Conflicting information leaves many people confused about what a “nutritious” diet really looks like. Here are seven basics to keep in mind the next time you shop for groceries or order a meal at your favorite restaurant:
1. Don’t confuse dieting with deprivation
Just as overeating can spoil your weight loss efforts, so can starving yourself with a rice-cake-and-diet-coke diet. Deprivation will eventually slow down your metabolism and increase your risk of chronic disease.
Repeatedly gaining and losing weight — called weight cycling — is a common outcome of yo-yo dieting. According to a 2010 review, weight cycling may be linked to chronic inflammation and thus, increase your risk of chronic disease. Whether you’re trying to lose weight or maintain it, don’t deprive yourself of food. Choose quality over quantity.
2. Look beyond the number of calories
Eating for a healthy, vigorous life involves more than merely adding up daily calories or points. Food is so much more than numbers!
Yes, your body needs to maintain a certain calorie balance over time to achieve a healthy weight. But an adequate number of calories does not guarantee that your body is fed with adequate nutrition.
Choose foods based on their nutrient density — meaning foods with valuable calories, packed with plenty of vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, and healthy fats.
Nutrient-rich foods provide the information your cells need to function, and may help prevent disease. Best of all, they also make you feel more satisfied!
3. Don’t substitute veggie chips for veggies
Don’t fall for the veggie chips, crackers or pasta gaining a presence outside the produce section of your grocery store. At the end of the day, veggie chips are a blend of vegetable powder with added starch and are comparable to tortilla chips.
Stick to the regular old produce section and buy real veggies. They provide a rich source of vitamins A, C, potassium, magnesium, and fiber that you won’t find in processed chips.
Try to incorporate non-starchy vegetables into every meal of your day: Add spinach to a breakfast smoothie or salads to your lunch. For dinner, try cauliflower rice, spaghetti squash or zucchini pasta.
4. Choose whole fruit instead of juice
Fruit drinks of all kinds are one of the major sources of added sugar in the American diet. They are higher in sugar than whole fruit, and cause a spike in blood sugar and trigger secretion of insulin, the fat-storing hormone. This blood sugar spike is shortly followed by a crash that can lead to exhaustion, brain fog, hunger and sugar cravings.
Fruit juice is also stripped of the fiber found in whole fruits. Fiber, one of four “shortfall nutrients” inadequately consumed in the standard American diet (SAD), is crucial for a healthy gut and heart.
The solution is fairly straightforward: Avoid fruit juice and focus on eating low-glycemic fruits such as berries, kiwis and apples. A word of caution: Don’t overdo fruit intake—it still breaks down into sugar.
5. Limit sugar consumption
Excess sugar intake is a major driver of obesity, type II diabetes and other chronic diseases. One study has linked excess added sugar to an increased risk for death from heart disease.
The problem is that sugar is everywhere in the food supply — often hiding on the ingredient list, in many forms. Choose foods in their most basic form to help reduce your sugar intake. This means choosing steel cut oats over instant oatmeal packs, for example.
6. Choose grains wisely
Consuming 100% whole grains (in addition to vegetables, fruits, nuts, etc.) may help increase your fiber intake. Research shows that adults who consume whole grains (> 3 ounces per day) are 76 times more likely to have a higher fiber intake than those who do not.
If you’re anything like the typical American, your diet could use more fiber. The Adequate Intake (AI) guidelines for fiber are 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men every day.
Increase your fiber by choosing 100% whole grains — such as non-GMO popcorn, brown rice and quinoa — and saying goodbye to white rice and refined carbohydrates.
7. Avoid reduced-fat products
To set the record straight, consuming foods that are high in fat does not translate to more body fat. In reality, fats are a major source of fuel for your body. They help you absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, and carotenoids.
These healthy properties of fat are lost during the processing of “reduced fat” foods, which are not necessarily lower in calories and are often higher in sugar.
So when dressing your salad, opt for extra virgin olive oil and apple cider vinegar versus a reduced fat dressing. The key is to choose foods rich in healthy fats, like extra virgin olive oil, almonds, chia seeds and sardines.
These tips should help you whether you’re dining in or eating out. And when you’re buying groceries, remember to choose the least processed foods with the fewest ingredients.