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It’s not always easy to know what to eat. Learn which healthy foods to eat every day and how to fill your plate to get the nutrients you need.
With so much information about different diets and what we should and shouldn’t be eating, it is easy to lose perspective on the basics of nutrition. It’s even more confusing when government agencies and conventional medicine doctors say one thing, while others refute their claims.
The one thing that most people agree on is that we should be eating real, whole foods. However, claims regarding how much and what types of whole foods are conflicting. It’s also important to remember bio-individuality–everyone is different, and what works well for one person may not work well for another. Since we can all agree that a whole foods diet with limited processed foods is a good baseline, let’s get into the details.
Macronutrients: Protein, Fat & Carbs
Macronutrients are the three nutrient types found in all foods that supply your body with energy. The macronutrients are protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Depending on the type of food, it will have a different percentage of each macronutrient. For example, animal meat provides us with fat and protein, while vegetables and fruit supply us mainly with carbohydrates, plus a little fat and protein. A balanced diet includes all three macronutrients, but how much protein, fat, and carbohydrates you eat depends on what you personally need.
The government’s recommendation for macronutrients varies from many popular diets. The FDA recommends a 2,000 calorie diet for all adults, with the following macronutrient breakdown: less than 65 grams of total fat; about 50 grams of total protein; and at least 300 grams of total carbohydrates. All of these together will comprise a 2,000 calorie intake per day.
These recommendations do not take into account bio-individuality. A twenty-year-old athletic woman will have very different macronutrient needs than a sixty-year-old man with a desk job. While 2,000 calories is a good baseline for many adults, calorie intake should be adjusted according to activity level and health status.
Fat and Protein
Many find that the government recommendation for fat and protein is too low, while the recommendation for carbohydrates is too high. But, again, it really depends on each individual person and the quality of the carbs consumed.
America is still coming off of the low-fat and lower-protein diet trend of the 1970s-2000s, when animal sources of saturated fat were linked to instances of heart disease (which we now know is likely not the case). More people are now recognizing the need for healthy sources of dietary fat and protein.
There has been no solid research showing upper limits for protein and fat. The general recommendation for long-term health is 0.8-2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, being sure to take your activity level, age, body composition, and health status into account. In addition, the World Health Organization has set no upper limit for healthy sources of dietary fat in their 2015-2020 guidelines; it’s best to eat to satiety.
Carbohydrates are very controversial at the moment! They rose in popularity once the recommendation for fat consumption was slashed in the 1970s-2000s. Carbohydrates and fat are our main sources of energy; fat is used as energy when it’s converted to glucose via gluconeogenesis, while carbohydrates are readily available sources of energy as glucose. Both carbs and fat are acceptable forms of fuel, and some camps advocate for low-carbohydrate diets.
Consuming too many carbohydrates per day can cause blood sugar dysregulation. On the other hand, it’s important to eat a wide variety of vegetables and some fruits. Some nutritionists recommend finding your own personal “carbohydrate tolerance” that works for you. Additionally, carbohydrates and plant foods are generally great sources of natural probiotics that are vitally important for our gut health.
A Clean Eating, Balanced Approach to Macronutrients
From a whole foods perspective, consider the following recommendations for a 2,000 calorie diet:
- 15-30% protein (0.8-2 grams per kilogram of body weight)
- 20-45% carbohydrates (depending on activity level)
- Fat to satiety
Micronutrients: What are they and how do we get them?
Micronutrients refer to the vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients present in food. Every whole food (vegetables, fruits, meat, and animal fats) contains micronutrients. Some foods are particularly micronutrient-dense, such as “superfoods” like cacao, berries, and liver.
In general, we cannot manufacture our own micronutrients, and our bodies require them in certain amounts through our food. Deficiencies in micronutrients can cause an array of health problems and can even be life-threatening.
The US government has a daily recommended intake for each micronutrient; keep in mind, however, that these are baseline recommendations to prevent deficiency and negative health effects. They are not necessarily recommended intakes for optimal health, which may be higher.
To ensure you are getting an adequate intake of essential micronutrients per day, eat a diet comprised of whole foods and make sure you’re digesting properly. You are what you digest and absorb, not necessarily what you eat!
You may choose to supplement if your diet is not nutrient-dense enough, depending on your tested nutrient status (obtained via a blood test). Most Americans should be supplementing. You can read more about recommended supplements for women in their 30s and recommended supplements for women over 50.
Healthy Foods to Eat Every Day
For a well-balanced diet, you’ll want to include the following foods on a daily basis. The ratio of each should depend on your individual macronutrient requirements.
Lean protein: poultry, bison, fish, eggs, legumes, etc. Lean protein provides you with essential amino acids and the protein necessary for satiety and growth
Healthy fat: grass-fed animal fat, eggs, nuts/seeds, avocados, olives, coconuts, etc. Healthy fats ensure optimal brain function, healthy skin, and happy hormones
Fruit: berries, stone fruits, bananas, apples, figs, etc. Fruit is an antioxidant and phytonutrient rich source of carbohydrates
Non-starchy vegetables: dark leafy greens, cruciferous veggies, onions, garlic, peppers, celery, cucumbers, squashes, etc. Non-starchy vegetables provide us with the majority of our micronutrients and fiber
Starchy vegetables or whole grains: root vegetables, potatoes, plantains, rice, quinoa, oatmeal, etc. Starchy vegetable and whole grains provide us with dense, energy-sustaining carbohydrates and a variety of micronutrients
How to Fill Your Plate
When in doubt, you can always just fill your plate appropriately. The following “formula” will get most people to an appropriate macronutrient ratio without worrying as much about counting grams:
- Protein: ¼ of your plate, approximately one palm to one hand
- Starchy carbohydrates: ¼ of your plate, approximately half a cup to one cup
- Non-starchy carbohydrates: ½ plate, approximately one to three cups
- Fat: about one to two tablespoons of added fat; less if your protein is a fattier cut, more if you have lean protein and cooked with very little fat
FAQs About Healthy Eating
How can I eat healthy every day?
It’s best to start from a baseline and adjust it to your individual needs. For someone new to healthy eating, focus on getting the majority of your calories from whole foods and avoid processed foods. Eat a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables to vary your micronutrient intake. Always have healthy food on hand, meal prep your own food, and rotate your favorite recipes. As I mentioned, I am a big proponent of taking supplements, too. See my recommendations for which vitamins a woman should take everyday.
What are the ten healthiest foods to eat?
What makes something one of the healthiest foods is somewhat subjective, but we can use the following guidelines when determining the healthfulness of food: healthy foods are generally nutrient dense; anti-inflammatory; easily digestible, and provides stable energy.
Here are ten foods that meet those criteria:
Berries are full of antioxidants, fiber, and nutrients and have a low glycemic impact.
2. Dark leafy greens
Dark leafy greens are packed with antioxidants, fiber, and nutrients. They’re especially high in Vitamin K, magnesium, and folate.
3. Wild-caught cold-water fish
Appropriately sourced oily, cold-water fish is one of the densest sources of Omega-3 fatty acids and it also is a good source of protein.
Grass-fed liver and other organ meats provide high levels of nutrients that are difficult to find in such concentrated amounts elsewhere, such as Vitamin A in the form of retinol.
Though they’re higher in sugar than berries, plantains pack a nutrient punch with high levels of potassium, Vitamin C, and Vitamin B6.
7. Sweet potatoes
Orange sweet potatoes, yams, and purple sweet potatoes are full of antioxidants and contain high levels of B vitamins and beta carotene.
8. Cruciferous vegetables
This class of vegetables includes broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and others. They’re high in phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals, and contain the anti-cancer agent sulforaphane.
9. Nuts and seeds
While nuts and seeds may be more difficult for some to digest, they’re true nutrient powerhouses. Nuts and seeds are high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats and contain high levels of phytonutrients, antioxidants, and other vitamins and minerals. Nuts also contain protein.
10. Avocados and olives
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