Lord, thank you for the bounty of food that you have provided for me to choose from in planning a healthy diet. I understand the importance of proper nutrition in achieving and maintaining my health and appearance goals. Please give me the wisdom to plan healthy meals in advance and the discipline to stick to that plan.
Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.
Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.
It is critical to make sure that what you eat is balanced and nutritious.
There are countless different philosophies and approaches to diet and eating available today. Among them are low carbohydrate diets and high carbohydrate diets, restricted calorie diets, low fat diets and high fat diets, methods for combining foods, raw food diets, high fruit diets, rotation diets, low and high protein diets, and on and on. Some of these may have grounding in reason; others have little merit. You should learn as much as you’d like about food and nutrition, and spend time figuring out what approach suits you best. You can find an incredible wealth of information in books, magazines, and on the Internet. Be careful to limit your studies to reputable sources, and avoid fad diets and anything promising dramatic weight loss in a short length of time. (A good place to start is the “Resources” page of this website.)
Years of investigation and education are not required, however, to achieve a healthy diet. Below, you will find some common-sense basics that, for most people, would constitute a substantial improvement in diet and health.
Plan Your Meals in Advance
This is such an important point that it is worth discussing before getting to the specifics about what foods to eat. Few things will destroy your good intentions faster than waiting until mealtime, when you are already hungry, to figure out what to eat. To eat better, you must plan ahead. It is also a very good idea to prepare most of your meals at home, where you have complete control of the ingredients used and how the meal is prepared.
Make a full meal plan once or twice a week. How often you do this should correspond to how often you go grocery shopping. For example, if you grocery shop once a week, then before going to the store, get into the habit of planning out all of the meals for that week, including main and side dishes for each breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Then include all of the necessary ingredients for those meals on your shopping list. This will ensure that you will have a steady stream of well-planned meals throughout the week and that you are not grasping for ideas when mealtime approaches, which often leads to poor eating. Also, it will reduce unplanned and last minute trips to the store to get an item or two, which can result in unnecessary and potentially harmful “impulse” purchases.
Planning all (or even most) of your meals in advance may seem like a chore for the first couple of weeks, but you may soon find it liberating. If you keep your meal plans from previous weeks, you can revise and reuse them, mixing and matching meals for the upcoming week’s schedule. You can emphasize favorite meals, and take unpopular meals out of the rotation. Some families have one or more “anchor” meals that stay the same each week (such as Thursday meatloaf dinner), and use the other nights for variety. Some families reserve one meal each week (such as Saturday dinner) to try a completely new recipe. If you prefer simplicity and don’t require much variety, you can largely repeat the schedule each week with only minor alterations. However you approach meal planning, once you have gotten into the habit, chances are good that you will be very happy to leave behind the unhealthy, time-consuming, last-minute decision making about what to eat meal after meal.
Plan Balanced Meals
Balance is one of the keys to planning a healthy meal. The three main food categories in your meals are proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. These dietary components should be balanced as much as possible according to standard guidelines, such as those provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These guidelines suggest that 10 to 35 percent of your daily calories should come from proteins, 45 to 65 percent of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates, and 20 to 35 percent of your daily calories should come from fats. You can get an estimate of the number of calories you need per day using any of the free online calculators that account for your gender, age, height, weight, and activity level (as discussed in “Practice Moderation”). It is not necessary that each and every meal perfectly achieve this balance, so long as your total intake over the course of a day falls within these guidelines. However, it is easy enough to plan meals that follow the guidelines, and doing so will help to ensure that your daily food consumption is appropriate. As a very rough guideline, half of your meal should be carbohydrates, and the other half should be split between protein and fat. Within these three food categories, it is important to ensure that the specific foods that you choose are nourishing and appropriate, as discussed in more detail below.
Eat the Right Amount of Proteins
Approximately 10 to 35 percent of your daily calories should come from proteins. Our bodies are built from proteins, and the proteins that you eat are used to repair, maintain, and replace all of the structures in your body. Most people have a good understanding of the main sources of protein, which include meat, poultry, eggs, fish, milk, beans, tofu, nuts, and seeds. Grains and some vegetables can also be an important source of protein.
Very few people are in danger of eating too little protein (even vegetarians), and it is common in industrialized countries for people to regularly consume more than the recommended amount of protein each day. Eating too much protein, especially from meat, can result in consumption of too much saturated fat (the types of fat are discussed below). Hence it is a good idea to review your eating habits and make sure that your protein intake falls within the recommended levels. You should learn the appropriate portion sizes for the proteins you commonly eat, as well as the approximate calorie count for those portion sizes. This will enable you to make sure that you are not overeating proteins.
Eat the Right Kind and the Right Amount of Carbohydrates
Roughly 45 to 65 percent of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates. Carbohydrates, which the body converts into glucose, provide essential fuel for our bodies. Understanding carbohydrates can be a bit tricky, however. A wide variety of foods contain carbohydrates, including breads, cereals, grains, fruits, vegetables, milk, and sugars, but not all of these sources of carbohydrates are equally desirable.
The best types of carbohydrates are those that also provide other beneficial nutrients. Carbohydrates generally can be broken down into two categories: complex and simple. Usually, it is the complex carbohydrates that provide the best source of some other critical dietary elements, notably fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Examples of complex carbohydrates that also provide other important benefits include most fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole wheat bread, and other whole grains (such as brown rice, barley, millet, quinoa, and bulgur). Choose heavily from these types of carbohydrates to be sure that in addition to your energy needs, you are also getting enough dietary fiber and other important nutrients.
Simple carbohydrates include naturally occurring sugars such as those found in fruit, milk, and honey, and refined sugars such as corn syrup, fructose, sucrose, maltose, and dextrose (to name just a few). The naturally occurring simple sugars are preferable to the refined sugars because they also contain important vitamins and minerals (and fiber, in the case of fruits). A diet containing too many refined sugars has been associated with excess weight, diabetes, and hypoglycemia. (Note that more refined grains, such as white bread and white rice, lose much of their nutritional value beyond simply providing carbohydrates.)
In sum, try to make sure that most of the carbohydrates you eat are from the nutrient- and fiber-filled complex carbohydrate group. Having a small amount of simple sugars is acceptable, but most people could benefit from significantly reducing those. For the simple sugars that you do eat, naturally occurring is preferable to refined.
Eat the Right Amount of Good Fats
It seems like all dietary fat has a bad name theses days, but some types of fat really are better than others, and the good fats are an essential part of your diet. Roughly 20 to 35 percent of your daily calories should come from good fats. Here is a very quick primer on the types of fat, from worst to best:
Trans fat. Also known as “partially hydrogenated oils,” trans fats are the worst type of fat and you should try to avoid them completely. Trans fats are the result of hydrogenation, a process that turns liquid oils into solid fats. The resulting partially hydrogenated oils keep foods fresh longer and can improve texture and taste, but have the terrible heath consequences of increasing bad cholesterol (LDL) and decreasing good cholesterol (HDL). Food producers are now required to list trans fats on nutrition labels, so read those labels carefully and stay away from these bad fats. In restaurants, you can ask if food is prepared with partially hydrogenated oils, and you can either avoid those foods or ask that they be prepared in a more healthy manner. Be on alert for trans fats when eating things like fried food, baked goods, cookies, crackers, biscuits, margarine, and shortening. (Don’t worry; many of your favorite treats can be made without trans fats!)
Saturated fat. Saturated fats are found in a wide variety of foods, and if you are not mindful, it is easy to eat too much of this type of fat. Unfortunately, a diet high in saturated fats has been associated with chronic heart disease. Foods that contain saturated fats include butter, ice cream, whole milk and cream, fatty meats, high-fat cheeses, and coconut and palm oils (these oils are often found in commercially prepared baked goods). To reduce your intake of saturated fats, reduce your consumption of these foods, or choose low- or no-fat versions of them. With red meat, choose leaner cuts and remove visible fat before eating. With poultry, remove the skin before cooking.
Polyunsaturated fat and monounsaturated fat. These are also known as “unsaturated” fats, and they should account for much of your fat intake each day. Foods containing these “good” fats include fish (especially salmon), nuts, avocado, vegetable oil, olive oil, canola oil, corn oil, and flaxseed.
Remember that all fats, good and bad, are high in calories. Getting the required 20 to 35 percent of your total daily calories from the good fat sources listed above does not require that you eat a large amount of these foods.
Before each trip to the grocery store, recite the prayer at the top of this page. Then write a detailed meal plan for all of the meals between this grocery shopping trip and the next, including main courses, sides, desserts, and snacks. Follow the basic guidelines set forth above, and include all of the necessary ingredients on your shopping list. Do your best to stick to this meal plan. By planning ahead to eat well, you can maximize the potential of your diet and can sidestep the pitfalls of last-minute decisions.