Over the last several decades, scientists and consumers have become increasingly aware of the importance of nutrition and a healthy lifestyle. Certain chronic diseases—like heart disease, obesity, and diabetes—can be directly linked to dietary factors. Furthermore, we now understand that the organs, tissues, and cells that make up your body are impacted by the foods you eat.
Understanding the field of nutrition gives you a blueprint for fueling and caring for your body, just like a mechanic would fuel and care for a car. Just so, choosing the right foods can lead to greater overall well-being.
In this guide, we’ll take a deep dive into the major components of nutrition and explore the critical elements to maintaining a healthy diet. We’ll cover macronutrients, micronutrients, phytonutrients, and much more.
What are Macronutrients?
You may hear people talking about macronutrients, or “macros,” when considering the type of diet they’re going to follow. Put simply: macronutrients are nutrients that your body needs in large quantities in order to function. The three macronutrients are carbohydrates, protein, and fat.
When macronutrients are broken down in your body, they either go to help build your tissues and cells, or they become fuel (also known as substrates) for energy production.
In this way, macronutrients are substances that contribute to your daily calorie intake.
What are Calories?
Each macronutrient provides a specific number of calories per gram, and when consumed, these calories become potential energy for your body that is either burned or stored.
It’s important to understand that calories are not measurements of weight but rather measurements of energy. For instance, when a food says that it has 200 calories, that’s a way of describing how much energy your body can get from that specific food.
When you consume more calories than your body burns in a day, the excess calories will be stored as fat or glycogen (the storage form of carbohydrates). This is an instance where you would gain weight.
On the other hand, when you burn more calories than you consume in a day, your body taps into stored energy in the form of fat and glycogen—and you begin to lose weight. This is why many people count calories.
Calories In, Calories Out Dieting
While this may seem like a simple equation for weight loss, unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. The “calories in, calories out” approach to dieting really only works when you can be absolutely sure of your energy outputs and inputs. However, the human body is incredibly complex, and each person will burn more or less calories every day depending on the state of their metabolism, hormones, and digestion.
Instead of focusing on calories in vs. calories out, a better approach is to learn how to listen to your body and make sure you’re feeding it with the nutrients it needs for optimal health.
So, let’s dive into the three macronutrients in more detail.
Fat is the most energy-dense macronutrient, providing nine calories per gram. The different types of fat are categorized by size and structure, with each playing several crucial roles in your body. This is why getting a variety of fats in your diet is so vital.
The Structure of Fat Molecules
Before we get into the different types of fat, we must first get an idea of the basic structure. It may feel a bit sciency, but this information will help you understand the primary differences between the many types of fats.
Fat molecules are composed of two parts:
- A glycerol backbone (which the fatty acids attach to) made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.
- Three fatty acid chains composed of carbon atoms and hydrogen atoms.
While the glycerol backbone is the same in each type of fat, the fatty acid chains vary in structure. Some may be long, others shorter. Some are saturated while others are unsaturated (more on this to come).
Now, let’s take a look at the breakdown of the different types of fat:
Saturated fat is linear in structure and is “saturated” with hydrogen atoms. Hydrogen atoms hold the fat in place, which is why this type of fat is so crucial for the structure of your cell membranes (the outer layer of your cells).
Although saturated fat has received bad press in the past, it’s actually a vital nutrient. Some of the essential functions of saturated fat include:
- Providing structure to your cell membranes
- Supporting immunity
- Regulating gene expression (a vital process for normal-functioning cells)
- Promoting calcium absorption
Fat is labeled “unsaturated” when one or more carbons on the fatty acid chain are missing hydrogen. This allows the carbons to bond, creating a space of unsaturation. Unsaturated fats are more fluid in nature, or you could say more flexible than saturated fat.
When fat is polyunsaturated, it means that there are two points of unsaturation on the fatty acid chain. The two types of polyunsaturated fats are omega-3s and omega-6s.
Omega-3s are known for a range of health benefits and are often identified as DHA, EPA, or ALA. Among their benefits, omega-3s:
- Reduce inflammation
- Reduce depression
- Support heart health
- Promote cognitive health
- May help treat autoimmune diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis
Omega-6 fatty acids are a bit more complicated. While omega-3s are known for their health-promoting qualities, omega-6 have both health-promoting and potentially health-harming qualities. Specifically, omega-6 fats in excess are known to be a source of inflammation.
However, this isn’t true for all forms of omega-6 fats, and some research is contradictory when it comes to omega-6 and its inflammatory activity. For instance, GLA is a type of omega-6 fat that research shows can reduce inflammation—and may even decrease the need for NSAIDs (anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen). GLA can be found in oils like evening primrose oil, borage oil, and black currant oil.
Regardless of the conflicting research, one thing is clear: For a healthy diet, you should aim to keep your omega-3s and omega-6s in balance.
If you’re looking for a number in terms of the optimal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6, unfortunately, there is no cut-and-dry answer. However, it’s suggested that humans evolved on a ratio of 1:1, and that ratio has slowly turned into an unfavorable 15:1 omega-6 to omega-3.
Since omega-6s are very easy to get in the Western diet (vegetable oils, nuts, seeds), you should do anything you can do to get more omega-3s (which we’ll list in a second), as they can be harder to come by.
Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA), also known as omega-9s, are similar in structure to polyunsaturated fat, except instead of multiple points on unsaturation, there’s only one.
Some of the most well-known benefits of MUFAs include:
- Lowered cholesterol
- Weight loss
- Improved insulin sensitivity
- Reduced inflammation
Most of the trans fat that you come across is man-made. In fact, only a very tiny percentage of trans fat exists in nature due to its production in the gut of some animals.
While the nutrition industry is full of contradictions, trans fat is the one nutrient that, across the board, everyone agrees has no place in the human diet. Most trans fats that you get from food come from the industrial processing of vegetable oils with hydrogen. This process yields a more solid form of fat (due to hydrogen saturation) but ultimately creates a structure that your body doesn’t know how to handle.
As a result, the consumption of trans fat has been linked to:
- High cholesterol
- Heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
How Fat is Broken Down and Metabolized
The majority of the fat you consume is broken down in your small intestine with the help of enzymes and bile. From here, it gets absorbed by your intestinal cells and then packaged into something called chylomicrons. These particles carry the fat through your lymphatic system before depositing fat through your body and into your blood to be used as energy or for cellular repair, or to be stored for later.
Of all three macronutrients, fat takes the longest to digest and doesn’t have a harsh impact on your insulin levels. This is why when you consume a meal that contains a lot of fat, it will often keep you satisfied for a long time.
Foods High in Fat
- Fatty meat like beef, pork, and lamb
- Coconut oil
- Palm oil
- Full-fat dairy products
- Flaxseeds (ALA)*
- Chia seeds (ALA)*
- Walnuts (ALA)*
- Algae like edible seaweed
*It should be noted that vegan sources of omega-3s typically come in the form of ALA, which then needs to be converted to DHA or EPA. This makes these sources inferior, as the conversion rate isn’t as strong as getting DHA or EPA naturally. However, one vegan source of DHA and EPA is algae, which is frequently taken in supplement form.
- Vegetable oils
- Sunflower seeds
- Snack foods*
*Many snack foods are made with vegetable oils that contain high levels of omega-6 fatty acids, such as chips, candy, roasted nuts, etc.
- Olives/olive oil
- Avocados/avocado oil
- Almonds/almond oil
- Sunflower oil
- Fried foods
- Non-dairy creamer
- Baked goods
*Since trans fat doesn’t occur naturally, you’ll find it primarily in processed, low-quality foods.
When you think of protein-rich foods, your mind likely goes to animal products like eggs, meat, and fish. Animal products contain the highest amount of complete protein (which we’ll get into in just a bit). However, there is a lot more to the protein story than meat and eggs.
From a calorie perspective, protein contains four calories per gram—less than half that of fat.
To understand protein more in-depth, let’s take a look at the structure of protein.
Protein is made up of smaller units called amino acids that act as building blocks. There are 21 known amino acids used in human protein synthesis, with nine of them being labeled “essential” because your body can’t synthesize them on its own.
This means that getting enough of these essential amino acids in your diet is crucial for the healthy function of your body.
Furthermore, amino acids play a variety of roles in your body beyond their incorporation into proteins; some examples include:
- Synthesis of hormones
- Build muscles
- Repair body tissues
- Support immune function
- Support mood
- Regulate metabolic pathways
- Act as energy substrates (provide energy for your body)
- Play a role in DNA synthesis
- Support reproduction
How Protein is Broken Down and Metabolized
Protein digestion begins in your stomach, where hydrochloric acid and the enzyme pepsin start to break apart the bonds that hold the amino acids together. From here, proteins and amino acids move into your small intestine, the site where the majority of digestion takes place.
A mixture of digestive juices and enzymes continue to work on the protein bonds until the amino acids are liberated (as free amino acids or as small complexes called dipeptides or tripeptides containing two or three amino acids, respectively). From here, the broken-down parts are absorbed into your bloodstream and then sent throughout your body to be used by your cells and tissues.
The breakdown of protein is faster than fat yet slower than carbohydrates. Therefore, when you eat a protein-rich meal, the contents may remain in your stomach for longer periods of time—allowing you to feel full longer. This is why eating enough protein is crucial for weight loss, as satiety is key to avoiding overeating.
Understanding the Concept of a Complete Protein
The phrase “complete protein” often comes with a bit of confusion. What exactly makes a protein complete or not?
Put simply, a complete protein contains all of the nine essential amino acids that your body needs. Examples of complete protein include meat, fish, eggs, and dairy. As you may notice, these all come from animal sources.
Incomplete proteins, on the other hand, are missing one or more of the essential amino acids. These include foods like rice, beans, seeds, and nuts.
To take the concept of complete proteins a step further, there is the PDCAAS score (Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score). The PDCAAS of a food evaluates the quality of the protein in terms of bioavailability. Bioavailability is a measure of how well your body is able to break down and utilize the protein you eat.
PDCAAS combines the amino acid content of the food and how well the human body can digest that food to absorb the amino acids from it. Some examples of foods that have a high PDCAAS score include eggs, whey, milk, and beef.
So, what does this mean for vegans that can’t get their protein from animal products?
This is where the concept of protein combining comes in. Protein combining offers a way for plant-based dieters to create a complete protein by combining two or more foods. The best example of this is rice and beans. Rice contains all the essential amino acids except one—lysine. On the other hand, beans are rich in lysine but deficient in another amino acid—methionine. Luckily, rice has methionine covered. Therefore, when you combine these two foods, the result is a complete protein.
Foods High in Protein
- Meat (beef, pork, bison)
- Poultry (turkey, chicken, duck)
- Dairy (Greek yogurt, cottage cheese)
- Seafood (fish, scallops, shrimp, sardines, shellfish)
- Hemp seeds
- Nuts and nut butters
Carbohydrates, like protein, yield four calories per gram. However, unlike protein, carbohydrates can offer an almost immediate source of fuel due to the way they are broken down (more on that soon).
Discussing carbohydrates is a complex topic due to the hot debate as to whether we should eat a lot, some, or none at all. Although you could find research to support all views, for the purpose of this guide, we’ll stick to what works for most people—and that’s consuming a moderate amount of carbohydrates.
However, more important than the number of carbs you consume is the type of carbs that you eat. Like fat and protein, carbohydrates come in different forms, and each carbohydrate type will impact your body in a unique way.
Different Types Of Carbohydrates
The basic building blocks of carbohydrates are sugar molecules. Therefore, carbohydrates’ structure and function depend on how many sugar molecules it has and how they are linked together.
Sugars, also referred to as simple carbohydrates, are made up of one- or two-sugar units. These are the most efficient carbs to use for energy as they can be broken down quickly and easily enter the bloodstream.
Fructose or sucrose are common simple sugars that you may see on ingredient labels, with fructose coming from fruit and sucrose representing table or cane sugar. Another simple sugar you may be familiar with is glucose. Although you won’t commonly see glucose on an ingredient list, biologically, this is the form that sugar takes when it’s going to be used as energy or stored for later in the body.
Complex carbohydrates are harder to break down due to longer, more complex chains of sugars. Any carbohydrate chain that includes three or more sugars is referred to as complex. In general, complex carbohydrates take longer to digest and break down. They have a low and slow impact on blood sugar, as opposed to simple carbs, which are more readily absorbed.
Foods in the category of complex carbohydrates include vegetables like spinach and broccoli and unrefined whole grains like rice.
Fiber is a type of complex carbohydrate that’s nondigestible. These types of carbs don’t act as energy substrates for your body but rather enhance the health of your digestion by encouraging healthy bacterial growth and making bowel movements easier.
There are two types of fiber—soluble and insoluble—with each having its own unique impact on your health.
Insoluble fiber absorbs water in your intestines, softening and bulking up your stools. It’s particularly helpful with improving regularity and is found in foods like beans, seeds, and vegetables.
Soluble fiber dissolves in water, making a gel-like substance that slows digestion. It helps to control blood sugar levels as well as decrease blood cholesterol. Fleshy fruit and oats are examples of foods rich in this type of fiber.
How Carbohydrates are Broken Down and Metabolized
As previously mentioned, carbohydrates are the most efficient source of fuel that you can get through your diet. This is especially true of simple carbohydrates, which can be broken down quickly and provide an almost immediate source of energy.
Carbohydrate digestion actually begins in your mouth, although most breakdown occurs in your small intestine. Depending on the size and structure of the carbohydrate, the process of breaking it down can happen rather fast (simple carbs) or take some time (complex carbs). The longer it takes for a carbohydrate to be broken down, the slower it will be absorbed into your bloodstream.
When carbs enter the bloodstream quickly due to rapid breakdown, it can result in a spike in blood sugar—much like what happens when you eat too much candy—and you feel a little buzzed. The problem is that a spike in blood sugar is followed by an energy crash, leaving your body in a state of craving for more sugar.
This is one of the primary reasons that consuming simple carbohydrates (simple sugar) can put you on a blood sugar roller coaster that makes it almost impossible to stop eating more sugar. In fact, the addictive nature of sugar has been likened to cocaine addiction due to the neurochemical and physiological processes that leave you begging for more.
Once the broken-down sugar molecules enter your bloodstream, they are either used for energy or sent to your muscle and liver cells to be stored for later. The storage form of sugar, called glycogen, provides energy during times of fasting (between meals and overnight) and when your blood sugar becomes low.
This back-up of sugar (glucose) also helps your body to spare protein and fat, as they would be next in line for breakdown if there wasn’t enough glucose.
The Glycemic Index
The glycemic index (GI) of food describes how much that particular food raises your blood sugar. This system can be used as a tool to help you understand which types of foods may send your sugar on a wild ride and which will provide steady energy.
Generally speaking, foods that are high in simple carbs tend to have a high GI, while foods rich in complex carbs have a lower GI.
Foods High in Carbs
- Fruit (berries, melons, citrus, etc.)
- Table sugar
- Maple syrup
- Agave syrup
Your body is around 60% water, and although it doesn’t contribute any energy to your body, water is considered the fourth macronutrient due to its vital role in maintaining your fluid balance.
Some of the crucial roles that water plays in your body include:
- Regulating body temperature
- Moistening tissues in the eyes, nose, and mouth
- Protecting organs and tissues
- Carrying nutrients and oxygen to cells
- Lubricating joints
- Helping to flush out waste products
- Dissolving nutrients to make them more accessible to your body
The amount of water that you need daily depends on your height, weight, and activity level. However, the general recommendation for water intake is:
- About 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) of fluids a day for men
- About 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) of fluids a day for women
With that being said, you can also get water through foods like fruits and vegetables and other beverages such as fresh-pressed juice and herbal teas.
What are Micronutrients?
Micronutrients are nutrients that your body needs in small quantities in order to carry out their essential functions. The two primary types of micronutrients are vitamins and minerals, although some people also package phytonutrients into this category as well.
With the exception of vitamin D and vitamin K2, all micronutrients are essential—meaning that you must get them through your diet because your body doesn’t produce them on its own. With that being said, many people are still deficient in vitamin D due to the role that sunlight exposure plays in its synthesis.
Let’s explore the three micronutrients in more detail.
Vitamins can be divided into two groups: water-soluble and fat-soluble.
Water-soluble vitamins are readily dissolved in water and easily absorbed by your body. They can be delivered to the tissues that are in need, but they don’t get stored in your body.
On the other hand, fat-soluble vitamins dissolve in fat and therefore need to be consumed with fat to be properly absorbed and metabolized. Once they enter your internal circulation, they are either sent to tissues in need or stored in fatty tissues. This means that you have to be somewhat careful with fat-soluble vitamins, as they can build up in your body to potentially toxic levels.
Broadly speaking, vitamins in both categories play a wide range of roles in your body to maintain vital functions, such as metabolism, chemical reactions, growth and development, cognitive function, immunity, and much more.
Below is a table of each vitamin, its primary function in your body, and which foods are a rich source of each nutrient.
Vitamin Deficiencies in The US
If you eat a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of whole foods, you should be able to get most of your vitamin needs met. However, a few vitamins tend to be deficient in the Western diet, namely vitamin D, vitamin C, and vitamin A.
You can check with your healthcare practitioner if you feel that you may be deficient in any of these vitamins, but increasing the intake of foods that are rich sources should be your first step.
Vitamin D deficiency is especially common in older people, as well as in those who live in areas where there’s not a lot of sunlight. Although your body can produce vitamin D on its own, you won’t be able to synthesize this vital nutrient without proper sunlight exposure. For this reason, many people find that vitamin D supplementation is necessary.
However, always consult with your doctor before starting any supplement regimen, as these vitamins taken in large quantities may interact with medications or result in toxicity.
There are a handful of essential minerals that you must get through your diet in order to maintain the function of your body. Minerals can be broken down into two categories: trace minerals (which your body only needs in small amounts) and macrominerals (which your body requires in larger amounts).
Here is a breakdown of the minerals, their type, how they support your body, and foods that are rich sources of each:
As you can see, minerals play a wide range of crucial roles in your body. Most of these nutrients are easy to come by as they’re abundant in our food supply. However, there are a select few that people tend to be deficient in.
Mineral Deficiencies in The US
There are four minerals that are considered “shortfall” nutrients per the Dietary Guidelines For Americans: calcium, magnesium, iron, and potassium.
All four of the nutrients play a wide range of crucial functions in your body, so it’s essential that you get enough of each on a daily basis for optimal health. As is true for vitamins, if you are concerned about a nutrient deficiency, work with your healthcare provider.
With that being said, consuming a diet that’s rich in a variety of whole foods—not processed—should be your first step in avoiding potential deficiencies.
Phytonutrients are compounds produced by plants that play a wide range of therapeutic roles in your body. Some examples include:
- Antimicrobial (kills bacteria, viruses, and fungi)
- Antioxidant (protects cells from damaging free radical molecules)
- Anti-inflammatory (reduces swelling or irritation)
- Antiallergic (relieves allergies)
- Antispasmodic (relieves or prevents muscle spasms)
- Anticarcinogenic (protects against cancerous cells)
- Anti-aging (delays cell death)
- Hepatoprotective (protects the liver)
- Neuroprotective (preserves nerve cells from damage)
- Analgesic (pain relief)
- Immunomodulating (self-regulating of the immune system)
One way you can identify phytonutrients is by assessing the color of the food, as phytonutrients contribute to the rich hues in plants like purple, green, yellow, red, and so on.
Although there are no dietary guidelines around phytonutrients, getting in a variety of these compounds will provide a breadth of support to every system in your body.
Below is a chart outlining specific phytonutrients, their color, the health benefits associated with them, and which foods are rich sources of each. This list is not exhaustive but gives a good overview of many common phytonutrients.
10 Tips for Healthy Eating
While there are hundreds of books on diet and nutrition—and countless named diets—there are really just a handful of concepts that you need to nail down to begin a healthy eating plan. The following 10 tips for healthy eating include all you need to know to set yourself up for a balanced diet sure to meet your needs.
1. Focus on Whole vs. Processed Foods
This difference is crucial to understand when it comes to healthy eating. Whole foods are packed with nutrients, fiber, and phytochemicals that your body needs to function.
On the other hand, processed foods are stripped of naturally occurring nutrients and often come with red flag ingredients (more on that next).
Processed foods have only been around for the last 100 years or so. Before that, our ancestors ate mostly whole foods with the exception of some breads and desserts. One easy way to assess whether food would fit into a healthy diet is to ask yourself, “would people be able to access this food 100 years ago?” If you’re looking at candy, a cereal like Fruity Pebbles, Gatorade, or any other highly processed food, the answer will be a resounding “no.”
Not to say that your diet must contain 100% whole foods, but the more whole foods than processed foods you can fill your plate with, the more nutrient-dense your meals will be.
2. Watch Out for “Red Flag” Ingredients
Red flag ingredients are those that are added to foods and impart very little to no nutritional value. These ingredients are often man-made in a lab or so highly processed that they’re devoid of any health-promoting properties.
Some of the biggest offenders include:
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils)
- Artificial flavors
- Artificial colors (Red 40, Yellow 6, Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3)
- Sodium benzoate (preservative)
One easy way to spot a red flag ingredient is to ask yourself, “could I picture this ingredient growing in nature?” If your answer is no, then you probably shouldn’t be consuming it.
3. Quality Matters
Quality is one of the most important things you can look for in your diet. You could eat two identical meals—one with high-quality ingredients and the other with low-quality ingredients—and they would yield astoundingly different nutritional profiles.
What the word “quality” actually means, however, can be different for everyone. With that being said, there are some tried-and-true guidelines around quality that pretty much everyone agrees on.
For Animal Products:
- Grass-fed (mainly for beef but sheep, bison, buffalo, deer, and elk also apply)
- Hormone- and antibiotic-free
- Free-range (specifically for poultry and eggs)
Many conventional farmers will feed animals a low-quality diet of grains and other ingredients that would never be part of their natural diet. This causes digestive disturbance and disease in the animals and yields less nutrient-dense meat and eggs.
By purchasing organic animal products, it helps to ensure that you’re supporting humane farming and that the animals you consume are being fed a diet that’s natural and healthy for their bodies. All foods labeled organic are also non-GMO, as genetic modification isn’t allowed in foods recognized as organic.
Taking it a step further, when the label says “grass-fed” or “free-range,” it tells you that these animals are allowed to roam and graze on the land, which gives them a higher quality of life.
It’s also great to see antibiotic-free and hormone-free on the package. Many farmers will give their animals hormones or antibiotics to help them grow and keep them alive when they’re in unsanitary living conditions. These ultimately get passed to you by consuming their meat.
For Plant Foods:
The primary concern for plant foods is to make sure they’re non-GMO and organic. Again, if you buy organic produce, it’s the two-for-one deal.
Many plant crops are sprayed with pesticides or grown in synthetic fertilizers that not only live on the outside of the plant but also seep into the soil and can become incorporated into future crops. When a plant food is labeled organic, it means that the soil it’s grown on has been synthetic fertilizer-free for the past three years, and there has been no spraying of pesticides.
For Packaged Foods:
When assessing the quality of processed or packaged foods, ask yourself the following questions:
- Can I pronounce all of these words?
- Can I imagine these ingredients growing or living in nature?
- Would my ancestors come across this food?
In addition, look for labeling such as “organic” and “non-GMO,” and don’t be fooled by marketing like “all-natural,” which really doesn’t hold any weight in terms of the quality.
4. Eat Mindfully and Slowly
Eating mindfully means paying attention to what you’re putting in your mouth, moment by moment. You may be thinking, “Yeah, I pay attention when I’m eating, obviously.” But the truth is that most people eat in a hurry, on the go, or while they’re fully engaged in another activity like talking on the phone or answering work emails.
When you eat mindfully, it gives all five of your senses a chance to process the fact that your body is consuming food. While it may not seem that important that you see what each bite looks like or notice the smell of the food you’re eating, these aspects actually have a physiological significance. In fact, there’s a term for the use of your senses while you eat called the Cephalic Phase Digestive Response (CPDR). When your CPDR is activated, you not only get to enjoy your food more thoroughly, but you’ll also digest and assimilate the nutrients contained in your meal more optimally.
You can think of mindful eating like an eating meditation. As often as possible, return to focused awareness of each bite you take. What does it smell like? Feel like in your mouth? What are the tastes that are present? Does it make any noise as you chew?
You’ll quickly notice that when you take the time to eat a meal mindfully, you become fuller faster, and you’ll be more satisfied when the meal is over.
5. Understand Food Sensitivities and Allergies
Food sensitivities and allergies are widespread, yet many people are unaware of how certain foods may be harming their health.
Common foods allergies include:
Food allergies happen when your body starts to respond to a specific protein in that food, which elicits an immune response. Allergies are much more severe than sensitivities or intolerances, as they can create a host of issues with immunity and may even cause anaphylactic shock. For this reason, you’re likely already aware of and managing any food allergies that you have.
Food sensitivities and intolerance, however, can be a bit more tricky. When your body is sensitive to a specific food, it elicits a digestive response, which can include stomachache, nausea, cramping, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation.
Food sensitivities can be due to the absence of an enzyme (such as lactose intolerance), digestive issues like irritable bowel syndrome or celiac disease, or psychological stress.
One of the best ways to assess whether or not you have any food sensitivities is to do an elimination diet. If you feel common symptoms like digestive discomfort, headaches, diarrhea, brain fog, or fatigue, you can try eliminating some of the most common foods that cause sensitivities and then slowly add them back one at a time.
It’s best to start with at least three weeks without a food before reintroduction to really give your body a break. And if a food is bothering you, you’ll likely know within a day or two after reintroduction.
6. Watch Your Sugar Intake
Sugar is one of the sneakiest ingredients because it’s added to almost anything you can think of: bread, ketchup, sauces, marinades, cured meats, protein bars, yogurt—you name it.
Unfortunately, this ubiquitous ingredient has been linked to a host of chronic diseases and is thought to be one of the primary drivers of inflammation in the Standard American Diet.
Aside from weight gain and obesity, sugar is thought to contribute to heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, autoimmune disease, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).
So how do you avoid it if it’s everywhere?
The best way to stay on top of your sugar intake is to read ingredient labels. Check the nutrition label on the back of your products and try to keep the grams of sugar per serving at five grams or fewer.
Luckily, many companies are starting to realize the detriments of added sugar, and sugar-free options for common foods like ketchup, jerky, protein bars, yogurt, and more are hitting the shelves.
However, one caveat to sugar-free products is to watch out for artificial sweeteners like sucralose and aspartame, which have been linked to potential neurotoxicity.
7. Don’t Go Hungry; Plan Meals Ahead
Without proper meal planning, it’s all too easy to grab whatever is convenient to snack on—typically, a low-quality option. Or, worse yet, you may forgo eating altogether in hopes that you’ll be able to hold off until you get a chance to eat something healthy, and then hunger takes over, where you then eat everything in sight.
When it comes to healthy dieting, balance is always key. If you go too long without food, you can almost always be sure that it will come back to bite you when you finally get a chance to eat.
Instead of risking a hangry episode, plan your meals ahead so you can feel safe knowing that you have healthy options at your fingertips. You would be surprised what a difference it can make when you put aside an hour or two a week for meal prep.
8. Variety is Key
Once you start eating more whole, high-quality foods, the next step is to make sure you’re introducing a variety of options into your diet.
A variety will ensure that you get a wide range of nutrients. For instance, looking for variety in the color of fruits and vegetables you consume will ensure that you get a range of phytonutrients.
Meanwhile, switching up your animal protein will provide you with different types of fats like omega-3s, saturated fat, and omega-6s.
Focusing on variety will also help you keep things fresh so you don’t get into a food rut. If you keep eating the same things over and over, you might end up getting bored and turning to lower-quality options for convenience and the thrill of it. While it’s absolutely fine to treat yourself to some pizza and ice cream once in a while, keeping your diet exciting with different whole foods will provide you with a much healthier option.
9. Stay Hydrated
As you learned earlier, 60% of your body is made up of water. However, all too often, when people try to improve their health, they only prioritize food without considering the essential role of hydration.
Keeping in mind that water is essential to many systems in your body—like the maintenance of body temperature, protecting organs, carrying nutrients to cells, and flushing waste products—maintaining proper hydration is crucial if your goal is optimal health.
10. Indulge Sensibly
One vital aspect of healthy eating that many people forget about is allowing yourself to indulge once in a while. The “perfect” diet includes not only satisfying your body’s nutrient needs but also satisfying your emotional and physical cravings. If ordering in a pizza is exactly what you need after a long stressful week at work, give yourself that.
When you deny yourself your favorite foods, it will always backfire, and instead of a few pieces of pizza, you’ll find yourself ordering two pies with some cookies for dessert.
Throw away the shame of eating foods that aren’t health-promoting, and celebrate the fact that your body has many systems in place to find its way back to homeostasis. As long as you keep your eye on the prize for your long-term health goals, a little cheat here and there is more than acceptable.
There’s a lot to understand regarding diet and health, but what’s outlined above gives you 80% of the story. You can further tweak your diet to optimize for your specific goals and needs, but use this as a strong foundation.
As a species, we are only just beginning to understand the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how the foods we eat can impact our health. However, what is clear is that eating similarly to how our ancestors ate with high-quality whole foods seems to work pretty well for the vast majority of people. And that’s a great place to start.
If you’re interested in understanding the primal and metabolism-shifting protocols of popular diets, we can take you on that journey. Check out our guides to Paleo and Keto.