Deciding how to approach food choice has gotten needlessly complicated. It’s easy to feel disempowered with all the misinformation and contradictions that abound on food, nutrition and health. With the exception of a few confirmed intolerances, I try to make all foods fit though I am drawn most to the foodways of the Mediterranean. It has a focus on simple, fresh ingredients and been well-studied for its positive impacts on health and aging – and most importantly, so delicious!
But there definitely is not one definition for healthy eating and the good news is there really is no such thing as perfection. (The Mediterranean diet hits on multiple cylinders, but this is actually true of most traditional diets that emphasize fresh, whole ingredients abundantly available in the culture’s local environment.) Given that food affects us all in different ways, “healthy” varies from person to person (covered in a past blog post available here) but while needs do vary, there are some basic principles that most experts agree are at the backbone of a nutritious diet.
It all starts with a healthy relationship with food.
Having a good relationship with food is the foundation and the place from which all food choices should be made. What does this look like?
- Letting our own internal hunger and fullness cues help us make intuitive choices on what and how much to eat.
- (That said) knowing there are times we might eat a little more than we need and others a little less, yet trusting that all will come into balance in the end.
- Choosing foods that provide the energy we need to stay productive, healthy and happy. Why not fuel ourselves for greatness? (More on that later.)
- Knowing which foods are worth avoiding because eating them is not worth the consequences. Whether it’s the salty foods that raise blood pressure, avoiding nuts due to an allergy and risk for anaphylactic shock, or spicy foods that inevitably lead to indigestion. I repeat, why not fuel for greatness?!
- Making room for indulgence. Life is short and food is one of life’s simple pleasures. It’s also one of the ways we come together in community and celebration.
- Dropping food labels. When food is just food, without assigning judgments like “good,” “bad,” “clean,” or “unclean” – we may find a solution to the #i-cant-stop-at-one syndrome. A dietitian I know helps her clients break away from food obsessions by giving them permission to eat this particular thing at every meal. Can you guess what it is? Exactly the foods they have called forbidden! The result is that her clients consistently report finding freedom from food insecurities.
Is there a place for food-combining?
There isn’t a lot of hard science to support the notion that eating foods in the right combinations has any better or worse effect on health, although the ancient practice of Ayurveda does promote eating foods in proper combinations (e.g. eating fruit alone), to optimize digestion. Generally speaking, a balanced meal should keep us full for 3 hours or so and provide the right balance of nutrients to maintain stable energy levels. This means making sure carbohydrate foods are offset by some protein which helps stabilize blood sugars and prevent dramatic shifts that can lead to hunger and cravings. A source of beneficial fat helps provide delicious flavor as well as lasting fullness, or satiety.
What about superfoods?
Superfoods have become popular in recent years, although the idea roots back to World War I when bananas were touted for their ability to cure celiac disease (not true, of course). There are definitely certain foods that are just more nutrient rich than others. A good comparison is kale and iceberg lettuce. Compared with iceberg, kale contains 4x the vitamin A and beta carotene, 10x the vitamin C, 2x the fiber and 2x the calcium, making it a far superior choice! That said, we don’t tend to eat foods in isolation. So while kale is fantastic, what we eat with it matters just as much! For example, a salad that contains a superfood along with a bunch of other ingredients high in salt, sugar and fat, diminishes some of the benefit we might get from that ingredient. It’s important not to take nutritional superstars out of context but instead consider how they fit into the whole of our diet.
“Balanced” is the name of the game.
Whether you are walking down the grocery aisle or scanning the restaurant menu, here are a few basic questions to ask that will help you make the choices that research tells us time and again best support health and wellbeing.
- Is the item prepared with fresh, whole ingredients or is it overly processed? The latter are typically stripped of their nutritional goodness while a lot of additives, preservatives, sweeteners and other junk are added back to preserve flavor and shelf-life.
- Was the food prepared using healthful cooking techniques such as baking, roasting, broiling, steaming or searing or was it prepared with too much added oil (ie. fried).
- How much color do you see? Generally found in plant-based foods, the more color on the plate, the better. The colors of the rainbow present in the foods we eat are typically indicative of the food(s) antioxidant content. We know how important antioxidants are in reducing inflammation, boosting immune function and protecting against chronic health problems.
- Does the meal include each of the macronutrients; ie low glycemic index, high fiber carbs (whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables), lean protein (fish, eggs, poultry, soy) and a source of healthy, anti-inflammatory oil (ie EVOO, nuts, seeds, avocado)? Our body needs each of these in proper amounts – when we don’t honor our body’s needs, it tends to fight hard to get what it wants. Consistently incorporating each of these nutrients into meals helps sustain healthy habits over the long-haul.
Sally Spins up Customized Options
Sally the robot is a vending machine that serves salads, snacks, and grain bowls from fresh ingredients. Any ingredient found in Sally can be used to build a delicious, nutritionally balanced meal. Unlike salad bars, where estimating portions can be difficult, Sally is programmed to dispense just the right amount of each ingredient in right-sized portions. The best part is that the bowls are completely customizable with the option to choose from a variety of vibrantly colored fresh ingredients like blueberries and beets, fiber-packed beans and whole grains, omega-3 rich nuts and seeds, and house-made olive oil or avocado-based salad dressings – these are the makings of a superstar meal.