Making nutritious food choices is like building a savings account for your health.
Good dietary “investments” help keep your gut, brain, heart, and other organs healthy. They also help reduce your risk of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic conditions. (1)
But how do you know which foods are wise investments? For instance, should you go keto, paleo, or vegan? With the hype around various eating styles, it can be hard to know what’s best.
The truth is, no one diet is right for everyone. You have specific nutritional needs based on your genetics, present health, activity level, and season in life. Moreover, your food choices are impacted by where you live and the time of year.
Following certain fundamental dietary principles will help you make healthy choices — regardless of what eating style you adopt.
Here are some key guidelines on what is best to eat to help build up your health account.
Start with Foundational Principles
You may think of the word “diet” as a way to lose weight. However, a diet is simply a pattern of eating, not a weight loss plan per se.
Every diet or eating pattern could potentially have advantages and disadvantages.
Whether you choose keto, paleo, vegan, or any other diet, there are ways to make it healthy. On the other hand, without planning, any diet can deplete your health account.
For example, vegan diets tend to be low in vitamin B12. However, you can take fortified nutritional yeast to address this. (2)
Similarly, a ketogenic diet may run low on fiber since it significantly restricts carbohydrates. But, with careful planning and smart food choices, you can meet your fiber needs. (3)
So, no matter what eating pattern you follow, you need to make sure you’re getting essential macro- and micronutrients. Aim to get natural phytochemicals to support your health, too.
Not sure what those food components are? Here’s a brief overview with more details to follow.
Macronutrients: Your energy sources
The essential macronutrients are carbohydrate, fat, and protein. You need them in relatively large amounts, as signaled by the prefix “macro.” They contain calories, which is where you get energy. (4)
One other compound you might consume that contains calories is alcohol. But, it can deplete your health account. Alcohol is proinflammatory, especially to your liver. It may also damage other organs and tissues like your brain, muscles, and heart. (5)
Alcohol is an especially poor “investment” if you struggle with digestive issues. This is because alcohol can contribute to increased intestinal permeability or “leaky gut.” (6)
When you pair an alcohol habit with drugs of any kind, it’s a double whammy to your health. Your liver has to detoxify drugs. If it’s damaged from alcohol, toxins will build up. That concern is in addition to the side effects that accompany drugs, as well as addiction risks. (7)
So, aim to get your energy from health-supportive macronutrients.
Micronutrients and phytochemicals: Your body’s helpers
Micronutrients include vitamins and minerals. They’re required in relatively small amounts, so the term has the prefix “micro.”
Vitamins and minerals help regulate bodily processes. For instance, they help turn macronutrients into energy in your mitochondria. Some vitamins and minerals also have antioxidant properties. (8)
Plant-based foods also contain non-nutrient compounds called phytochemicals. These aren’t required per se, but they may significantly benefit your health. Some are powerful antioxidants. (9)
You may be familiar with some phytochemicals. For example, spinach contains lutein, which may promote eye health. And, olive oil contains polyphenols, which may support heart health.
Read on to learn more about macronutrients, micronutrients, and phytochemicals — and how to get them in your diet.
The Truth About Dietary Fat
A common misconception about dietary fat is that it will make you gain weight. This stems from the fact that fat has nearly twice the calories per gram compared to carbs and protein. More specifically, fat has 9 calories per gram while carbs and protein have 4 calories per gram. (10, 11)
But weight control may be more complex than tallying the calorie counts of foods.
Certainly, you can become overweight if you take in too many calories compared to how many you require. However, the quality of the calories seems to count when it comes to your risk of weight gain — especially over the long term. (12, 13, 14)
Consider a four-year study in which people followed a healthy Mediterranean diet. That’s one rich in plant foods but moderate or low in animal products and sweets. Also, participants were given either nuts or extra-virgin olive oil, both high-fat items. None were told to restrict calories.
The participants didn't gain weight, despite consuming extra nuts or olive oil. Moreover, those given the extra nuts or olive oil had a lower risk of major heart issues compared to a control group on a low-fat diet. (15)
Exactly how the higher-fat diets supported weight control is uncertain. It may have been due to better blood sugar control, increased feelings of fullness, or beneficial effects on the gut microbiome. Regardless, the study shows you shouldn’t banish fat due to weight concerns. (13, 15, 16, 17)
Also keep in mind that you need fat for essential functions in your body. For example, your body uses fat to make cell membranes and protective coverings for your nerves. Dietary fat supports your brain health as well. (18)
But, all dietary fats aren’t equal. Some fats are good deposits in your health account, while others can create a health deficit.
Two main types of fat in your food are saturated and unsaturated. Both categories include healthy and unhealthy choices.
Unsaturated fats are those that are liquid at room temperature. Olive oil, avocado oil, soybean oil, canola oil, and corn oil are in this category. Nuts and seeds, as well as their oils, are also rich in unsaturated fats.
Oils contain differing ratios of omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 unsaturated fatty acids. Omega-3 and omega-6 are called polyunsaturated fats. Omega-9 refers to monounsaturated fat. (19)
You’ve probably heard good things about omega-3 and omega-9 fats. But what about omega-6 fat?
You need some omega-6 fat, but many people get too much. An excess of omega-6 fat can be inflammatory. This may increase your risk of heart disease, obesity, and autoimmune disease. (20, 21, 22)
Excess omega-6 fat intake is typical in Western-style diets. In some cases, people are consuming 20 times more omega-6 fat than omega-3 fat. That’s a ratio of 20:1, which is way out of balance with what you need. A healthier ratio is 4:1. (21, 22)
You don’t need to calculate your daily ratio. Just make a conscious effort to limit your omega-6 fat intake. That includes the oil you add to foods in cooking, as well as what’s added to packaged foods.
Major sources of omega-6 fat are soybean and corn oils. Most oils labeled “vegetable oil” are made of soybean oil. The high omega-6 fat content of these oils isn't the only reason you should limit or avoid them. Another concern is that corn and soybean oils are usually genetically modified (GMO). (23)
GMO foods contain genes from unrelated species, such as bacteria. This foreign genetic material may increase your risk of allergies or other health challenges. Additionally, the crops are often altered to withstand pesticides like glyphosate. This could mean more toxic residues in your food. (24, 25, 26)
Omega-3 and omega-9 fats
In contrast to omega-6 fats, omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory and may help:
Reduce your chance of heart disease (19, 27)
Increase your HDL (good) cholesterol (28)
Decrease your risk of developing diabetes (27, 29)
Reduce your risk of depression (30)
Lower anxiety (31)
Maintain eye health (32, 33)
Manage autoimmune diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis (34)
Support lung health (35)
Where do you get omega-3 fats? Fatty fish like salmon and sardines (both low-mercury options) are top dietary sources of omega-3 fat. You also get smaller amounts of omega-3 fat from some plant-based oils. Examples include flaxseed and chia seed. (19)
As for omega-9 fats, common sources are avocado, olive, and canola oils. Avocado and extra-virgin olive oils are healthy choices. But, canola oil is usually GMO. It’s commonly used in processed foods. (19, 36)
Saturated fat is solid at room temperature. It’s a predominant fat in meat, butter, eggs, cheese, and coconut oil. It tends to get a bad rap and is blamed for high cholesterol and heart disease.
Quality is commonly overlooked in discussions of saturated fat. Additionally, all types of saturated fat are often discussed as a group. But, quality counts and individual types of saturated fat have different effects in your body.
For example, eating highly processed, preserved meats rich in saturated fat has been linked to increased heart disease risk. In contrast, eating certain minimally-processed foods rich in saturated fat — like plain, whole-milk yogurt — is linked with a reduced risk of heart disease. (10, 37)
As another example, one of the saturated fatty acids in beef is stearic acid. This fatty acid doesn’t raise LDL (bad) cholesterol. That could guide your choice of meat. For instance, grass-fed beef has more stearic acid and less cholesterol-raising saturated fatty acids than grain-fed beef. (37)
So, don’t lump all saturated fat into one group. Quality whole foods like grass-fed meat and organic eggs are healthy choices, even though they contain saturated fat. (38, 39)
Fats can become unhealthy when they’re heated to extreme temperatures. When you fry with oils at high heat, they produce toxic chemicals called aldehydes. These result from the oxidation of fats. (40)
Omega-6 fats are especially prone to the formation of toxic aldehydes when fried. Aldehydes can potentially damage your cells, tissues, and organs. (40)
Another way unsaturated fat can become a health hazard is when it’s turned into trans fat. This harmful fat is formed when food technicians transform oil into a solid fat through a chemical reaction. This is how they used to make stick margarine and vegetable shortening.
These days, you won’t find these man-made trans fats in most foods. The FDA has largely banned the fats and the partially hydrogenated oils that contain trans fat. (41)
That’s a good thing. But, some food companies have replaced trans fat with another lab-altered fat called interesterified fat. Animal studies suggest it may damage the liver, promote weight gain, and impair blood sugar control. (41, 42, 43)
The worst part is, you don’t know which packaged foods contain interesterified fat. It’s not required to be listed as such in ingredient lists. But, if you opt for whole and minimally-processed foods, you can avoid it. (44)
The Power of Protein
Though protein can supply energy, that’s not your body’s preferred use for it. Protein is used to build many structures in your body and is critical for optimum health.
Here’s a closer look at what protein does for you and how to get it in your diet.
Why you need protein
Just as fats are vital to many bodily processes, you need protein to: (45)
- Synthesize enzymes for numerous bodily functions
- Make connective tissue, such as collagen and elastin
- Generate healthy skin and hair
- Produce hormones and other signaling molecules
Transport oxygen in your body via hemoglobin, a protein
On the other hand, shortfalls of protein may contribute to hair loss, poor immune health, and weak bones and muscles. (46, 47, 48)
You may already consume enough protein. But, that can change as you celebrate more birthdays. Scientists are finding that older adults may need to consume more protein than when they were younger. (49, 50)
On average, an adult needs at least 50 grams of protein a day. That’s the equivalent of a 6-ounce cooked sirloin steak. But as you age into your “golden years,” you may need twice as much protein. (51, 52, 53)
Optimizing your protein intake as you age may help you maintain your muscle mass. That’s important for keeping up your strength. (54)
Of course, you need to stay active, too. It’s a “use it or lose it" scenario. If you don’t use your muscles, you lose them. Though you can’t prevent all muscle loss in aging, you can slow it down. (55, 56)
Another perk of protein is that it helps keep you feeling full. For example, a leafy green salad topped with chicken tends to keep you full longer than a salad that’s just vegetables with dressing. When you feel full, it’s easier to control your appetite and your weight. (57, 58, 59)
Meeting your protein quota
Protein is abundant in meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products. Plant-based foods — such as beans, peas, quinoa, nuts, and seeds — also supply some protein. Choose them based on your individual tolerance and dietary preferences. (60, 61)
The building blocks of protein are amino acids. Nine amino acids are essential, as you can only get them from your diet. Your body can make the other amino acids it needs.
If you choose a vegan diet, make sure to include a variety of different plant protein sources. Most plant proteins are low in one or more essential amino acids. But, consuming a variety of plant proteins will help you get adequate amounts of all nine essential amino acids. (62)
Regardless of where you get your protein, it’s wise to divide it across breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Many people eat most of their protein at dinner and skimp on it at breakfast. Studies suggest dividing your protein intake more evenly across meals may help you retain muscle mass as you age. (53)
Carbohydrate Quality Counts
Your body primarily uses carbohydrates as fuel. And, the fiber that is part of carbs helps keep you regular.
The best carbohydrates for optimum health come from whole and minimally-processed plant-based foods. These include vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. They’re a good source of fiber and supply phytochemicals to support your health as well.
For example, phytochemicals called flavonoids are found in berries and onions. They’re anti-inflammatory and support heart health. And, phytochemicals called glucosinolates are abundant in cruciferous vegetables like kale. (63, 64)
Where you can go astray with carbs is the highly processed ones. These are made with refined grains, added sugars, and highly processed vegetables and fruits. Examples are sugary breakfast cereal, baked goods, crackers, potato chips, sweets, fruit juice, and similar items.
These highly-processed carbs tend to be less filling or satiating. They also may spike your blood sugar, especially if you don’t watch your portion size.
Low satiety and poor blood sugar control can lead to weight gain and type 2 diabetes. Choosing unrefined carbs and controlling your overall carb intake may help you maintain a healthy blood sugar level and weight. (65, 66)
Lastly, sugary foods can alter your gut microbiome, allowing “bad” bacteria to thrive. Sugar is also a favorite fuel of Candida albicans and parasites. So, try not to feed the bad guys. (67, 68, 69)
Why You Need Vitamins and Minerals
As already mentioned, vitamins and minerals are micronutrients.
You must consume more than two dozen different vitamins and minerals to be healthy. Regularly eating a variety of nutritious, whole foods helps you get these vital micronutrients. (70)
Vitamins are either water-soluble or fat-soluble. You need dietary fat to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins. These include vitamins A, D, E, and K. For example, putting an oil and vinegar dressing on your salad helps you absorb vitamins A and K in the vegetables. (71, 72)
Water-soluble vitamins include vitamin C and the B vitamins. They can leach into the water you use to cook foods. That’s why cooking methods that use minimal water — like steaming rather than boiling — are often recommended.
Here are some examples of micronutrients and what they do for you:
Vitamin A: You need it for good vision, proper immune system function, and a healthy gut. It also helps several organs — including your liver and kidneys — work well. (73)
B vitamins: There are eight B vitamins. Most help to produce energy in your mitochondria. Each B vitamin also has unique functions. For example, vitamin B6 helps your body make nonessential amino acids. And, vitamin B12 helps make DNA. (74, 75)
Vitamin C: You need this water-soluble vitamin to make collagen and certain nerve messengers. It also supports your immune function and protects against infection. It has antioxidant properties, too. (76)
Magnesium: This mineral is part of more than 300 enzymes and other compounds that regulate vital functions. These include making body proteins, controlling blood sugar, and producing energy. You also need it to make glutathione, a potent antioxidant. (77)
Zinc: You need zinc for a healthy immune system, wound healing, and proper senses of taste and smell. The mineral also helps you make body proteins and DNA. Additionally, it’s crucial for healthy growth and development of babies and children. (78)
Many of these micronutrients can’t be stored in any significant amount for later use. They need to be “deposited” into your health account regularly to support vital body processes. Without them, you’d quickly accumulate a health deficit.
Whole Foods vs. Processed Foods
Grocery stores today are full of highly processed, convenience “foods.” But, these products don't resemble anything you would find in nature.
Highly processed food products can deplete your health account in a hurry. Studies have linked them to increased risk of being overweight. They are also linked to high blood sugar, high blood pressure, and unhealthy cholesterol and triglyceride levels. (79)
What makes these products so unhealthy?
Many processed foods are full of refined sugar, salt, unhealthy fats, chemical preservatives, artificial colors, and artificial flavors. Some of these additives can make the foods almost irresistible, which promotes overeating. (80)
That’s bad news for your waistline, as well as certain health conditions. Some food additives may worsen allergies, asthma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and celiac disease. (81, 82, 83)
Additionally, the high amounts of salt added to processed foods may contribute to high blood pressure and leaky gut. In a preliminary animal study, a high-salt diet increased intestinal permeability and worsened inflammatory bowel disease. (84, 85)
Besides the undesirable ingredients added to processed foods, you also have to consider what nutrients are lost.
Many processed, packaged foods lose vitamins, minerals, and fiber in manufacturing. So, companies often add nutrients — like calcium and zinc — to these foods.
The problem is, the minerals added are in an inorganic form that isn’t as readily used by your body. In contrast, the minerals naturally present in food are organic. In this context, organic means they’re bound to carbon. This helps you absorb them more easily. (86, 87, 88)
So, don’t be swayed by the marketing hype around added nutrients in packaged foods. You can do a much better job of nourishing your body when you choose whole foods rather than highly processed, packaged foods.
The best foods for you are those that don’t have a label with strange words you can’t pronounce. Moreover, the fewer steps between when the food was last alive and you, the better.
Farmer > store > you. This is the route to finding the healthiest food choices.
Sometimes you can even cut out the “middleman.” Buy fresh meats, eggs, fruits, and vegetables at a local farmers market. You’ll be supporting your local economy, and you’ll know where your food comes from. You may even save money.
Food from a farmers market may be organically grown without paying for the label of organic. But, get to know your farmers market vendors. Ask if they grow their food without harmful chemicals and GMOs. You can’t assume they do unless the products are certified organic.
Not only does organically-grown food avoid harmful pesticides and GMOs, but it’s also more nutritious. One review found that organic produce was about 6% higher in micronutrients compared to conventionally-grown crops. (89)
Other studies have found that organic produce is higher in phytochemicals than food crops that are conventionally-grown. (90)
So, opt for whole foods — preferably organic — if you can. They’re among the best health investments you can buy.
Bank on Nutrition
The type of diet you select is like choosing a bank. It’s not so important which bank (or eating style) you choose. But, it’s crucial to make regular, good deposits into your account.
In other words, the daily decisions you make about what to eat matter.
Savvy dietary habits include:
- Listen to your body and make choices based on what works best for you.
- Opt for unprocessed or minimally-processed whole foods.
- Pass up highly-processed, packaged foods.
- Focus on getting healthy proteins and fats, along with whole-food carbs.
- Choose nutrient-dense foods that contain a variety of micronutrients and phytochemicals.
- Avoid or minimize sugar and other refined carbs, alcohol, and GMO foods.
Regardless of which eating style you choose, following these principles will help ensure it supports your health.
Is your present way of eating “banking on nutrition”? What dietary changes can you make to invest in your health account today?