Having a nutritious diet is an important factor in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Not only is it beneficial in maintaining energy throughout the day, but it is also key in preserving your life in the long run. Use our beginner’s guide to nutrition to find out where to get the best nutrients, which foods to avoid, as well as what food and lifestyle choices you must make in order to keep your mind and body active.
The Beginner’s Guide to Nutrition
Many common health problems can be prevented and alleviated with a balanced, healthy diet. Usually, this would involve consuming fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to satisfy caloric requirements and provide the body with essential nutrients. The main purpose for a healthy diet is to support energy needs and provide nutrition without overexposure to certain nutrients or excessive consumption; failure to do so can result in unhealthy weight gains.
For something as essential to our health as a proper diet, it is perplexing that the public knows so little about healthy eating, and that so few diet with successful, lasting results. In fact, long-term studies of dieting have shown that a majority of dieters regain virtually all of the weight that was lost after dieting; after two years of dieting, up to two thirds of dieters are even heavier than they were before they started!
If your diet isn’t working for you, it might not be entirely your fault. The most accessible meals are often the worst for us, for three reasons: the nutritional value, the method of preparation, and the lack of variety. But even once you’ve decided to try to eat healthier, where do you begin? There are so many conflicting studies, schools of thought, fad diets, and outdated myths about what we eat that coming to any sort of conclusion seems impossible.
Nonetheless, general guidelines can be followed for anyone who wants to eat better. The best approach to nutrition is to follow the basics and expand them into a diet that works for you. “Diet” in this case does not mean “a period of restricted eating in order to lose weight.” It means a consistent eating pattern that regulates weight and health to acceptable levels. Weight loss by dieting, while of benefit to those classified as unhealthy, may also slightly increase the mortality rate for individuals who are otherwise healthy.
A good rule of thumb is to look at the honest and plain fare that many of our grandparents cooked for us as children. It’s a basic and simple blend of essential nutrients that many of us miss due to replacements like take-out meals and processed foods. Despite the tastiness, there is quite frankly no substitute for the variety or moderation of a nutritious diet. When considering a change in dieting, keep in mind the following:
Eat roughly the same amount of calories that your body is using. A healthy weight is a balance between energy consumed and energy that is ‘burned off.’
Increase consumption of plant foods, particularly fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and nuts.
Limit the intake of fats, namely saturated fats and trans fats, and replace with healthier unsaturated fats.
Where to Find Your Nutrients
Health nuts will extol the latest “superfood” in a never-ending quest for the perfect food (is it blueberries? kale? krill oil?), but these exotic and often expensive ingredients are no match for a simple variety of vegetables. Carrots, broccoli, garlic, onion, cauliflower, spinach and other leafy greens are the basics in nutrient-dense meals. And if you want superfoods, you can look no further than broccoli or cauliflower.
Lean meats are an excellent source of protein and many other nutrients (and unparalleled in building muscle). While research is pointing out that fatty meats may not be as bad for us as we thought, good lean meats like chicken breast or lean beef are an essential part of the diet.
For vegetarians and vegans, obtaining the right amount of protein can be more difficult, but not impossible. Legumes are a powerhouse of nutrients. Lentils and black beans offer excellent nutritional benefits (lentils with a slightly lower carbohydrates profile if you’re interested in a low-carbohydrate diet), as well as being super cheap. Beans are essential in non-meat recipes for bringing richness and texture.
Grains receive a mixed response these days, but for most of us who aren’t gluten-free or Paleo, grains provide us with (among other things) carbohydrates and essential fiber. One of the easy switches that can be made is changing from bleached white flour (found in most normal white bread) to healthier whole grains. In many cases, there is little to no nutritional content at all in plain white bread — just a bunch of starch.
What to Avoid
The basics of what to eat are simple — as many unrefined, fresh, and self-prepared ingredients as you can. What not to eat, as with anything else nutrition-related, is more open to debate. Heavily processed and fried foods as well as sweets, junk foods, and alcohol should generally be avoided in a healthy diet. Otherwise, there are only two hard and fast rules that will lead to a healthier diet:
Even if you’re not adding sugar or salt to every meal, chances are the food you’re eating will have plenty added beforehand. Sugar and its many guises have very little value other than adding a sweet flavor. It offers little health benefit and is a huge contributer to obesity in America. The average American drinks 53 gallons of soft drinks a year; he or she also consumes 10 times more sugar than other food additives, excluding salt — another leading cause of the obesity epidemic.
Salt has been used for centuries to preserve food and as a flavor enhancer. Salt can cause fluid retention and problems with blood pressure, among other things. While salt in moderation is fine, the problem is that it’s added to so much of our food that we unknowingly eat too much of it. 77 percent of the average American’s sodium intake is from packaged and restaurant food, while 12 percent occurs naturally from foods, and 11 percent is from adding salt to food while cooking or at the table.
Nutrition is a Life Choice
If you struggle to stick with your diet (Remember: this refers to eating smarter and healthier, not necessarily to losing weight), you may find that keeping a food diary will help hold yourself accountable and track your progress. A 2008 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed that dieters who kept a daily food diary (or diet journal), lost twice as much weight as those who did not keep a food log. Diet journal software and websites may also help track calorie consumption, calorie burning, weight loss goals, and nutritional balance.
Once you’ve learned the basics of nutrition and begun to implement healthier choices in your life, you will never want to go back to your old ways. Many of us were raised on fatty, sugary, unhealthy foods; breaking the cycle is difficult, but not impossible. A balanced, nutritious diet is important for lowering health risks such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and cancer. The sooner you begin down the enlightened path of the conscious eater, the better: the life you save may be your own!