Healthy eating can be tricky. Trying to figure out what to eat or avoid to improve your health, manage your weight, and still be able to have something other than salad for every meal can leave you feeling bewildered.
There are, however, alternative ways to think about food that go beyond a “good food vs. bad food” binary and can make crafting and sticking to a healthful diet much easier.
Just a few shifts in perspective can unlock a broad range of dietary options that both meet your nutritional needs and help you turn new eating habits into a sustainable lifestyle change.
Food Frame #1: Nutrient Density
The first shift is to move beyond thinking about foods themselves as “healthy”.
Many food products make questionable health claims to attract health-conscious consumers. But the hyped nutritional value of certain foods is often made possible only through heavy processing or additives. As a result, it has become harder for the average person to objectively distinguish healthy food from clever marketing. Consequently, they limit the diet to a small subset of foods like salads and fruit smoothies while omitting other foods that satisfy crucial elements of an effective nutritional strategy.
As an alternative to the “healthy” food label, “nutrient density” refers to food that provides a large number of required nutrients to the body for the average serving size. Nutrient-dense foods not only meet macronutrient requirements for providing protein, carbohydrates, and fats, but also provide considerable amounts of micronutrients like essential amino acids, Omega 3 fatty acids, potassium, vitamin D, phytonutrients, magnesium, and iron. The classification of nutrient-dense foods encompasses vegetables and fruits of all kinds, lean proteins, dairy, nuts and legumes, and whole grains, as well as more non-traditional foods like seaweed, nutritional yeast, liver, spirulina, and raw honey. With a variety of foods that provide a high quantity of nutrients creating the bulk of your dietary intake, you can eat a lot more than salad and still reach your health goals.
Food Frame #2: Insulin Response
A second paradigm shift is to consider your body’s insulin response to the food you eat.
Insulin is one of the body’s most important and complex hormones. In simplest terms, insulin regulates the amount of sugar, or glucose, in the bloodstream. When you eat foods that break down into glucose, the pancreas secretes insulin to remove sugar from the bloodstream and store it in the liver and muscle cells for later use.
Too much glucose in the bloodstream can cause headaches, fatigue, excessive thirst, and frequent urination. Too little glucose provided by the diet can leave you feeling weak and lightheaded and unable to perform strenuous activities. Additionally, excess amounts of dietary sugar can be converted and stored as fat in the body through a process called fatty acid synthesis, which is one of the ways through which sugar contributes to an expanding waistline.
However, there are also times when your insulin levels are naturally elevated as a result of certain types of physical activity, such as resistance training and high-intensity exercise. Eating carbohydrates during these times takes advantage of this natural “insulin window” and quickly replenishes the stored form of glucose in the liver and muscle cells for energy. What this essentially means is that an effective nutrition strategy doesn’t necessarily preclude any and all forms of carbohydrates and sugars. They can be useful in achieving your health and performance goals when properly incorporated into the diet.
For example, distance runners often “carb load” before a race and consume quick-acting sugars during endurance activity. Regular weightlifters often consume a significant portion of their daily carbohydrate intake immediately after a workout. An active lifestyle utilizing glucose-based foods for optimal performance can allow space in your diet for both complex and simple carbohydrates when accounting for the timing of insulin-spiking foods.
Food Frame #3: Satiety Quotient
A final food paradigm shift is to focus on satiety, the feeling of being satisfied and full after eating.
Not all foods are created equal with respect to curbing your appetite or for how long. So, if you’re watching your calories, you want to eat foods with a high satiety effect. That way you’ll feel full longer, have less appetite between meals, and be less likely to overeat.
Protein is the food group most associated with satiety. Therefore, including the required daily amounts of protein in your diet will help you maintain lean muscle tissue and reduce your chances of overeating. Fiber in unprocessed, whole foods also contributes to your satiety quotient after a meal. Conversely, highly processed foods of minimal nutritional value like chips, instant noodles, and some energy bars tend to have only a small effect on satiety, which can cause you to eat excess calories until you feel full.
Knowing that there are new ways of thinking about food and applying them to your eating strategy will shift your food outlook from a restriction-based approach to an exploratory one. Having a greater variety of foods to choose from while eating for health and fitness is key to a meaningfully nutritious diet and a healthy relationship with food.