I think it is reasonable to assume that the majority of individuals want to be healthy. There is a great deal of interest in complementary health care approaches with Americans spend approximately 30 billion dollars annually on health products and services. So what is going awry? Why are we plagued with diseases, with 50 percent of US adults have one or more chronic health condition?
There are obviously many factors that play into the dramatic rise in disease rate, but two BIG factors are diet and stress, two variables that many people have a hard time managing. I am sure this is not a huge revelation, after all, most of us have been advised at some point to follow a healthful diet and try to decrease our stress load to help with various health parameters such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol. I feel a large part of the confusion lies in the fact that many people don’t know what a healthful diet is. A quick search online revealed so many diets it was overwhelming to even try and wade through. There was a fruitarian diet, where your diet consist mainly of raw fruits, a cookie diet, where you eat a low calorie diet with cookies used to quell hunger and sometimes used as meal replacements, and to many others to count. Although I know that seems a bit absurd, I am sure you can think of one or two fad diets that you have tried that in retrospect were not very healthy and balanced.
So how are we to know what is the best option for us? Well, I feel that there is not a one size fits all dietary plan. We are all unique and we must pay attention to our bodies to know what foods work best for us. There are, however, important guidelines that I feel are essential for optimal health. First and foremost, Base your diet on REAL foods, not highly processed factory produced foods, but foods that are provided by nature and pick organic options whenever possible. I often tell my clients to think of foods they could grow or they might find on a local farm. In nature you would find whole foods like greens, berries, tubers, and meats. You would also find some grains, but in small amounts and you would never find a bagel or loaf of bread growing on a bush. In reality, you would have to put a great deal of effort into growing enough grain to make a loaf of bread and you defiantly would not have enough to be eating it every day with every meal. Look at your ingredient list….if you can’t pronounce the ingredient there is a pretty good chance your body doesn’t need to deal with it.
Second, eat a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables. The compounds that give vegetables and fruits their colors are powerful antioxidants that help with many metabolic processes including our immune system and detoxification. The vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients found in a colorful varied diet cannot be replaced with synthetic supplements. We rely on these micronutrients for our bodies to function properly so taking a daily multivitamin at breakfast with a donut and coffee just is not enough. I do think supplements can be a complementary health practice, but should never take the place of eating a healthy micronutrient dense diet.
Nutrients are generally classified into two groups, macronutrients (fat, carbohydrates, and protein), which provide the bulk of our energy (calories), and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients) that are essential in metabolism and other bodily functions.
Both macronutrients and micronutrients are essential for optimal health and survival, but we often focus more on the fat, protein, and carbohydrates in our diets instead of micronutrients. This mental paradigm needs to shift. We need to start focusing more on the micronutrient content of our foods to help us determine if they are healthy choices. As a society, we are overfed and undernourished and our bodies are constantly trying to get the micronutrients needed for optimal health, which is reflected in frequent hunger and cravings, which causes us to consume more calories than we really need. Think for a moment what your knee jerk reaction would be if you were trying to make the healthiest choice between the two options below.
Option 1: 250 calories, Fat: 6 grams, Carbohydrates: 40, Protein: 11 g
Option 2: 300 calories, Fat: 18 g, Carbohydrates: 26 g, Protein: 10 g
When looking at the macronutrient breakdown you would see option 1 has less fat and fewer calories than option 2 and you might think it was the healthier choice. However, what we should really be trying to determine is which is more micronutrients dense (which option has more vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients per calorie.) Unfortunately, the micronutrient content is not available on most food labels (except for a few vitamins and minerals such as vitamin c and iron) so you must make an educated guess. Look at the ingredient labels of both options and try to determine which would be more micronutrient dense.
Rice, Oats, Soy Protein, Sugar, Roasted Soy Beans, Rice Flour, Cane Syrup, Oat Fiber, Soy Flour, Sunflower Oil, Molasses, Soybean Oil, Salt, Vanilla, Soy Lecithin, Natural Flavors.
Peanuts, Dark Chocolate Chunks, Dried Cranberries, Cashews, Almonds, and Dried Tart Cherries.
So which is the healthier option? Although higher in fat and calories, option 2 (trail mix) would be a healthier option than option 1 (granola bar). Most all the ingredients from option 1 are derived from grains, soy, and sugar in various forms, whereas option 2 has dark chocolate, cranberries, cashews, almonds and cherries that are all nutrient dense and most are still in their original WHOLE FOOD form. Also, option 2 has a much better fat to carbohydrate ratio than option 1 which is preferred for many reasons including blood sugar regulation.
The take away message is to not only look at the nutrient facts of a food. Look at the ingredients and make sure you are getting the biggest bang for your calorie by choosing foods that are high in micronutrient density.
Fat is an essential part of a well-balanced diet. Remember variety is key and fats are no different. Make sure to consume a variety of fats with the majority being from nuts, fish, fruits, and vegetables. It can seem daunting to obtain 50-60% of your calories from fat but remember there are more than double the number of calories in a gram of fat than in carbohydrate or protein, with each gram of fat containing 9 calories. The chart below shows common foods and their fat contents. Important factors to consider when choosing healthy fats are the Omega 3 to 6 ratio, if they are unsaturated or saturated, their smoke point and processing methods used to extract oils. Whole food forms of fats are typically the most stable and less likely to produce free radicals due to oxidation.
Below you will find a sample combination of foods to obtain 50% of calories from fat (110 grams) for an average 2000 calorie meal plan:
1 whole avocado: 30 grams
1 tbsp of almond butter: 8 grams
1/3 cup of hummus: 8 grams
1/3 cup almonds: 23 grams
1 tbsp of olive oil: 15 grams
2 ounces of dark chocolate: 20 grams
Total: 104 grams of fat
Omega 3 to 6 Ratio
Fats (or lipids) are composed of fatty acids. Our bodies are able to synthesize many of the fatty acids it needs, but there are some that we must obtain from our diet, such as Omega 3 fatty acids. Most diets are high in omega 6 fatty acids and low in omega 3 fatty acids. An optimal ratio of omega 6 to 3 fatty acids (around to 2:1) is believed to reduce inflammation, which is a driving force of chronic diseases.
Below you will find serving sizes of fats and a chart showing the ratio of fatty acids in different fats. As you can see corn, soy, cottonseed, and sunflower oil are all very high in omega 6 fatty acids while coconut oil, butter fat and olive oil are low.
Saturated and Unsaturated Fatty Acids
Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. The number of double bonds a fat contains determines whether it is saturated or unsaturated. If a fat has multiple double bonds it is a polyunsaturated fat, if it contains only one double bond it is a monounsaturated fat and if it contains no double bonds it is a saturated fat.
Why is this important? The more double bonds a fat contains the more unstable it is. This is due to the fact that free radicals (aka reactive oxygen species) can bond to the double bonds causing oxidative stress. An unsaturated fat contained in a food is more stable, and therefore healthier, than an unsaturated fat that has been highly processed using heat and/or chemicals such as hexane.
A good example of this would be flaxseed oil. The oil in the flaxseed is more stable and a healthier option, especially since it contains an optimal ratio of omega 3 to 6 fatty acids. However, if removed from seed, heated and treated, and placed on a shelf it becomes oxidized and contains higher amounts of free radicals which promote inflammation. Often fat will have an off odor when this occurs, which is commonly referred to as rancid.
Fish oils are another example of polyunsaturated fatty acids that can cause oxidative stress if not handled properly. Consuming omega 3 fatty acids in their whole food form from fish such as salmon and trout is optimal. However, many individuals choose to take a supplement instead. Caution is needed when choosing a fish oil supplement because if the product has not been processed or handled properly it can cause more harm than benefit. Make sure to purchase from a reputable company that conducts third party rancidity testing and purity testing.
Storing oils in a cool, dark location will help slow the oxidation process. Freezing or refrigerating an oil will keep if fresher longer.
The chart on the following page shows the amount of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty acids in various types of fats. Choosing a fat with minimal polyunsaturated fatty acids is optimal. Remember to also consider the ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids.
Smoke Point of Fats
The smoke point, or burning point, of a fat is the temperature at which the oil will begin to burn and produce a visible smoke. Not only does the cause an off taste and smell, it also destroys nutrients and produces free radicals.
By learning common smoke points of fats, you will be able to determine their best culinary application. If you are cooking at higher temperatures, i.e. frying or roasting, you would want to use an oil with a high smoke point. Whereas for a salad dressing or a food that is slightly heated you could use olive oil or butter. See chart below for average temperatures of various cooking methods.
The following page list common fats and their smoke point. If you mix oils, you would use the oil with the lowest smoke point as a guide for appropriate cooking methods. Refined oils generally have a higher smoke point than unrefined oils, however, they are also generally lower in nutritional value. Also pay close attention to the processing methods, cold pressed oils that do not use high heat and chemicals, such as hexamine, for fat extraction are recommended.
Sarah Burnett obtained her M.S. in foods and nutrition and is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian. She lives with her family on a small pasture-based farm in the mountains of north Georgia. Working directly with her food has profoundly effected her views on nutrition and solidified her feeling that REAL, whole foods are essential in nourishing and repairing our bodies. You can read more about her nutrition journey here. Best of luck on your whole food, whole body, approach to health! something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.