Simple Ways to Improve Your Diet
“You can’t outrun your fork,” is a quippy saying personal trainers and health coaches like to use. Although it’s fun to say, it also holds so much truth. Research has proven time and again that a healthful diet is one of the best ways to care for your health. In this article, we’ll focus on the benefits of a healthy diet and what foods should be included. We’ll also share simple ways to improve your diet.
Lettuce begin! (Get it?!)
Health Benefits of Improving Your Diet
Did you know, about 30 percent of all cancers could be prevented by eating a healthy diet? And eating lots of fruits and veggies can also lower your risk for coronary heart disease by 20 percent. Adding color to your plate from various plants—veggies, fruits, berries, etc.—can also protect against cataracts, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and even asthma.
Choosing grass-fed beef over grain-fed beef boosts your intake of omega-3 fatty acids, including conjugated linoleic acid—a type of fat thought to reduce heart disease and cancer risk and boost metabolism.
These are just a few recommendations for eating a healthy, balanced diet. What is a balanced diet? Well, the USDA dietary recommendations define a balanced diet as one that includes fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, and proteins. But what are the benefits of choosing to eat a balanced diet?
What are the Benefits of Eating Healthy?
There are countless benefits to eating a nutrient-dense diet, one full of colors, whole foods, and lean proteins. Here are just a few:
One of the happy side effects of eating a balanced diet is weight loss. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are great sources of dietary fiber which removes excess cholesterol from the body and cleanses the digestive tract. Eating lean protein keeps you feeling fuller longer and may just keep you from grabbing that vending machine snack in the afternoon. Protein also builds muscles which helps you burn more calories during the day—even when you’re binge watching your favorite shows.
Reduced Cancer Risk
We’ve already mentioned the powerful role of plants in preventing many types of cancers. Did you know your choice of beverage can also reduce your cancer risk? Green tea has between 100 and 200 mg of a powerful cancer-fighting antioxidant. And cooking with olive oil—a monounsaturated fat—may help lower the risk of breast cancer. In fact, rates of breast cancer in the Mediterranean, where olive oil is used almost exclusively, are about 50 percent lower than in the US. Don’t forget to include fish in your anti-cancer diet. Salmon, tuna, and herring are high in omega-3 fatty acids and are tied to a reduced risk of prostate cancer.
When talking about a balanced diet, it’s also important to consider balancing each meal. People with type II diabetes should include fiber, protein, and fat along with carbohydrates at each meal to keep blood sugar levels in check.
Although fat was villainized in the media for quite some time, it is a good thing—in moderation! Unfortunately, the average American eats a ratio of 12:1 to 20:1 omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. This imbalanced fat intake is a major cause of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Why? Omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory and can cause blood clots in the circulatory system. Balancing that ratio, between 4:1 to 1:1, helps lower triglycerides, reduce the rate of growth of blood clots, and helps prevent inflammation.
Having high blood pressure is the leading risk factor for stroke. But eating foods high in potassium like bananas, melon, potatoes (sweet and white), prunes, and tomatoes helps keep blood pressure in normal ranges. Other recommendations include fish, whole grains, and low-fat dairy. Generally, eating a diet of heart-healthy foods is also great a prevention for stroke.
Strong Bones and Teeth
Remember those old commercials with athletes, models, and actors proudly wearing their milk mustache? Calcium-rich foods—such as many dairy products, almonds, spinach, and tofu—support healthy bone development. Phosphorus is good for strong teeth and is found in beans, dairy, eggs, fish, and nuts.
How can diet improve your mood? We’re not promoting emotional eating here, but next time you’re feeling a little sad, hangry, or cranky, try reaching for some yogurt (not frozen). The probiotics that are so good for your digestion might change the activity in your brain causing you to feel sad. It’s still a notion scientists are researching, but more evidence is pointing to the “gut-brain axis” as a mediator of mood. Caffeine also has a mood-boosting effect. It triggers the release of dopamine, a chemical known for improving performance and mood. Not a coffee drinker? You could try black or green tea, or chai tea.
They say helpful foods often look like the body part they help. For example, walnuts look like the brain and are rich in omega-3 fatty acids—which reduces oxidative stress and enhances brain plasticity, learning, and memory. Blueberries, broccoli, caffeine, fatty fish, pumpkin seeds, and turmeric also protect the brain and improve brain function.
Improved Gut Health
Remember that gut-brain axis we mentioned? Well, turns out the health of your gut plays a larger role in your overall health – including preventing mood swings. According to research, there are up to 1,000 species of bacteria in the human gut microbiome (genetic material of all the microbes—bacteria, fungi, and viruses—that live on and inside the human body). The food you eat affects the diversity of your gut bacteria. The more diverse the bacteria, the healthier your body. For example, eating red meat and other animal-based foods may increase TMAO, a chemical produced by some unhealthy bacteria that contributes to blocked arteries and heart attacks. However, other bacteria, like Lactobacilli, may reduce cholesterol.
Diets low in fiber and high in saturated fats decrease the amount of deep sleep you get each night. Deep sleep, also called slow-wave sleep, is important for memory consolidation. Eating foods rich in B vitamins—eggs, fish, meat, and poultry—may help regulate melatonin, the hormone that controls sleep cycles.
What are the Healthiest Foods to Eat?
Many people get caught up in thinking that “superfoods” are the only kind of healthy food. But all foods are super (Am I right #foodies?) when part of a balanced diet. On the following list, you’ll see some popular superfoods, but you’ll also see many of the foods you eat daily and that are easy to get at the local grocery store.
Here are the healthiest foods to eat—in no particular order:
- Fruits and berries – Apples, avocados, bananas, blueberries, oranges, strawberries, cherries, grapes, grapefruit, kiwifruit, lemons, mango, melons, olives, peaches, pears, pineapple, plums, and raspberries
- Meat – Lean beef, chicken breast, and lamb
- Nuts and seeds – Almonds, chia seeds, coconuts, macadamia nuts, and walnuts
- Veggies– Asparagus, bell peppers, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, cucumber, garlic, kale, onions, and tomatoes
- Fish and seafood – Salmon, sardines, shellfish, shrimp, trout, and tuna
- Whole grains – Brown rice, oats, and quinoa
- Legumes – Green beans, kidney beans, lentils, and peanuts
- Dairy – Cheese, milk, and yogurt
- Fats and oils – Butter from grass-fed cows, coconut oil, and extra virgin olive oil
- Tubers – Potatoes and sweet potatoes
- Apple cider vinegar
- Dark chocolate
Simple Ways to Improve Your Diet
We get it, there is SO MUCH information out there about nutrition. Mostly, it’s just a bunch of static. There are four simple ways to improve your diet. Ask yourself, is my food:
- Minimally processed
If it only meets one of those criteria—put it down. If it meets half of them—walk away! We know, those fruity candies DO come in all the colors of the rainbow, are convenient, and may satisfy your sweet tooth, but they are NOT minimally processed.
If your food meets ALL four of those criteria—bon appétit!
You may still be thinking, nutrition has to be more complicated than that! So, we’ve gathered some of the best questions on the internet and are going to answer them here for you.
How Many Servings Should You Eat from Each Food Group?
The serving size for any food group depends on how old you are, whether you are male or female, and how much physical activity you get. Check out ChooseMyPlate.gov to find the right serving size for you.
But for general recommendations, look no further.
- Fruits: Eat one to two cups each day
- Vegetables: Try to get one to three cups every day
- Grains: Get at least three to eight ounces per day, make half of your servings whole grains
- Protein foods: Between two and six and a half ounces per day
- Dairy: Drink or eat between two or three cups a day
- Oils: Do not consume more than three to six tablespoons of oils per day
Again, these are just general recommendations. If you want to lose weight, gain muscle, or get your kid fueled up for her next soccer game, check with your personal trainer or nutrition coach.
How Can You Make Healthy Diet Choices?
One of the major causes of unhealthy eating is distraction. Being mindful of your thoughts, emotions, and actions can help you make better decisions about food. Let’s say it’s been another long day at the office. You’re feeling sleepy after lunch and just had to deal with an angry customer. Your first impulse might be to head to the vending machine and grab a sugary snack. Stop. Take a mental inventory of your mental, physical, and emotional state.
Are you really hungry? Or are you stressed out, ticked off, or hungry because you had to skip lunch? Your eating habits are affected by your emotions just as much as they are your blood sugar levels.
Prevent poor choices by sticking to an eating schedule. Eat every few hours to keep blood sugar stable. Eating more often also helps you increase the amount of nutrition you get from your food. More colorful vegetables, fruits, and berries throughout the day means a healthier heart, clearer skin, a happier mood, and slimmer waistline.
How can you make sure you stick to a satisfying, new way of eating? By menu planning!
Can Menu Planning Improve Your Diet?
Another fun saying personal trainers and nutrition coaches love to throw around is, “If you fail to plan you might as well plan to fail!” So, plan your menu. With the convenience of grocery store delivery services, fast food restaurants, and meal planning software and apps, you have everything you need to start. You just need to start! Here’s how.
What is the Best Menu Planning App?
There are lots of apps out there. So, this question depends on what you want to get out of your menu planning service.
eMeals: This is a subscription service. You can choose your eating style—clean, vegetarian, budget-friendly, family-friendly, etc. and how many meals you would like planned for you. Every week they’ll send you a new menu with the grocery shopping list and recipes. You still have to do the shopping and cooking, but if you just need some fresh ideas for each meal, this is the service for you!
Hello Fresh: If going to the grocery store for you is like doing burpees—a total pain—then Hello Fresh or other ingredient delivery services may be just what you’re looking for. Open the app, choose the dinner meals you want delivered for the next week, and you’re done. Services like this only deliver dinner meals so you’re still on the hook for breakfast and lunch.
Freshly: This is for those of us who just don’t have time to menu plan, get to the grocery store, and prepare food. Freshly delivers prepared meals you just need to heat and eat.
What are the Best Menu Planning Tips?
First, start small. You may want to start by planning breakfast, the most important meal of the day.
Next, plan your meals around your activity. This is especially true if you want to lose fat or gain muscle. Nutrient timing fuels your body’s activity and recovery. To find out more, read this article.
Make sure each meal is colorful, convenient, minimally processed, and satisfying. Remember to ask yourself the following:
- If my plate isn’t colorful, am I caring for my body?
- If my food isn’t convenient, am I going to stick to the menu plan?
- If it’s a processed food, is it going to make me feel good and help me achieve my goals?
- If it isn’t tasty and fulfilling, am I going to eat it?
Finally, don’t deprive yourself. If you often go out to lunch with friends—then plan what you’ll eat at your usual places so you can feel good about yourself and still enjoy time with friends.
Menu planning doesn’t have to be rocket science. You don’t need a bunch of spreadsheets, cookbooks, or fancy gadgets to eat well. You just need to find a process or service that works for you and meets your needs.
Think you’re ready to build a healthier diet? Or are you ready to learn more? Check out ISSA’s Nutritionist course to learn the best practices for improving your diet.