Making Sense of Eating Well
With a bit of background and some clear strategies, good nutrition need not be that complicated.
By Matilde Parente, MD, FCAP
Books about eating and dieting dominate the bestseller list year-round. Many of these books make eating seem pretty complicated or confusing. Often the diets that are touted are fabricated meal plans and are not living diets at all; that is, they are not diets or ways of eating that people follow and have followed over time as part of normal living, unlike tried-and-true practices, such as the Mediterranean diet.
Despite all the media static about diet, it is possible to make sense out of eating well by taking into account a few facts, concepts, and goals.
First, it is important to realize that developing healthier eating habits need not be burdensome or overwhelming. True, it can be difficult to break out of lifelong habits or family traditions that may have preseasoned your palate to desire sweet, salty, or otherwise unhealthy foods. It is also true that most of us will never have the skills and creativity of television and restaurant chefs, not to mention those helpful sous chefs standing by.
For most of us, eating healthier will require new skill sets. Learning to make better choices at the grocery store, at home, and when dining out requires a degree of open-mindedness and a willingness to develop new habits.
One key to healthier eating involves learning to cook—at least a little. Healthier, more-satisfying eating can be easier if you learn to prepare a few basic dishes that you enjoy and that can serve as stepping stones to more-complex meals. For example, learning to sauté will open up your culinary repertoire to a huge range of quick and healthful vegetable, lean meat, and lower-fat dishes.
Beyond providing a healthier (and generally less costly) way to eat, cooking can be a gratifying activity. It can also be a way to enrich family life and grow your social engagement. In addition to its health and gastronomic benefits, learning to cook a few basic dishes can also aid in weight control, if merely by limiting the amount and types of foods eaten away from home.
Americans today eat or drink more than one-third of their total daily calories away from home. Such foods, whether prepared at take-out counters, fast-food emporiums, or tablecloth restaurants, tend to have higher amounts of salt, unhealthy fats, sugar, and calories than foods that are prepared and eaten at home.
Viewing food as medicine is not a new idea. Galen, a second-century Greek physician who became the most prominent and influential doctor in ancient Rome, maintained that good doctors should also be good cooks. Galen, who wrote On the Power of Foods, practiced and taught other healers to share recipes with their patients for their health. Integrative practitioners are often open to sharing recipes and dietary tips with their patients, a practice that is slowly gaining acceptance among mainstream providers as well.
Knowing how to cook a few basic dishes also helps keep you in charge of what you put into your body. If you are not the cook in your household, consider what you might do to support the person who does do the cooking. For example, get involved with shopping smarter for the cook in your home or become more involved as a menu planner or kitchen assistant (yes, cleanup counts, too).
Many people who get into the kitchen—and especially those whose main job is to help devour new dishes—find it a wholesome and satisfying experience. Depending on your or your household’s nutritional needs, find books, videos, and instructional blogs online that can help you learn what you need to know to make you a more relaxed, more skillful, and healthier cook.
Eating right is a common refrain— but what does that mean? Although the answer depends on your age, condition, health goals, budget, state of residence, preferences, and many other factors, a few basic truths apply to most people without significant food allergies, sensitivities, or diet-related health conditions. Read on.
- Know the daily caloric intake recommended for your age, sex, and activity level.
New food and menu labels use 2,000 calories per day as a reference. Your individual needs can vary, however, and often quite significantly, especially if you are sedentary, middle-aged or older, or attempting to lose or gain weight. Use one of the many available calorie calculators to determine the approximate number of calories you should consume daily to maintain your weight at the same fitness level. Explore fnic.nal.usda.gov to learn more.
- Keep an honest food and activity diary.
Use pen and paper, an app, or other electronic tool to record your entire food and drink intake over the course of a typical week—with emphasis on typical. Include everything that crosses your lips in truthful quantities, including alcoholic beverages and grazing snacks.
Free apps such as MyFitnessPal that can track your net calories consumed (energy intake) and burned (energy expenditure) and can help you identify where you may need to make modifications or improvements. Keeping a food and activity diary can be an enlightening, and perhaps sobering, experience. Wearable devices can help you track your activity level and may motivate you to walk more or burn more calories, too.
- Fill up on fruit and vegetables.
Newer US Department of Agriculture guidelines call for Americans to reconsider their breakfast, lunch, and dinner plates. Half the meal should consist of fruit and vegetables, with the remainder made up of protein (preferably lean), grains (preferably whole grains), and a small amount of dairy products (preferably low in fat and sugar). A diet rich in raw, nutrient-rich, or healthfully cooked fruits and vegetables packs antioxidant, multivitamin, and nutrient power. If you can’t remember many of the superfoods listed opposite, simply remember to shop and eat by color—the darker or more vivid the color of a fruit or vegetable, the generally higher its antioxidant and phytonutrient content is. Better yet, replace low-quality, high-calorie snacks and other junk foods that are low in nutritional value and loaded with added sugars with some of your favorite foods in the “Stock Up for Good Health” sidebar.
- Adapt more-healthful cooking methods.
Choose sautéing, roasting, pressure-cooking, and air-frying methods over deep-frying and other approaches that leave your food soaked in saturated animal fats or tropical fats. Swap out butter for olive oil and other plant oils with a healthier profile, such as canola, grapeseed, nut, and safflower oils. Experiment with simple cooking methods that deliver big flavor and satisfying texture, such as poaching for fish and braising or roasting for meats. If you are short on time or live at a higher altitude or where energy costs are high, consider a modern, safety-enhanced pressure cooker, which conserves both nutrients and time.
- Eat a diverse diet.
As creatures of habit, it is easy to slip into an eating rut. Such habits can result from or lead to boredom with a potential rebellious consequence: binge eating or indulging in poor food choices. Consider having a meatless protein dish at least once a week as your main course—and discover how delicious and protein-rich foods such as beans, nuts, soy, seitan, and higher-protein grains such as farro and quinoa can be. Even eggs can be used creatively to substitute for meat, as in a baked vegetable-rich frittata. Ask your neighborhood green grocer about ways to prepare or serve different fruits or vegetables that are unfamiliar to you. With vegetables, simple roasting often does the trick, unlocking flavors that even veggie haters can love.
- Experiment with herbs and spices.
Learn to boost flavor with herbs and spices, including some you may not have tried before. Experiment every couple of weeks with an herb or spice that can kick up flavors in unexpected ways. Combinations of cumin with cinnamon and paprika do wonders for ho-hum meat dishes, marinades, and stews. Or blend herbs such as thyme leaves with olive oil, salt, and pepper and toss with winter vegetables like cauliflower, squash, or carrots to make an easy, no-fuss oven-roasted dish that brings out the natural veggie sweetness along with savory highlights. Even if you don’t consider yourself a creative cook, you can learn to enhance flavor simply by using salt and pepper.
- Choose real over processed foods.
Real foods are not only tasty and low in additives and chemicals but also packed with many nutrients your body needs besides vitamins and minerals—such as different types of fiber, essential fatty acids, micronutrients, fluids, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and flavonoids, which are typically found in a variety of fruits and vegetables as well as in tea and wine. This tip is especially important for people who need to curb their sodium intake. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the majority of US adults fall into this group, which includes all adults ages 51 and older, all African Americans, and anyone with high blood pressure, chronic kidney disease, or any type of diabetes. A whopping 75 percent of Americans’ salt intake comes from processed, prepackaged, and restaurant foods.
- Choose nutrient-dense foods regularly.
Foods that are supercharged with a variety of nutrients and those that supply hefty amounts of nutrients associated with a range of healthy effects are sometimes called “superfoods.” Whatever you choose to call them—how about delicious?—these nutrient-packed foods deserve a daily presence at mealtime. Consult your favorite recipe reference to find creative ways to bring these foods to your table.
- Eat mindfully.
This last tip is especially important for people who struggle with weight or whose eating behaviors set them up to fall into sugary, calorie-laden, high-fat food traps. Mindful eating is just that—being aware of the pleasure and nourishment of food in the moment. When applying mindfulness to eating, make yourself aware and appreciative of your nourishment by slowing down your meals and savoring rather than scarfing. Open yourself up to noting the aromas, visual delights, contrasts, textures, flavors, and layers of your meal. Eat with purpose, and apply such mindfulness to your surroundings and to those at your table. Doing so will elevate eating to a shared and satisfying experience. An added benefit is that mindful eating has been shown to help with weight loss and maintenance.
Stock Up For Good Health
Set your table with these examples of nutritious foods for health.
Berries (acai, blueberries, goji, raspberries, strawberries, others)
Dark greens (arugula, chard, collards, dandelion, kale, mustard, purslane, spinach)
Garlic, onions, shallots, chives, and leeks
Herbs (basil, bay leaf, dill, marjoram, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, thyme)
Hummus (tahini and garbanzo bean spread)
Mushrooms (cremini, Portobello, shiitake)
Potatoes (sweet, white)
Root vegetables (carrots, celery root, fennel, kohlrabi, parsnips, radish, salsify, turnips, yams)
Soybeans, other beans, lentils, and peas
Eggs And Dairy
Cheese (cottage, goat and sheep milk cheeses, ricotta)
Low-fat milk and kefir
Unsweetened or low-sugar yogurts, including Greek-style
Grains, Seeds, And Nuts
Whole grains (barley, buckwheat, bulgur, corn, faro, oats, quinoa, rice, wheat)
Seeds (chia, flax, hemp, pumpkin/pepitas, sesame, sunflower)
Nuts (almonds, cashews, peanuts, walnuts, others—preferably unsalted)
Fish, including fatty fish weekly (anchovies, black cod, canned light tuna, herring, salmon, sardines, trout) and less fatty fish (halibut, shellfish, various white flaky fishes)
Meat, leaner cuts and types (bison, filet, flank, pork tenderloin)
Poultry, preferably skinless and sustainably or organically raised
Other Foods, Condiments, And Spices
Chocolate, cacao, cocoa (less sweet and less processed versions)
Coffee and tea
Oils (avocado, canola, grapeseed, olive, walnut)
Seaweed (nori, others)
Spices (cinnamon, coriander, ginger, nutmeg, paprika, togarashi, turmeric, others)
Vitamin B12-fortified nutritional yeast, especially for vegans
© Copyright 2016 by Barron’s Educational Series, Inc. Reprinted by arrangement Barron’s Educational Series, Inc.