If it were up to me, every month would be “nutrition month” (you can insert eye roll here), but March is officially National Nutrition Month, as declared by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. As such, I suggest using it as inspiration to clean up your diet. Spring is around the corner; the days are getting longer and warmer weather is on the horizon. Therefore, eating healthier and cleaner can seem more appealing this time of year.
The Standard American Diet (appropriately abbreviated to
SAD), is full of processed food, consisting mostly of refined carbohydrates, sugar, and unhealthy fats. If that’s what you’re eating, then a complete revamp may be in order. While it may seem overwhelming to completely overhaul your diet, you can take things slowly. Start with one change a week and keep adding new ones as you become accustomed to the last. Additionally, there’s no “one size fits all” diet, as much as we’d like there to be. However, there are some key concepts that can serve as the foundation to any diet and will apply to any style of eating (paleo, keto, vegetarian, Mediterranean, locavore, etc.).
Read on for 5 tips on how to clean up your diet.
- Remove/reduce processed foods. This is number one for a reason. Most Americans’ diets are full of processed foods and refined carbs – white bread, pasta, chips, crackers, cookies, etc. All of these are high in calories, but low in beneficial nutrients. Replacing processed foods with real, whole foods like fruits, vegetables, meat/fish, legumes, whole grains, nuts/seeds, and dairy (if you tolerate it), will greatly improve your health and well-being. Notably, a recent study showed that the quality of food matters just as much as the quantity of food you eat when it comes to weight loss. So by merely ditching the processed foods in favor of nutrient dense whole foods, you’re doing your body a world of good.
- Eat the rainbow. Colorful fruits and vegetables have a broad spectrum of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. There are thousands of phytonutrients, chemical compounds found in plants, and they work synergistically to support all your bodily functions, as well as keep chronic diseases and illnesses at bay. In addition to micronutrients, fruits and vegetables are full of fiber, which helps keep you full longer and your blood sugar stable (see #4 below). Try to eat a fruit or vegetable from every color daily to get the widest range of nutrients.
- Consume healthy fats. Fat (and cholesterol) had long been demonized as the culprit for weight gain, heart disease, and cardiometabolic disorders. We now understand that fat isn’t necessarily the enemy. It’s the kind of fat you eat that matters. Eating a healthy blend of saturated (butter, coconut oil), monounsaturated (olive oil, avocados) and polyunsaturated fats (fish/seafood and nuts/seeds) from quality sources is essential for well-being. The fat you should steer clear of is trans-fats. This is the synthetically produced fat that’s found in many fried foods and processed baked goods. Anything that contains hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated oil on the label contains trans fats. Avoid these at all costs! Also choose cold pressed and virgin oils and pay attention to the cooking temperatures for each oil. If you heat oils to a higher temperature than they can tolerate, they’ll oxidize, which damages your cells and causes inflammation if you ingest them.
- Emphasize protein and fiber. While it’s valuable to have a mix of protein, fat and carbs with each meal, an adequate portion of protein and fiber provides many benefits; it helps you stay full longer, stabilizes blood sugar, minimizes overeating, promotes a healthy colon, and reduces serum cholesterol. At minimum, aim for 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories you consume; so a 2,000 calorie diet would amount to 28 g of fiber. I generally tell people to get 20-30% of their calories in the form of protein; so a 2,000 calorie diet would equal 100-150 g or 400-600 calories from protein.
- Embrace cooking at home. This may be easier said than done, but preparing your own food is typically healthier than eating out, mainly because you have control over the ingredients and you know exactly what goes into your food. It may not be an option for every meal, but try to make it the majority. To make things easier, spend a day food prepping (usually on the weekend when you have extra time). This includes washing produce, chopping fruits and vegetables, and cooking things ahead of time so you can quickly prepare a meal later in the week. For example, cook a big batch of rice, make a dozen hard boiled eggs, prep salad ingredients to be dressed later, cook a pot of soup or stew that can be eaten throughout the week, etc. Meal delivery services like Blue Apron or Sun Basket are good cook-at-home options too, they’re just pricier than shopping for yourself.