For many people, a new year means a new chance to get your health on track. However, many people get caught up in trying the latest fad or detox diet. These inevitably lead to failure and guilt, and it starts again next year.
Instead of jumping on the diet bandwagon, why not try going back to basics? Eating well is very individual, but there are common elements that we all need to know about.
Why Do We Need Nutrition?
Many of us know we should eat well, but don't know why this is so important. The impact of good food and nutrition is a lot greater than many realize. Food has the power to energize, to repair and even reverse damage, in some cases. It can make us look good, feel good and work harder.
Nutrition is even more necessary in the current day and age, as we are exposed to more chemicals and stressors that deplete our nutrient levels. For the first time, humans are both malnourished and overweight at the same time.
Which Nutrients are Essential?
There are a number of nutrients that are considered essential. The main groups include water-soluble vitamins, fat-soluble vitamins, minerals, amino acids and essential fatty acids.
Water-soluble vitamins and minerals are often found in high amounts in plant-based foods. Magnesium and calcium, in particular, are found in dark, leafy greens.
Fat-soluble vitamins and essential fatty acids are found in higher-fat foods, including dairy, fatty fish, avocados, coconut products and oils. These nutrients are why low-fat diets are no longer considered the 'best' option for optimal health and well-being.
Amino acids can be found both in animal and plant-based foods. However, plant foods tend to have higher levels of fewer amino acids, which is why a variety of plant foods is recommended for the optimal intake of amino acids.
Another nutrient group that is growing in importance, as we realize its powers, is antioxidants. These protect the body from damage and aid the other nutrients in protecting and repairing tissues. They are found in a variety of foods, with different types found in different colored food groups.
Each of these nutrient groups is not easy to explain in just a paragraph! However, the key point is that a variety of whole-foods is the best way to cover your essential nutrient requirements.
Food vs Food-like Products
One of the main factors in illness and obesity in today's society is the over-consumption of food-like products. Food-like products are essentially foods that are processed excessively, to the point where you couldn't recognize the original ingredients.
Why is this such a problem? The main issue is that the more processed a food is, the fewer essential nutrients it will retain. Processing techniques remove the more nutrient dense parts of ingredients, damaging the delicate water-soluble vitamins.
Processed foods may also be high in nutrients that we don't need more of, such as sugar. A common example of this is concentrated and filtered fruit juice, which has much higher levels of sugar, and less vitamins, antioxidants and fiber than the original fruit.
Healthy diets focus instead on whole-foods, commonly recognized as 'ingredients'. These basic foods are exposed to far less processing, and as a result, retain more nutrition. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole-grains, nuts, seeds, fish, eggs and meat are all whole-foods that you may want to include.
What About Hydration?
When we think about diets, we're usually thinking about the food that we chew. However, equally important is what we drink, and how much.
Keeping the body hydrated is one of the simplest and most effective ways to stay healthy. Water is essential for almost every single body process, and it is in every one of our systems.
The best way to stay hydrated is to increase our intake of hydrating beverages, reducing the number of dehydrating beverages. So, what does that mean in real terms?
Firs, drinking more water is incredibly hydrating. It doesn't matter whether the water is ice-cold, room temperature or even hot, as long as you're drinking plenty of it!
Some beverages do dehydrate us, due to their diuretic or water-excreting effects. The most common are high-caffeine drinks, such as coffee and alcohol. These drinks pull water out of your cells and into your bladder for excretion, taking nutrients right along with them.
Does this mean you can't drink them at all? No, but it does mean that limiting them is best. If you do drink them, try to include a hydrating beverage after each drink to balance it out.
Remember, there is such a thing as too much, even when it comes to hydration. If you experience symptoms such as dizziness when you're keeping hydrated, make sure you're not overdoing it. The average person is unlikely to need more than 3 liters maximum per day.
How to Eat Well on Any Diet
There are dozens of popular eating styles around, and hundreds of others. So, how can someone eat well on their diet, no matter what their preferred approach may be? Try these pointers to ensure you're enjoying the best diet for you:
Go for nutrient dense food. Skip the processed goods wherever possible, and use ingredients as the base of your meals instead of pre-packaged foods.
Get plenty of variety. Even if you're excluding food groups for health or ethical reasons, you can still get plenty of variety. Vegans should aim for a variety of grains, seeds and legumes. Paleo advocates should ensure they consume a rainbow of colored vegetables and try different protein sources.
If it makes you unwell, skip it. Whether it's dairy, grains or a less common irritant such as pineapple, if you don't feel well after eating it, there's a reason. It may be a genuine allergy, or it may be an intolerance that a practitioner can help you to overcome. Either way, in the short-term, eating it will only leave you grumpy and inflamed.
An occasional treat is good. As long as 'occasional' is actually that, it can bring balance into your way of eating. You might choose to make a Paleo and vegan friendly dessert once a week, or maybe it's a pack of your favorite snacks once a month. If you can indulge occasionally without the guilt, it's a sign of a very healthy relationship with food.
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