Nothing quite follows the “garbage in, garbage out” philosophy quite like what we decide to eat and drink. In order to function properly, our bodies need a steady intake of quality foods and beverages.
I know that there are thousands of diets out there, each with their own complex rules and charts, but the reality of it is that eating well can be as simple as making some better choices when you’re filling up your shopping cart at the grocery store. Don’t get me wrong, there are most definitely certain diets that are better for certain medical conditions and such, but most people can get by just fine with a few simple tweaks that I will outline below. Here they are in no particular order:
Get on the whole grain band wagon – If you are going to eat grains at all, then whole grains are definitely the way to go. They contain more natural nutrients than their refined cousins, and are less likely to cause spikes in blood sugar. The benefits don’t end there either, recent studies indicate that diets that consist of as little as one to three servings of whole grains per day reduce the risk of health conditions such as stroke, heart disease, inflammatory disease and colorectal cancer as well as help people manage their weight. A quick tip when doing your whole grain shopping is to read the label. If the first ingredient says anything other than “Whole Grain X” then you’re probably not getting what the front of the box is trying to have you believe. So cut back on the refined sugars, enriched breads and white rice and substitute them with whole grains where applicable.
Increase your water intake – Water, which makes up 60-70 percent of our bodies, is essential for proper function. The biggest problem is that most people just don’t get enough. Unfortunately, there is no formula that meets every individuals fluid intake needs, but if you add an AT LEAST to the eight eight-ounce glasses a day, then you’ll have a good start. With increased activity, sweating, dry conditions, altitude (I’m talking to all you people in Denver who spend time above 8,500 feet) and heat, your body starts to lose water, which increases your need to put more in. There are special considerations for endurance athletes, but that aside it is generally a good idea to drink water before, during, and after any vigorous exercise. An easy way to make sure you are staying well hydrated is to monitor your urine output. A person who is well hydrated will produce about 1.5-2 liters of colorless to pale yellow urine per day. One of the best things you can do for your health is to cut back on sodas and other sugary beverages and replace them with some good old fashioned H2O. You will help clear out toxins and keep your blood sugar in check. Your body will thank you by fending off illness, dropping weight and reducing muscle tightness and cramping.
Eat an abundance of fruit and vegetables – That’s right, no number of servings, just a lot of them, all day long. These “super foods” (read as ACTUAL food) contain a plethora of vitamins, minerals, fluid and other compounds(like cancer fighting antioxidants) that our bodies need to be at their best. When choosing veggies and fruits, use color as your guide. The darker and richer colored choices tend to have more of the constituents that I mentioned before than say your average iceberg lettuce which, well… doesn’t. A great way to get more of veggies and fruits in your day is to switch out sugary snacks throughout the day with a piece of fruit, or a small bag of fresh vegetables. Your body will eventually become accustomed to these types of food and will eventually crave them over pre-packaged goodies in time.
Practice portion control – When fast food chains are asking you to super size your meal, they are also asking you to super size your waistline and your chances of getting chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. Sounds fun, right? WRONG. Don’t be fooled by the deal, IT’S NOT WORTH IT! The jury is still out on whether eating smaller meals more frequently has any actual effect on our metabolism, but I just think it’s good practice. In my experience, when I eat more frequently, it tends to keep me from gorging myself during regular meals. I know everyone is different, so I can’t say that eating more frequently will actually help you, but in any case, if you are going to eat fast food at all you should learn to practice some self control and just say no to 48 oz sodas and extra large fries. You don’t need them. Trust me on that.
If you drink alcohol, keep it moderate – The benefits of moderate alcohol consumption have been touted in recent years, citing reduced risk of things like heart disease, heart attack, stroke and gall stones amongst other things. What is moderate alcohol consumption you ask? Well, I’ll tell ya. Current guidelines suggest that consumption of one alcoholic beverage per day for women and two for men is adequate to give the aforementioned benefits without increased health risks associated with over-indulgence. Let’s not muddy the waters about what “one” drink consists of. For beer it is one twelve ounce serving (a can or bottle), wine is five ounces (an average glass filled just up to the widest area), and distilled spirits top out at 1.5 ounces (a standard shot glass). A side note on all of this though — If you don’t already drink, there’s no evidence that shows you’ll get any benefit from making a habit of it. For the rest of us, moderation truly is key. Salut.
Keep your fats healthy – Fats are not created equal. They are an essential nutrient required for many of our bodies chemical reactions as well as helping us maintain body temperature and can be used for energy when they are stored as body fat. When choosing fats, it is best to go for the unsaturated varietals (i.e. polyunsaturated fats like omega-3’s and 6’s found in fish and other lean meats, or monounsaturated fats which can be found in nuts and most vegetable oils). These fats are substantially better than their saturated or trans type brothers for many reasons, but the biggest one is for their anti-inflammatory properties. People who get the highest percentage of their fats from bad sources tend to have higher concentrations of inflammatory markers which can be associate with chronic pain. So when you’re shopping, check out the label and look for options that contain higher concentration of the good-UN‘s and the lowest combined values of bad trans and saturated fat.
Choose good meats – Meat is a great source of proteins that our body needs to replace old and broken down tissues. Choosing good meats can go a long way in influencing the quality of tissues that your body creates and your overall health in general. The number one decision I will stress here is making sure to have AT LEAST one meal a week that has fish! This is mostly because of their high concentration of good fats along with the protein that they provide. Great choices include salmon, halibut and tuna which have higher concentrations of omega-3’s than most other fish per serving. If you’re going after other types of meat, it’s best to keep it lean. A good tip is to buy cuts of meat that have less “marbling” or by replacing ground beef and burger patties with turkey based alternatives. In general, it is a good idea to keep consumption of red meat to a minimum (maybe one or two servings a week), so if you’ve already had a steak or a hamburger this week consider selecting a chicken or seafood alternative from the menu this time around.
Make more often than you take – Okay, so this one is admittedly a bit convoluted, but what I mean to say is prepare more meals than you buy that are pre-packaged or made to order. In most cases, if not all, making something yourself as opposed to picking up a boxed version from the grocery store or bagged version from the drive-thru is a better decision to make for your nutritional health, but that’s not all! Making a meal can give you a sense of accomplishment, and when done with family and friends provides a great opportunity for beneficial psycho-social experiences that are vital to overall health. Don’t even mention the fact that it can save you money. On average, homemade meals are at least few dollars cheaper than restaurant meals. Which means if you eat out once a day (not as uncommon as you might think) you could save you over a thousand dollars a year by making a similar meal yourself! Who couldn’t use an extra thousand dollars a year, amiright?
Consider taking a daily multivitamin – The use of daily multivitamins has currently come under fire from several organizations, but it is my belief that evidence is lacking that conclusively links their proper use with any sort of harm. Which in my eyes means that the potential benefits greatly outweigh the risks associated with taking them. Keep in mind though that these are SUPPLEMENTS. They are intended to fill in nutritional gaps in an otherwise well-rounded diet, not meant to substitute for one. I cannot stress that enough. There are also guidelines to picking a good multivitamin which you can read about here if you are so inclined. General rules of thumb are to avoid supplements that have concentrations of fat soluble vitamins above the 100% daily value of A, D, E and K which can become toxic at high levels, and avoid taking multivitamins that also contain iron (unless you have been diagnosed with an iron deficiency anemia) as most people get enough of these nutrients in a well balanced diet.
Learn to decode nutrition labels – This one is last because it sort of ties into all of the other things I’ve listed above. When understood and used correctly they can help you make informed decisions about the things you put in your mouth and help you plan out and form a healthy diet. In addition to the nutrition label, you should pay close attention to the list of ingredients. By law, they are listed in order of highest to lowest concentration of the listed ingredient. So if you see something that reads a little more like a chemistry text book than a cook book it’s probably a good clue to put down the box and consider item 8 from this list. If you’d like to learn a little more about reading nutrition labels,here is a good interactive article to check out.
Good nutrition is a big part of a multi-pronged approach to overall health, and it should be something you keep in the back of your mind at all times. Granted it is tough to do all of these things all of the time, for we are none of us perfect. Perfection shouldn’t be the goal here, as that is the reason that most people fail at making changes that last. Remember that these are lifestyle modifications that take time and effort, if you do even one of the things I listed your health will be better for it. Allow wiggle room for failure and take pride in your accomplishments and you will succeed. As long as your good decisions outweigh your poor ones, in my eyes, you’ve won. Good luck and as always, be well.