Did you know the term “natural” on food packaging is actually pretty misleading? The FDA’s policy does not extend to disclosing the use of irradiation, pesticides or even the manufacturing methods used in creating food products.
What does this mean? In the modern age, it’s difficult to know what the true meaning of eating healthy and “naturally” means.
We’re constantly bombarded with new types of diets and fad eating plans, and food labels that tout clean, natural eating but are still filled with processed sugars and unhealthy fats.
You’re here because you want to take charge of your life. The way you eat and what you choose to put in your body has a greater impact than you could ever imagine.
We’re here to give you the full guide to eating a nourishing, balanced diet that fuels you with the energy you need to thrive. Keep reading for all the advice you could ever ask for.
Making the decision to start eating well
The foods you choose to eat have the power to help you live a longer and healthier life. But where do you start? Before we go any further, let’s discuss not what we’re eating, but why, scientifically, we choose to eat the way we do.
Why we crave junk food
The sensation of food is a key player in why we crave commercial snacks, drinks and fast foods. But it’s not the only one.
We know that big food companies spend millions of dollars putting together a potato chip that has the ideal level of crunch. They will run countless tests to make sure the amount of fizz in a soda bottle is just right to get your tongue tingling. These elements combined create a particular sensation in your brain that furthers your desire to experience them.
However, the second major factor lies in the macronutrient composition of the food itself. With junk food, food scientists and manufacturers are looking for the perfect combination of sugars, salts and fats that excite your brain and keep you coming back for more.
The manipulation of food
We want to highlight three key factors that play into that impulsive desire to want junk food. Keep in mind, these are deliberate mechanisms used by major food corporations to get the brain (and stomach) firing.
At its core, the more food causes you to salivate, the more it will spread through your mouth and cover your taste buds. Good examples of this are butter, chocolate, ice cream and even mayonnaise and salad dressing.
Emulsified foods like the ones above promote that salivary response and give your brain a little happy dance every time you eat them. This is the reason people enjoy food with sauces and glazes, and it’s the same reason we almost can’t help reaching for that chocolate bar.
This is what we refer to as a rapid food meltdown. It’s when foods literally vanish or “melt in your mouth” when you eat them. What this does is signal to your brain that you’re not full and you’re not eating enough, when in fact, you’re consuming a significant number of calories.
Examples of foods like this are Cheetos and candy floss.
The density of calories
We’ve learned that junk foods have the unique capacity to make you feel you’re getting enough nutrition, but not make you feel full. Remember, food scientists are looking for a specific blend of macronutrients.
This is why.
Junk foods provide just enough calories in just enough variation to make your brain believe it’s getting energy from them, but they’re not filling you up. This means our brain wants more, and we tend to overeat when we’d otherwise stop.
The science behind healthy eating
We know good nutrition contributes to maintaining a healthy weight, good quality of life and better physical and mental health. But what goes on behind the scenes of healthy eating?
Nutrition isn’t a perfect science, but here are some things we’ve nailed down.
There is so much stigma around certain types of foods, all perpetuated by new diet trends and fads, when the reality is that some forms of nutrients and foods are not as bad for us as we’re being led to believe.
For example, we’re told to stay away from full-fat milk and cheese because they’re high in saturated fats. While it is true that they’re packed with saturated fats, they don’t necessarily deserve the bad rap.
According to a recent study, which involved 900,000 people and 29 different trials, the consumption of dairy was not connected to an increased risk of mortality, particularly surrounding heart disease.
In fact, according to the same study, they actually linked the consumption of cheese to a decreased risk of stroke and coronary artery disease, despite its high saturated fat content.
This seems counter-intuitive, but it’s been proven by science time and again. That being said, we should always eat anything in moderation.
What we’re implying here is that every nutrient has value and our body needs them all. We can’t cut one out because we think it’s not good for us.
Let’s take a quick look at the nutrients we need and we’ll expand on them later:
There’s obviously more complexity involved in how much of each thing you need, but for now, let’s have a look at what weight loss means in the pursuit of healthy eating.
Stanford University researchers conducted a study to see if a person with specific genetic features would lose weight more effectively on a low-fat or low-carb diet.
The outcomes were all over the place.
On average, people dropped around 13 pounds after a year, although the actual weight loss varied greatly. Some lose considerably more, while others actually gained weight.
The study ultimately didn’t provide any insight into which specific genotype would be associated with weight reduction on either eating plan.
On top of that, Harvard researchers expect that nearly half of the population will be obese by 2030. But it’s not all doom and gloom.
We know based on science and observation that when a person combines foods that work for them in tandem with an exercise plan, they can maintain a healthy weight that feels good to them.
Your diet needs to factor in several personal and environmental factors, including age, sex, ethnicity, lifestyle and medications. It is something that will take some trial and error, but speaking with a nutritionist will also help.
Each person’s path looks different, and what works for one person may not work for you. You could dive into the makeup of your microbiome, which is what’s going on in your stomach, or you could eat good, nourishing foods that fill you and fuel you.
Changing how you speak to yourself
One of the most significant things you can do to improve your health and wellbeing is to change the way you speak to (and about) yourself. Shifting negative statements like positive ones actually impacts the brain to a significant degree.
When we experience happiness and joy and even manifest those feelings in our minds, the brain creates serotonin in response to our positive emotions. This decreases cortisol levels, balances mental reactions and enhances creative thinking and intellectual adaptability.
The words you give to yourself frame your life. They grow your sense of empowerment and control. These words create a feedback loop, so we want them to be positive.
Let’s put this into a quick example.
You could say, “I can’t want a cookie,” which is about denial and stems from a negative place. If you reframe that to “I don’t want a cookie,” you’re telling your brain that you’re in charge, and this creates an empowering feedback loop of control.
Now, all of this can feel overwhelming and we’re not here to say that it is going to always be easy. You can set yourself up for success by creating a plan you can stick to and implementing that plan in small, incremental phases.
When we start small, our inherent resistance to doing the work is lowered. You don’t need as much motivation or willpower to get started.
You’ll find the process less overwhelming and your confidence will grow from that. The more you accomplish in these small phases, the easier it is to see your progress.
Creating actionable steps and plans
Building a plan for yourself does several things. It gives you clear direction and helps you define your short- and long-term goals. It helps you set milestones and celebrate when you’ve hit them.
An action plan also gives you the room to identify any resources you may need. This could be anything from some simple home gym equipment or a guide to eating locally grown foods.
For most of us, creating a plan with actionable steps is going to involve some change of routine, so let’s remove the fear associated with that. Change is scary, we know, but it’s often necessary.
Creating new routines
Changing your lifestyle is about forming new habits, and while habits are powerful, they’re difficult to create. Unfortunately, good habits are even harder to establish.
Setting up a daily routine that encourages healthy eating and living is going to be a bit of art and a bit of science. Science is about figuring out what you need to accomplish and art is figuring out when to do it.
There are several ways we can achieve this:
- Make a list
- Structure your day
- Schedule time for flexibility
- Test drive and adapt
Lists will help you plan and prioritize certain tasks, like grocery shopping and meal prep and a structured day gives you the space to achieve those tasks. That being said, we should always make a little time for things to change and deviate. No two days will be identical and while we can anticipate certain things, we should be prepared for any eventuality.
This is why you should never leave the house without a healthy snack!
Finally, your routine is going to need some tweaking. We say test drive and adapt, so do just that. Try it out for a week or two and see if it fits. If it doesn’t adapt it till it does.
Remember, though, habits take around 21 days to form (and stick), but pleasurable habits will inherently cement themselves faster. Make your routine a pleasure and you will have no trouble sticking to it.
Setting up a healthy environment
One of the best things you can do to create a pleasurable routine is to set up a healthy environment for yourself. Mitigate your risk of failure by fulfilling not only your base needs but your high functioning ones at the same time.
By high functioning, we mean your desire for change and variety, your inherent desire to want a treat now and then. Don’t rob yourself of these because you’ll only be miserable.
There are plenty of ways you can incorporate small pleasures into your healthy eating plan and still be more than satisfied.
Setting up a healthy environment doesn’t have to involve a lot of work. What it means is preparing the space around you for the days when you’re tired, stressed, and distracted.
When you’ve been worn down at work, you’re less likely to spend the time to prepare a healthy meal and workout. In these moments, you are most likely to gravitate towards the easiest choice.
Take the time to organize your office, kitchen and even workout spaces to guide you toward better choices, even when your drive and willpower are fading.
Expect the best, plan for the worst.
There are ways you can eat healthily without even noticing. Yes! It’s really true. You can apply these ideas to your own life and design a healthy and productive environment that accommodates small but meaningful changes.
Bigger plates inherently mean bigger portions. Practicing portion control is the number one factor in reducing your caloric intake. It’s often not what you’re eating, but how much of it.
A simple way to combat this is to use smaller plates. According to a study conducted in 2013 by Brian Wansink and his research team, if you served your dinner on a 10-inch plate rather than a 12-inch plate, you would eat 22% less food over the course of the year.
The best part? You won’t even notice.
Drink more water
Most of us are prone to mindlessly sipping on sodas and coffee throughout the day. While drinks like coffee and tea are not necessarily bad, if you’re adding sugar and milk to your drinks, you’re already consuming more than you realize.
Invest in a large water bottle that you can have close to you throughout the day. When it’s right in front of you, you’re more likely to opt for a sip of water instead of less healthy drink options.
An even better idea is to find a bottle that allows you to steep cold-brew teas or add frozen fruits. If flavor is what you’re missing from water, find ways to work around that.
Try to use plates that have a natural high contrast with your food. When your plate matches your food, you naturally serve yourself more because your brain can’t distinguish the food from the plate.
For example, dark green and blue plates are great for light foods like pasta and potatoes. This means you’ll likely serve less of them. While these colors don’t contrast with leafy greens and vegetables as much, we don’t have any issue with having more nutrient-rich vegetables.
Using space to trick your mind
Big boxes and containers catch our eyes more. They also take up more space in our pantries, so use this to your advantage. Keep your healthy foods in larger packages and containers where you can and place your less healthy options in smaller ones.
You’re also less likely to binge and eat a lot at once, and smaller items tend to hide away in our kitchens for months.
Display healthy foods
If you place a bowl of fruit or nuts near the front door or as you enter the kitchen, you’re more likely to grab that if you’re hungry and in a rush. We go for the easiest solutions in times of stress, and this calls back to our previous point. Set your environment up in a way that facilitates good decision-making, even in trying times.
The outer ring
This is a fairly simple concept that has a lot of power. Most grocery stores will have their frozen and fast food sections in the middle aisles. By sticking to the outer rings, you’re more likely to buy healthy foods.
In these areas, you’ll find your fruits and vegetables, lean meats and fish, eggs, and nuts. Think about your local store. How is it laid out? Does it follow this rule?
Holding yourself accountable
Willpower alone is rarely enough to keep you on track when it comes to losing weight or sticking to a diet. You need to hold yourself accountable for the decisions you make, whether you deem them good or bad.
This is going to involve a few key things that we’ll touch on here:
- Start with gratitude
- Keep a journal
- List a non-weight related victory daily
- Plan in advance
- Get a weight-loss buddy
- Avoid negativity and toxicity
If you keep a journal, you’re able to track what food you’re eating, your water intake, as well as your workouts. There are some great app options available for this, but the possibilities are near limitless for what you can keep track of.
Want to track your measurements and progress? Write it in your journal. You can even track how many times you resisted eating between your meals, which you can frame into a small victory.
Saying no to temptation
In that same vein, saying no to temptation is tricky, but if we take a previous point and change the way we speak about food, framing it to something more positive, we’ll find the process a lot easier.
Be kind to yourself and frame every decision you make through a positive lens. That bag of potato chips is not unhealthy, it simply isn’t nourishing. Having another serving of pasta can wait ten minutes to give your brain time to catch up.
Temptation often falls hand in hand with negativity, and for some, these thoughts need to be battled daily.
Know that your journey is your own and every positive step you take is an improvement.
Breaking down food
Let’s take some time now to dive into what you should be eating. We know we want to be eating a variety of foods because the brain craves novelty. Everyone has their own unique health needs, but we all function off the same base nutrients.
As part of a healthy diet, typical guidelines recommend particular servings of food from each of the five food groups. These are:
- Fruit and vegetables
- Starchy carbohydrates
- Fats and oils
Some food options fall into more than one food group, and we can be smart about how we choose our food. Let’s break this down even further.
Sources of protein
Protein is essential to any healthy diet, but you don’t need to consume animal-based proteins if you’re interested in following a plant-based diet.
We’ll list both options here, but know that it’s still important to be conscious of what each protein will do for you. For example, heavy red meats are a good source of protein, but they come with their own burdens. Opt instead for options like:
- Skin-free poultry
- Fish and seafood
- Greek yogurt and cottage cheese
- Nuts and seeds
- Legumes and beans
The most effective way to meet your daily protein needs is to eat small amounts at every meal, as the human body can’t actually store protein. Any excess will be excreted so only ends up being a waste.
Fruits and vegetables
As a baseline, we should all be consuming at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. The reason for this is that fruits and vegetables contain important vitamins and minerals that aid in preventing disease and keeping our immune system running. They also contain fiber, which keeps the bowels healthy, lowers cholesterol, and helps digestion.
It’s relatively simple to get your five a day if you spread your portions out. For example:
- Add fruit to your cereal or toast
- Fruit as a morning snack
- Try veggie soup for lunch
- Snack on raw carrots and cucumbers
- Always add vegetables to your dinner
There are plenty of resources online that can give examples of what a portion size is for each type of fruit, but for example, one apple, pear, or banana is a single portion.
Carbohydrates and starchy foods
Around a third of your daily calories should come from potatoes, bread, rice, and pasta. They’re especially important because they’re high in energy and critical nutrients like calcium, iron, and vitamins.
Starchy foods provide less than half the calories of fat, gram for gram. You can avoid adding additional fats to these starchy foods by avoiding too much butter, oil, spreads, and cheeses.
Easy ways to incorporate healthy carbohydrates into your diet are:
- Trying whole grain cereals for breakfast
- Sandwiches with wholemeal bread for lunch
- Wholegrain pasta or rice in your evening meal
Wholegrain foods are typically higher in valuable resources like fiber and minerals and take longer to digest, meaning you’ll feel satisfied for longer.
The proteins and vitamins in dairy and dairy alternatives are plentiful. Dairy and dairy alternatives are plentiful in protein and vitamins. They also include calcium, which promotes healthy, strong bones. Semi-skimmed, skimmed, and 1% fat milk are all lower in fat than full-fat milk, but they still provide protein, vitamins, and calcium.
Some good dairy and alternative options include:
- Cow’s milk and cheeses
- Goat’s milk and cheeses
- Almond milk
- Soy milk
- Oat milk
- Yogurt and yogurt alternatives
- Coconut or cashew ice-cream
There are a lot of health benefits to going dairy-free, but you want to make sure you’re still getting your key nutrients from your alternatives. Some plant-based milks are even an excellent source of protein, so be sure to check the labels!
Eat more healthy fats
While some fat in our diet is necessary, most of us consume far too much. Unsaturated fats found in plant-based oils like vegetable, rapeseed, and olive oil can help lower cholesterol and minimize the risk of heart disease.
We’ve got easy alternatives to unhealthy fats. Why not try eating these instead?
- Olive oil
- Fatty fish
There are healthier fats than others, but we should not indulge even these options to excess. Limit the fats in your diet and opt for healthier options where you can.
Limiting processed food
At its most basic level, any canned, cooked, frozen, packaged, or pasteurized food is considered processed.
There are plenty of processed foods you can (and should) enjoy, like frozen fruits and vegetables, pasteurized dairy, and canned vegetables (as long as the sodium levels are balanced).
Other highly processed foods are high in salt, sugar, additives, and preservatives, all of which are harmful to your health.
One of the most effective strategies to improve your general health and the quality of your food is to reduce your total intake of highly processed meals and foods.
It’s all about balance
This is about more than just making sure the nutrients in your diet are balanced. When we say balance, we mean that you still take the time here and there to enjoy a treat.
As long as you’re not indulging in excess, then you’ll be fine. You can have a slice of cake, just keep it relatively small. You can have a glass of wine, but the entire bottle is a lot of empty calories.
When you’re working with a diet, it’s about making sure you can keep it consistent and sustainable. Total denial isn’t healthy, and you’re more likely to fall away from your plan if you abstain entirely.
There are things you can do to make it easier for yourself, like meal prep and sourcing good ingredients, but remember that above all, balance is key.
Living in Raleigh makes it easy to eat healthy
No matter where you are in the world, there are always options for healthy foods and ways to make good lifestyle choices. Our focus today is what you can do in the Triangle area. Did you know Raleigh ranked as the healthiest city in North Carolina?
That means there are plenty of like-minded people around you who have the same goals and lifestyle plans as you. Whether it’s nature walks or fitness classes, there are means aplenty to get you going and keep you there.
One of the main things we wanted to address about eating well in the triangle area is the sheer abundance of farmers’ markets you can choose from. These are especially ideal because you’re supporting local businesses and eating foods that were grown with care and love.
This is a step up from the outer ring of the grocery store. Having farm-fresh fruits and vegetables at your fingertips makes the process of healthy eating a delight.
Why not include a trip to the farmers’ market on your next Saturday hike?
While you’re at it, check out the Triangle area restaurants near you for a special treat. Remember, you’re allowed to!
Helping your body work for you
A healthy diet will look different for everyone. What works for one person or group may not work at all for you. That is why it’s so important to make your own plan and stick to it.
Staying consistent and working with balance at the forefront of your mind is how you’re going to achieve your goals, whether they’re based on weight loss or a total lifestyle shift.
Our goal is to keep everyone fit and eating healthy, and we can’t wait to see what you do with everything you learned in this article.