Once you have everything you need to cook healthy meals, you are well on your way to a better healthstyle. But first let’s stop and make sure we know what a healthy meal looks like.
(This post is part five of the series How To Get Started Eating Healthy. Part one is Stock Your Pantry, part two is Essential Groceries, part three is Seasonal Shopping and part four is Stock Your Freezer. The recipe pictured is posted here.)
My goal here at Summer Tomato is to help you permanently adopt healthy eating patterns. Why? Because short-term weight loss diets, “cleansing” diets and ignoring your health completely will never do you any good. In contrast, healthy eating habits can add years and in some cases decades of high-quality time to your life.
I am not being sensationalist. The data is very convincing that your eating habits are the most important factor in your long-term health.
For many people the first big step in getting healthy is losing weight, and this means eating better and eating less. But my advice is generally the same (with a few exceptions) if you are not overweight. Healthy eating is the same for everyone–eating for fat loss and eating for health and longevity are the same thing.
How can you permanently eat better?
You cannot expect to let yourself go hungry and stick to that eating plan forever. It is therefore critical that you get the most out of your meals by making sure they have enough nutrients and flavor to keep you satisfied. I would go so far as to say you should love the food you eat and should walk away from it not wanting another bite. With balanced meals and wonderful ingredients, you can feel this way about what you eat.
Your body needs many things to function properly. It runs on complex carbohydrates, vitamins, fats, fibers, minerals, proteins and probably many more things we have not yet discovered. If you follow some trendy diet that encourages you to eliminate one or more of these, your body will feel deprived and ultimately find a way to get what it wants (usually in binge form). So let’s forget the starvation option and instead choose foods that give us all the nutrients we need. What we will reduce (not eliminate) are foods with fewer nutrients, the ones your body can be happy without. These foods will be addressed in a future post.
The best strategy is to give yourself a steady supply of what your body needs throughout the day. Every day. And because scientists have been unable to replicate a healthy diet with a pill, we need to focus on eating food. Real food. The kind that comes from the earth, not from a drive-thru.
The following is a guide to creating a perfect, healthy meal from food. It is only meant to be a blueprint, not a rigid plan. But I feel it is important to spell this out at the beginning because it is so different from how most people eat. I can assure you that it is very doable and more than satisfying. I eat this way, and I can say without hesitation that food is my favorite part of my day.
Eat Your Vegetables
As I alluded to in my post on seasonal shopping, the bulk of your diet must be vegetables if you hope to permanently lose weight and avoid heart disease, diabetes, cancer and dementia. The science is very clear on this point. If you do not like vegetables, I suggest you try and learn to like them. Chances are you have not eaten many high-quality vegetables from your local farmers market or that the ones you have tried were not prepared very well. Keep trying! Explore different recipes. Try different vegetables at high-end restaurants. Go out of your way to find vegetables cooked a way you like.
Here are some tips on learning to love foods you don’t like.
I recommend finding a friend who loves to cook and inviting him or her to explore your local market together–the enthusiasm of a chef at a farmers market can be contagious! You could even volunteer to help make a meal afterward with the fresh ingredients you found. It is amazing how quickly a kitchen becomes demystified when you spend a little time in one. Start with simple recipes. Delicious food does not have to be complicated if you cook with wonderful ingredients.
To reiterate, your first task is to increase your vegetable intake. Aim for about half of your (medium-sized) plate to be covered in vegetables. Make this happen for both lunch and dinner. If for whatever reason your choice of meal makes this difficult, try to get at least some green on your plate. Adding kale or spinach to whatever you’re making is usually pretty easy.
You also want to try to get as much diversity as you can in the types of vegetables you eat. If you have seen those obnoxious lists of “superfoods,” you may have started to realize that any fruit or vegetable can be considered super. The fact is that all vegetables have some unique benefit and you maximize your health by eating many kinds of them, not by eating a lot of one kind. I try to mix up my weekly shopping cart to reflect the diversity of the farmers market, and I usually try to buy something I have never eaten before.
One wonderful thing about seasonal shopping at your local farmers market is that vegetables and fruits come and go pretty quickly, so diversity comes with the territory.
I mentioned above that it is important to feel satisfied by your meals, and protein can go a long way in helping you achieve this. However, there are many misconceptions about protein, particularly regarding how much and what kinds you should eat.
I’ll start by saying that virtually no one in the Western world is protein deficient. It is relatively easy to get the protein your body needs to maintain its muscle mass. I do not recommend counting protein grams unless you are a professional body builder, in which case this probably isn’t the best website for you.
Despite what some people may say, many vegetables and grains contain protein. For instance, a cup of brown rice has 5 grams of protein. A cup of black beans has 15 grams of protein (and 20% of your daily iron). Some will argue that these are not “quality” sources of protein because they are not “complete proteins,” meaning that they are lacking in some essential amino acid. However, this argument is irrelevant if you follow my advice above and enjoy diversity in your diet. Yes, if all your protein comes from brown rice then you may be deficient in lysine, but presumably you are eating more than just brown rice and the rest of your food will easily make up the difference.
Getting all your protein is important, but since it is relatively easy to get I find the biggest value of protein is helping you feel satisfied after a meal. Protein digests more slowly than carbohydrates and can help you feel full longer. From this perspective, it matters very little where your protein comes from.
Personally I try to get my protein from beans, eggs or fish, because they offer more than just protein. Beans are a great source of fiber and iron. Eggs are a perfect size and are rich in vitamins. Fish has wonderful oils that have been shown to protect your heart and brain.
I’m fairly neutral on poultry and red meat in reasonable quantities.
Despite what disciples of Dr. Atkins may say about carbohydrates (a lot of which I agree with), intact whole grains are essential to a healthy diet. Unfortunately, real whole grains are not very easy to come by in our culture. I have explained before, there is a tremendous difference between an intact whole grain that still looks like a grain and the “whole grains” in Lucky Charms that have been mutilated then reassembled. Real, intact grains digest slowly and are an essential source of fiber, vitamins, minerals and other wonderful things.
Like protein, whole grains should comprise about a quarter of your plate. However, since whole grains are rather difficult to get, I usually choose to make intact grains the bulk of my breakfast, and usually incorporate other grains such as brown rice or quinoa into either lunch or dinner. These will also go a long way to increase the satisfaction you feel from a meal.
One of the reasons the low fat diet from the 20th century failed so miserably is that it did not account for the necessity of healthy fats. Oils from plants and fish are critical for protecting against disease. And, like protein and grains, they contribute greatly to how satisfying your meal is.
Because fats have a high caloric density, a little really goes a long way and there is no definitive space on your plate that I allot to them. However, generally I recommend dressing or cooking all your vegetables in minimally processed oil, such as cold-pressed olive oil. I also recommend cooking with nuts (many different kinds, of course) regularly and enjoying avocado and other oily plants frequently.
Fish provide a different kind of oil than plants, and both are important. But if you are eating substantial amounts of fish you should be aware of the dangers of mercury contamination.
Strive to eat a diverse array of fresh vegetables, healthy proteins, intact grains and plant and fish oils as a part of your daily healthstyle, particularly in the meals you have control over. However, this is not something you should approach as all-or-none. Any meal can be made more healthy by adding these ingredients, and it is worth it to work them in if possible.
But most important, be sure that whatever you eat you enjoy. None of this is “diet food” and all of it should make you happy.
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