We’ve all heard the phrase “You are what you eat.” Far fewer people seem to understand what it means.
The foods we eat and the beverages we drink have a direct impact on our overall health and wellness. This goes beyond weight, in that the nutritional properties in foods promote health (or illness) in every part of the body. Even properties with a negative reputation, like cholesterol and fat, are necessary to overall health. Cholesterol, for example, promotes brain health. Like everything else in diet, though, too much cholesterol damages not only heart health, but also brain health.
A healthy diet is one rich in vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and lean protein, with moderate consumption of healthy fats and dairy. In this context, “diet” does not mean weight-loss attempt, but a person’s complete eating habits. Unfortunately, the typical American diet does not follow these recommendations.
The Typical American Diet
The average American eats a diet full of processed foods that are loaded with simple carbohydrates, plus added sugars and fats, all of which provide no nutritional value while dramatically increasing caloric content.
This type of diet leads directly to a host of health problems, especially when combined with the sedentary lifestyle of the average person. Chronic health problems include obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, and much more.
Obesity alone dramatically increases the likelihood of developing each of the chronic diseases listed above. Type 2 diabetes occurs when cells no longer respond correctly to insulin, causing a buildup of glucose in your blood. Excess glucose exits your body through urination, since it cannot enter cells. Your body takes energy from glucose, so this malfunction means your body isn’t getting the energy it needs.
Type 2 diabetes also causes blood vessel damage, which increases risk of stroke, heart attack, vision loss, and kidney damage (among other things). It also causes skin problems, neuropathy (loss of sensation and tingling in extremities), and depression.
Poor diet is one of the leading contributors to heart disease, as obesity and high LDL cholesterol (the bad kind), and low HDL cholesterol (the good kind) all lead to heart disease. High blood pressure, lack of exercise, and smoking are the other main causes of coronary artery disease.
Diet also plays a role in cancer risk, especially since sugar actively feeds cancer cells. In fact, cancer loves sugar so much, one of the primary tests to determine cancer involves injecting the patient with glucose, and then using CT imagery to look for abnormal “clumps” of glucose, as this indicates the presence of cancer cells.
Healthy Diet for a Healthy Body
While a poor diet promotes poor health, a healthy diet promotes a healthy mind and body. This includes recommendations for a mostly plant-based diet, with whole grains, lean proteins, and low fat, but also pays attention to portion size.
The average person has little understanding of portion size. For example, a serving of lean protein is not a 12-ounce Porterhouse. A serving of protein is about the size of a deck of cards. Surprising serving size examples abound. A serving of mashed potatoes is one-half cup. A serving of fruit or vegetables is also one-half cup, as is a serving of ice cream. When determining the nutritional value of an item, you must note serving size to understand exactly where your calories come from (and even how many calories you actually consume).
Taking control of diet leads to a host of health benefits, and it’s one of the first things any doctor advises to help control chronic health conditions. Healthful foods strengthen your immune system, improve heart health, stabilize blood sugar, and help maintain a healthy weight. The result is lowered risk for all of the chronic health conditions detailed above.
Eat Real Food
When implementing a healthy eating plan, the first thing to do is increase the amount of real food you consume. This means dumping prepackaged, processed foods and replacing them with real, whole food counterparts.
|Fruits, vegetables, and beans||Fiber or vitamin supplements|
|Skinless chicken breast seasoned with healthy, flavorful spices||Breaded, deep-fried chicken strips or nuggets|
|Medium-sized baked potato with green onion and small scoop of sour cream||Bag of sour cream and onion potato chips|
|Fresh berries and yogurt||“Fruit” filled toaster pastries|
|A fruit smoothie||Ice cream or shake|
Small changes add up quickly when it comes to creating a healthy diet. Make slow but steady changes to diet to create new, lifelong healthy eating habits. For example:
- Add one serving of fruits and/or vegetables to every meal.
- When baking, replace half of the recipe’s flour with whole wheat flour.
- Replace animal-based protein with plant-based protein at least two meals each week; beans and lentils are high in fiber and phytochemicals.
- Use healthy fats, such as olive oil and avocado, which makes a great substitute for cheese or mayonnaise.
- Dump fast food and processed foods.
- Don’t waste calories with sugary beverages. If plain water isn’t appealing, try infusing it with fruit, berries, or cucumbers. You can also drink green or herbal teas (in moderation), and moderate amounts of real fruit juice and milk products.
Talk to Your Doctor
Between the Internet and well-meaning family and friends, there is a lot of misinformation out there. If you’re ready to implement healthy lifestyle changes, talk to your physician. He or she is your best source on healthy diet choices, as well as a safe, effective exercise plan to increase activity levels.