The rise of social media and social sharing means that we’re more aware of the changes we should be making regarding our health. But part of that rise in health awareness means that we’re flooded with different ways to eat, exercise and live.
So what should you actually eat?
Rather than focus on specific “diets” (like keto, paleo, carb free), focus instead on the types of food that you’re putting into your body, the portions that you’re eating and the quality of the food you’re buying.
The Type of Foods You Should Eat
In 2011, the classic food pyramid that we grew up learning became a much simpler, more condensed version. The Choose My Plate graph broke everything we need to put into our bodies into five categories: Vegetables, Protein, Grains, Fruits and Dairy.
But there is a way to simplify that even further. When you’re creating your meal, focus on four key groups: Fiber, Fat, Protein and Greens. By approaching your diet with nutrients in mind rather than food groups, you’ll have more flexibility with the foods you choose for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Fiber is important because it normalizes bowel movements—which is important because your gut controls so much of the rest of your body. But it also helps maintain cholesterol levels, blood sugar levels and it helps you achieve a healthy weight.
Foods that are rich in fiber include:
- Brussels Sprouts
- Beans (Kidney beans, split peas, chickpeas, black beans, lima beans)
- Sweet potatoes
You may read the word “fat” and immediately think of foods that are unhealthy but, the truth is, there are certain foods that are high in fat that are actually beneficial to your overall health. Fat is a source of essential fatty acids, which isn’t something that the body can make on its own. These types of fats help the body absorb important vitamins like A, D and E, which keep your body balanced and healthy.
Foods that are high in “good” fat include:
- Dark Chocolate
- Whole Eggs (scrambled, hard boiled, fried—you name it—just make sure the yolks are in there!)
- Fatty fish (salmon and trout!)
- Chia seeds
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Coconuts and coconut oil
- Full fat yogurt
Your body uses protein to build and repair tissues, which means its important for the overall health of your bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and blood. It can also be used to balance enzymes, hormones and other body chemicals. Even if you’re a vegan, vegetarian or pescatarian, there are non-meat ways to introduce protein into your diet in a healthy way.
Foods that are high in protein include:
- Poultry (dark meat is higher in good fat, and it’s usually cheaper!)
- Lean Beef
- Potatoes/Sweet Potatoes
Greens are incredibly beneficial for your gut and immune system health. In fact, researchers have found that a gene that is essential for producing important immune cells respond best to leafy green vegetables. Plus, green vegetables contain a ton of antioxidants and other disease-fighting compounds to keep you healthy—and the high fiber is great for you, too.
Greens that are great for you include:
- Beet greens
- Collard greens
- Frozen peas
What portions should you be eating?
As an easy rule of thumb, make sure you get at least one of the above on your plate with every meal (including breakfast!). Rather than loading your plate up on the first helping, start small and see how you feel after you’ve cleaned your plate (or maybe you’ll get full halfway through!). Focus on filling your body rather than how much you’re eating of what. If you’re eating the food that is healthy for you, that is what matters the most.
In fact, studies have shown that calories don’t matter if you’re eating healthy. That’s because quality of food, rather than calories, impact your overall weight and health. For example, people who eat more foods that are high in antioxidants have lower BMIs, smaller waistlines and lower body fat percentages.
How to buy quality food on a budget
Here’s the unfortunate truth: It’s not easy or cheap to eat healthy. In fact, it’s a lot more convenient and affordable to buy fast food—but the larger cost and long-term impact to your healthcare expenses make it far more expensive to eat unhealthy versus healthy.
But there are ways to still eat fat, fiber, greens and protein on a budget.
First, buy generic brands when they’re available. Store brands usually offer more affordable options than name brand.
Second, buy cheaper cuts of meat. Boneless chicken thighs are much cheaper than chicken breasts, for example. Also check out the sales—like Manager’s Specials—for deals on meats each week.
For certain greens—like kale or spinach—shop the bulk produce section. Bulk kale and spinach is much cheaper than the bagged variety, and they tend to last longer if stored properly. Here’s a tip: Store your greens in a ziplock bag with a dry paper towel to keep the extra moisture out.
Buy frozen fruits and vegetables when available, because they’re usually just as nutritious than fresh. Plus, you’ll have the option of just taking out what you need rather than food going to waste.
Do the best you can with what you have
While there are general guidelines that you should work to follow to get the most nutrients and benefit from your diet, it’s important to just focus on doing the best you can with what you have. If you live in a food dessert, with less access to fresh produce, try to substitute with frozen fruits and vegetables. If you can’t quite make chicken thighs work on your budget this week, spend 90-cents on a dozen eggs for some added protein for the next two weeks.
If you need help navigating what your options are or what foods are the healthiest for you, we’re always here to help.