What does it mean to adopt good nutrition? Not eating junk food? Eating only organic food? Or maybe becoming a vegan? Here are 12 simple tips that are basic to good nutrition habits, whatever your personal taste.
What makes for good nutrition?
When you have a specific nutrition goal in mind – such as weight management – or just want to eat healthy, it’s not always clear where to start. One of the main reasons is that the questions of good nutrition or healthy food can have conflicting answers: one person would think that it means to stop eating junk food while the other would say that it means to become a vegan, or eat only organic food; some may support cutting back on fats, while others swear by cutting carbs.
Those who read health journals may be surprised to find on more than one occasion that food considered unhealthy for years suddenly becomes the Holy Grail of health after a particularly convincing study is published – often with a twist involving modern food production methods or clarification of a complicated pathway in the body.
Moreover, there are several approaches to good nutrition that are not always compatible with one another. For example: ‘low carb’ diets have proven successful for losing weight and improving factors for heart and blood vessel diseases, but diets based on complex carbohydrates have also be associated with weight and health benefits. So are carbohydrates healthy or not?
How to build a menu based on good nutrition
Apparently there isn’t just one truth about good nutrition, and as it becomes clearer in recent years, different people require different diets. Good, healthy nutrition can comprise a variety of different factors, each one having a unique contribution. We can’t change our diet overnight, and changing our nutritional habits needs to be slow but consistent.
Every time you decide on a new change that you want to adopt and pursue, work toward making that habit an inseparable part of your lifestyle by gradually making the changes involved so that the adjustments are largely imperceptible. If some aspects don’t work, and being patient has not helped, go back to the drawing board: a different product, a different recipe or seasoning, a different time of day, etc. Then you can move on to acquiring the next habit, and so on – and you’ll improve your diet and achieve healthy nutrition on your own terms.
Here are a few ideas for easing into lifelong good dietary habits:
1. Use whole grains and whole grain products
Cooking: Whole grain pasta, brown and wild rice, green wheat, oat and buckwheat groats, whole wheat couscous, bulgur, quinoa, spelt, millet – upgrade your usual grain dishes with the myriad nutrient-rich, fiber-rich versions of refined staples. Try different recipes, and adopt those you like. Do be patient – it may take a couple of tries, but it really is worth the effort.
Baking: One option is to choose recipes bread, cake, and cookies that already incorporate whole grain flours. Another is a gradual approach, i.e. replacing 20% of the flour with whole grain flour and once you get used to it, continue with another 20% and so on, until the transition is complete. If you are adjusting recipes yourself, keep in mind that some may require adjustments of other ingredients, such as those that provide moisture and leavening.
Buying: Try sprouted or 100% whole grain – regular or ‘heirloom wheat’, rye, or gluten-free bread and baked goods. It’s important to read the small print on the packaging and make sure the item consists of 100% whole grain flours and does not have undesirable additives such as hydrogenated fats.
2. Increase intake of legumes and pulses
Legumes and pulses include lentils of various colors, beans of multiple varieties, and dried green, yellow, or black-eyed peas, as well as bean products such as hummus from chickpeas, southwest-style spreads from black and/or pinto beans, and more. Contrary to common belief, not all pulses require soaking in water and a long time for preparation. Lentils for instance don’t require soaking, and orange lentils are the fastest kind to make: only 2-3 minutes cooking in boiling water. The pulses that do require soaking or long cooking include chickpeas and kidney beans, and all are best if allowed to sprout before incorporation into a recipe. Another option is to use bought frozen or canned legumes and pulses, and if using canned products, be sure to check for the low-salt versions
3. Go meatless at least once a week
Eating a vegetarian diet, even one day a week, is not only good for your pocketbook and the environment, but may help reduce your risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer. With awareness of these advantages increasing globally, options abound. In addition to side dishes we take for granted as being vegetarian, such as starches and produce, mainstays such as legumes, nuts, seeds, and mushrooms provide protein as well as fiber, vitamins, minerals, and important ‘phytonutrients’ – plant components with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and cell-protective properties – in levels much higher than could be found in meat and poultry. For the real deal, try a vegan challenge – no animal products – to get the maximum benefit. Though it may be difficult at first, it will become second nature, and your body will thank you!
4. Five (or more) a day of fruits+vegetables
Health authorities recommend getting 2-3 servings of fruit and 3-5 of vegetables each day – translating to a combined daily minimum of five, though up to eight is a welcome part of a healthy diet.
Almost all varieties of fruits and vegetables count towards your five servings a day, exceptions being starchy vegetables, such as potatoes and corn – though eating these as a starch course in a meal can add some benefits of phytonutrients. To maximize the contribution of phytonutrients, it is best to get a variety of colors, as each set of hues are attributed to different chemicals that Fruits and vegetables are generally recommended to be eaten fresh, but frozen can be advantageous as well. Canned are the least recommended, but if chosen carefully – low-sodium vegetables and fruits in their own juice rather than heavy syrup – they can definitely be a solution in a pinch.
Fruits and vegetables can be eaten in a variety of ways, either whole, as part of a mixed dish, even as a beverage, though if you like to drink your produce, it is recommended to ensure no edible component gets discarded (dilute rather than strain).
It is recommended to diversify your soups, salads, casseroles, and snacks with new vegetables you’ve never tried. Try locally-grown, organic, and heirloom types for the cleanest and most natural experience.
Fresh or dried fruits also make great snacks and salad or shake additions, as well as light and healthy dessert options instead of sweets.
5. Use herbs, spices, and similar seasonings
What do onion, garlic, coriander, dill, oregano, hyssop, basil, rosemary, thyme, marjoram and bay leaves have in common? They all add wonderful flavors and scents to our food – and they also add health benefits. Not only does using herbs and spices help diminish the use of salt in cooking while enhancing the delicate taste of natural food, but they are some of the richest sources of powerful phytonutrients.
6. Use less salt
When cooking, it is recommended to start by adding a little bit of salt and only adjust the saltiness ‘to taste’ at the end. This way you use less salt overall. It is recommended to avoid ‘auto-salting’ as much as possible when you have your food in front of you. It is better to taste and add salt, and only if it is necessary. In time you’ll get used to a less salty taste, especially if you compensate with herbs and spices. If this proves easier said than done, look into salt substitutes with a salty taste, such as potassium-based products.
Even more important, it is recommended to limit or avoid foods that are already salted. These include processed foods, even those that do not taste salty, such as breakfast cereals. Whole, fresh foods tend to have the lowest levels, but if you do use ready-made products, check the label: ‘low-sodium’ means 140 mg or less sodium per serving – and do be aware of what constitutes a serving. Also be aware if any undesirable changes have been made to the product to make up for reduced sodium, such as added sugar (believe it or note) and/or artificial flavors.
7. Eat more of certain fish, and foods with similar benefits
It is recommended to have fish once or twice a week, particularly fatty fish such as wild tuna, salmon, and trout, as well as halibut and herring, which are an excellent sources of the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA. It is important to find a reliable source of ‘clean’ fish, with minimal contaminants. If you don’t have access to wild fish, try to find farmed fish grown in optimal conditions, including with high-quality feed to ensure good omega-3 content.
Seaweeds also offer omega-3 fatty acids. The main type they contain is ALA, converted in the body to DHA and EPA. You can also find ALA in flax seeds, almonds, walnuts, and their oils, as well as in kale and a few other green leafy vegetables such as purslane and moringa.
8. Choose lean, pasture-raised, grass-fed meat and poultry
The leanest cuts of beef, pork, lamb, and others are generally those with ‘loin’ in the name, and with the minimum amount of white in the meat and around the edges – though the latter can be trimmed. In terms of poultry, the ‘white’ meat (breast) is the leanest, but as soon as the skin is removed, even the dark meat is considered lean. Wild game also tends to be leaner than domesticated livestock. Ground meat and poultry is conveniently labeled as to the percent of fat, and the lower the better – particularly if you don’t have access to products with better fats, such as the pasture-raised/grass-fed types.
9. Use the oven more often, steam and sauté, and forget fried
Broiling and roasting are favored over charbroiling and frying, especially if done over a grill pan. When preparing meat products, they enable dripping off of excess internal fat – optimized by removing large amounts of external fat, such as trimming around steaks and removing poultry skin – without adding carcinogenic black streaks or trans fats from deep fat frying.
Steaming is favored over boiling, as this method enables retention of more nutrient content, unless you will use the boiling water in a recipe.
Sautéing is an excellent alternative to deep fat frying, as it limits the amount of added superheated fats, which are generally converted to undesirable trans fats. It is better to choose recipes based on these cooking methods, or make those modifications yourself. Try using ‘green’ non-stick cookware to make this easier, or nonstick cooking spray for baking if you want to cut back on shortenings for coatings, which generally contain undesirable types of saturated fats. If you cook with oil trying measuring with a spoon the amount of oil added and not spill ‘with feeling’ – even though some oils such as olive and almond do indeed contribute to health, they can add up very quickly and add an extra challenge to your weight management efforts.
10. Eat more nuts and seeds
Although nuts and seeds are high in fat, it’s mostly the healthy types, such as omega-3 and the same omega-9 found in olive oil. So use moderation, but do take advantage of them! Favor they types that are unsalted – they are flavorful enough without. In addition to making excellent snacks and ‘butter’ spreads, they can be added to stir-fries and salads for a touch of toasty taste and good-quality protein plus fiber and minerals.
11. Watch what you drink
Drinks go down easily, so they are often forgotten as a source of possible trouble. Many contain high amounts of sugar, artificial ingredients that can increase appetite – even if calorie-free – and/or deplete the body of minerals. Remember that when it comes to cool beverages, water is the very best, and if you can’t get used to taking in 8 or so daily glasses or cups (8 fluid ounces or 240 ml) of plain water, squeezing in lemon or lime can add a palatable twist. Above all, avoid added refined sugars and artificial sweeteners, colors, and flavors. And remember: when it comes to juice, the whole fruit is always the best choice, either solid or blended into a shake. Soda pop can be an occasional treat, but it is not recommended as a staple.
When it comes to hot beverages, antioxidant-rich teas such as green, white, and red (rooibos), as well as herbal infusion types, are highly recommended – up to three cups per day. Organic coffees can also be a good addition, again, no more than 3 cups a day. Do try to limit additives that don’t add much by way of nutrients, and may sabotage your efforts – including sweeteners and creamers that are artificial and/or high in refined sugars or fats. Recommended calorie-free sweeteners include monk fruit, inulin (chicory root), and Stevia, and better calorie-containing choices include xylitol, coconut sugar and nectar, and organic evaporated whole cane juice – just remember that sugars do ultimately add up, so moderation is key.
12. Size isn’t everything, but it is a lot
As mentioned in tip #9, even healthy foods can add up to diet sabotage. Moderation is an important key to good nutrition and health, and ‘energy balance’ – matching your intake to your output, meaning basic needs according to height, weight, and build, as well as physical activity level – is the fundamental principle of weight management.
When first starting on a healthy plan, you may benefit from measuring out recommended portions to get a sense of them, and commit them to memory. You can also ‘cheat’ but using your fist or palm of your hand as a constant reference to which to compare portions. Remember at traps like buffets to be selective, and if you want to eat everything, small spoonfuls can make that happen without too much trouble. When ordering at restaurants, avoid extras and ‘doggy bag’ the excess from larger portions than you need. When preparing food at home, only cook enough for proper portions (including for other family members) so there are no readymade leftovers tempting you at the table.