First of all, if you are asking this question, you are on the right track. Many people are unintentional about what they put into their bodies, leaving them undernourished, overfed, and feeling fatigued, fat, foggy brained, and frustrated. Once you start to make more intentional choices about fueling your body and noticing how those changes make you feel, typically the more motivated you become to continue making good choices.
So what are good choices?
The answer is, it depends. It depends who you are: your goals, your activity level, your individual food sensitivities, your nutritional deficiencies, and your food preferences.
In general, the healthiest diet is one that includes mostly vegetables, in a variety of colors, both cooked and raw, every day. Vegetables should make up the largest portion of what you eat. Then, focus on getting lean protein from both animal and plant-based sources. And don’t forget about fat – healthy fat. You need fat to make your hormones, to feed your brain and nerves, to supply all the cells in your body with materials to make the cell membranes, and even to keep your blood sugar better stabilized and help you to feel fuller for longer (which prevents you from eating carbohydrates again sooner than you might otherwise need to).
Let’s dive into a little more detail on each one of these categories.
Eat a variety of differently colored vegetables. Kale and spinach are a great start, but if you only eat green leafy vegetables and skip the other colors, you aren’t getting as large a variety of phytonutrients as if you were to incorporate more colorful vegetables into your diet. Think beets (golden and red), red peppers, squash, carrots, celery, sweet potato, radish, cauliflower, onion (yes, white is a color), eggplant, and more into your diet.
Three of my favorite ways to get vegetables into my family’s diet:
- Roasted vegetables: pick any vegetables you like, cover them with a little avocado oil or ghee, some salt and pepper, and roast at 400 degrees for about 40-50 minutes (depending on the vegetable). My favorite vegetables to do this with are Brussel sprouts (trust me, they’re delicious), sweet potato, onion, garlic, potato (not too much, they have a high glycemic index), beets, carrots, cauliflower, and butternut squash. Pick 4-5 of these, and roast them up for supper along with a nice piece of wild-caught fish, grass-fed beef, or organic chicken.
- Salads: you can perk up salads with a variety of leafy greens and other vegetables, and a nice olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing. Things we like to put on our salads include colorful bell peppers, carrots, avocado, red onion, asparagus, jicama, chickpeas or lentils or black beans (legumes, but still healthy). We also add a few raisins or dried cherries (watch out for added sugars), walnuts or pecans, hard boiled egg (for protein), and maybe some marinated organic chicken breast (use balsamic and oil to marinade too). You can also add hemp seeds, chia seeds, sunflower seeds. Salads don’t have to be boring.
- Smoothies: they’re trendy right now for good reason. You can pack a lot of nutrients into a smoothie – more than you would be able to chew and swallow – into a smoothie. A few tips for making smoothies:
- Make them with at least 60% vegetables and no more than 40% fruits. If you like a sweeter smoothie, start out with more fruit, and slowly work towards decreasing the fruit and increasing the vegetable content. Also, use sweet (and still colorful) vegetables like beets and carrots. You can throw them in your blender raw and roughly chopped.
- Vegetable smoothies can get a little “heavy,” so I like to brighten them up by adding 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar (which also has myriad health benefits), or the juice of one lime and half of one lemon.
- Add protein and fat: 1-2 tablespoons of MCT (medium chain triglyceride) oil is a great for brain fuel, fat burning, and longer satiety. You can find this on the Metagenics website. You can also add an unflavored protein powder to your smoothie for extra energy, prolonged satiety, and muscle fueling.
- Frozen berries: get antioxidant power with frozen blueberries, raspberries, or cherries. An ice cold vegetable smoothie always tastes better than a cool or warm one. Plus you get the sweetness and more phytonutrients with a variety of colorful berries.
- Extra bonus items: I’ve been known to some combination of Maca powder (Trader Joe’s now has that in stores), mushroom powder, elderberry syrup (great for flu season), chia seeds, and spirulina powder to my smoothies to up the nutritional value. Inulin and vitamin C powder.
- Drink it right away: if you let your smoothie sit for more than an hour or so, not only do many of the antioxidants lose potency (by oxidation), but the smoothie can get thicker and sludgy, and also warmer, making it less palatable. Plan to drink your smoothie within an hour of making it.
- Let your kids see you drinking your smoothie and let them try it if they ask. Our kids watch what we eat (for better and worse), so set a good example and normalize the consumption of vegetables for them.
Protein can come from plant and animal sources. Ideally, you should try to get protein from a variety of sources. When it comes to animal proteins, the best choices include grass-fed beef, or lamb, wild-caught (as opposed to farm-raised) fish, and organic free-range poultry and eggs. Choosing these products over cheaper alternatives affirmatively adds health benefit, while also decreasing your exposure to toxins that tend to be in conventionally raised animal protein products.
Aim to eat animal proteins that are minimally processed, such as fresh cuts of meat, rather than processed meat products like sausages, hot dogs, and salami.
Plant-based proteins are hiding in a variety of places that you might not have thought about. Black beans and lentils have around 10 grams of protein per ½ cup serving. A variety of nuts and seeds, and even broccoli and spinach have a decent amount of protein.
Fat is not the enemy. Fat is not the enemy. Fat is not the enemy.
There was a time not so long ago, that fat was vilified in favor of carbohydrates. Research is now showing that healthy fats are not the cause of increasing obesity and inflammatory disease (just the opposite, actually) in our society. Rather, simple carbohydrates and processed foods are among those high on the list of culprits.
Healthy fats are found in a variety of nuts and seeds, avocados, grass-fed meats, organic free-range poultry and eggs, wild-caught fish, coconut oil, MCT oil, avocado oil, and nut/seed butters, and even dark chocolate.
Well, those are the basics. Start here, and you’re on your way to feeling healthier, both inside and out. Over time, you can fine-tune your choices to meet your body’s individual needs. It’s amazing what adequate hydration to do also, so make sure you’re getting plenty of clean water in addition to all these wonderful foods.