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Deciding what foods are healthy to eat can be dificult, with a lot of conflicting information circulating. This is a guide to devicing a way of eating healthy that works for you.
To make it really easy, I have included a list of 4 foods that are healthy to eat in large amounts and that you can look to increase in your diet.
I have also included a list of 5 foods that you will want ot limit in your diet, and only eat as much as you need to not feel deprived!
We all know that our eating habits impacts a large part of our lives including our weight, physical and mental energy, and possibly how long we get to live!
Healthy eating is also more easily said than done. This is why many people either fail to take action, or make a radical change in their diet. Making a huge change to what we are eating often ends up taking too much effort, and the effort is quickly abandoned.
When I tried to figure out what healthy eating looked like for me, everyone I spoke with had a different view of that healthy eating really is.
Opinions on What Foods are Healthy to Eat
Don’t eat carbs, they will make you fat. And especially not sugar – that’s poison.
Don’t support animal cruelty so be vegan or vegetarian.
Food miles will create global warming and take resources away from the local population. Only eat what is locally produced. And in season.
It’s all about calories in and calories out.
You must eat organic, otherwise you are poisonings yourself and the planet.
Processed food is the devil. And trans fats. Trans fats are the devil.
These conversations usually made me exhausted. They also made healthy eating seem impossible as the only thing left on the list was seasonal locally produced food that’s not processed, not animal related and that don’t contain carbs.
What the *** am I supposed to eat????
The first thing to do is separate our value-based decisions from nutrition-based decisions. A nutrition based decision is about the composition of the food you are eating. Is it proceed? Is it a carb or a fat? Does it have fibre? Vitamins?
A value based choice on the other hand has less to do what actually fuels the body and more to do with what we perceive to be the greater good. Are you against animal cruelty? Eat vegan or vegetarian. Are you concerned about global warming? Eat locally produced organic food.
Luckily, there is often an overlap between what is “right” and what is “good for you”. Seasonal local food like apples in the autumn usually being more nutritious, and tastier, than the strawberries shipped from the other side of the world in mid-winter.
What are My Values Around what Foods are Healthy to Eat?
Many (me included) has at some point struggled with prioritising their values around food – because you want to do it “right” but it feels so difficult.
If this is you, I recommend spending some time considering what is the most important to you, so that you can be comfortable with your value based decisions around foods.
A good place to start is with the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan where he dives into the food chain and presents in in a fascinating way.
Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.Michael Pollan
If you are clear on what is important to you, the next step is to decide if any of your values is a hard line, or if they are preferences. There is a big difference between:
‘I will try to eat organic and will buy that for myself.’
‘I don’t eat anything not organic no matter the situation. ‘
You can easily see the social consequences of the second stance in everything from choosing restaurants, going to a dinner party or travel where you can’t cook your own food.
Sometime the social consequences are worth it however and to help you determine this for yourself I suggest answering the following question:
If I was offered my favourite thing in the world, but it was made with this thing I would like to avoid. Would I be tempted to eat it? Or would the idea of eating animal/non-organic/sugar containing food me you completely go off it?
The Habitista’s Food Values
Personally, my strongest value is around fossil fuel in the food chain. I try to avoid buying non-organic foods as they usually are grown with fossil fuel-based fertilisers. Food transported from far away and meat fed with non-organic food (which mainly leaves meat from sustainable farms).
This is a guide for me, but I also take other aspects into account such as cost, convenience and the social impact and so find my way.
Ok, I’m clear on my values – so what foods are healthy to eat??
Let me start by making two things clear:
There is no perfect diet. A myriad of different cultures eat healthily even though they eat completely different foods. What is important is to find a diet that serves you.
No foods are of limits. You can find space for whatever you fancy as a part of a healthy diet. Making foods “forbidden” will only increase their appeal and you will start feeling deprived. Instead, we need to find how much of different foods that serves us.
A final caution before I actually start talking about different kinds of foods is that I always recommend starting by adding when making changes to your diet.
It may feel counter intuitive but by adding more healthy food we will start feeling better, feeling fuller and will be better able to determine of how much of different foods that serves us.
With that, here is my list:
What is Healthy Eating?
These foods should take up a lot of space in a healthy diet.
Vegetables are full of fibre and vitamins, will help our digestion and make us feel full. Aim for 5 servings per day where a serving is about a fist (except for really voluminous veggies like some types of salad).
Try different kinds of vegetables and at different times. Can you fit some in for breakfast?
2. Real Food
Michael Pollan separates between “food” and “food like substances”.
By eating real food, food that made in a way we can understand, where we understand the ingrediencies on the label and that our grandmothers would recognise as food, we avoid a lot of the problems with processed food including large amounts of sugar, salt and things like high fructose corn syrup.
3. Beans and Legumes
Beans and legumes have got a bad reputation from the Paleo diet aficionados because they contain lectins. This is in itself true, but these lectins are almost completely destroyed by cooking – which is one of the reasons we cook them in the first place!
Beans and legumes are high in protein and fibre and contains several important minerals. Eat them as often as you can!
4. Pro-Biotic Foods
More and more research show the importance of a healthy gut and eating pro-biotic foods will help you get there! An easy win is to include yogurt on its own or in your meal.
However if you prefer a non-animal diet or are lactose intolerant there are a lot of great alternatives like sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi, miso and kombucha just to name a few.
Foods that are Less Healthy to Eat
Don’t elemiate these from your diet unless you really want to, but do consider limiting the amount to the minimum you can have without feeling deprived.
What foods should I reduce?
1. Refined Grains
Grains are a calorie dense food that can be stored for long periods of time which is why they are a staple in many diets. Whole grains include a good amount of fibre and can have a higher value of some vitamins and minerals.
In refined grains these benefits have been mostly removed and a diet high in refined gains have been linked to heart disease, type-2 diabetes, cancer and obesity.
Grains are not necessary for a healthy diet but if you enjoy them (like I do!) choosing whole grains instead of refined grains reduces these risks.
I think most of us know that sugar isn’t great for us but let’s take a closer look at why:
Sugary foods are usually high in calories but are not very filling. This makes them easy to overeat which leads to weight gain and associated risk factors.
Sugar raises insulin levels and if this is made chronic (you eat sugar often!) the insulin feedback loop may fail, and you become type-2 diabetic.
Sugar may impact the immune system and increase inflammation. More research is needed on this, but studies so far are not very encouraging.
3. Charred Food
Charred meat, cooked over hot coals of direct flames, will produce HCAs and PAHs, which are both carcinogenic and even though we can tolerate small amounts it’s good to keep them to a minimum.
The good news – if you marinate the meat beforehand it reduces the formation of these compounds significantly!
4. Deep Fried Food
Deep fried food, especially if not made at home, are often made with hydrogenated oils and are a source of harmful trans fats which significantly increases your risk for heart disease.
They also contain harmful compounds that form when vegetable oils are heated to too high temperatures.
I hate to say it as my favourite treat is a cold glass of white wine, but I wouldn’t be completely honest if I didn’t include alcohol on the list of compounds to be careful with.
Long term risks include heart disease, stroke, liver disease, digestive problems, cancer, weakening of the immune system and mental health problems.
Final Words on what Foods are Healthy to Eat
If you want to learn more about these and other nutritional issues, I recommend checking out the Nutrition Diva who I find to have a no nonsense, scientifically based view of nutrition, something that is highly needed in today’s society!
All in all, I think Michael Polland said it best, and I’m paraphrasing:
Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants.
If you follow that advice it doesn’t really matter if you have the occasional piece of chocolate, crisps or steak if that enhances your life. The goal is not to be perfect but to eat healthy enough while still enjoying life!