Read enough books or websites that claim to have the secret to how to eat (for weight loss or simply for good health) and you’ll feel like you have whiplash. That’s because the truth is nowhere and everywhere. Ask yourself these questions (and answer them honestly, of course):
- Do you eat at least five servings of vegetables and fruits a day? (More vegetables than fruit is best.)
- Are most of your meals and snacks either prepared at home from scratch, or composed of one-ingredient foods like a piece of fruit with some almonds?
- Do you participate in enjoyable physical activity for at least 30 minutes, five days a week?
- Do you have healthy outlets for relieving stress? (i.e., not involving food, drugs, alcohol, or screaming at your kids/pets/partner/strangers.)
- Do you get at least 7 hours of sleep most nights…and wake feeling rested?
- Do you have any health concerns that you could be caring for with nutrition and physical activity, such as diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol, but aren’t (or don’t know how to)?
Self-Assessment and Next Steps
If you answered “no” to any of these questions, your habits have room for improvement.
If you have health problems in which nutrition and physical activity play a role, I suggest talking to your doctor and getting a referral to a registered dietitian nutritionist, stat. However, if you are free of major health concerns but want to feel your best, then any eating plan that includes a variety of healthy foods and meets your body’s energy needs will help you maintain—or enhance—your health and vitality will work. True, it’s not always easy to change your eating habits, but you still have a lot of freedom.
A Two-Step, No-Nonsense Plan to Better Health
If you examine the must successful eating plans, the ones that have been shown to promote for good health, they may seem very different on the surface. But most of them are in fact very similar at their core. They will pretty much have these two points in common:
- Eat lots of vegetables and fruits. Vegetables have priority. Fresh or frozen is best.
- Eat only very small amounts (if at all) of foods that are high in sugar, or other highly processed foods (white flour, fast food, junk food, foods with ingredients that you need a science degree to decipher). Avoid foods with trans fats (hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils) at all costs.
From there, you will find different recommendations about the higher-calorie but healthy foods like meat, poultry, whole grains, milk and other dairy, healthy fats (nuts, avocados, olives, olive and nut oils), legumes (beans).
Stop the Self-Delusion
This is a solid starting point, but I see so many people who have failure to launch: They don’t get started with adding more veggies and cutting back on the uber-processed foods because they are perpetually searching for a magic bullet, perpetually being seduced by diet gurus (and there are more and more of them on the internet lately, with their e-newsletters and webinars) who claim that they have the secret to weight loss, fat loss, better health or whatnot. The only secret is that if their claims were true, legitimate nutrition researchers would be all over it and it wouldn’t BE a secret.
Getting Off the Ground
If you eat lots of veggies at lunch and dinner, include some fruit, and limit the food that’s lacking in nutritional value to a tiny part of your diet, you can round out the rest of your calories by plucking from the many types of healthy carbohydrates, proteins and fats as you see fit. Some people feel better when they eat more protein, other people feel best with more whole grains. Some people thrive on a vegetarian diet, others need animal protein.
If you feel irritable, shaky, heavy, bloated, tired or hungry after a meal, then you may need to take a hard look at whether your meals are carb heavy or protein heavy, and experiment with shifting them the other way.
Here’s The Bottom Line
For the vast majority of people, eating more vegetables, fewer nutrient-poor foods and upping their time spent in at least light physical activity will result in improved health, and possibly weight loss (if that’s a priority). Very few people have some physical/genetic/hormonal issue that stands between them and a healthy weight. Very few. Yes, you may have to find ways to deal with cravings and occasional hunger, but that has much more to do with motivation, preparation and external eating cues (parties, donuts in the break room, popcorn at the movies).
By Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, CD