Mention the word “diet” and all sorts of ideas spring into the mind. Simply put, the oldest definition of the word diet refers to habitually eaten foods and drinks. But the contemporary meaning of the word diet is almost synonymous with prescribed foods to serve a particular purpose like weight loss. Whichever is your definition, a healthy dietary pattern is a key component of a healthy lifestyle that improves your health and reduces the risks of chronic diseases.
Practicing a healthy dietary habit requires some clear guidelines that when followed will optimize your energy levels while meeting your nutrition needs. The basic principles of a healthy dietary pattern encompass six basic principles;
1. Balanced diet
A balanced diet provides all essential nutrients for the body to function well. A balanced diet is one way to feel great, increase energy, boost mood, and improve general well-being. A healthy, balanced diet incorporates foods from specific groups; quality carbohydrates, lean protein, essential fats, fruits, vegetables, and fluids.
Quality carbohydrate is the body’s major sources of energy that help fuel your daily activities. They are complex, meaning that they do not spike your blood sugar. Include in your meal complex carbohydrates such as whole grains that are rich in fiber, and starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, and legumes.
Lean protein is an important part of a balanced diet. Choose quality protein from animal and plant sources. Include fish, beans, peas and lentils, skinless poultry, soybeans, lean beef, nuts, seeds, and eggs.
Essential fats are an important part of a healthy diet. Fats are a good source of energy, help in the absorption of vitamins, and offer protection to the heart and brain cells. Sources of quality fats are avocado, olive, nuts, and seeds,
Fruits and vegetables are key components of a balanced diet as they are rich sources of fiber, vitamins, and minerals plus other phytonutrients necessary for a healthy lifestyle. They are low in calories and more filling meaning that they slow the digestive process and you remain fuller for a longer period.
Fluids are an essential part of human health as the body is made of approximately 60% water. Adequate fluid is important to help in chemical processes such as metabolism, breathing, sweating, and removal of wastes. Water remains the best source of fluid in the body.
2. Dietary adequacy
Refers to an adequate amount of food that meets individual energy and nutrients for optimal growth, maintenance, and repair of broken tissues and cells. Nutritional adequacy is key in promoting good health and preventing over or undernutrition as well as nutritional-related diseases like obesity and malnutrition. Science recommends including all groups of foods in your dietary pattern.
Major food groups include carbohydrates, protein, fats, water, vitamins, and minerals. Different food groups provide different nutrients and no one single food group can singly provide adequate nutrients. When choosing a dietary pattern, ensure that it is wholesome with varied food sources. Diet plans that withhold a whole food group will eventually lead to nutrient deficiency, increase food craving, and is likely to gravitate toward unhealthy food choices.
3. Calorie control
Calories are the energy content in the food you eat. Calorie requirement depends on gender, age, and the amount of physical activity. Generally, men require more calories than women while physical activity increases energy consumption.
When it comes to healthy eating pattern, sources of calories is equally important. The thermal effects of food metabolism are a case in point. Compared to other food groups, protein require more energy to metabolize compared to carbohydrates or fat and is less fattening. In addition, a quality protein is more satisfying meaning that you eat less but remain full for a longer time.
Evidence points out that when 30% of your calories are from protein, you end up eating 441 fewer calories while maintaining a better weight.
Calorie control dictates that you avoid food that increases your amount of empty calories. All food provides calories that are converted into energy in form of glucose. An empty calorie is a word used to describe food sources that increase the number of calories while containing very few nutrients. Highly processed foods are devoid of essential nutrients and when eaten only end up increasing instant energy that crashes after a short time. These spikes encourage the release of a large amount of insulin that creates insulin resistance, a condition that is likely to lead to metabolic diseases like diabetes, and heart diseases.
4. Optimize nutrients density
Nutrient-dense foods are the foundation of a healthy lifestyle. They are rich in vitamins, and minerals, are low in calories and contain healthy boosting micronutrients. To optimize nutrient density, include a variety of fruits and vegetables, choose whole grains, and select healthy sources of protein especially plant-based ones like legumes in addition to sea foods, low-fat dairy, and lean meat. Limit foods high in saturated fats, sodium, and added sugars.
Look for ways to intensify your nutrients-density. Including dark-colored fruits and vegetables in your food is a great way to start. Incorporating spinach, kale, broccoli, blueberries, blackberries, and beetroots in your vegetables and smoothies are one way to get that extra boost of vitamins and minerals. Increase the number of servings per day. We are often told 3-5 servings but adding an extra serving can only add more value.
Equally, you can maximize your nutrient density by limiting the filler foods. Potatoes, pasta, and crackers are examples of filler foods that are low in nutrients per serving. Instead, include a variety of fruits and vegetables, nuts, and seeds that make you fill you up with less. Try and build your meals around healthy food choices and decrease the unhealthy food options, highly processed foods, and refined carbohydrates.
5. Diversely your food choices
Choosing a variety of different kinds of foods is a key component of a healthy eating pattern. No single food group can provide all the essential nutrients required in a healthy eating pattern. It is advisable to eat a mixture of foods from all groups to meet daily needs and prevent micronutrient deficiencies associated with multiple diseases.
Even when you are on a weight loss journey, it is not advisable to neglect some food groups because no 1 or 2 food groups can satisfactorily provide all the nutrients required for a healthy body. Neglecting some food groups in favor of others only leads to inadequate diet and increases cravings and overeating which are counterproductive. In the long term, this type of diet is not sustainable and is associated with nutritional deficiencies and may predispose you to nutrient-related illness.
Surprisingly, dietary diversity that includes an abundant amount of plant-based foods that are rich in fiber has been known to encourage the growth of healthy bacteria. A healthy gut has potential benefits; evidence point to increased protection against obesity, reduced allergies and enhanced immunity. On the other hand, a low number of the microbiome (bacteria, viruses, and fungi) is associated with poor health and is a known risk factor for excessive weight gain and abdominal fat deposit, both precursors to chronic diseases like diabetes, hypertension, and some forms of cancers in both men and women.
To diversify your food selection, prepare meals with a wide range of colors. Choose foods with a variety of colors from red, yellow, green, orange, purple, and white. These foods are nutrient-rich, and flavorful and add texture to foods.
Choose foods from all the 3 macronutrients; Carbohydrates, protein, and fats. Always pair your carbohydrates with either protein or fat, it is more filling as well, ensuring a slow and steady release of glucose making you less likely to snack in between or overeat in your next meal. Adding a variety of fruits and vegetable provide a rich source of beneficial antioxidants and phytonutrients that are only found in plants.
Consequently, a healthy diet does not need to be too restrictive. Incorporate a variety of food sources even from the same food group because they have different nutrient components. For example, eating a variety of protein and fats increase the number of fatty acids and amino acids that have important functions in the body from cholesterol balance, cognitive health, and mood stabilization to connective tissue repairs. Including a diet rich in olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds, fish and full-fat yogurt increases the amount of omega 3 and monounsaturated fats that have important functions in weight loss, reduced risk of heart disease and inflammation.
Exercise healthy eating practices. Counting calories is a tedious endeavor that is not sustainable. Practicing portion control is a better option. Learn to eat food in small portions, take time to eat (mindful eating), cut down on unhealthy snacking, and restrain from emotional eating. Portion control when fully utilized forms good eating habits that become helpful when eating at home, out with friends, or when presented with multiple food choices. Learn to use smaller plates instead of large ones.
Practice the concept of a healthy plate, championed by Harvard Medical School. It is recommended that you serve half the plate with vegetables, a quarter plate with complex carbohydrates, and the other quarter with quality protein. This combination of food is filling, and nutrients dense, and you are unlikely to feel hungry for a long time.
Take caution when eating out of the home. Food served in restaurants is 2 to 3 times larger in size and more flavorful which can encourage excessive eating. Take precautions when dining out, for example, drinking some water 30 minutes before the main meal, serving more vegetables, and being choosy with your carbohydrates are some healthy practices to contain overindulging. As well, select your food wisely, and desist from tempting foods that are poor in nutrient density like cakes and sugar-sweetened beverages. Opt for whole fruits.
The same advice should be practiced when buying packaged foods. Read the ingredient list and note the recommended serving size. It is advisable to eat packaged food on a plate rather than directly from the packet because you may not stick to serving instructions.
Incorporating a healthy dietary pattern into your lifestyle has multiple benefits. It increases energy levels allowing you to be more productive and reduces the risks of most common chronic diseases like heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and some forms of cancers. Understanding the basic principles of healthy dietary patterns provides you with a structured approach to a healthy lifestyle.