Nutrition can be very controversial and confusing…
- Should you count calories or ignore them completely?
- What about eating 6 small meals a day versus Intermittent Fasting?
- Is it best to eat like a caveman or rather trust the latest science found in shakes?
- Mediterranean, Low-Carb High-Fat, Paleo, Primal, Raw-Food or Vegetarian?
Often it can have you running around in circles and leave you feeling incredibly frustrated.
Rather than throwing your hands up in the air and giving up, I suggest you rather look at what some of the most successful and popular healthy diets all have in common and then implement that!
So here are some easy no-brainer steps to help you clean up your diet and start getting results.
1. Focus on food quality.
Most successful good-health diets opt for real food over food-like products as much as possible. It’s just an undeniable fact that real, single-ingredient foods are almost always healthier and more nutrient-dense than anything that comes from a factory in a box, packet, or wrapper.
There may be a place for certain food products in a modern healthy diet, but they are certainly not a central focus or frequent occurrences. When an unhealthy or less optimal food choice is chosen, the person isn’t made to feel guilty or ashamed – rather they accept and acknowledge the tradeoffs in food quality and then life goes on. They don’t “fall off the wagon”, they simply realign their route and keep going.
It’s a valuable lesson to learn that diets that encourage the consumption of plenty of shakes, protein bars, and manufactured products unfortunately almost always stand to gain financially and may have ulterior motives other than helping you live a healthy lifestyle.
High-quality wholefoods are great because they don’t have any confusing labels, hidden ingredients, or controversial opinions on whether they are healthy or not. They don’t need an enormous advertising budget and appealing marketing campaign to coax people into buying them – they just are healthy and that sells themselves to the healthy people who understand what good food is. Best of all, they can usually be bought in a way that also supports local farmers rather than large overseas food production industries.
2. Encourage nutrient-dense, high “bang-for-your-buck” foods.
Most successful good-health diets encourage the consumption of nutrient-dense foods rather than just empty calorie foods that are there to help you pass the time until your next meal.
These diets understand that food is not just “fuel” or energy, it is information that communicates with every cell in your body! For good health we need to consume enough 1) Micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), 2) Phytochemicals (non-nutritive plant chemicals that have protective or disease preventive properties such as flavonoids), 3) Zoochemicals (EPA, DHA, CLA, Creatine, Carnosine, etc), and 4) Water.
- Calcium helps us build strong bones and teeth, clot blood, regulate blood pressure, and maintain cell communication.
- Magnesium helps with protein synthesis, muscle and nerve function, blood sugar control, energy production, and the transportation of other minerals.
- Vitamin A promotes healthy eye function and helps prevent night blindness, keeps skin/hair/nails healthy, and helps ward off bacterial infections.
*You can look up any micronutrient on the World’s Healthiest Foods website database to find good sources of that micronutrient. For example the best sources of magnesium are pumpkin seeds, spinach, swiss chard, soybeans and sesame seeds: https://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=nutrient&dbid=75.
- Offer DNA protection against free radicals
- Protect against cancer
- Reduce blood pressure and increase vessel dilation
- Have neuroprotective effects
- Decrease risk of heart disease
- Neutralizes free radicals
*Phytochemicals are usually found in brightly coloured foods, as well as things like garlic, onions, leeks, and olives. See point #7 below for more information.
- EPA reduces inflammation and blood clotting, protects against heart disease, and may reduce risk of type 2 diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.
- DHA is critical for brain and eye development, and helps reduce things like schizophrenia, depression, and ADD.
- CLA helps to reduce body fat, builds lean muscle mass, and helps suppress cancer cell development.
*Zoochemicals are called that because they are from animals exclusively. EPA and DHA are found in cold water fatty fish and fish oil supplements, eggs, and common grass-fed animals. CLA is found in meat and dairy products, especially the grass-fed versions. Creatine and carnosine are found in animal products such as beef, pork, salmon, tuna, poultry, milk, and eggs.
3. Are low in added sugar and refined carbohydrates.
These days sugar gets added to just about every food product, ranging from biltong and bacon to creamed spinach and spiced pumpkin, fruit juices and milk drinks, cereals, breads, yogurts… anything and everything. For a reason: It is addictive and makes consumers consume more and more and more. And unfortunately for us, sugar is REALLY unhealthy.
Refined carbohydrates are usually grains that have has all their beneficial components such as the bran and endosperm removed in the refinement process, leaving not much else except starch and glucose. When you consume refined carbohydrates (very commonly anything bready, or made with flour that isn’t wholegrain) you are then consuming a lot of energy (calories) with almost no beneficial micronutrients that we spoke of above.
Without fiber, refined carbohydrates cause rapid spikes in blood sugar levels which results in cravings, overeating, and energy crashes. The link between refined carbohydrates and metabolic diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease is very clear and scientific studies have shown that link over and over and over and over and over again.
4. Are low in industrial vegetable oils and artificial trans fats.
Industrial vegetable and seed oils are a very recent addition to our diet (less than 100 years or so), and they are cheaply produced from things such as soybeans, canola, corn, and cottonseed.
One of the biggest problems with them is that they are highly inflammatory, containing a very high content of omega-6 fatty acids (of which most people need to consume much less of). You may have heard the common advice to increase your anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids intake by eating fish and taking fish oil etc.
Well the truth is that isn’t actually the quantity of omega-3’s that matters, it’s more the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 that we consume. Because omega-6’s are so abundant in the modern diet, it’s pretty much impossible to consume enough food and supplement enough to balance out that ratio. Instead, the most effective way is to decrease consumption of omeg-6 fatty acids while still eating a healthy omega-3 rich diet. The best way to do this is by decreasing your consumption of industrial vegetable and seed oils, as well as all the millions of food-like products that contain them.
Apart from that, there are many other reasons that these oils are not usually found in most of the world’s healthiest diets such as how they affect our cell membranes, contribute to systemic inflammation, toxicity, and increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
5. Avoid quick-fixes, shakes, gimmicks, fat-burners, and other weight-loss “products”.
This shouldn’t really need too much explaining after what has been discussed so far. These products:
- Generally use the cheapest and lowest-quality ingredients possible.
- Contain nutrient-poor or nutrient-depleted ingredients.
- As a result, are often fortified with micronutrients which again are the cheapest and lowest-quality possible leading to very poor bioavailability and absorbability.
- Typically high in added sugar and refined carbohydrates because it’s cheap and adds flavour.
- Also typically high in industrial vegetable oils and artificial trans fats because again it is cheap, easy ingredients to work, and helps to add desired volume/thickness/texture.
Those with the most long-term success in their health and fitness endeavours are those who have found how to make it sustainable in the long-term and have accepted that change and results take time. It becomes a lifestyle and quick-fixes are no longer attractive or desirable (or they have just learned better).
6. Are high in vegetables and fiber.
It is universally accepted upon that vegetables are healthy and the average person should be making an effort to include more of them in their diet.
Vegetables are high in antioxidants, beneficial micronutrients, and contain a great amount of useful fiber that helps to feed the good bacteria in our intestines for better digestion and gut health, increases fullness and satiety, reduces blood sugar spikes, and improves cholesterol.
7. Encourage eating a wide variety of food.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of eating the same food day in and day out, but the problem with that is it can greatly limit the nutrients that we take in which can lead to deficiencies and health problems. Eating too much of something too frequently can also lead to developing a food sensitivity and quite frankly it makes nutrition really boring.
Precision Nutrition have a great infographic on phytonutrients, showing the wide variety of vibrant coloured vegetables you should be eating to stay healthy and fight off disease.
According to them most people don’t get enough phytonutrients because they eat a very limited diet.
- Only 31% eat enough greens
- Only 22% eat enough reds
- Only 21% eat enough yellows and oranges
- Only 14% eat enough whites
- Only 12% eat enough purples and blues.
It’s a great idea to have a list of core meals and go-to foods as this can make life so much easier and less stressful when you don’t have to constantly think up new meals. However it’s very important to ensure that this list is diverse and well-rounded, with plenty of new/interesting side dishes and experimentations whenever you have the time.
8. Limit or eliminate sugary drinks.
You already know sugar is bad, but do you know just how much is actually in some of your favourite drinks? The MailOnline did a great comparison of the 15 Worst Sugary Drinks in Britain where they compared various everyday sugary drinks to their equivalent junk food.
- A single serving of white grape juice has as much sugar as 4 doughnuts (42g of sugar).
- A Lucozade sports drink has as much sugar as 2 Magnum ice creams (40g of sugar).
- A pomegranate, blueberries, and acai superfood smoothie has as much sugar as 3.5 doughnuts (34.3g of sugar).
- Strawberry flavoured milk has as much sugar as 11 Hobnobs (42g of sugar).
Studies have also shown that the brain doesn’t register liquid sugar calories in the same way as it does with calories from normal food, making it far easier to overconsume and still be hungry for more afterwards. A similar thing happens with alcohol. Have you ever noticed how you can drink 2 glasses of water and be stuffed, but can easily put away 6 beers or cokes in a short amount of time without breaking a sweat?
One of the biggest ways to blow your diet out of the water is to drink even just a glass or two of soda or fruit juice. Sugar may be the single worst ingredient in the modern diet, but consuming it in liquid form is even worse.
9. Limit or eliminate alcohol intake.
There is some evidence to show that moderate alcohol intake can have healthy benefits, especially in people that aren’t in the best of health.
However frequent and excessive alcohol consumption definitely does not make much of an appearance in any of the most successful good-health diets out there.
Apart from the fact that alcohol consumption can greatly impair your judgement (leading to over eating and making poor nutrition decisions) it is also actually a toxin and stressor on your body, especially your liver.
Chronic alcohol abuse and binge drinking is also linked with reduced brain cell communication, increased risk for dementia, depression, weight gain, cardiovascular disease type 2 diabetes, cancer, and birth defects.
Perhaps one of the most overlooked problems experienced by every-day people who consume alcohol even just in moderation is that it greatly impairs the quality of your sleep. This may seem counterintuitive because most people associate alcohol with helping them relax and making them fall asleep faster (which is true), but they are then more likely to wake up during the night and also not feel rested the next day.
10. A BONUS: They make you pay more attention to what you eat.
Just the act of tracking, journaling, logging, or writing down in some way what you are eating on a day-to-day or even meal-to-meal basis dramatically improves how healthily you eat and the success you have in reaching your goals.
What does this all mean?
The take-away from all of this is that if you don’t know where to start or don’t want to do anything complicated, then these commonalities are a surefire way to help you clean up your nutrition and start getting some results.
- Focus on eating real food.
- Think about what nutrients food might contain and opt for the ones that are more nutrient-dense.
- Cut the sugar and simple / refined / high-GI carbohydrates.
- Replace manufactured vegetable and seed oils, Margarine, Spray ‘n Cook, etc with butter, coconut oil, and extra virgin olive oil.
- Say no to quick fixes – put in the real work and you will get the real, long-lasting results.
- Eat more vegetables, every day.
- Don’t be boring with your food. Experiment, play around, try different cuisines, and make your plate as colourful as possible.
- Cut the sugary drinks (including fruit juice) – water doesn’t need to be boring, you can infuse pieces of fruit in it!
- Cut the alcohol or keep it to an absolute minimum. Spirits and hard liquor have less calories and carbs than beer, cider, and red wine.
If you want to take these lessons a step further, consider trying our 30 Day Reboot Nutrition Challenge that is designed to re-orientate you towards healthier eating habits and better overall health. All of the above tips happen to be incorporated into the Reboot already.