat something, ask yourself: are you actually hungry? Or is it just your mind playing tricks on you? Don't let appetite run your life. Choose foods that are good for your body and only when your body asks for food, not when your mind tries to trick you.
7. Eat smaller meals every 3-4 hours
Fasting might be popular, as well as indulging with huge feasts, but human metabolism is a fine-tuned machine that has been created over tens of thousands of years. And our metabolism is not actually meant for huge meals or long fasts.
Research has shown that the most optimal eating pattern includes small to moderate meals that are consumed every 3-4 hours.
Why? Because our stomach's size is actually limited. On average, our stomach capacity is about 1 liter (0.26 liquid gallons), though it could hold up to even 4 liters of food. But consuming more than about a liter will cause the stomach to expand a bit, creating discomfort.
For fast metabolism, eating every 3-4 hours is the best choice.
Imagine that your digestive system is like a big production line. If that production line has some raw materials added every once in a while, it can keep processing continuously and stay on course with its “due dates” (or in this context, with keeping your bowel movements regular).
But if no material goes on that production line, it will need to go into hibernation since there's no point in keeping the line on full power if there's no work being done.
Essentially, that's how your digestive system works too.
Aim to keep your portions small and regular, opt for whole foods that provide your body with real nutrients, avoid unnecessary toxins and additives, and don't let your mind manipulate your body.
Eating healthy doesn't have to be hard. And it's not if you follow the principles above. Enjoy a fulfilling life with fulfilling food that provides your body with everything necessary. That's how easy healthy eating actually is.