Enough generalities, it’s time to talk about lunch, dinner, and snack foods that support a healthy lifestyle. It’s common to view healthy food as scanty, unsatisfying, and tasteless, but there’s no reason it can’t be rich, flavorful, and filling. The key is understanding what your body needs. As far as preparing the food, creativity can reign.
What does my body need from food?
Our bodies need a good balance of nutrients and water. Nutrients include proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and vitamins. We also need some minerals like iron, copper, and salts. How much of each is needed will vary from person to person depending on age, height, health condition, and activity level.
Rather than attempt to analyze millions of packaged food items, this post will focus on types of nutrients and how much is needed each day. This information can help you compare labels on packaged food or determine how much fresh food to eat.
Plan to include the following each day:
Examples of high protein foods: beef, pork, lamb, bison, chicken, eggs, fish, seafood.
Other foods with protein: milk, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, eggs, nuts, beans, tofu, quinoa.
Protein is made up of amino acids that help your body build healthy cells. Without enough protein, you can suffer from fatigue, weakness, or muscle loss and your immune system may suffer.
A 3-ounce serving of meat contains about 21 grams of protein and each gram of protein provides 4 calories of energy. Meat also contains fat. In order to keep fat intake at a tolerable level, choose a variety of lean meat, poultry, and fish.
Minimum Protein Recommendation: 46 (women) – 56 (men & pregnant women) grams of protein per day.
Examples of healthy high carbohydrate foods: fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes.
Fruits include apples, peaches, pears, bananas, grapes, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, oranges, lemons, limes, cherries, grapefruit, kiwifruit, avocados, apricots, watermelon, pineapple, honeydew, cantaloupe, tomatoes, mangoes, dates, plums, figs, persimmons, pomegranate, cranberries, coconut, kumquat, tangerines, olives, nectarines, and papaya.
Vegetables include green beans, turnip greens, collard greens, mustard greens, summer squash, zucchini, butternut squash, acorn squash, onion, carrots, beets, broccoli, cabbage, eggplant, cauliflower, kale, spinach, sweet potatoes, yams, chard, bell peppers, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, turnips, celery, cucumber, lettuce, arugula, okra, parsnips, rutabaga, corn, and potatoes.
Grains include those containing gluten that is harmful those with celiac disease or gluten-intolerance: wheat, rye, barley; and those that can be tolerated by those with celiac disease: rice, buckwheat, quinoa, millet, teff, amaranth, sorghum, corn* and oats**.
Legumes include English peas, sugar snap peas, black-eyed peas, purple hull peas, black beans, pinto beans, adzuki beans, lima beans, kidney beans, navy beans, garbanzo beans, soybeans, lentils, mesquite, carob, soybeans, peanuts and tamarind.
Each gram of carbohydrate provides about 4 calories of energy. Carbohydrates can be broken into two categories — simple and complex. Simple carbs from fresh fruits and vegetables are the healthiest form of carbohydrates. They provide many essential vitamins, minerals, water, and fiber. Legumes, which can be either simple or complex, are also a source of protein. It is best for diabetics to limit starchy vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, corn, and some legumes like pinto beans.
If you have a calorie deficit after consuming the amount of protein and fats you need, then adding vegetables, legumes, or fruits for more energy is a healthy choice. Consume 60 – 80 grams of carbohydrates, plus more to meet calorie requirements. Most additional carbs should come from fresh vegetables, legumes, and fruit (240 – 320 calories minimum)
Examples of foods that contain fat: meat, some fish and seafood, poultry, eggs, bacon, cheese, lard, shortening, nuts, nut butters like peanut butter, avocados, whole milk, butter, cod liver oil, coconut oil, olive oil, sunflower oil, and other vegetable oils.
The body needs to consume the fats that it cannot manufacture. These fats help proteins do their jobs. They help the body stockpile nutrients like vitamins A, D, E, and K, and they begin chemical reactions used in growth, immune function, and reproduction. Naturally occurring fats may be saturated or unsaturated. Saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature while unsaturated are not.
There’s a category of fats called trans fats that is produced in the gut of some animals. Small amounts of trans fats then appear in foods made from these animals. There are other artificial trans fatty acids created by an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. These trans fats will be listed on labels as partially hydrogenated oil which is no longer considered generally safe in human food and should be avoided.
Each gram of fat contains 9 calories or more than twice as many calories as there are in a gram of protein or carbohydrate. Consume 63 – 97 grams of fat per day (567 – 873 calories).
Minerals and Vitamins
There are recommended daily allowances for many vitamins and minerals and upper allowances for some. Minerals and vitamins are contained in most of the foods listed above.
Vitamins and minerals are important for bone health, electrolyte balance, thyroid function, and many other body functions like blood clotting and heart rhythm.
Examples of vitamins that you need: A, B6, B12, Niacin, Riboflavin, Thiamin, C, E, K, and folate.
Examples of minerals that you need: Calcium, copper, sodium, iron, potassium, magnesium, selenium, zinc, and iodine.
In order to get all of these vitamins and minerals, you will need to consume a wide variety of foods. If you have been advised to limit your salt intake, it is important to recognize that many packaged foods contain a significant amount of sodium even though they don’t taste salty.
Water needs are affected by weight, age, temperature, electrolyte balance, intake of caffeine, intake of sugar, physical activity, your surrounding environment, health conditions, and pregnancy or breast-feeding, so you may need more water than the amount listed here. You will also get water from fruits and vegetables, liquids like tea and coffee, juice, milk, and flavored drinks.
Water makes up about 60 percent of your body weight and contributes to the function of every body system. Lack of water can lead to dehydration that can drain your energy, give you a headache, cause weakness, dizziness, palpitations, confusion, fainting, sluggishness, and an inability to sweat. Severe dehydration over a period of time will cause body systems to shut down leading to life-threatening conditions.
Average adequate intake per day for a woman living in a temperate climate is 9 cups. Average adequate intake per day for a man living in a temperate climate is 13 cups. Plan to drink at least 9 – 13 cups water per day (0 calories).
Okay, but I like chili, mac & cheese, enchiladas, lasagna, pizza, bread, and cookies.
Of course you like these favorite foods. I do too! Chili contains meat, tomatoes, and sometimes beans. That’s some protein, some fat, some carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals all in one pot. The calories will vary depending on the meat you use. The nutrients will vary depending on the tomatoes and whether you add beans. You don’t have to know an exact measurement of each in order to have a healthy eating plan. It’s more about balance and consistency over time.
That means it’s okay to eat the foods you love. If your favorites are high in starch, sugar, or fat, your new plan may include them once a week rather than once a day. If you forget to eat leafy greens, you may want to add spinach to your eggs on the weekend. The specifics of your health plan can be tailored to suit your taste and the everyday demands of life.
If your plan involves weight loss and you feel it’s important to measure the calories of each and every thing you consume, there are many online calorie calculators to help you record your daily intake.
Now that I’ve given you an overwhelming amount of information, let’s get back to keeping things simple. Next time you go to the store, just let FLAVOR be your guide:
F resh food
L imited packaged, processed food and grain-based carbs
A nimal proteins with the least amount of fat and no additives
V egetable and fruit carbs in wide variety
O rganic from local sources when available & affordable
R epeat each day
Then put the following list in your phone so that you always have it available:
Protein 75 – 100 grams per day (300 – 400 calories)
Carbohydrates 60 – 80 grams + per day (240 – 320 calories minimum)
Fats 63 – 97 grams per day (567 – 873 calories)
Water 9 – 13 cups water minimum (0 calories)
I know it sounds complicated to learn what’s in your food and then choose based on what your body needs, but if you let curiosity be your guide you may soon find labels fascinating. And beginning with fresh ingredients can actually make cooking more simple. We’ll show you how this works when we launch the Cooking2Thrive cooking show that’s being shot and edited now.
To help you as you get started, I’ve listed additional resources below, but if you need help with a specific question, feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now get out there and love you some healthy food! After all, it’s Valentine’s Day.
*Corn is a grain, fruit, and vegetable. http://articles.extension.org/pages/36971/please-settle-a-dispute-is-sweet-corn-a-vegetable-or-a-grain-what-is-the-difference-how-about-field-
**Oats are gluten-free, but often contaminated with wheat in the US. Those with celiac disease or gluten-intolerance should choose certified gluten free oats.
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