Combine good nutrition with regular exercise, and you get what the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee presented last month as “a nearly universal prescription for better health.” Exercise we talked about last time, but what about diet? What exactly does it mean to eat healthy?
It’s pretty simple, really. Michael Pollan summed it up famously in 7 words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. “Food” means real food, not products; whole food, not hyper-processed. In this short clip, Pollan explains the key differences:
All those extra ingredients in hyper-processed foods are what make them addictively tasty, visually appealing, and able to sit on the shelf a long time before going bad. (Real food rots fairly quickly. Industrially made food products? Not so much.) Trouble is, these aren’t things your body necessarily wants, let alone needs. Such products are typically loaded with what it doesn’t want – additives, preservatives and lots of sugars – and sorely lacking in things it does: vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.
Start with whole foods, and you’ve already taken a huge step toward healthier eating. Here are more tips for improving the overall quality of your diet:
- Cut out foods made with added sugars or white flour. Moderate consumption of whole grains may be fine. But as Weston Price showed many decades ago, these refined ingredients tend to do a lot of dental damage in a very short time – not just creating cavities but causing the palate and jaws to narrow, leading to crooked, misaligned teeth. Sugar and white flour are also super fuel for inflammation, and as such, they’ve been implicated in a wide range of health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer and more.
- Fill at least half your plate with plant-based foods. This includes nuts and beans and other legumes in addition to the usual veg and fruit you might think of. And the wider the variety, the better. A useful guide is to make your plate colorful. Different phytonutrients are responsible for the colors of food, so eating a variety of colors helps ensure you get all the essential nutrients your body needs. For most veg, raw or lightly cooked is the way to go. Although there are some cases in which nutritional content is improved with cooking, heavier cooking methods such as boiling and frying tend to reduce nutrients.
- Opt for organic. While there’s no clear consensus yet, there is evidence that – at least in some respects – organic food may have a better nutritional profile than conventionally grown food. There is agreement that going organic lowers your exposure to synthetic pesticide residues and, in the case of animal products, antibiotic and other drug residues. Yes, it can be more expensive. If budget is an issue, prioritize what you buy, using tools like EWG’s Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists. You can find more tips for buying organic on a budget here and here and here.
- If you eat animal products, regularly include some fish in your diet. It’s an important source of essential fatty acids, especially omega 3s, which support good heart health and reduce inflammation. Unfortunately, some fish can contain a lot of mercury. Guides such as this from Consumer Reports or this from the Natural Resources Defense Council can help you choose the safest options. Additionally, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide can point you to the best options with respect to the environment.
- Don’t fear the fat. Recent science has shown that dietary fat isn’t the bad guy it was once thought to be. In fact, we need some fat – both saturated and not – for the sake of our health. Plant-based fats such as coconut, olive and avocado oil have been found to be some of the healthiest. The ones to avoid are trans (partially hydrogenated) fats such as those in margarine, as well as many baked goods and hyper-processed foods. This is about to become much easier to do since the FDA just announced that manufacturers must stop using artificial trans fats within the next three years.
Next time, we’ll take a closer look at some of the key nutrients involved in oral health in particular…