You’ve probably been told since you were a kid that eating healthy is important. This means maintaining a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products.
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A healthy diet may seem different than you think. It’s not about alternating your favorite meals and snacks and then eating them every day. Instead, it keeps a variety of nutrient-packed foods in the cooking cycle.
“Focus on food groups that are full of nutrients, such as beans or vegetables,” says dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD. “Diversity is key. For example, don’t limit yourself to eating the same few vegetables; instead, challenge yourself to choose a different type of vegetable every day. You don’t want to eat the same specific foods every day.”
You may be wondering why it is so important to eat a variety of healthy foods. After all, if something is healthy, wouldn’t it be a good idea to eat it every day?
While this can certainly be true—for example, nutrient-packed fruits like blueberries are good for an everyday snack—there are very good reasons to mix things up.
For example, Zumpano notes that eating the same things on a daily basis means you’re more likely to lose important vitamins and minerals.
“You get more nutrients from eating a variety of foods,” she says, and notes that a good general rule of thumb is to try to eat food from “every color of the rainbow. These tend to have similar nutritional properties.” For example Foods rich in vitamin C are yellow, orange, and red.
Changing your diet can also help you stick to healthy eating. “Who wants to eat the same foods every day? That’s too boring, isn’t it?” Zumpano says. “And when you’re bored, that’s when your diet goes by the wayside.”
List of healthy foods
For a balanced diet, you will want to eat a variety of foods from the following groups on a regular basis. As an added bonus, these foods are also part of a heart-healthy diet.
Your parents were right: Eating vegetables is the key to a healthy diet. In fact, you can’t go wrong with piling plants at every meal.
green leafy vegetables
Green leafy vegetables are a particularly healthy option. Spinach, for example, gives you vitamins K and A, folate, magnesium, iron, and fiber.
“I keep a large bowl of organic spinach, watercress, and mixed baby greens or springtime mixes in my fridge at all times to add to soups, salads, rice, pasta, smoothies, and protein shakes,” Zumpano notes.
However, don’t be like “Popeye” and eat spinach 24-7. Mix things up. “You completely limit yourself by just eating spinach every day,” Zumpano warns. “What about all the other green vegetables? I also stock my freezer with frozen chopped kale or greens to use in a pinch.”
Fruits are also a mainstay of a healthy diet. But not all fruits are created equal. For example, mangoes are high in sugar, so you should share a mango or just stick to half a mango.
Berries are an excellent choice for a meal or snack. “Berries are low in sugar, compared to other fruits, and they’re very versatile,” says Zumpano. They’re rich in antioxidants — as noted, blueberries in particular — as well as vitamins and minerals. Meanwhile, blackberries are packed with vitamin C, folic acid, manganese, potassium, and fiber. Add berries to cooked cereal and dry whole-grain cereal, yogurt, smoothies, and salads.
Protein is essential for building strong muscles and bones, among other things. However, not all types of protein give you the same health benefits.
For example, animal protein contains higher amounts of cholesterol and saturated fat — both of which can lead to an increased risk of heart disease.
In contrast, plant proteins give you nutritious benefits without many of the downsides.
Soybeans like edamame are a great way to get protein. Small green beans are a good source of vitamin C, iron, potassium and fiber. You can eat edamame pureed for dipping or in its raw form.
A legume is a plant or seed of a plant. Legumes include dried beans and lentils. Peanuts are also technically a legume due to their shell. However, from a nutritional point of view, we classify peanuts as nuts due to their high fat content.
Legumes known as chickpeas are what’s known as a complete protein – they contain all nine essential amino acids – and they’re also a great source of fiber.
Dried beans and lentils are another great choice of legumes for packing protein. An easy alternative to meat when cooked – try it mashed into a burger or simmered in chili – it contains B vitamins, folic acid, soluble fiber, and a variety of vitamins and minerals.
Starches, or carbohydrates, provide the energy that keeps your body active. However, eating the right kind of carbs is important.
Sweet potatoes and regular potatoes have similar nutritional value. However, sweet potatoes are full of beta-carotene, calcium, and vitamin A, and they are surprisingly low in carbohydrates and calories.
Quinoa is a seed from a plant that has the properties — and health benefits — of a whole grain. It is not only a complete protein and full of fiber, but a good source of zinc and phosphorous. Try quinoa as a meat-free side dish or meal, mixing in vegetables for an extra boost.
Fats and oils
Fat is an essential component of a healthy diet. As with protein, the type of fat you eat is important. Consuming a lot of saturated fats, for example, is known to be a risk factor for heart disease and diabetes.
Omega 3 fats
Omega-3s are unsaturated fats that are essential for a healthy heart, brain, and eyes. Fish, such as salmon and tuna, are packed with these healthy fats, although experts caution be careful not to overeat seafood. Some types of fish are high in mercury, which is unsafe for children and pregnant and breast-feeding women. Zumpano recommends eating 4 ounces of omega-3 fatty fish twice a week.
Squirrels have it right – nuts make a great snack. Walnuts, for example, are rich in plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, as well as copper, protein and fiber.
Seeds aren’t just for birds. Chia seeds and flaxseeds are great sources of the plant form of omega-3, called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). These seeds are a delicious addition to salads and smoothies. Add 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed daily to cooked oatmeal, yogurt, and smoothies.
Not all cooking oils are good for you. In fact, many of them are very high in unhealthy fats. Extra virgin olive oil is an excellent choice for seasoning or cooking over low heat. However, avocado oil can be great for stir-frying and other high-heat cooking methods.
Healthy eating doesn’t have to be boring. Putting together a vigorous meal rotation, with a variety of healthy ingredients, can lead to both beautiful breakfasts and delicious dinners.