Your Food Nutrition Guide
There’s a lot of debate out there over what exactly "healthy eating" is. And with the explosion of supposedly effective weight loss diets like the South Beach diet and the Atkins diet (a.k.a. "the low carb diet") it can be hard to make sense of it all. If there is one thing we can be certain of, however, it’s that we could all learn more about good nutrition.
So to help you on your journey to a healthier lifestyle, we have composed a guide on what foods you should be incorporating into your diet, what foods to avoid, and how choosing the right foods could be your best way to healthy weight loss.
The Food Pyramid
Over a decade ago the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) developed the well-known food pyramid. The pyramid was designed to make healthy food easy to digest – both figuratively and literally. It was quickly held as the authority on the matter and was widely distributed amongst schools and posted as a guide on popular food products.
Unfortunately, the USDA did not adapt the pyramid to the growing body of research that was rapidly putting the information out of date. Suddenly the media was promoting supposedly healthy diet programs that contradicted the federal government’s recommendations, and people were becoming confused. Eventually, the USDA was forced to redesign the pyramid, and is now boasting the new interactive MyPyramid
While experts on health and nutrition welcomed this more individualized approach, there are some that question its validity. In any case, the guide is still lacking a generalized approach to healthy eating that applies to almost everyone. Which is where our healthy eating guide comes in.
Food Nutrition Facts
The problem with many fad diets is that they can leave you feeling unfulfilled. The truth is that while limiting your intake of certain foods like fats and sugars is certainly recommended, any severe restrictions are likely to lead you feeling tempted, and thus more likely to fail. So before you swear yourself to a life without bread, get the facts on what your body really needs.
If you’re looking for a simple answer to question "Are carbohydrates good for me?" then I’m sorry to say you won’t be satisfied. The truth is, it depends on the type of carbohydrate you’re eating. Carbs can generally be broken down into four major categories:
- Refined: Refined refers to the process by which the high fiber (the bran and the germ) are mechanically removed from the grain. You can typically find refined carbohydrates in many of the staples of the American diet, such as white bread, pasta, rice, and breakfast cereals.
- Unrefined: Unrefined simply means then that grain still contains its high fiber content, including the bran and the germ. Because unrefined carbohydrates take longer to be broken down into energy than their refined variety, they also leave us feeling fuller longer – which is great news for those trying to lose weight. Most refined foods do have unrefined alternatives such as brown rice, whole wheat pasta, multigrain bread and bran cereals.
- Complex and Simple: These each refer to degree of complexity of the chemical structure of a carbohydrate. There are three different kinds of complex carbohydrates: 1) glycogen (blood sugar), 2) starch, and 3) fiber. It was once believed that complex carbs were good and simple ones were bad, but that is no longer the case. Experts now know that people need a variety of carbohydrates to be healthy.
In fact, instead of measuring carbs for their complexity, experts now look to how quickly or slowly they raise your blood glucose levels, using a system called the glycemic index. Foods that are high on the glycemic index are ones that cause blood glucose levels to rise dramatically, while those on the low end cause only slight variations in sugar levels. If you have diabetes, then you are likely already very familiar with these terms, since diabetics have to constantly monitor their blood sugar levels in order to ensure their insulin levels do not rise or drop dramatically.
People whose diets are comprised of carbohydrates that are high on the glycemic index have been proven to be at greater risk for heart disease and diabetes.
However, the glycemic index alone is not a good enough indicator of what types of carbs put us at a lesser risk for heart disease, since in fact many fruits fall on the high end of the scale. The rule of the thumb is to go for unprocessed, whole grains and lots of fruits and vegetables. In fact, these kinds of carbohydrates should comprise the bulk of your daily calories (around 45%-50%). And with more and more grocers catching on to the whole-grain buzz, it’s never been easier to make the switch.
Fruits and Vegetables
Remember how your mom used to always bug you about eating your vegetables? Well, it turns out she wasn’t just doing that to punish you. In fact, a diet high in fruits and vegetables has many health benefits, including preventing heart disease, stroke, and certain kinds of cancer, as well as controlling blood pressure and even protecting against vision loss.
And while all types of fruits and vegetables (expect white potatoes, which according to health experts are more like a starch than a vegetable) can help you reap these rewards, there is evidence that consuming more of certain types of fruits and veggies can help even more. Dark, green, leafy vegetables such as broccoli, kale, bok choy, and spinach; and citrus fruits like oranges, lemons and grapefruit are touted as being the most beneficial. But variety is also important. As a general rule, try including any of the following into your diet: yellow, orange, and red fruits and vegetables; cooked tomatoes (which are higher in the nutrient lycopenes than when they’re raw); and citrus fruits.
And aim for about 9 servings (or about 4 and ½ cups) a day, depending of course on your body weight.
Milk and Dairy Products
Everyone knows our bodies need calcium to maintain healthy bones and to ward off osteoporosis. But when it comes to where you need to go to get calcium it’s not so clear. Milk is probably one of the more controversial sources of calcium.
While it is seen to be a crucial part of the average American diet (especially for growing children), the research has not been so conclusive. Namely, milk allergies and lactose intolerance are common reasons why people should not get their calcium from milk. High milk intake has also been linked to an increased risk for ovarian and prostate cancer.
The good news is that there are many other sources from which you can get your daily calcium intake, such as low-fat yoghurts, soy, cottage almonds and even vegetables like spinach and broccoli (although both of these vegetables contain chemicals that make absorption of calcium more difficult).
Of course, how much calcium you need varies with age. According to the National Academy of Sciences you need:
- 1,000 mg/day if you are between the ages of 19-50
- 1,200 mg/day if you are over 50
- 1,000 mg/day if you are pregnant or breastfeeding
For all the hype out there over whether or not a high or low-protein diet is better for overall health, surprisingly little is known about the benefits and risks of protein consumption. What is known is that adults need at least 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight – or about 9 grams per 20 pounds.
Proteins are made up of amino acids, which link together to form chains – some of which are created by your body – but essential amino acids have to come from your diet. And while many types of animal and plant foods contain protein, they are not all created equal. And that’s where opinions begin to diverge.
It’s not yet certain what types of proteins are better than others. Lean meats such as chicken and turkey and fish are held to be the best options for protein consumption, while red meats are generally considered to be a less healthy alternative, because of their high fat content. Soy and soy-based products are a great alternative to red meat (especially for vegans and vegetarians) but several servings a week is generally considered to be enough.
The best advice is to eat a variety of proteins so that your body can get all the types of amino acids it needs.
That eating foods that are low in fat is good for you is not exactly top-secret information. But when it comes to the types of fats that need to be limited, the advice is not to crystal clear. We need fats to transport vitamins like vitamin A, D, E and K through our body, to support our internal organs, to supply us with essential fatty acids and most importantly, to give us energy. That said, not all fats are created equal. There are three main types of fats: saturated, unsaturated and trans fats.
Saturated fats are distinguished by their ability to stay solid at room temperature. They are usually derived from animal fats and are typically found in foods like butter, margarine and cheese. Saturated fats also appear on meats (they are the white fatty layer commonly found on many red meats and poultry products). Studies have shown that people whose diets are high in saturated fats have an increased risk of high cholesterol and heart disease.
Although trans fats are unsaturated they bear no health benefits. A century or more ago scientists discovered that by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil they could keep it solid even at room temperature – which meant they would be able to preserve foods without the modern-day luxuries of refrigerators – and this was touted as a real breakthrough. Eventually, food makers became entranced by the possibilities hydrogen could have for commercially processed foods – enabling them to stay "fresher" longer.
Of course it didn’t take long for researchers to discover that there was a catch to adding hydrogenated oils to food products – high cholesterol and heart disease. Fried foods, commercially baked goods and anything made with hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil are all high in trans fat.
But the good news is that since January 2006 trans fats are now a part of the nutritional labels found on most food products, making it easier to avoid these foods.
Unsaturated fats (such as polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats) are generally found in liquid form at room temperature and usually come from plant sources. You can find these types of fats in many types of plant oils like sesame, sunflower, corn, olive and peanut oil, as well as in many nuts, seeds and avocados.
Both of these types of fats may help to lower cholesterol levels when eaten in the place of saturated fats. Of course it is important to note that even though unsaturated fats are considered "good" fats, your intake of them should be limited.
The American Heart Association recommends that fat comprise no more than 30% of your daily food intake.