Updated February 9, 2016
One of the reasons why I became a dietitian is because everybody eats. I love the fact that I work in an area that anyone can relate to, unlike the way my eyes glaze over when my husband starts talking about software development! Since everybody eats, it seems like everyone has an opinion on food and nutrition, whether it’s your doctor, personal trainer, or even your best friend or your mom. Combine that with the nutrition information that’s readily available at our fingertips online, it’s no wonder many people question whether a dietitian can help them.
For some, however, the amount of nutrition information out there is overwhelming, and often contradictory or downright false. In some extreme cases, people feel paralyzed every time they sit down to a meal or go to the grocery store because they’re not sure if what they’re putting in their bodies is doing harm or good.
Instead of stressing out about “good foods” vs. “bad foods” (it sounds cliché, but it’s true – all foods fit in a healthy diet), I’ve developed what I call the 4 Foundations of Healthy Eating. While everyone’s eating patterns can always use some tweaking here and there, I find that when you plan and eat your meals with these four foundations in mind, then you are probably on the right track:
1. Eat every 3 to 5 hours, or at least three times a day.
Many are surprised to learn that my first foundation is not about what or how much to eat, but when.
Contrary to popular belief, this has nothing to do with metabolism and everything to do with managing hunger. For most people, eating every three to five hours means that you are eating three meals a day and possibly a snack or two in between. This gives plenty of eating opportunities for you to get all the nutrients you need.Small, frequent meals don't boost your #metabolism, they just keep you from getting #hangry. Click To Tweet
Waiting more than five hours often means that you are starving when meal time rolls around. The most common time of day where I see this gap is between lunch and supper – clients often tell me about how they get home from work starving, so they’re snacking while they’re making dinner, eating larger portions, or snacking at night. And the thing is, we tend to make less healthy choices at night – it’s common to be sitting in front of the TV eating chips and popcorn, but rarely do I see people who have chips and popcorn for breakfast.
On the other hand, grazing is not always healthy either – eating small amounts often can mean that you are taking nibbles of convenience foods that don’t fill you up, and/or you are not allowing yourself to experience hunger/satiety – your body’s natural signals for telling you whether you’ve eaten enough.
2. Choose minimally processed foods most often.
In a recent review of different diet plans and eating patterns, including low-fat, low-carb, low glycemic index and vegan, Drs. David Katz and Stephanie Meller concluded that while there is no single diet that’s better than another, “The weight of evidence strongly supports a theme of healthful eating while allowing for variations on that theme. A diet of minimally processed foods close to nature, predominantly plants (emphasis mine), is decisively associated with health promotion and disease prevention and is consistent with the salient components of seemingly distinct dietary approaches.”
While processed and packaged foods are convenient (and often tasty), they are often higher in added fat, sugar and salt, and stripped of nutrients and other healthful components compared to their whole, less processed counterparts. Of course, not all packaged foods are heavily processed, like frozen vegetables without any added salt, or whole grains that are sold in boxes or bags. When shopping or eating, think about where your food comes from and how close they are to their original state. Preparing most of your meals (versus eating out) will probably help you get the most information as to where your food comes from and the most control over how it is prepared.
3. Eat a variety of foods: aim to eat at least 3 of 4 food groups every meal (with one of them always being vegetables and fruit) and a fibre-rich and protein-rich food at every snack.
Canada’s Food Guide isn’t perfect, but for me, it’s a good starting point for encouraging variety in the diet. I recommend including a vegetable or fruit at every meal, as less than half of Canadians eat the recommended number of servings, and almost all of them are low-calorie, nutrient-dense foods. Whole grains or starchy root vegetables provide carbohydrates and fibre, while milk and alternatives or meat and alternatives provide protein.
Despite what the grocery store aisle might say, I don’t consider chips or cookies to be snack food. As I alluded to above, snacks to me are an opportunity to manage hunger and get in some needed fuel and nutrients. Choosing a fibre-rich food (vegetables, fruit, whole grains) and a protein-rich food (meat, dairy, eggs) is your best bet. For the best bang for your buck, legumes, nuts and seeds offer a little bit of both! Fibre and protein both help to slow digestion, helping you feel fuller for longer and keeping your blood sugar levels stable, which in turn can improve energy and mood.
While eating the same thing day in and day out can make meal planning easy, I do encourage variety so that you can make sure you’re covering your bases. Despite all we know about nutrition and food, I am sure there are still certain compounds in our food that researchers have yet to isolate and study, let alone know how they interact with the other foods we eat. If you’re looking to add variety in your diet, add a different vegetable in your salad, or swap out a different filling in your sandwiches. Over time, challenge yourself to try a new recipe or a new food every week. Don’t get too ahead of yourself though – trying too many new things at once can be expensive and overwhelming!
4. Stay hydrated.
Sometimes we get so caught up in what to eat that we forget to drink. While the adequate intake (AI) for fluid of 9-12 cups sounds quite high, this includes all fluids – water, tea, coffee, milk, juice, soups, as well as the fluid inherent in vegetables and fruit. Choose water most often as calories in liquid often come in the form of sugar, fat or alcohol, but without the same satiating effect or nutrients as you would get if you got them through solid food. (Think: if you had a glass of water versus a can of pop with a meal, you would probably eat the same amount, but the pop would set you back a few hundred calories and several teaspoons of sugar!) The best way to gauge hydration level is your washroom habits – if you are producing a good volume of urine several times a day and it is clear or lemon juice coloured, you are probably well-hydrated. If your urine is apple juice coloured or darker, then you should probably be drinking more!