Eating well isn’t something you can do once every so often, by its very nature, a healthy diet involves a daily consideration of the right food to meet your needs. As a general rule, the way I achieve a balanced diet is by eating foods from the following five food groups: cereal grains, vegetables and legumes, protein, fruit, and finally, dairy. Of course, it’s not just about eating any of the foods that fall into these categories. It’s important to choose foods that are beneficial to your physical and mental wellbeing because they contain the right balance of vitamins and minerals and because they aid digestion and keep you feeling satisfied throughout your day.
Cereal grains form the basis of any healthy diet. They refer to grasses that have been cultivated for their edible seeds and most commonly include wheat, barley, rye, oats and rice. Often, pseudo-cereals such as buckwheat and quinoa are included in this category though they are not true grains as they are not technically grasses. Starting your day with a wholegrain cereal grain that is high in fiber makes a lot of sense because it takes a long time to digest so keeps you feeling full for longer. Wholegrain cereals also help balance your blood sugar levels and can be beneficial for those wanting to lose weight.
In terms of nutritional value, most cereal grains contain lots of B vitamins and important minerals such as magnesium, copper, zinc, and iron. Many people get their daily dosage of cereal grain at breakfast, often by cooking oats in cow’s milk or soy milk. A single cup (156 grams) of oats contains 66% fiber and a staggering 26 grams of protein, as well as 41% iron and 8% calcium. Oats are especially good because they go well with other beneficial foods mentioned in this article, such as nuts, seeds, and fruits for example. A popular choice is drizzling honey on cooked oats to give them a bit of extra sweetness.
Of course, there are many other cereal grains to choose with some people choosing to get their daily intake from bread. As I’ve mentioned before, eating wheat bread on a daily basis is not a healthy way to get a good source of cereal grains, since wheat bread doesn’t contain any vitamins and minerals and because it’s high on the glycemic index and contains only a little amount of fiber. Rye bread makes a better alternative though generally, the more bread you can cut out of your diet the better, especially if you’re trying to lose weight.
Vegetables & legumes
Vegetables and legumes are an important component of a balanced diet since they provide a good hit of beneficial minerals, particularly green leafy vegetables. Spinach is a popular vegetable in this category because of its numerous beneficial components, including lutein, folate, and omega 3. Lutein is one of the 600 known naturally-occurring carotenoids and is present in large quantities in other green leafy vegetables such as kale.
Studies have shown that lutein decreases the risk of macular degeneration, an age-related medical condition often leading to blurred vision or blindness, while another evidence suggests that lutein also reduces the risk of cataracts and photophobia. The B vitamin folate, often called folic acid, is also highly beneficial particularly because studies show that a deficiency in folate can lead to anemia.
Spinach can be included in uncooked salads, or it can be added to scrambled egg, used as a pizza topping or cooked with legumes or potato in a curry. Many recipes recommend 1 cup of fresh spinach or ½ cup of cooked spinach per day. Aside from spinach, other healthy green leafy vegetables include kale, bok choy, Swiss chard, and romaine lettuce.
Tomatoes are another vegetable that can be eaten daily. When choosing tomatoes, remember that the redder it is the better it is for you since the red color is created by the antioxidant lycopene. Lycopene helps protect cells from damage and is advised for people suffering from high cholesterol or clogged arteries and studies have shown that it reduces the risk of many different kinds of cancer, as well as being a beneficial treatment for people suffering from Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), which can cause uterine cancer.
It is also said that lycopene can treat cataracts or asthma. One cup of tomato juice (around 240ml) contains roughly 23 mg of lycopene. Tomatoes are also low in Sodium and very low in saturated fat and cholesterol. They are also an excellent source of vitamin E, dietary fiber, thiamin, and vitamin A, Potassium, and Manganese.
The other great thing about tomatoes is that while fresh in-season tomatoes are better, canned tomatoes and passata, purée, and other tomato sauces are abundant and often inexpensive. Whether fresh of packaged, tomatoes can be used in so many different ways, including, in pasta sources, in stews and curries, as a pizza base, in salads or even just sliced on toasted bread.
Love it or hate it, garlic makes a healthy and flavorsome addition to your daily diet, not only because of its antiviral and antifungal properties but because it’s so versatile and can be included in a wide range of dishes, including soups, stews, pasta sauces and curries. Garlic is well-reputed for its health benefits, particularly its role in improving circulation and boosting the immune system. Garlic contains Allicin, which functions as naturally-occurring antibiotic, as well as glutathione, an antioxidant and amino acid that like lycopene helps prevent damage to cells. One clove of garlic per day is recommended.
Legumes refer to plants in the Fabaceae family or to the fruit or seed of such a plant. Common legumes include clover, peas, beans of all kinds, lentils, lupins, soybeans, tamarind, chickpeas, and peanuts. Most legumes are low in calories and contain high levels of protein and fiber. Black beans, for example, contain a wide range of beneficial compounds, including protein (30%) folate (64%), fiber (60%), copper (40%), manganese (38%), vitamin B1 (35%), phosphorous (34%), iron (20%), and magnesium (30%).
Black beans, as with many other legumes, also aid digestion and are especially beneficial for the digestive tract and the colon. If you’re buying legumes raw, most often they’ll need soaking overnight before boiling. Legumes of all kinds are most often included in soups and stews. If you have access to a blender, consider blending cooked chickpeas with oil and Tahini to make a delicious hummus.
Fruits of all kinds are incredibly beneficial to your diet, not only because it provides a natural source of sweetness, therefore reducing your need for processed sugars, but also because fruit is packed with important vitamins and minerals as well as fiber. Blueberries, for example, are an especially good source of antioxidants and vitamin C and can be added to plain yogurt for a delicious dessert or to sweeten oats. Berries, in general, are a good source of fiber with raspberries containing around 8 grams of fiber per cup, as well as ellagic acid, which is known for its cancer-fighting properties.
Other good fruits include bananas, which are an incredibly versatile fruit since they can be enjoyed as a snack on-the-go, as part of a healthy breakfast, in a smoothie, or as part of a more elaborate dessert. They contain a good source of potassium with one medium banana containing 400mg. Bananas are also well known for lowering blood pressure and reducing your risk of stroke.
Oranges are another popular fruit and are well known for being rich in vitamin C with a single medium-sized orange containing 130% of your recommended daily intake (for a 2,000 calorie diet). Vitamin C is important because it aids the production of white blood cells and antibodies, which allow your immune system to deal with infections and viruses. Oranges also have a good dose of fiber at around 12%.
Four to five portions of fruit are recommended per day. The great thing about fruit is that it can be eaten in so many different forms, whether that’s blended up in smoothies, chopped and added to yogurt or oats, or simply on its own as a sweet snack. While fresh is much better, canned or prepared make for a good substitute.
Protein in one form or another is an essential part of your daily diet and can be best sourced in fish, meat, and beans. Choosing a lean protein avoids any surplus saturated fat in your diet and helps speed up your metabolism by encouraging your body to burn more fat. Proteins are vital in cell repair and the building of muscle.
Protein can, of course, be gotten from a variety of meats with lean meats, poultry, and fish being the most common choices (not red meat). Eggs, tofu, nuts/seeds, and legumes also pack a considerable amount of protein. According to one source, on average, men need 56 grams of protein per day while women require 46 grams, though of course this depends on your own body size and how much energy you expend. Generally speaking, the more physical activity you undertake during the day, the more protein you should eat.
Walnuts make for an excellent daily source of high-quality protein, as well as omega 3, antioxidants and many other beneficial properties. Recommended intake is ten walnuts per day for adults and five to seven for children.
Dairy refers to milk, yogurt, and cheese products, which are needed to provide your daily hit of calcium. Among these, yogurt is perhaps the healthiest and easiest option since plain 0% fat yogurt is inexpensive and convenient. Fermented, pro-biotic yogurt is best, since it contains beneficial bacteria that help your digestive system. When looking for yogurt in the store, choose those that say ‘live’ or ‘active’ on the label.
Yogurt also contains a good daily dose of calcium with one cup containing a huge 400 mg. Note that Greek yogurt has almost double the amount of protein and half the sodium of other kinds of yogurt. The best way, I think, to enjoy yogurt is with chopped walnuts, quartered strawberries, and a drizzling of honey. One or two cups per day should satisfy your appetite. If you’re a vegan, you can look for substitutes such as kefir and soy yogurt.
For vegans in general, there are lots of excellent dairy substitutes. Instead of cow’s milk, you can choose soy, rice, or coconut milk. There are also varieties of vegan cheese made from soy protein, as well as cheese made from solidified vegetable oil (including palm, safflower, and coconut), and cheese made from various nuts, including macadamias, almonds, and cashews.
In terms of eggs, not only are they a good source of protein, containing around 6 grams per egg, they are also rich in vitamins B2, B5, and B12, as well as in vitamin A, folate, Phosphorous, and Selenium. Although eggs are high in cholesterol, it’s important to remember that cholesterol in your diet doesn’t automatically translate to cholesterol in the blood. For those with problems with digestion such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), it’s best to avoid eggs since they can be difficult to digest.
Remember, eating food from each of the five groups is any easy way to give your daily eating habits variety. Aside from the food itself, portion size is very important since you don’t want to overeat, which will probably leave you feeling bloated while of course you need adequate energy to go about your day. It’s also worth remembering the obvious: each of us is different with different needs and different tastes.
Cooked oats with blueberries might really appeal to one person but might be completely off-putting to someone else. What I’ve learned from writing about nutrition and health is how abundant the internet is as a resource for trying out new foods and putting together new recipes. At the end of the day, it’s your health that’s on the line. Have a read of some of the other articles on my website to learn more about eating well.