Vegetarian or Paleo?
Atkins or Zone?
Count calories or exercise more?
Intermittent fasting or six small meals?
Locally grown organic or whatever’s at the supermarket?
Does it even matter?
By this point you’ve heard that dairy is bad, meat is bad, grains are bad, fat is bad, and carbs are bad. What’s left to eat? Surely the breatharian diet can’t be the answer…
I get it.
Nutrition can seem pretty confusing. But it doesn’t have to be.
You began with a simple desire to lose weight and take control of your health…
…now you’re paralyzed, wishing you’d never asked in the first place.
Well I’ve got good news: Nutrition can be simple, so let’s go back to basics.
Keeping it simple.
Getting started, there are only 4 questions that matter:
- What should I eat?
- How much should I eat?
- When and how often should I eat it?
- How should I eat?
This article will help you answer the first question – what should I eat?
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” – Hippocrates
“WHAT do I eat?”
All living things need nutrients, and we’re no exception. The primary function of food is to deliver these nutrients from other (formerly) living things to us. The higher the food quality, the more nutrient-rich these foods will be. So the number one, single most important thing you can do to improve your nutrition…
Improve the quality of the food you eat.
High-quality food provides your body with the nutrients it needs, long before your body demands them. It eliminates cravings, preventing you from overeating calories while undereating nutrients. It fuels your body, instead of slowing it down, giving you the energy you need perform well at home, at work, and at the gym.
In fact, just applying this step alone will also start to take care of the other problems, like when to eat and how much.
So what determines food quality?
High-quality food has a few basic traits:
Rich – When foods are in season, they tend to be brightly colored and aromatic. These traits are hint towards their nutrient-density. It’s often brightly colored, flavorful, and aromatic to show it’s rich in micronutrients like vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and more.
Example: Eat bright red fragrant summer strawberries instead of pale pink/green unripe strawberries. Eat deep dark green collard greens instead of pale iceberg lettuce.
Fresh – When a food is harvested, its exposure to air and light will usually decrease some of its nutrient-content over time. The longer a food sits between harvesting and consumption, the less potent it becomes.
Example: Eat fresh, locally grown produce and meats instead of canned veggies and deli meats.
Whole – Whole foods are unprocessed and close to their original form. Processing tends to strip foods of their nutrients or make them go bad faster. This can be as simple as chopping, juicing, or cooking, which can sometimes actually make food and its nutrients more easily digestible. This can be good, if eating raw carrots bothers your digestion but cooked carrots don’t. Or it can be bad, if your blood sugar shoots up while drinking apple juice because you’re missing the fiber in the fruit. In many cases, the less processed a food is, the fewer opportunities it has to lose those nutrients.
Example: Eat whole apples instead of apple juice. Eat whole oats/oatmeal instead of Cheerios (which is made from oats).
Simple – Single-ingredient foods like peanuts or natural peanut butter are free of unnecessary additives like artificial colorings, flavors, stabilizers, and sweeteners. Some of these additives and preservatives are used to increase shelf-life to improve profit/sales of the food. Other cheap fillers like soybean oil or maltodextrin may be used to improve taste or texture but can add unwanted calories.
Example: Eat natural peanut butter (ingredients: peanuts, salt) instead of commercial Skippy or low-fat Jif. Eat tomatoes (even canned or stewed!) instead of ketchup.
So remember, in general think of high-quality food as:
- Think colorful and aromatic.
- FRESH (Frozen can be a close second!)
- How long since the food was picked / harvested / caught / butchered?
- Think close to its original form.
- No unnecessary additives (artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, other ingredients).
- Bread, sandwiches, pizza, Cheez-Its, and pretzels are each made of wheat flour plus other stuff.
ASK YOURSELF: Can I imagine where this food originally came from?
The Four Food Groups
So you know we should be eating nutrient-dense food, but that doesn’t speak to what kind of nutrients need to come through our food. Sometimes it just helps to visualize stuff.
Here’s a framework to guide you:
Introducing… The Four Food Groups:
- Protein – this is where we get our essential* amino acids
- Veggies – this is where we get our fiber, micronutrients, and phytonutrients
- Healthy Fats – this is where we get our essential* fats
- Healthy Carbs – this is where we get our starch and sugars to fuel high-intensity exercise
*Notice the word “essential.” This means that the body cannot MacGuyver these nutrients together out of scraps in the body. They must be provided from the diet.
1. Protein Foods
Did you know protein is not just for muscle building?
It’s actually essential for our health!
Protein is used in the repair, recovery, and restoration of all sorts of things in the body. It provides the building blocks for many of our enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters. These are important for general health, energy production, and brain function.
And of course, it provides the building blocks for many of our tissues. (YEAH MUSCLE!)
Here are some of our best choices of protein-rich foods:
- meats and poultry
- lean beef
- top round (London Broil)
- top sirloin
- flank steak
- skirt steak
- ground beef/turkey/chicken (90% lean or higher)
- boneless, skinless chicken/turkey breasts
- boneless, skinless chicken/turkey thighs
- lean pork tenderloin
- organ meats
- chicken hearts
- chicken livers (extra credit for eating this nutrient powerhouse!)
- lean beef
- fish and seafood
- whiting and other white fish
- whole eggs / egg whites
- plain Greek yogurt
- cottage cheese
- protein powder supplements
- whey protein
- casein protein
- egg protein
- pea protein
- rice protein
- other plant proteins
FYI: Did you notice that beans and peanut butter are missing?
Keep reading, you’ll see those foods are actually rich in nutrients other than protein.
Do they have some protein in them?
Sure, but it’s not their claim to fame.
When focusing on protein-rich foods, it’s best to focus on 1st Place Proteins not runners-up.
Brightly colored veggies give us a wide assortment of phytonutrients and fiber. These nutrients have been shown to reduce the risk of developing many cancers, diabetes, and heart disease.
Ever notice the stringy fibers on a stalk of celery?
Well plants contain something called cellulose, but we can’t digest it. However – our friendly gut bacteria can. So, by eating veggies and other fibrous carbohydrates, we’re actually nourishing them too. In return these friendly bacteria reward us with strong, robust immune systems.
Here are some of our best choices of veggies:
- green beans
- brussels sprouts
- carrots, parsnips
- leafy greens
- bok choy
- collard greens
- swiss chard
- assorted greens (mustard, beet, dandelion, etc)
- leeks, onions, scallions, garlic
- peppers colored bell peppers (red, green, orange, yellow)
- hot peppers (jalapeño, habanero, etc.)
- snap peas
- turnips and rutabagas
- summer squash, zucchini…
So from asparagus to zucchini, you’ve got a lot to choose from.
FYI: Did you forget about potatoes, peas, and corn?
Nope! Although often referred to as “veggies,” we are not talking about starchy “veggies” like potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, and corn (which is actually a grain).
This group is exclusively reserved for fibrous veggies, which are rich in fiber and colorful phytonutrients, but low in starch/sugars.
3. Healthy Fats
Did you know that eating fat is essential to our health?
Fat has gotten a bad rap over the last few decades, but our bodies use fat in our cell membranes, nervous system (our brain is 60% fat!), and to help regulate healthy hormonal function.
Here are some of our best choices of healthy fats:
- avocado (guacamoleeeee!)
- dark chocolate (85-100% cocoa)
- egg yolks
- extra virgin olive oil
- fish oil / krill oil / algae oil
- grass-fed butter and ghee (clarified butter)
- virgin coconut oil
- mixed nuts/seeds and their butters almonds
- brazil nuts
- macadamia nuts
- pumpkin seeds
- sunflower seeds
REMEMBER: Some of your protein foods will also provide fat (like healthy whole eggs!). So, when adding healthy fats to meals, stick with a leaner protein food like chicken breast or fish.
4. Healthy Carbs
With obesity and diabetes on the rise across the nation, carbohydrates have taken a beating in the media. Fingers point to images of highly-processed carb-rich foods like pizza, bread, cookies and muffins.
But wait – let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.
It’s actually low-quality foods that create low-quality results.
Just like eating low-quality fats or proteins, carbohydrates are no different.
Healthy carbohydrates help us to recover from intense exercise, fuel our nervous systems for peak performance, and are the preferred source of energy for most tissues in our body.
Here are our some of our best choices of healthy carbs:
- fruits (added colors and phytonutrients!) apples, pears
- bananas and plantains
- mixed berries (blueberry, blackberry, raspberry, cranberry, etc)
- citrus fruits
- grapefruit, lemons, limes, oranges
- legumes (added fiber and protein!)
- mixed beans (black, pinto, red kidney, etc)
- whole oats
- brown/white rice
- starchy root veggies
- sweet potatoes
That’s a lot of food!
FYI: What makes a carb “healthy?”
Great question! Every carbohydrate food (whether broccoli or brownies) ultimately ends up as some kind of simple sugar in our blood.
“Healthy” carbohydrates take longer to digest than low-quality carbohydrates. This prevents spikes in insulin which can lead to reactive hypoglycemia (shakes, sweats, and being hangry).
Healthy carbohydrate foods also tend to be higher in things we don’t usually get enough of, like:
- micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients)
- fiber (this feeds our friendly gut bacteria and slows digestion for a slower release of energy)
- water (along with micronutrients and fiber, this trifecta makes us feel nourished rather than just full)
If you’re not a full-time professional athlete, carbohydrates can be easy (and tasty!) to over-consume. It’s better to get full before you run your blood sugar through the roof, so most healthy carbs also tend to be lower in total carbohydrates/sugars.
Explore, Challenge, Improve
If you’re only going to make one change, here’s my challenge to you:
Eat strictly high-quality, single-ingredient foods from this list, for at least two weeks.
If you stick with it you may be saving cute little kittens from big scary trees by the end of the month. But hey, if you’re not feeling quite so ambitious just yet, there’s still hope.
Consider adding just some of these foods to your regular diet.
Explore – branch out of your comfort zone a little. Maybe you see some foods you used to eat but no longer do. Or maybe there’s one you’ve always wanted to prepare.
By making small changes, you will begin to notice small improvements. Like having energy left over at the end of the day. Then you could run that extra errand or make plans with a friend instead of hopelessly collapsing on the coach.
Who knows, you might even feel like going to the gym.