Diet Tips

If "we are what we eat", what are the most essential diet tips for maintaining our best health? While certain influences are genetic and beyond our control, the choices we make every day can have some real benefit, including exercise routine, sleep habits, and proper diet.

There is never a shortage of technical terms, so it helps our discussion of diet tips to define a few basic terms that we might have forgotten from our school days in science class.


Diet Tips - Definitions

  • Carbohydrates – neutral compounds of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, that are converted into sugars, starches, and cellulose through the process of photosynthesis; it’s one of three macro-nutrients that provide energy for the body (protein and fats are the other two). The three broad categories of carbohydrates are:
  • Simple carbohydrates – aka sugars - exist in either a natural form (in fruits and vegetables) or refined form (in biscuits, cakes, pastries, chocolate, honey, jams, jellies, brown and white cane sugar, pizzas, prepared foods and sauces, soft drinks, candy and snack bars).
  • Complex Carbohydrates – aka starches – exist mostly in natural form (in bananas, barley, beans, brown rice, chickpeas, lentils, nuts, oats, parsnips, potatoes, root vegetables, sweet corn, whole grain cereals, whole meal breads, whole meal cereals, whole meal flour, whole meal pasta and yams).
  • Fiber - the indigestible part of plant foods including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes (there is no fiber in animal products such as milk and other dairy products, eggs, meat, poultry, and fish); when dietary fiber is consumed, most of it passes through the intestines and is not digested.
  • Fats - organic compounds of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen belonging to a group of substances called lipids, in liquid or solid form; fats are one of the three macro-nutrients that provide the body with energy (proteins and carbohydrates are the other two); all fats are a combination of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids:
  • Hydrogenated fats - oils that have become hardened, such as hard butter and margarine (good diet tip: avoid foods made with hydrogenated oils because they contain high levels of trans fatty acids which are linked to heart disease).
  • Saturated fats - (so named because every carbon atom is completely saturated with all the hydrogen that it can possibly carry) - the main dietary cause of high blood cholesterol, found mostly in foods from animals (e.g., beef, beef fat, veal, lamb, pork, lard, poultry fat, butter, cream, milk, cheeses and other dairy products made from whole and 2 percent milk) and some plants (e.g., coconut, coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil - often called tropical oils - and cocoa butter).
  • Trans fats – aka partially hydrogenated oils – artificially produced to extend shelf life by adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid, and are found in fried foods, commercial baked goods (donuts, cookies, crackers), processed foods, and margarine; trans fats can raise LDL levels (“bad” cholesterol), lower HDL levels ("good” cholesterol) and block the essential use of fatty acids in our body cells.
  • Unsaturated fats – aka polyunsaturated fats (both are so named because many of the carbon atoms are empty and without any hydrogen) - fats that help to lower blood cholesterol if used in place of saturated fats, yet high in calories; most but not all liquid vegetable oils are unsaturated (exceptions include coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils) and have a short shelf life.
  • Glycemic Index - a method of measuring blood sugar levels with respect to carbohydrate consumption, measuring how much and how quickly the blood sugar level increases; foods containing carbohydrates are measured on a scale of 1 to 100, giving each food its own glycemic index value. Foods with a high glycemic index (70 or higher) such as white bread, cause rapid spikes in blood sugar, while foods with a low glycemic index (55 or less) such as whole oats, are digested more slowly, causing a lower and gentler change in blood sugar.
  • Proteins - strings of amino acids that form chains known as peptides, and are one of the three macro-nutrients that provide the body with energy (fats and carbohydrates are the other two). Protein is needed to accomplish many basic functions in the body, such as building bones, moving muscles, and repairing tissue, and is found in meat, dairy, certain grains and beans.


Diet Tips - Strategy

Healthy foods and nutrition are important at any age, and so diet tips are especially key as we reach our 40s and 50s. We know we start to lose muscle mass after age 40 – at the rate of ½ pound of muscle mass per year – which in turn makes way for weight gain. We also become more vulnerable to age-related illness such as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, and osteoporosis.

But on the other hand, eating is one of our greatest pleasures, not to mention the pride that a lot of us take in preparing great meals. So is this a dilemma? No, not really – at least it doesn’t have to be. We can still keep our pleasure and our pride, just by following some basic diet tips.


Diet Tips - Good Things vs. Bad Things

Like so many other things in life, there are good sides and bad sides to the various fats, carbohydrates and proteins that we eat. While it’s nearly impossible – and impractical – to avoid every bad thing in our diet, it’s essential that we can tell the good from the bad, and that the good stuff “outweigh” the bad.

  • Carbohydrates – generally speaking, complex carbohydrates are the “good carbs” because it takes our bodies longer to break the sugars down and use them. Because this process is extended, we get lower amounts of sugars released into the bloodstream, and the release comes at a slower rate. As a result, we get a more consistent supply of energy throughout our day, avoiding the peaks and valleys.
  • Complex (good) carbs come from whole grain breads and cereals, starchy vegetables and legumes, and provide vitamins, minerals and fiber. Good carbs make us feel fuller and hence less likely to overeat.
  • Simple carbohydrates for the most part are the “bad carbs” because they are released more quickly into the bloodstream, are higher in sugar, lower in fiber and have little nutritional value. Although some fruits and vegetable are classified as simple carbohydrates, they also contain natural vitamins and nutrients, plus fiber that slows the sugar absorption process, hence fruits and vegetables fall on the “good” side.
  • Simple (bad) carbs include sugars added during food processing and refining, such as brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrates, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, honey, lactose, maltose, malt syrup, molasses, raw sugar, refined sugar, sucrose and syrup. Simple carbs give us that “sugar high”, followed by the crash.
  • Fats – ironic as it may seem, eating fat is a necessary part of our healthy diet, insofar as fats, i.e., the “good fats”, provide fatty acids which are essential for controlling inflammation, blood clotting and brain development. Since fatty acids are not made by the body, we can only get them from the food we eat.
  • Good fats are those that are unsaturated, or polyunsaturated, or monounsaturated, because the molecules of these fats are larger and do not tend to bond together, thereby producing little or no plaque build-up in our arteries. Olive oil is unsaturated and contains a beneficial fatty acid (oleic acid); omega-3 fatty acids are also unsaturated and are found in fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel
  • Bad fats are those that are saturated or hydrogenated (includes trans fats), because the molecules of these fats do have a bonding tendency in the bloodstream, causing plaque build-up in the arteries. For a healthy diet, most nutritionists recommend avoiding trans fats and hydrogenated fats altogether, and limiting saturated fats to less than 30% of our daily calorie intake.
  • Protein – unlike carbs and fats, protein is not categorized as good or bad, but rather as being “complete” or “incomplete”. A complete source of protein (aka high quality protein) contains all of the 20 essential amino acids which our bodies need each day, to replace that which is used in every cell, tissue and organ. An incomplete source of protein is low on one or more of the essential amino acids (two or more “incomplete” protein sources that together would provide all 20 essential amino acids would be categorized as “complementary”).


Diet Tips - Vitamins and Minerals

Key among all diet tips is proper intake of vitamins and minerals. As micro-nutrients (remember that fats, carbs and protein are macro-nutrients), vitamins and essential minerals are needed to assist normal growth, digestion, mental alertness and resistance to infection. They also act as catalysts in our body, starting or accelerating a chemical reaction by assisting the enzymes that release energy from carbohydrates, proteins and fats.

However, we can’t "burn" vitamins like we do the calories we get from fats, carbs and protein; we can't get energy directly from them. Hence, any labels we might read for “miracle energy” vitamin supplements are greatly exaggerated.

Our body can not make most of the vitamins and minerals we need, so we must get them from food or supplements (pills). Clearly, our best source comes from the food we eat in a balanced diet. In fact, the best diet tip of all may be that nature trumps anything we manufacture in a bottle, and research is a bit mixed as to how beneficial or necessary taking supplements actually is. Of the 13 vitamins, four are fat soluble (A, D and K) and stored in certain organs like the liver; nine are water soluble (C and the eight “B” vitamins) and are stored in small amounts for temporary periods before excretion through the urine. Because they're stored in our body tissues, excess fat-soluble vitamins can accumulate and become toxic (the body is especially sensitive to too much vitamin A and D).

Questions of how many vitamins, and how much of each we need, depend upon such variables as age, health and nutritional status, and are still among the diet tips debated by doctors and scientists today. Over recent decades, minimum daily allowances have evolved (and increased) to the % Daily Values (DVs) that we now see on the Nutrition Facts labels on all food packaging. There are 15 minerals that help regulate cell function and provide structure for cells in the body (primary needs are calcium, phosphorus and magnesium). Our body needs smaller amounts of chromium, copper, fluoride, iodine, iron, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, zinc, chloride, potassium and sodium; however, excessive amounts can also be toxic.

Vitamin and mineral supplements should never be a substitute for a healthy diet. We can never justify poor eating habits and choices simply by thinking, “Well, it’s OK because I’m still getting my vitamins and minerals (from a bottle).” Research indicates there's probably no harm in taking a multiple vitamin-mineral supplement, as long as the dosing levels are no higher than 100 percent of the Daily Value (higher doses don't give extra protection, but do increase the risk of toxic side effects).

Ultimately, we should ask our doctor if vitamin and mineral supplements are best for our diet, based upon evaluating our own particular circumstances.


Additional Diet Tips for Balance

  • Drink 3 cups of fat-free or low-fat milk or milk products per day.
  • Eat 2 cups (4 servings) of fruit and 2.5 cups (5 servings) of vegetables per day for an average 2000 calorie/day diet.
  • Eat 3 ounces or more of whole grain products per day.
  • Limit consumption of alcohol (maximum 1 drink/day for women and 2 drinks/day for men).
  • Balance diet tips with exercise, i.e., slowly decrease your calorie intake while increasing your exercise and activity levels to avoid weight gain over time.


Return from Diet Tips to Eat Healthy

Return from Diet Tips to Baby Boomers R We