What is the best diet?
As a nutritionist, this is the question I am most asked. "Should I be vegan or low-carb, what about keto or paleo? I hear gluten-free is healthier."
First things first, there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to nutrition. Many people are now experiencing chronic symptoms or may have already been diagnosed with a chronic condition. In these cases, it is extra important to view food as medicine and work with a health care professional to identify which foods can help manage or heal your condition. What may be healthy for you, may hurt someone else.
A good starting point is not really a diet at all, but learning to adopt a plant-forward, balanced way of eating that incorporates all food groups and puts emphasis on real, whole minimally processed food.
The thing with most "diets" is that they are not meant to be forever; and, most people don't want to spend their entire life on a "diet" anyway. It is imperative to learn how to eat in a way that is sustainable in the long term.
People often struggle for years - cycling in and out of new diets, restricting themselves then binging, eating in a way that brings no joy, trying extreme changes and failing... They may even manage to lose a few pounds or control their blood pressure but they probably did it in a way that made them miserable or when they do achieve their goal - they go back to how they would normally eat and find themselves back where they started because they never truly learned how to make healthy eating a permanent lifestyle.
The solution isn't to try yet another diet but to learn how to modify your current eating habits in a way that is do-able for you so that they align with your goals. We can learn to eat what we want every day yet eat it in a way that it is balanced and better for our health.
There are a few things we need to keep in mind when learning to eat in a more balanced way.
Learning to read ingredient and nutritional labels
Cooking at home, most of the time
Making better-for-you food swaps and food decisions
Making small changes at a time, rather than complete drastic overhauls
In this post, we will cover plant-forward eating. A plant-forward way of eating and cooking means that we primarily focus on and emphasize plant-foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans), nuts, seeds and healthy oils. We can still incorporate meat or animal products but it is not the main feature. If you want to eat steaks, tacos, burgers.. go ahead! But a plant-forward lifestyle aims to shift our focus and think plants first, then meat.
When it comes to meal planning, I think most people think of what kind of meat they will cook first and every thing else falls secondary.
We should start by loading up on a variety of different colored fruits and vegetables more than anything else. We should always strive to have a fruit and a veggie on our plate whether we are having eggs, pasta, chicken wings or a burger.
For example, for our super bowl feast, we had chicken wings and we balanced it out with a fresh watermelon feta salad, dates stuffed with goat cheese and carrot sticks!
Remember to vary your vegetables and fruit. Sticking to the same options can not only get boring but it can limit your nutrient intake. Different colored produce (and foods) offer different vitamins and minerals and, therefore, do something different for your body. Always picking the red bell peppers? Try green or yellow once in a while - or better yet - buy the assorted pack!
Be sure to serve yourself more fruits and vegetables than other food groups like meat or pasta. Like most Hispanics, I grew up with meals centered around a large plate of rice and meat. It was shocking to learn that half your plate should actually be fruits and vegetables whether you're a toddler, child, teen or adult!
Another important piece of plant-forward eating is choosing minimally processed foods and putting emphasis on "real" food.
Carbohydrates and grains have gotten such a bad reputation over the years. This is because the carbohydrates most people consume are in the form of highly processed donuts, cakes, enriched macaroni products (most of the "pasta" you find at the grocery store), white bread, fast food or frozen french fries, potato chips, etc. These kind of carbohydrates and grains hurt our health more than anything.
Refined grains (white) have had most of their nutritional value stripped and can be loaded with artificial ingredients. Choose whole grains over refined as often as possible. Whole grains include quinoa, brown or wild rice, whole grain breads, oatmeal and more. Whole grains contain more fiber, iron, protein, calcium and other vitamins and minerals than their refined counterparts.
Whole grain pasta and pastas made from quinoa, lentils, chickpeas, etc. also make great alternatives than enriched macaroni products.
Start to take note on what is real food vs a highly processed food. Fresh pasta is much different than what we find at the store. Similarly, freshly baked bread is a much healthier option than a white loaf you will find on the shelves. Why? Because it most likely contains fresh (real) ingredients and less chemicals, preservatives and artificial ingredients.
The good news is we can make almost anything ourselves in a healthier, less processed way. For example, we can buy fresh potatoes and make our own french fries. We can buy flour, eggs, sugar and fresh fruit and make our own muffins.
I know it may not be the most convenient or fastest way but at some point we have to decide that convenience is not worth compromising our health. If we want to reduce the risk of disease yet eat what we want, we have to be willing to make the effort to eat and cook in a healthier way.
Beans, beans, beans! Chickpeas, lentils, pinto, black, navy, green... there are so many to choose from!
Beans are a plant-food similar to meat in nutrients, but with no saturated fat; and because they are rich in fiber they are better for your digestion and help keep you fuller.
They can be easy to incorporate - throwing a can of chickpeas over your salad or into a pot of rice, making lentil or black bean tacos, adding pinto beans to a pot of chili... the possibilities are truly endless.
Don't underestimate nuts and seeds. These small but mighty plant-foods are loaded with nutrients and you don't need a lot of them to reap the benefits. They tend to be rich in iron, calcium, magnesium, protein, fiber and more.
Adding a tablespoon of chia seeds to your oatmeal or sprinkling sesame seeds over your stir fry is a quick and easy way to increase the nutritional profile of your meal.
What about meat and dairy?
It's not the cow, it's the how. Unfortunately, the way that most animal products are raised, handled, processed and prepared turn our fish, meat and dairy into something that is not so great for our health. (1) Which is why it is important to choose high quality animal products when possible. This can get expensive which is another reason plant-forward eating is more convenient. When we buy meat less frequently, we may then be able afford to buy a higher quality item which not only helps us save in the long run but it is better for our health.
Similarly, the rate and quantity at which we consume meat and poor quality animal products also negatively affects our health.
The serving size for a piece of red meat is 3oz which is about the size of our palm. Compare that to the piece of meat you would normally serve yourself. Compare it to the serving you would get at a steak house (6-10oz). Compare it to the patties that would come inside your burger at your local burger joint.
Overconsumption of meats has been linked to numerous health impacts including the risk of heart disease, obesity, stroke, increased risk of certain cancers, type 2 diabetes, increased risk of inflammatory disorders like gout and a shorter life span. (2,3,4,5)
Again, the kind of meat you consume makes a huge difference. Are you making a fresh burger patty at home out of lean ground beef or are you visiting a fast-food joint 3-4x a week?
Processed meats like sausages, deli meats, hot dogs and bacon are preserved by smoking or salting, curing or adding chemical preservatives. When these meats are preserved, cancer-causing substances form. These meats are actually recognized as Group 1 carcinogens by the World Health Organization along with smoking, exposure to solar radiation and alcoholic beverages. (6)
On the other hand, a diet rich in plant-foods can help lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes, prevent some types of cancer, lower the risk of digestive problems, have a positive effect on mental health and so much more. Our body thrives and relies on the nutrients that are found in plants yet most of us do not consume enough of them. (7,8,9,10)
It is important to note that plant-forward eating does not mean loading up on processed meat-alternatives. There has been a rise in popularity of foods that mimic meat, chicken, cheese, etc. While these can be fun, they should not be mistaken for healthier alternatives. They are loaded with artificial ingredients and preservatives, and should be treated as junk food.
However, there are meat alternatives that you can make from whole foods. For example, you can make a fresh burger patty out of chickpeas, ground meat out of walnuts or pulled pork using fresh or canned jackfruit.
I want to reiterate that simply reducing your consumption of meat and increasing the quality of the animal products you consume has great benefit over your health. You do not need to go vegan or vegetarian to eat in a healthy way. If you make chicken or ground beef tacos 3-4x a month, you can try using beans and veggies for the filling instead maybe 2 out of the 4 times. Instead of a meat lovers pizza, you can add fresh veggies toppings and have a side salad. (11,12)
We tend to fill up our plates with all kinds of meats and refined grains and then have processed sweets for dessert and leave very little room for plants. It is not a coincidence that more and more people are experiencing issues ranging from digestive to mental and going on to develop chronic diseases. Our propensity to sickness is a direct result of the food we are consuming.
The popular solution is to hop on a new, probably restrictive diet and try to lose a couple of pounds.
I am here to tell you that even when we choose to eat "bad," we can still eat "good" by getting creative and incorporating real plant-foods. It does take effort and it does take time to educate ourselves. It will require learning how to cook, spending a few extra dollars on quality and reading ingredient labels. But it does get easier over time. We are excited to launch this blog in hopes to make this journey easier and less confusing for the community we have built.