“I think I eat a pretty healthy diet,”
This is the answer you will get if you ask almost anyone if they eat well. But what really is a healthy diet? Is it a measure of the tastiness of your food? Or the amount of calories you eat? Is a healthy diet one that contains all the “major food groups”? And how do you choose which classification of food groups to go with? In case you didn’t know, the “major food groups are classified in different ways but different authorities. This adds further to the confusion.
Some classify the major food groups this way:
- Dietary fiber
This is probably the most common classification. It is further subdivided into macronutrients (nutrients you need in large quantities) or micronutrients (nutrients you require only in small quantities). Carbohydrates, proteins, dietary fiber and fats (and water) are examples of macronutrients while minerals, vitamins are regarded as micronutrients.
The Ideal Healthy Diet
Now let me come back to the questions: what is a healthy diet? It may come as no surprise that there is more than one answer to this important question. In fact, there may be several answers. So I want to change the question so that we can have only one answer. Even then, some may still argue that the answer can be multiple. That is still OK because a variation here and there may not make a great difference in outcome as long as the principle remains the same.
Here is the new question: what is the ideal healthy diet?
Here is my unapologetic answer.
The ideal healthy diet is: a plant-based, vegan, alkaline, low protein, high fiber, antioxidant-rich diet; devoid of processed foods, with no added sugar, no trans fats and low in salt.
This is a mouthful, for sure, but it is accurate. This is science-based. Several nutrition and medical research papers have been published establishing these principles. The important, even if rather obvious, point to note is that you cannot find this diet in most fast-food joints. You may not find it on the menu in your favorite local restaurant.
Let me go through the elements again and expand on them.
- Plant-based– recent research has demonstrated the supreme benefits of a plant-based diet. Not only for prevention of disease but even for reversal of certain chronic diseases such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes heart disease and chronic kidney disease.
- Vegan– isn’t vegan the same as “plant-based”?. Yes and no. You can have certain unhealthy foods which are vegan but not “plant-based”. If you are vegan and you are eating french fries and drinking soda to wash it down, you are not eating a good diet.
- Alkaline – Most of the enzymes in the body work best at a pH (acidity/alkalinity scale) of 7.35-7.45. This is because most enzymes in the body work ideally in this pH range cells and tissues work best in that environment. Most of the foods that are alkaline are fruits and vegetables. On the opposite scale, most of the acidic foods are foods from animal products such as meats, dairy such as cow’s milk and various cheeses.
- Low protein– Everybody loves proteins. And so they should because proteins are the building blocks of the cells that make the tissues that make the organs that make the organism (you and me)! But the importance of protein has been exaggerated for years. The daily recommended intake of protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight or 0.36 grams per pound of body weight. So an average sedentary man requires 56 grams of protein a day and an average sedentary woman requires 46 grams a day.
If a sedentary woman has an omelette (with 2 large eggs) and a glass of milk for breakfast, she will consume 24 grams of protein. An average large egg and a glass of milk have 8 grams of protein each. A lunch of a big Mac (26 grams of protein) with a side of large fries (4 grams of protein) will total 30 grams of protein for lunch. Assuming she buys some fried chicken on her way home from work, she may get a typical order with 2 thighs (31.9 grams of protein per thigh) and a drumstick (24.5 grams). Her dinner would have 56.4 grams of protein. All told, she would have consumed a total of 110.4 grams of protein in a day or 2.4 times her daily recommended amount of protein. High protein diets have been found to predispose to various health conditions such as kidney disease, heart disease and even an increased risk of cancer.
- High fiber– A high fiber diet helps lower cholesterol levels, gives bulk to the stool and helps prevent constipation. Preventing constipation is not just a matter of lifestyle improvement. Chronic constipation can predispose you to colon cancer. A high fiber diet may also help with control of diabetes and maintenance of a healthy weight. Foods high in fiber are almost exclusively plant-based. Vegetables of all kinds such as carrots, artichoke, broccoli, Brussels sprouts. Fruits like raspberries, avocado, apples and bananas can provide a decent amount of fiber. Another group of plant based foods that are high in fiber are legumes such as lentils, kidney beans, split peas, chickpeas. Grains like oats and quinoa will also provide a good amount of fiber and satiety in addition to the great health benefits.
- Antioxidant-rich– Recent research has identified free radicals as a cause of oxidative stress. Oxidative stress leads to inflammation and inflammation has been found to be the underlying cause of most chronic diseases. Antioxidants fight and reduce free radicals and so have the ability to reduce inflammation. The reduction in inflammation can lead to prevention of disease or improvement in the condition. The foods highest in antioxidants are vegetables and fruits. Another reason to eat a plant based diet!
- Devoid of processed foods– Food processing usually strips food of fiber and adds a lot of salt for preservation. Processed foods are sometimes highly refined so that a lot of nutrients are lost in the process. They tend to be high in sugar, trans fats and refined carbohydrates. Processed foods may contain artificial ingredients that may be harmful to the body. Consequently, a healthy diet should avoid processed foods as much as possible. Examples of processed foods include frozen meals, baked goods like cakes and pastries and even pizza, crackers and chips, instant noodles and soups, sodas and other sweetened drinks. Reconstituted meats especially can be harmful, such as fish fingers, chicken nuggets and sausages and processed ham. Bologna meat deserves a mention as a processed food that is quite popular. Together with other processed meats, this can predispose you to certain cancers such as colorectal, prostate and pancreatic cancer. In fact, the World Health Organization now classifies processed meats as a Group 1 carcinogen (known to cause cancer!). Interestingly, red meat is classified as Group 2A carcinogen (probably causes cancer).
- No added sugar – Everyone seems to have a “sweet tooth”. At one point or another we all crave something sweet in order to be satisfied. That is why God created fruits! (I think). Ideally we should get our sugar from fruits since the sugars in fruits are in balance with the rest of the nutrients. Adding sugar produces “empty calories” that can worsen or even help cause diabetes (even though all high calorie foods could potentially cause diabetes). Added sugar can also lead to weight gain as well as tooth decay. There is no nutritional value to added sugar except to increase calories. There have been some links of excess sugar to certain cancers. Research is ongoing but one thing that is not in dispute is that excess sugar can hasten the growth of certain cancers. It is important to remember that drinking sodas is one of the easiest ways to get unnecessary added sugar.
- No trans fat- Trans fat is manufactured by adding an extra hydrogen to vegetable oil in order to make the fat solid at room temperature. It extends the shelf life of foods. But trans fat is known to reduce HDL cholesterol (he “good cholesterol” and increase levels of LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol). Thus trans fat increases the risk of heart disease. If you see “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” you’re dealing with trans fat. Trans fat is found in foods such as chips, some baked goods, margarine, non-dairy creamer, cookies and some fried foods.
- Low salt – Salt is a necessary ingredient in our diets. But excess salt can contribute to health problems such as hypertension and an increased risk of stomach cancer.There is sometimes confusion as to the various types of salt. Is there really a “healthy” type of salt that you can eat without limit? The simple answer is no. Even the “good” salts- sea salt, Himalayan salt, Celtic salt, garlic salt all basically contain sodium chloride (as does the garden variety “table salt”) and should be used with care. The only salts that do not have sodium as a component are some “salt substitutes”. These often contain potassium chloride and may help lower blood pressure if used in place of sodium chloride.
But for those with chronic kidney disease (CKD), these salt substitutes must be avoided. This is because people with advanced CKD may retain potassium and so taking potassium based salt may predispose them to hyperkalemia- high potassium concentration in the blood- a dangerous condition which can lead to cardiac arrest. It is important to realize that too little salt is not good for your health either. But realize that most foods have some sodium in them without added salt. Foods such as beets, celery and carrots as well as some meats have a decent amount of sodium in them. Perhaps the best way to have enough but not too much salt is to use some salt in cooking but not add any at table and to avoid high sodium foods such as chips, pickles and commercial popcorn.
Healthy diet is For Life
The best thing you can do to keep yourself healthy is to eat a healthy diet all the time and not just when you want to lose weight. Eating healthy is a long-term lifestyle choice, something you need to do for your entire lifetime. We have laid out that an ideal healthy diet is in the preceding sections. In contrast, there is a diet that is popular but not good for our health. It is a diet that we have been led to believe from infancy through advertisements and frankly, propaganda. For instance we have been told that we need to drink cow’s milk for strong bones and teeth. Also to eat a good amount of protein in the form of lean beef or chicken and maybe a ìhealthy microwave dinner if we are on the go.
Unfortunately this diet is what has come to be known as the Standard American Diet or the SAD.
The question is: has the SAD made us healthier people? Are we better off as a nation because of it? Has the SAD led to a reduction in disease and death? With all of the advancement in medicine and health care; with the war on cancer dating back to the 70s; with the most advanced technologies available on the planet; why are diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and cancer still rampant?
The United States spent about $3.5 trillion on healthcare in 2017, representing 18% of GDP. Yet we are no healthier today than several years ago. Most of the chronic diseases are running rampant and increasing in prevalence. Surely, we need a new approach to our health. It is time to throw away SAD and substitute a healthy diet. It is time for the health authorities to emphasize a healthy diet as a means of achieving lasting health.
The secret to a healthy diet and a healthy life is living food with fresh vegetables, fruit, and green leafy salads. The secret to a healthy diet is eating an alkaline, high fiber, los salt plant-based diet devoid of processed foods and trans fat.
I hope I have given you something to think about and consider adopting. I have provided the principles of an ideal healthy diet. Adopt it to your own circumstance and go live the best life you can!
Until next time, ADIOS!