This is the first in a series of articles about the five habits you need to practice in order to add years to your life. In addition to not smoking, there are four other habits that you can read about on our website.
The American Heart Association says eating a healthy diet is an essential component of a healthy lifestyle. Doing so, they say, could add years to your life.
It’s an exciting proposition, but you’d be forgiven if you looked at that seemingly simple recommendation and said, “Well where the heck do I start?” That’s because there are no shortage of “experts” out there touting the latest diet trend as the best way to get healthy and live longer.
But we have good news for you. It really is as simple as it sounds. Tune out the noise around you, and science has the answer for how to eat a healthy diet.
According to Dr. David Katz, founder of the True Health Initiative and founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, the fundamentals of good nutrition really haven’t changed in decades. In fact, you’ve probably been hearing this refrain since you were a kid. “Eat your fruits and vegetables.”
Fruits and vegetables
“Eat the rainbow” is a phrase we like to remember as we meal prep each week. Picking one or two vegetables you enjoy is a good start, but you should aim to add a wide variety of color to your diet. Why? A variety of hues on your plate means a variety of nutrients in your body. Instead of a simple white potato, try a bright orange sweet potato. Dig deeper in the produce section and get your hands on a purple sweet potato, which will have a slightly different nutrition profile than its orange sibling. And that’s just the beginning. There’s green cauliflower. Yellow peppers. Purple carrots. These are the rainbow-infused colors you can find in your neighborhood grocery store. Think beyond the steamed vegetable medley you saw on your plate as a kid. Roast them and you’ll find they are delicious with a simple drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Reward yourself with a seasonal fruity snack or dessert. Don’t be fooled by “experts” who argue fruit is too sugary; it is simply not so. There are so many other nutrients to be had in a sweet berry or a crunchy apple outside of natural sugar.
Healthy, whole grains
If you’re wondering how you’ll ever feel full with a plate-full of vegetables, you’re not alone. To simply eat fruits and vegetables would probably not be satiating enough for most people. There are plenty more healthful foods you can put on your plate to make it more calorie dense. The problem, however, is that many so-called experts caution against a food group that has so much to offer. Carbohydrates. Specifically, we recommend eating unrefined, healthy, whole grains. While you don’t need to stay away from pasta completely (after all, it’s a staple of the Mediterranean diet) there are so many more complex healthy whole grains to choose from. Quinoa is a good place to start. Serve it cold in a salad and it goes from boring lunch to protein-packed power lunch. Use it in lieu of rice for stuffed peppers at dinner. Toss it with tomatoes and fresh mozzeralla for a whole-grain twist on a Mediterranean classic. No need to stop with quinoa. Farro. Barley. Millet. Spelt. Freekeh. Bulgur. All of these nutrient dense grains will make your plant-based meals more filling.
Beans, nuts, lentils and seeds
This group of foods can be confusing in terms of categorizing it, but whether it’s a nut or a seed or a legume is really not important. What is important is that beans, nuts, lentils and seeds are plant-based proteins. Beans and lentils are a versatile food group, and they are a great replacement for meat that is naturally low in fat and high in fiber. You can easily add black beans, lentils or chickpeas to a salad. And if you typically buy a salad in your work cafe, it’s easy to pack a serving of beans to bring along with you. You can even add cooked beans to meatballs and burgers. While beans have long been known to be a staple of a healthy diet, nuts haven’t always enjoyed a good reputation. In fact, decades ago nuts were virtually condemned due to their fat content. Today, however, nuts and seeds are seeing a resurgence as a mainstay of a healthy diet. Not only are they a plant-based, antioxidant-rich protein source, but research also suggests they can help improve cholesterol levels, have anti-inflammatory properties and provide a variety of nutrients. Some nuts and seeds are high in calories, so portion control is important when incorporating these into your diet. But there’s no need to obsessively count out your almond serving each day. Even a small handful of almonds or sunflower seeds is a smarter snacking choice than chips or crackers.
With this menu, it would seem we recommend you “go vegan.” Not at all. It’s simply that plant-based foods should be the center of all your meals and snacks. You may want to add fish, lean meat or dairy in small portions, and that’s certainly fine. Salmon on your salad and crumbled feta in your quinoa are great additions to a healthy diet. To add years to your life, slow cognitive decline and redefine aging, however, we recommend you make plant based foods the star of the show, with animal proteins making an occasional appearance in a supporting role.