- Healthy eating is a lifestyle that emphasizes the consumption of whole and minimally processed foods.
- Many so-called healthy foods and beverages are chock-full of sugar in different forms, from fructose and dextrose to corn syrup.
- Saturated fat isn’t the villain. Trans fatty acids, on the other hand, contribute to heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and metabolic disorders.
- Portion control and mindful eating are key components of a balanced diet.
Let’s face it: clean eating is anything but simple. Most studies on what we should eat are conflicting, whether we’re talking about sports nutrition, fat loss, or overall health. Even something as simple as our daily protein intake is subject to debate.
On one hand, health organizations recommend eating 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. On the other hand, experts say that we should consume double that amount — or even more.
If you’re wondering how to start eating healthy, be prepared to make some lifestyle changes. We’re not talking about obvious things like cutting out sugar, but about being able to spot hidden sugars and choosing the best foods for your goals.
So, are you ready to change the way you think about food? This is the only guide to clean eating you’ll ever need, so read on.
How Healthy Do YOU Eat?
Is your diet as healthy as you think it is? According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), most Americans exceed the daily recommended intake of added sugar, sodium, solid fats, saturated fats, and processed grains. At the same time, they eat less than the recommended amounts of whole foods, such as fruits, veggies and unrefined grains.
In fact, the average American consumes a whopping 152 pounds of sugar per year — that’s a lot more compared to the maximum daily recommended intake, which is six teaspoons per day for women and nine teaspoons per day for men. Soft drinks account for more than one-third of the daily calorie intake in the modern diet.
These findings are not surprising, considering that almost 75% of packaged foods contain added sugars. Your favorite protein bar is probably higher in sugar than you think. If you check the label, you’ll see dextrose, fructose, HFCS, corn syrup, carob syrup, and other sneaky ingredients that are nothing but sugar in disguise.
And no, diet foods are not better either. Just because the label says “sugar-free” doesn’t mean it’s carb-free. Sure, carbs are not the enemy, but they may lead to weight gain, insulin resistance, diabetes, and cardiovascular problems when consumed in excess.
Healthy eating isn’t all about cutting out sugar and trans fats. Artificial sweeteners, preservatives and other chemicals in food are just as harmful as sugar. Many so-called “healthy” foods actually pack more calories and carbs than a Snickers.
The Case Against Juice: Is Fruit Juice Slowly Killing You?
If you’re feeling confused, we totally get it. Don’t fret, though. Today, we have more food options than ever before. That’s a good thing, but it also poses new challenges that previous generations never had to face.
Let’s start with something simple, such as fruit juice. At first glance, this seems like a healthy choice. It’s relatively low in calories and packs a hefty nutritional punch. In fact, it’s no better than soda.
According to a large-scale study published this year, fructose, the sugar in fruit juice, produces the same biological response as sugar-sweetened beverages. The risk of developing type II diabetes increased 7% in subjects who consumed an extra daily serving of juice.
Another study indicates that sugary beverages, including fruit juice, raise the risk of coronary heart disease and all-cause mortality.
Men and women who consumed an additional daily serving of fruit juice, energy drinks, soda, and other sugary beverages had an 11% higher risk of death from all causes. Furthermore, these beverages have been linked to increased obesity rates, elevated cholesterol, insulin resistance, inflammation, and cardiovascular events.
Fruit juice consumption may also contribute to diabetes, as reported in The BMJ. After comparing the effects of fruit juice, sugar sweetened beverages, and artificially sweetened drinks, researchers concluded that any of these products may increase diabetes risk.
As mentioned earlier, the research is conflicting. For example, a review featured in the British Journal of Nutrition suggests that pure fruit juice consumption may protect against cardiovascular disease. However, researchers point out that eating whole fruits is much healthier.
Good Fats vs. Bad Fats: Know the Facts
Now let’s talk about fats. You probably already know that salmon, tuna, olive oil, avocado, sardines, nuts, and seeds are all good sources of mono- and polyunsaturated fats. They are an integral part of the Mediterranean diet and other eating patterns that promote health and well-being.
What about saturated and trans fats?
The keto diet, for example, is largely based on saturated fats. These are found in meat, dairy, eggs, coconut oil, and processed foods like pies, cakes, chips, and ice cream.
American Heart Association Study
Once again, the research is mixed. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), saturated fat should account for no more than 5 to 6% of total daily calorie intake. One gram of fat has 9 calories. If you consume about 2,000 calories per day, your saturated fat intake shouldn’t exceed 13 grams.
As AHA points out, saturated fats raise bad cholesterol levels and may contribute to heart disease. A 2010 research paper published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition states the opposite.
Researchers analyzed 21 studies conducted on 347,747 subjects, concluding that saturated fat consumption does NOT increase the risk of stroke, coronary heart disease, or cardiovascular disease.
Older studies, on the other hand, indicate that substituting saturated fats for polyunsaturated fats may lower the risk of heart disease by a staggering 42%.
In these circumstances, it’s hard to tell who’s right and who’s wrong. The best thing you can do is to consume these fats in moderation.
Whole foods, such as lean beef, eggs, and poultry, all contain saturated fat, but they’re a lot healthier compared to French fries, margarine, cookies, and other ultra-processed products.
Researchers agree, though, that trans fats pose major health risks. We couldn’t agree more.
Trans Fat — The Silent Killer Lurking in Your Food
Trans fatty acids, or trans fats, occur naturally in dairy foods and some types of meat, such as lamb and beef. However, animal products only contain tiny amounts of trans fatty acids and don’t pose any health risks.
In fact, ruminant trans fats have been proven beneficial. Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), for instance, is prized for its potential health benefits. If you’ve training or dieting for a while, you must have heard about CLA supplements.
Clinical research has linked CLA to fat loss, improved blood lipids, and reduced diabetes risk. In one study, CLA supplementation prevented high blood pressure and decreased hyperinsulinemia in rats. Another study, which was conducted on humans, has found that it may improve insulin response and protect against diabetes.
Except for CLA, trans fatty acids are harmful to your health. Hydrogenated fats, or artificial trans fats, clog your arteries, raise bad cholesterol, and contribute to heart disease.
In a study conducted on 84,941 women, those who consumed the most sugar and trans fats had an increased risk of diabetes. Furthermore, trans fatty acids have been shown to increase visceral fat mass, body weight, blood sugar, and insulin levels.
As the researchers note, these compounds promote fat storage in the abdominal area and may cause insulin resistance, even in the absence of caloric excess.
How to Spot Hidden Trans Fats
Diabetes, weight gain, and heart disease are not the only side effects of eating trans fats. Refined vegetable oils, pizza, frozen pies, cookies, crackers, and other foods rich in hydrogenated fats have been linked to inflammation, cancer, high cholesterol, and everything in between. Yet, the average American consumed about 1.3 grams of trans fatty acids per day.
It may not seem much, but even small amounts of trans fats represent a health hazard.
Common Foods With Trans Fats
Stay on the safe side and avoid the following foods:
- Movie popcorn
- Coffee creamers
- Cake mixes
- Store-bought apple pie, croissants, and pastries
- Fish fingers
- Spring rolls
- Frozen dinners
- Fried potato wedges
- French fries
- Deep-fried fast food items
- Stick margarine
- Blended and refined vegetable oils
- Vegetable shortenings
- Pie crust
In general, processed and fried foods are the highest in trans fats. However, many so-called healthy foods may contain trans fatty acids too. Protein bars, sugar-free cookies, and low-sugar chocolate are just a few examples.
Most times, you won’t even see the term “trans fat” listed on the label. Food manufacturers use other terms to hide this ingredient, such as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.
Cake frosting, for example, contains anywhere between 0.1 and 7 grams of trans fats per 100 grams, according to a report published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. Salty snacks boast up to 4 grams of hydrogenated fats per 100 grams. Spreads and margarine often contain up to 26 grams of trans fats per 100 grams.
The same amount of animal fat, by contrast, has less than 5 grams of trans fatty acids.
A History on Saturated Fats
Back in the 70s, saturated fats were blamed for contributing to cardiac events and cancer. As a result, food manufacturers switched to vegetable oils, which were considered healthier.
These products, though, lacked the crispiness, spreadability, and other attributes of animal fats (like butter, for example). Fat hydrogenation, a chemical process, allowed manufacturers to overcome this issue and solidify the oil.
Unlike natural trans fats, hydrogenated oils are highly processed and have no nutritional value. Avocado, sardines, olive oil, and tuna, on the other hand, contain heart-healthy fats that fuel your energy, keep your brain sharp, and increase satiety.
How to Start Eating Healthy: Cut Back on Processed Foods
By now, you should have a better idea of how to start eating healthy. The first step is to clean up your diet. This means no sugar, no trans fats, and no additives. It also means that you need a balanced ratio of protein, carbs, fats, and micro-nutrients that aligns with your goals.
By substituting processed foods with whole, natural foods, you’ll automatically cut out sugar and other anti-nutrients.
Old school bodybuilding diets, for example, relied on beef, chicken, turkey, eggs, and other whole or minimally processed foods. Tom Platz ate meat close to the bone with sauerkraut, pickles, and fermented beets.
Samir Bannout was a fan of the keto diet and avoided high-glycemic carbs. Sergio Oliva’s diet plan included eggs, oatmeal, chicken breast, vegetables, fish, and rice. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s meals consisted of eggs, oats, brown rice, red meat, fish, and poultry.
These bodybuilding legends had different goals in terms of mass gains and physical performance, but their diets were quite similar. No sugary treats, no processed food, no ready-made meals, and so on. Their meals consisted of minimally processed, real foods.
So what is considered a whole food?
This term refers to any food product that’s either raw or has been processed as little as possible and contains no artificial ingredients. Think fresh fruit, raw or cooked vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, fish, and whole grains.
Grilled chicken breast, for example, can be considered a whole food. We can’t say the same about fried chicken breast coated with flour and breadcrumbs.
Watch Out for Hidden Sugars
Sugar is a sneaky ingredient that comes in many forms. In fact, you might not even see the word “sugar” listed on food labels.
Manufacturers use over 60 different names for it, including:
- Glucose solids
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Cane juice
- Golden syrup
- Agave nectar
- Fruit juice concentrate
- Cane crystals
- Ethyl maltol
- Corn syrup solids
Sucrose, for example, is just another name for table sugar. Agave syrup, or agave nectar, consists of 10 to 30% glucose and 70 to 90% fructose.
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is derived from corn starch, may contribute to the onset of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, according to a research paper featured in Biotechnology and Molecular Biology Reviews. A meta-analysis published in Global Public Health has found that diabetes rates are 20 percent higher in countries where HFCS is widely consumed.
As you navigate the store aisles, you’ll see energy bars, chocolate bars, and diet foods labeled “sugar-free.” Those products, though, may contain cane juice, dextrose, HFCS, and other sugars in disguise. The only way to spot them is to check the ingredients list.
Beware that cookies, cake, breakfast cereals, and soft drinks are not the only sources of sugar. Salty foods and snacks, such as chips, frozen dinners, and deli meats, may contain this ingredient too.
Watch Out for Food Additives
Next on our list are food additives. If sugar and trans fats were your only concerns, healthy eating would have been a lot easier. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Most foods nowadays contain additives, preservatives, and other potentially harmful ingredients. These compounds have been linked to cancer, chronic inflammation, obesity, hormonal disorders, and metabolic problems. Let’s see a few examples:
- Sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate
- BHA and BHT
- Blue #1 and Blue #2
- Yellow #5 and Yellow #6
- Interesterified fat
- Potassium benzoate
- Sodium benzoate
- Red #3
- Caramel coloring
- Monosodium glutamate
- Brominated vegetable oil
- Modified food starch
Modified food starch, for instance, is an umbrella term for wheat, corn, rice, or potato starches that have been chemically modified. They’re commonly used in frozen meals, diet foods, and ultra-processed foods.
Interesterified fat has emerged as a healthier alternative to trans fatty acids. It contains a bland of nonhydrogenated and fully hydrogenated oils. The truth is that it’s anything but healthy.
In a four-week study published in Nutrition & Metabolism, subjects who consumed interesterified fat experienced an increase in the ratio of LDL (“bad”) to HDL (“good”) cholesterol. As the researchers point out, this type of fat alters blood lipids and glucose metabolism.
Keep an Eye on Portion Size
A healthy diet isn’t just about food itself. It also requires practicing portion control and eating mindfully.
We all know that most restaurants nowadays serve over-sized portions. But do you really know what a serving size looks like?
As the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states, portion size isn’t the same as serving size. The former is the amount of food you eat, while the latter is the recommended amount. Most foods we eat contain more than one serving.
- One serving of fruits and vegetables is one cup, while one serving of whole grains is 3 ounces or half a cup.
- For one serving of meat, poultry, or fish is the size of a deck of cards.
- One serving of peanut butter is one tablespoon.
These measurements are not set in stone, though. For example, a bodybuilder needs more protein compared to the average person, so eating one serving of meat and one serving of veggies or starches at every meal may not be enough.
Make a diet plan with your goals in mind. Track your daily calories as well as the amount of protein, carbs, and fats consumed. Adjust these numbers based on your objectives, whether it’s fat loss, weight maintenance, or hypertrophy.
Have more questions on how to start eating healthy? Let us know below!