What is healthy eating?

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Dear Dr. Mo: How do we really define healthy eating? Where should I begin?

healthy eating means versatility in colours, shapes, sizes and tastes

healthy eating means versatility in colours, shapes, sizes and tastes

Dear reader: Healthy eating could mean different things for different people so when you hear or read that you should eat healthy, there comes a logical question – what does it mean for you?

En générale, healthy eating means choosing the right types and amounts of different food for your age, sex, activity level, health and of course, taste!

I have written extensively about food choices and types so explore my previous posts, some of which are here: Mediterranean diet, Importance of breakfast, Myths about healthy eating, Foods for a lower cholesterol, Eating healthy on the road, Fiber and health, Healthy foods etc.

So how to do it? How to eat healthy?

The general wisdom says that you should space your meals evenly, eating 3 – 5 times a day and eating smaller portions rather than larger, with the largest coming first (breakfast and lunch) and getting smaller as the day wears out – I am sure you have heard this one repeatedly.

While the portion size distribution (in terms of which size comes when) is not at all in question, there is another, emerging idea, which challenges the notion of ‘regularity’ and which says that asymmetric feeding is actually better in sync with our genetics and the ways in which our bodies have evolved – in an environment in which regularity was a rare occurrence and evenly spaced meals almost never happened.

According to this proposition, we should eat in irregular intervals – never allowing ourselves to get into any kind of feeding routine. I would only recommend not to starve yourself deliberately and skip meals when you actually feel hungry – listen to your body.

Similar propositions have been made for the ways in which we should exercise but that’s a topic for another post.

The asymmetric feeding as I call it, is still ways away from being proven or disproven but it is worth considering.

Whichever pattern feels good for you there are four rules of healthy eating to follow in broad strokes:

(Let me transform into a TV-style chef for a bit, to tell you about some cooking and eating recommendations)

1. Eat the recommended daily amounts of food for your sex, age and activity level

Fruits and vegetables: adults (19 – 50) female 7-8 servings, male 8-10 servings; adults (51 +) female 7, male 7

Milk/dairy and other alternatives to dairy: adults (19 – 50) female 2 servings, male 2 servings; adult (51 +) female 3, male 3

Grain products (at least half of it should be whole grain): adults (19-50) female 6-7 servings, male 8 servings; adults (51 +) female 6, male 7

Meat and alternatives: adults (19 – 50) female 2 servings, male 3 servings; adults (51 +) female 2, male 3

Of course, if you lifestyle is more active than average or if you think you have special requirements, you may wish to adjust these basic recommendations – talk to your physician to seek further guidance.

Quick tip: A serving of any food should roughly fit the palm of your hand although the palm sizes vary significantly from person to person (1 serving is usually up to 1 cup or it is a small to medium size fruit or vegetable).

2. Eat the variety of the right types of food from each of the 4 food groups

Fruits and vegetables – at least one orange and one dark green vegetable each day prepared with little or no added salt, sugar or fat

Grains – at least half of your daily intake should be whole grains like barley, oats, brown rice and quinoa

Milk and alternatives – choose skim milk with 1 or 2 % fat and have at least 2 cups (500 ml) each day for adequate intake of vitamin D and calcium; choose low fat cheese and yogurts as alternatives to milk

Meat and alternatives – beans, lentils and tofu are pretty good alternatives to meat you can have often. Eat your meat lean and prepared with little or no added fat or salt; you should trim all visible fat from meat and remove skin on poultry.

Roast it, bake it or poach it, as these methods require little or no added fat.

Try to eat fish each week; ideally at least two servings.

For pre-packaged meats always look for low sodium levels and low fat.

In addition to these 4 food groups, include a small amount – 30 to 45 mL (2 to 3 Tbsp)  – of unsaturated fat each day to get the fat you need. Unsaturated vegetable oils include: Canola, Flaxseed, Soybean, Sunflower, Corn, Olive, Peanut..

Try to limit butter, hard margarine, lard and shortening; soft margarines should be non-hydrogenated, low in saturated fats and contain ZERO tran-fats and you can check the labels for this information.

Here’s a quick cooking tip I picked up from one of those Iron Chefs: heat oil before frying to avoid food soaking up the oil.

3. Count your calories and limit foods and drinks high in calories, sugar, fat and sodium (salt)

It is not only what you eat but how much! Sometimes even the healthiest and leanest of foods can fatten you up if you keep eating too much of it.

Too much sodium is a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, kidney disease and stomach cancer and most of us eat more of it than we should, even without knowing.  An average adult needs about 1500 mg of sodium a day and maximum should never exceed 2300 mg so be aware of it, read the labels and figure it out. Remember that 5% or less of a daily value is a little and 15% or more of daily value is a lot for any nutrient including sodium so look for that on the labels.

Here’s a quick health tip: a healthy diet containing foods high in potassium and low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure (hypertension), a risk factor for stroke and heart disease (you’ll find potassium in dark leafy vegetables, dried fruits, fresh fruits like banana, orange, avocado and mango, orange vegetables such as pumpkin and other vegetables like potato and tomato)

4. Read labels on food products and compare them when choosing the right ones for you

Look for sodium amounts per serving, sugars, fat (both saturated and unsaturated), total carbohydrates, any added compounds such as preservatives, artificial flavors and colors, potential allergens (if you know of any allergies you may have) etc.

So I’ve given you here the lay of the land and it is now up to you to find the right fit for your lifestyle, taste and enjoyment.

Healthy eating comes in many different shapes and it’s never written in stone – experiment with what I’ve given you and stay away from diet fads, which promise fast weight losses and cut out entire food groups from your table.

Be flexible and not too hard on yourself – this is the only path to success in healthy eating.

Yours in health,

Dr. Mo