When you’re trying to stay healthy and shed a few extra pounds, it’s natural to start looking at your diet as a way to help you get in beach-ready shape and live longer. And so you should, since decades of research has shown what we eat on a daily basis can play a huge role in keeping us fit and out of the doctor’s office. But pinpointing the necessary dietary changes that need to be made can seem daunting, especially when there is no shortage of talking heads who claim to have the eating solutions you need. Let us help!
Instead of saying you need to treat gluten like it’s cyanide or banish dessert from your menu entirely, we’d prefer that you focus on a set of more sustainable and research-backed eating pursuits that are more effective in helping you achieve any fitness and health goals. Start with these 10 eating habits that will put you on the path to your best body ever.
Eat the Rainbow
If you’re in need of some alone time, head to the vegetable aisle of your supermarket. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 1 in 10 Americans are eating the recommended 2 to 3 cups of vegetables each day. In general, men fair worse than women when it comes to eating broccoli and carrots. As a result, we are missing out on the health-hiking, fat-torching fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that veggies supply. To get what you need, work at including a vegetable presence in most of your meals and snacks, and that can even include breakfast.
Tomatoes can easily sneak their way into scrambled eggs, and shredded carrots add natural sweetness to oatmeal. When grocery shopping, aim to toss a rainbow of vegetables into your cart — the pigments that give items like bell peppers, eggplant and spinach their colors have strong antioxidant activity with differing health benefits.
Go Fish for Fat
By now, most people have heard that omega-3 fats are beneficial and good for their hearts. But few, and we really mean few, people are heeding the advice to eat more of them. A recent study published in the journal Nutrients determined that about 98 percent of participants fell well below the optimum 8.0 Omega-3 Index — a test of omega-3 fat levels in the blood. American subjects clustered in the 3.25 to 5.75 range, a level where people won’t reap the full benefits of these mega-healthy fats, which includes warding off early mortality from various diseases.
The best way to raise your omega-3 index for better health is to reel in fatty fish for your meals at least twice per week. The main swimmers especially rich in omega-3s include salmon, sardines, mackerel, barramundi, sablefish (black cod), herring, rainbow trout, arctic char and some species of tuna. Shrimp, tilapia, cod and pollock (sold mostly as fish sticks and fried fish sandwiches) are popular seafood options in America but are omega-3 poor.
Spread It Out
If you spend several hours every week working up a serious sweat, make sure you spread out your calories throughout the day instead of packing most of them into dinner. In a watershed study published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Metabolism, researchers found athletes who spent more time in a state of energy deficiency during a 24-hour period (in which their bodies were not obtaining enough calories to support training), experienced larger drops in metabolism and increased hormonal disturbances such as lower testosterone levels and higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol compared to their counterparts who spent fewer periods of the day in a calorie deficit. This is worrisome because it can hinder your ability to recover from workouts and build lean body mass.
Another study found that muscle protein synthesis was 25 percent higher among those who ate 30 grams of their protein at each meal — breakfast, lunch and dinner — than among those who consumed 10 grams in the morning, 15 grams at midday and 65 grams at night. Spreading out your protein intake gives your muscles a more consistent supply of amino acids to support recovery and growth.
The take-home message then — for improved fitness gains — is to better distribute your food intake throughout the day so you don’t leave your gas tank empty for too long.
Put Your Mind to It
Today, most people eat on autopilot, distracted by computer screens, smartphones or the need to wolf down a meal in a flash in order to get on with a never-ending list of tasks. But the perils of mindless eating are many: too much food eaten too fast, followed by belly bloat, pangs of guilt and a sense that you’ve just gleaned no joy from what you’ve eaten. Sound familiar?
This is why mindful eating is increasingly being promoted as a means to achieving a healthier relationship with the food we eat. With mindfulness, people are encouraged to tune into their thoughts, emotions and physical sensations during periods of eating as a means to making better food choices and recognizing signs of fullness to help limit gut-stretching overeating. Studies show that practicing mindful eating can help stamp out cravings for junk food, improve portion control of calorie-dense foods and reduce periods of emotional eating that can spiral into weight gain.
See also The Art of Being Present
There are several ways to practice mindful eating, but some good ways to start include avoiding distractions like watching television while eating, eating more slowly to give you a better chance to recognize satiety signals, and halting the practice of serving foods like granola and yogurt straight from their containers so you can be more mindful of appropriate portion sizes. Take a moment before you reach for a snack to ponder how famished you actually are. Do so and you’re less likely to misinterpret sensations like tiredness or emotions such as anxiety as true hunger.
Vary Your Protein
It seems that as long as you eat enough protein, you’ve got a good chance of building muscle regardless of where you get it from. A recent study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that among 2,986 men and women, muscle mass and strength were higher in those who consumed the most protein (1.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight), compared to those who consumed the least (0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight). But an interesting finding was that the body composition and muscle strength results did not change based on people’s dietary protein preferences.
A person getting a large amount of his or her protein from meat was benefiting as much as a person gleaning a larger amount of protein from plant-based foods like beans. In fact, there are numerous benefits that come with achieving your daily protein quota from a variety of sources. Dairy can offer up leucine, an amino acid that is especially effective at stimulating muscle recovery and growth, plant proteins such as lentils offer up a bonus of antioxidants and fat-fighting fiber, beef contains important vitamins and minerals like iron and vitamin B12, and seafood can give you not only high-quality protein but also those much-needed omega-3 fats.
As they say, “Variety is the spice of life.”
Break the Sugar Habit
In America, life is sweet all right — so sweet that about 17 percent of the daily calories in the typical diet hail from added sugars — sugars like high-fructose corn syrup, cane sugar and even honey that don’t occur naturally in food. Eating an overly sweet diet not only contributes to Buddha belly but also to a range of health woes. For instance, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that people who took in 10 to 24 percent of their daily calories from added sugar were 30 percent more likely to die from heart disease than those who consumed less.
A study in the journal Nature Communications suggests that sugar-heavy diets may stimulate the growth of cancer cells. And a report in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study revealed that high free-sugar intakes, considered to be sugars added to packaged foods like yogurt and cereal or to foods cooked at home, can coincide with lower intakes of several important micronutrients like calcium and magnesium.
See also 6 Tips to Tame the Sugar Habit
So if you want to hone a six-pack and live a long retirement, it’s a good idea to make your diet less sweet. Beyond obvious methods such as nixing the sugar-sweetened drinks and sugary baked goods, you can go a long way in scaling back your intake of added sugars by carefully reading ingredient lists of everything from yogurt to salad dressing to nut butters to tomato sauce on the hunt for sweeteners that manufacturers have pumped into the product. Studies show that after a few repeated exposures, you can retrain your taste buds to enjoy versions that are less sweet.
There is a lot of love going around for bugs these days. No, not the ones buzzing around us while trying to enjoy a walk in the woods but instead the bugs that make up our gut microbiome — the collection of trillions of microbes or bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract that the white coats are increasingly linking to a dizzying array of health benefits that go well beyond better digestion.
See also An Athletes Guide to Probiotics
A robust microbiome where beneficial microorganisms outnumber less desirable ones appears to play a role in everything from improved mood, trimmer waistlines and even improved immunity in people who exercise hard. To help fertilize your gut with more friendly critters, it’s a good idea to start including one or more servings of fermented foods into your diet each day. Options include yogurt (duh!), kefir, sauerkraut, miso, sourdough bread, tempeh, kimchi and low-sugar kombucha. So top your lunch sandwiches with sauerkraut or fiery kimchi, blend yogurt into postworkout shakes, and use crumbled tempeh as you would meat in dishes like chili and pasta sauce.
When you do eat your carbs, make them count by gravitating toward whole grains. A 2017 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study randomly assigned men and women to two diets of equal calories for a six-week period — one that included whole grains and one that included refined grains — to determine whether there would be any differences in energy-metabolism metrics. In the end, it was discovered the whole-grain diet resulted in larger increases in resting metabolic rate and stool energy content that translated into nearly an extra 100 calories a day being lost.
Over a period of several weeks, this could translate into significant fat loss. Whole grains such as quinoa, oats, brown rice and whole-wheat pasta require more work for our digestive track to process than items like white bread and white rice, which can jack up our metabolic rates and lead to fewer of their calories being absorbed. Containing a bundle of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber, whole grains have also been linked to various improved health measures such as lower blood pressure numbers and better blood sugar control. The upshot is that at least 75 percent of the grains in your diet should hail from those that are whole instead of being processed to within an inch of their nutritional lives.
It’s fine to drink a beer or two while watching the game or enjoy a glass of wine during a nice dinner, but it’s wise to limit how much you imbibe overall. A study published in The Lancet involving nearly 600,000 current drinkers found that about 100 grams of alcohol — the equivalent of 5 pints of beer or five 175-milliliter glasses of wine — is the upper safe limit for consumption on a weekly basis. More than that raises the risk of early death from things like stroke and heart failure. More bad news for craft beer lovers: An investigation published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology cites evidence that alcohol consumption can increase the occurrence of certain cancers. Moderate (one daily drink for women and two for men) to heavy drinkers (eight or more drinks a week for women and 15 or more for men) face a two to five times higher risk for liver, mouth, throat, esophageal and colorectal cancers, the report warns.
And don’t forget that alcohol is generally considered a source of empty calories, which shuts down the body’s ability to burn fat, leading to beer bellies. It’s worth noting that alcohol drinking on the whole, including high-risk activities like binge drinking, is on the rise in America among all segments of the population. So for the sake of your health and waistline, don’t be ashamed to be a proud teetotaller and grab a nice big glass of water.
Don’t Eat too Clean
“Clean eating” is a buzz term these days and means feasting mostly on whole, unprocessed foods like grass-fed beef, legumes, vegetables, nuts and whole grains. For the most part, this is exactly the type of nutrient-dense eating we should be embracing. But trying to practice spick-and-span dieting too diligently by eating only cauliflower “rice” and sweet potato “toast” and you may find yourself charging the cookie jar headfirst. Being too restrictive with your diet by eliminating all indulgent foods could backfire and lead to massive cravings. Slam the door on pizza, ice cream and chips completely and you could very well end up feasting on larger portions of these items than if you just ate small amounts here and there to satisfy cravings.
You don’t want to make sugary or calorie-laden foods like brownies and fast-food burgers a daily treat, but a couple of small portions during the course of a week can be enough to get your fix without upending your get-lean pursuits. One way to do so is by occasionally adding a small amount of a splurge food to an otherwise nutritious plate of grub. A Vanderbilt University study found that this “vice-virtue bundle” can trick your brain into thinking that the overall healthy meal is just as delicious as a meal that is dominated by indulgent items like cheeseburgers, onion rings and cake. A little bit of a naughty taste can bring about enough satisfaction to keep your overall healthy diet on track.