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.
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).
- 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.
- 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
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.
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.
(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
- 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
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).
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
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).
diet tips with exercise, i.e., slowly decrease your calorie intake
while increasing your exercise and activity levels to avoid weight gain
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