Eating for Wellness
Think beans, greens and grains as your go-to foods for the New Year.
Carbs, or no carbs? More protein, or less? Supplements, or no supplements? Answers to these questions seem to change from one week to the next depending on popular opinion and conflicting news reports about the latest study.
There are answers, however, and what you need to know about eating for wellness can be found in the evidence—sound scientific research on what makes us sick and what helps us stay well.
No Magic Pill
At the start of the New Year, the long winter months and threat of flu send many of us in search of a “superfood” to save the day and keep us healthy. But before looking for a quick fix, it’s worth beginning by considering how our immune system actually works.
The immune system is a very delicate and intricate system with many elements to keep in balance. Unfortunately, there’s no one specific aspect of a healthy lifestyle that’s been proven to directly affect immune function—no magic pill.
But every part of your body—including your immune system—benefits from your overall efforts to lead a healthy lifestyle. That includes efforts to stop smoking, manage weight, get enough sleep, increase fruit and vegetable intake, exercise regularly, drink alcohol in moderation, wash hands frequently and—oh yes—manage stress. Things we all know well.
In addition, it’s well known that as we age, our immune function can decline, leaving us at greater risk for infection and even cancer. Any time we miss a meal, decrease our food intake, or have less variety in our diet, we risk deficiencies in key vitamins and minerals essential to our immune system’s response.
Some of these essential nutrients include zinc, selenium, iron, copper and folic acid along with vitamins A, B6, C and E—all available in a balanced diet. Supplements should not be the first choice for getting these key nutrients, although they may be necessary in some cases.
To maintain your health, one of the best things you can do is to increase the variety of the foods you eat. Many of the key nutrients you may be missing are only needed in small amounts that are easily obtained from a varied diet. That means food, not supplements, should be your first choice, and may well be your best choice.
Food is Medicine
Foods that are plentiful in these essential micronutrients that too often are missing from many people’s diets—and key to a balanced diet—include whole grains, colorful fruits and vegetables, leafy greens, nuts and seeds, lean meat, fish and low-fat dairy products.
If this seems less like “news” and more like something you’ve heard before, that’s because it’s what science has found to be the core of a healthy diet aimed at optimal nutrition and disease prevention, and not the latest fad.
A good image to keep in mind for planning a healthy diet is the USDA MyPlate, a graphic that shows how to use the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans (in place of the Food Guide Pyramid).
The messages from this simple picture are clear—half the plate should include colorful fruits and vegetables, a quarter of the plate for whole grains (at least three servings a day), and a quarter of the plate for protein from lean meats, fish, legumes and other non-meat protein sources, and low-fat dairy (also, three servings a day).
This balanced way of eating is supported by all major health organizations, such as the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and many more. The Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) goes one step beyond the MyPlate guidelines, suggesting that all food choices come from plant-based foods. This move away from animal protein is gaining support from all medical corners due to scientific findings about the hazards of saturated fat for heart disease and cancer from a diet with too much fat and animal protein.
Eat the Rainbow–Three Colors at Every Meal
Let’s translate this advice into a few specific guidelines that are easy to follow. To do that, we’ll consider important food components we need to include every day to stay healthy and raise our chances of preventing many chronic diseases—such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and more.
One good rule to keep in mind is to have at least three colors of the rainbow at every meal. These colorful foods are generally going to be from the plant world, and that’s where we’ll find those elusive missing micronutrients.
Plant foods are where dietary fiber and much more is found. Getting 25–30 grams of fiber each day improves regularity, lowers cholesterol, helps control blood sugar and lowers overall risk for chronic disease.
Fruits, vegetables of all kinds, whole grains and legumes are plentiful in fiber as well as in vitamins A, C and E—our missing nutrients! These are antioxidant vitamins, meaning they ward off cell damage from invaders called “free radicals” that result from our environment, metabolism and smoking.
Fiber-rich foods are high in phytonutrients as well, substances found only in plants, not in vitamin supplements.
A good goal is to eat three or more servings of vegetables, two or more of fruit every day and at least half of your grains from “whole” grain.
You should also throw dark leafy greens in salads, pasta dishes and anywhere else you can. They’re loaded with the missing nutrients and help lower the risk of heart disease.
Try oats, brown rice, quinoa, faro and other grains for the whole grain part of your plate.
A word to the wise—if you increase fiber, increase water intake, too, to help fiber do its job effectively. Aim for at least six 8-ounce glasses of water daily in addition to other non-sugary liquids.
On average, we need about half our weight in grams of protein each day (if you weigh 150 pounds, that’s about 75 grams of protein). Protein is needed to maintain our muscle tissue, to support our immune system and help with other things such as wound healing.
Because animal protein contains saturated fats—a culprit in the development of heart disease—choose your protein carefully. Aim for two servings of fish each week for healthy omega-3 fat, poultry, very lean meat, and eggs or egg whites.
Consider one or more non-meat meals every week, such as stir fry with marinated tofu, soups or chili with legumes. Meatless Mondays are so popular restaurants feature weekly specials with meatless menus.
Dairy is also critical for protein, in addition to the calcium and vitamin D needed for bone health and lowering colon cancer risk and high blood pressure. Three servings a day of nonfat or low-fat dairy or plant milk or yogurt will do the trick.
Certain fats provide the benefits of reducing inflammation—the root causes of heart disease and many other inflammatory conditions—along with offering antioxidant protection. These “good fats” include the monounsaturated fats in olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds.
Good choices for these fats are walnuts, almonds, chia seeds and ground flax seeds—easy choices for snacks and adding to other foods.
So, what’s the bottom line on sound nutrition from scientific research? Preventive nutrition is all about incorporating into your diet plentiful sources of plant-based foods that offer all the protein, calcium, vitamins, minerals, fats and fiber we need.
Think beans, greens and grains as your go-to foods this New Year!
Julie Funk, MS, RD, CDE, LDN is the director of Community Health and Wellness at Chester County Hospital. She earned her Bachelors and Masters of Science in Public Health at West Chester University, where she’s also a professor for the Nutrition Department in the College of Health Sciences.
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