As a nutritionist, I often encounter people who are interested in improving their health and well being, but don’t know where to find quality information or what to do.
Often, after they exhaust themselves on the internet searching “Dr. Google” they find themselves more confused than when they started and finally decide to make an appointment with my office to learn how to eat a healthy diet for them and how to create balanced meals.
Many of us weren’t taught what healthy eating was. Should we all be vegan? Paleo? Atkins or South Beach? Keto? Should we take powders and supplements or eliminate them? Should we eat fat or avoid it? What about carbs? Searching the internet only creates more confusion because what works for one person does not work for another.
Good nutrition is a little more complicated in some ways, but simpler in others. Proper nutrition is about eating balanced meals that give you a good variety of foods that make you feel good when you eat them, and don’t make you feel sick later.
Food is not moral. It is not “good” or “bad”. Instead, some foods are more healthful than others. A balanced diet includes mostly healthful foods and minimal unhealthy foods.
What is healthy for one person may not be healthy for another, but there are some general principles we use to help people create balanced meals.
Restaurants are great, and some are even healthy (Those is San Antonio should try Redbird Farmacy!) but most food you find at restaurants is cooked with unhealthy or even rancid oils and has a high proportion of unhealthy fats, too many refined carbohydrates, and very small amounts of vegetables. This is the opposite of what we want.
When we eat out, we are at the mercy of what the restaurant can provide. When we eat at home, we have many more options and almost always make healthier choices.
Healthy food is easy and quick to cook. Steamed or roasted veggies, lean or grass-fed meats, and simple fats can make a fully balanced meal.
If we eat like this most of the time, we can afford to go out once in a while and enjoy all the delicious combinations man has created.
When trying to become healthier, stick to categories of foods rather than recipes.
Sure, you can search “healthy dinner recipes” on Pinterest, but you’re going to be bombarded with lots of people’s ideas about what “healthy” is. Is it low calorie? Does it include low-fat dairy products? Is it high fat, low sugar? Is it mostly carbohydrate or protein? It’s all very confusing.
Instead, a balanced diet should be considered in terms of the plate. On each plate, most people want about 3-4 ounces of protein. This means lean meats only, unless the meat is grass-fed. Protein is the nutrient that keeps you feeling full the longest, gives you energy for the day and helps you maintain your muscle mass.
Seafood, salmon, chicken, beef, pork; all are great sources of protein and fine for the average person. There’s no need to avoid red meat for most people, and the key to balance is variety! Switch things up, don’t eat the same thing every day.
Next, and arguably the MOST important thing on the plate are the vegetables. We don’t count potatoes, rice, or corn as vegetables, so keep that in mind. We want to include at least 2 cups of vegetables at each meal to get all the vitamins and fiber we need.
Third, we include healthy fats. Our focus should be mostly on fats like olive oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil, since they are plant-based. Animal fats like grass-fed butter, ghee, tallow, and lard can be healthy for some people, but aren’t ideal for others. You can’t go wrong using mostly olive oil (for light sauteing and cold uses) and coconut oil for higher heat cooking.
Finally, we can look at including other foods which we like but don’t give us quite as many nutrients or may be harder on our digestive systems. Legumes like beans and peanuts can be a wonderful part of many peoples diets, but they are best in smaller servings. Since 70% of the world population is dairy intolerant, it’s probably best to avoid dairy except in small doses. If you don’t tolerate it, you should remove it completely.
Grains like rice, whole wheat, quinoia, millet, and barley are tolerated well for some people and can be included in small servings. Same thing with potatoes and other starches and fruits.
Instead of worrying about how many calories or carbohydrates are contained in food, we should focus on eating the most nutrient dense foods we can. What does this mean?
Nutrient dense foods are foods that have high amounts of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, flavanoids, and other health promoting things in large quantities in each bite.
The most nutrient dense foods? Leafy greens.
Kale is the most nutrient dense vegetable around, and spinach is a close second. Including plenty of these, as well as cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, brussels sprouts, and cauliflower is very important.
On top of that, it’s important to seek variety. There’s a reason vegetables are all different colors- the colors represent different nutrients present in the food. To be truly balanced, include lots of produce with various colors!
If chewing and eating a lot of vegetables is tough for you, two options are helpful to supplement in the diet.
Smoothies- which are a great way to get more whole vegetable foods in a smaller package, can make it easy to get larger servings of greens. Just try adding some almond milk and a bit of fruit to make it tasty. Protein powder can make it a meal. Use a good blender like this one.
Juicing is a great way to get an incredible amount of vegetables in one serving. You can juice all kind of vegetables like kale, spinach, chard, cucumber, celery and add a small amount of fruit from lemon, apples, or others to hide the taste. Experiment and have fun! Juice makes a great supplement to a balanced meal that includes protein, fat and fiber and helps people reduce inflammation in the body because of all of the nutrients. I like this juicer.
Nutrient density doesn’t just apply to vegetables. We want to choose meats and fish that contain nutrition we don’t typically get. Salmon has lots of Omega 3 fatty acids which help reduce inflammation and improve skin health from the inside out. Seafood often contains selenium, a mineral truly lacking in the typical American diet.
Olive oil and olives have monounsaturated fat which has many health properties, while coconut oil contains medium chain triglycerides. This is why variety is key!
So that’s it! What are your thoughts on how to create balanced meals?