Since I started my own fitness journey, I have maintained a philosophy that when it comes to dieting, a "diet" is never the way to go. Having spent a year in Germany and time in other European countries, not to mention having worked in Spanish, Southern, Steak-house, and Italian restaurants, I have had way too many amazing plates to ever want to deny myself delicious foods.
Restriction has never been my thing. Rather, when I knew I had to make some changes to improve my overall health, I decided the best way to do it was to look at what I needed to add, not what I had to take away. Looking at the recommendations for fruit and vegetable servings alone from the old food pyramid, I realized that if I met my daily requirements I would simply be too full for a lot of the other junk I was eating at the time.
The food pyramid has changed over time, which can get a little confusing.
One thing that has remained constant is that a healthy diet will always consist of the following: Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein, and healthy fats.
Fruits: These poor guys have gotten a bad rap lately. Some popular lies include "Fruit has sugar and sugar is BAD!" and "Sugar shuts down fat burning so don't eat bananas or you'll never lose weight!" ENOUGH. What these so-called diet experts fail to address are the abundant vitamins and antioxidants you are missing out on if you skip out on fruits. Also, your body does not have an automatic switch that changes where it burns its fuel from based on what hits your tongue the moment you eat something. How your body burns calories depends on how fast or how slow you move, and how often. Simply put- if you have a fitness routine with varying exercises and intensities, your body will utilize both fat and carbohydrates for energy.
Vegetables: Luckily, veggies have been the golden child of just about any fad diet. Still, you hear about items that should be avoided because, like fruits, they contain "too much sugar". You also may have read things about never cooking or microwaving veggies because you will kill all the nutrients. True, for most fresh produce, the most nutrients are maintained in their raw. However, raw brussel sprouts are just gross. When making the initial leap to improve your eating habits, I say do what you have to do to get more veggies on your plate. If it means you have to take advantage of steam-in-the-bag peas or roast the hell out of some asparagus, then just do it!
Whole Grains: Yes, grains are carbs. Yes, some grains contain gluten. I'm going to be brief because I have spent a lot of time ranting about this in the past: Carbs are an important source of energy, especially instant energy. Gluten isn't really a problem unless you have Celiac Disease. That being said, YES, you need to get away from white bread. YES, you should limit carbs from cookies and cakes. NO, you don't need to eschew all grains because someone at some popular gym told you that cavemen only ate beef and spinach.
Protein: For a number of reasons, not everyone can eat meat or consume dairy. This is why I lump the meat/legume/dairy into one category. For most people engaging in an active, healthy lifestyle, you need about 0.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Endurance athletes and body builders may need more, from 0.5 grams to 0.7 grams of protein per pound. Besides keeping you full, protein is essential for building and repairing muscles and other body tissue. Base-chain proteins also provide energy and immune support. So take care to make sure you are getting complete proteins, which means if you are vegetarian, you have to do your research to ensure you get those proteins from a variety of sources!
Healthy Fats: Here is a little bit of information people really don't like to hear: Your body needs fat. Saturated fats naturally occur in animal products such as meat and dairy. While we should not consume too much of this type of fat, when balanced out with healthy, vegetable and fish-based fatty acids, it is an important source of energy for your body to tap in to. Unsaturated fats, such as those that come from olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds, contribute to lowered cholesterol and improved heart health. With exercise and a balanced diet, your metabolism will become quite efficient at burning calories from all of its energy sources, including fat. Fats are also essential for the absorption of certain vitamins (A, D, E and K), which is why trying to eliminate or limit fats entirely is actually bad for your health. So crack an egg, put a drizzle of olive oil on your salad, or even throw some flax into your smoothie if you like!
The 80/20 Rule: There are seven days in a week. So pick five days when you are disciplined and diligent about getting all of your servings from the major food groups. The other two are not a free-for-all, but give yourself a little room to relax. Establish healthy eating patterns and lifestyle choices and they will become habit. Crash diets and fad food plans only confuse the body temporarily but the second you stop, guess what? You're back to where you started. By following what I call the "Common Sense" plan, you can have some ice cream, or eat a hot dog, and not completely ruin everything you have been working toward!
So I say, ENOUGH with the food bullying. Unless you have a diagnosed allergy, there is no one food that will single-handedly make or break your efforts to improve your health or lose weight. Yes, you will have to consider adding foods that you overlooked in the past because they are what you would feed your dog under the table while Mom wasn't looking. You will have to get creative to get all the fresh produce your cells need to grow strong and thwart off illness. You may have to make room to swap out some of your guilty pleasures to make room for everything you should be eating. But don't worry, you can save some of those treats for your "2o%" days. As long as you maintain proper energy balance (stay tuned for more about that on Friday) you will see results!