Getting enough, and getting only enough, is the key to the “balanced” diet. To do this, we need to understand what our bodies actually need.
Carbs provide a steady source of energy throughout the day. We want to eat them to prevent our body from breaking itself down for energy instead. Plant fiber and whole grains, are necessary for proper digestion and blood sugar level control!
Simple carbs, such as sugar, and refined carbs, such as white rice or bread, lack any nutrients to accompany their calories. When people talk about “processed” foods, this is what they mean; foods that have been robbed of nutrients through whatever production processes they go through to get from the earth to your table. We want to avoid these types of carbs, since we can easily get much healthier carbs.
The closer you can safely get from farm to table, the better!
Sodium & Potassium
Our body needs sodium and potassium to perform a variety of necessary functions, such as moving! But, we only need about 500mg of sodium per day, and about 3000mg of potassium per day. Unfortunately, the SAD diet has those two numbers flopped, leading to high blood pressure and fatigue. But it’s difficult to know what foods have exactly how much sodium or potassium, so here’s some good rules-of-thumb:
For lower salt:
- Opt for no-salt spice blends.
- Go easy on the sauce; really easy.
- Avoid baked goods, especially fluffy, white breads.
For higher potassium:
- Eat dark, leafy greens.
- Eat legumes, potatoes, and bananas.
- Eat juicy fruits, like melons.
If you are able to look at packages, remember that a standard calorie diet is about 2000. So, compare sodium and potassium to the calories of the food! We want:
- Sodium to be less than calories.
- Potassium to be higher than calories.
Following this simple comparison rule will help steer you towards healthier choices and more balanced meals.
Turns out, our bodies are actually pretty good at processing fat. But the types of fat matters a lot, and we still have to watch not to drown ourselves in it. Feel free to cook with oil, use it on salads, and eat high-fat foods like fish and peanuts.
- Trans Fat is horrible, and America has finally put it behind us in most cases. If you do see it though, beware.
- Saturated Fat is still hotly debated. I encourage you to do your own research in this area, but in general, minimize your saturated fat (sorry coconuts!).
- Mono Unsaturated Fat is the good stuff.
- Poly Unsaturated Fat comes in two main forms, and you need both (omega-3 and omega-6). Also the good stuff.
Protein is essential, and a complete protein is one that has all 9 amino acids that our body doesn’t produce on its own.
Eating plants for protein is possible, but not easy. Luckily, even just a serving or two of animal meats are an easy checkbox for this category. The concern with eating animals, of course, is that fish contain mercury, and other meats are high in bad cholesterol. Luckily, there’s a couple easy rules we can follow to keep ourselves rocking.
- Eat a couple servings of fish, such as salmon, a week.
- Limit eating lean white meat (chicken, turkey) to a single meal each day.
- Rarely if ever eat red meat or shellfish (these are high in saturated fat and cholesterol).
- The easiest plant-based complete proteins to eat are soy (e.g. tofu or edamame) and quinoa.
- Get most of your protein through a variety of sources, such as beans, peanuts, lentils, and a variety of other common vegetables.
Vitamins and Minerals
You can dive deep into the science of vitamins and minerals. But there’s some simple suggestions that will navigate you through life just fine:
- Eat a lot of dark, leafy vegetables.
- Eat as many different colors as possible.
Spinach is your friend. Superfoods aren’t a joke.