I am going to prelude this article by saying, once again, that by "diet" I don't mean "drastically (and sometimes nonsensically) changing your eating habits on the short term to lose/gain weight". "Diet", whenever the term is used on here, means eating habits, as a whole: the food you eat day to day to fuel your body and (hopefully) help with your health and fitness goals.
Now, with that being said, there's another premise which has to be taken into account: I am going to assume that, if you're reading this, your goal is to become (or remain) healthy, thanks to eating habits which promote physical and psychological well-being. Also, I am writing here about "regular" eating habits, not those which some people may use to gain a lot of muscle, for example for bodybuilding.
When I was ten, we found out that I had an autoimmune disease which has some pesky side effects, including slowing down my metabolism and converting ingested calories into fat rather than energy. I was lucky enough that my mother had always cooked meals based on real, whole foods with very little fat or sugar. However, I still had to make certain adjustments to the way and foods I was eating and, trust me, no ten year old likes hearing that they are different and can't have a 10am snack anymore like everyone else in the school yard!
The principles I will be laying out in this article come from the advice I have received over the years and from what I have experimented with and found to work for me. It is not specific to having an auto-immune disease, and I firmly believe that everyone can benefit from them, however, once again, I am not a doctor nor am I a nutritionist so if you have specific conditions, please consult a specialist.
First of all: fruit and veg. There's a reason many Western governments have, in recent years, come out with recommended daily servings of fruit and vegetables (usually between 5 and 10). That is because fruits and vegetables are a great source of vitamins, fiber, minerals and a whole other bunch of essentials nutrients which your body needs to function optimally. I will go more in depth on this later, but leafy and cruciferous greens (spinach, kale, brocoli, cauliflower...) are especially rich in nutrients and low in calories. You can pretty much allow yourself an unlimited (within reason) amount of vegetables per day, and fruits' nutritious benefits tend to outweigh their sugar content although you may want to go a little slower on more sugar-heavy fruits like bananas.
Protein is another essential part of a healthy diet, be it plant or animal-based. Although it is true that it may be a little harder for vegetarians/vegans (v*gans) to find a constant supply of protein, it is not true that being v*gan makes it impossible to ingest enough protein. Whichever way your little heart balances, you will want to prefer lean protein: white meats, lean beef cuts, fish, eggs, quality dairy, beans etc. Now it may seem obvious but I'm going to say this anyway: choosing a lean cut of meat and then lathering it in thick cream based sauces is not going to get you anywhere near "healthy". The way you cook/prepare your meals is essential in remaining on the healthy side of things. Again, more on that soon.
Ahh, the ever ubiquitous carbs! We love to hate 'em, don't we? How many times have you been told to "lay off the pasta" or that eating bread with your salad will make it go straight to your hips? If you're like me, too many, I'm sure. While it may be true that excessive amounts of carbohydrates can lead to all kinds of unpleasant health issues (heart disease, insulin resistance, gluten allergies...), it is also true that carbs remain one of the easiest sources of food for your brain and muscles. Indeed, to function, your brain can only feed on glucose and that is basically the sugar found in "fast" and "slow" carbs. Fast carbs are pretty much plain old sugar, in whatever form. Slow carbs are found in things like pasta or bread and mainly derive from all manner of grains.
The recommendation I was given aged 10, and have been following since, is to consume carbs generally for breakfast or lunch, and no later than 4pm. The reason for this is that, as I said earlier, carbs convert to glucose (fast energy) relatively quickly. Now, if that energy is not used up within a few hours, say going to the gym or walking home for example, it is stored in the body and converted to fat "for later use". But this "storage" was useful when we were hunter/gatherers, never sure when the next meal would come along. Today, we eat consistently 3-6 times a day, and it is very rare (in developed/Western societies) to ever go hungry. So that "emergency fat" accumulates, rarely if ever being used, and leads to weight gain. A final word on carbs: try to privilege whole grains (whole wheat vs. white bread for example) and, as a rule of thumb, prefer "dark" carbs: brown rice, whole wheat/other whole grain pasta, etc.
This leads us to whole grains: whenever possible, prefer these to more processed grains which have been stripped of their good nutrients. Be aware though, when using whole grains, that some may need to be soaked in order to rid them of the phytic acid which makes them less digestible, thus not bringing you all the nutrients you're hoping to get from eating said hole grains.
Fats are another one of those things we love to hate. However, a certain amount of healthy fat is necessary for the body to function properly. This doesn't mean having fried food once a day to get your dose. Rather, it means using a tablespoon of olive oil to make a salad dressing, for example. Or using coconut oil to sauté onions. Eating a small handful of nuts or a portion of fatty fish like salmon is also another great way of getting those essential Omega oils and fatty acids into your body. Keep in mind, when portioning oils/butter/etc that a serving of just one tablespoon contains 90 calories, so that can add up really quickly if you're not being careful.
Finally, avoid all processed foods. Processed foods tend to contain a lot of salt to enhance their taste after re-heating, but also more oils and sugars than are really needed. Besides, have you ever read the side of pizza box and wondered how to pronounce some of those ingredients? Yeah, me too. And if I can't pronounce it, I'm thinking maybe I shouldn't be eating it. If it doesn't occur naturally in the environment, you're better off not eating it, at least not on a daily basis. Besides, if concern for your health weren't enough, think of how much more expensive pre-packaged and processed foods are: for the price of that 3 euros frozen pizza, you can make a couple of home made pizzas with none of those unpronounceable chemicals, and take pride in knowing that you're eating the fruit of your (easy) work!
The bottom line is this: prefer fresh produce to any other food when you're shopping, eat whole grains (soaked when necessary) whenever possible, make your daily portions of protein lean, avoid carbs after lunch, stay away from processed foods, ration your fats and sugars and try to keep to healthy versions (try putting honey, stevia or agave syrup in your coffee next time, works a treat!). As for organic, if you have access to it and the cash to spend on it, go for it. However, if you need to choose, it's more important to go organic on foods that have no thick protective skins - like leafy greens or berries - than it is for fruits likes oranges with thick skins that you peel off (unless you're using the rind, in which case you may want to go organic on those, too).
Whatever you do, remember that food should remain a source of pleasure and satisfaction: if you are frustrated or unhappy with what you are eating, it will be harder for you to keep to a balanced diet and you will be much more tempted by that chocolate bar at the till. Be creative when you prepare and cook your food, there are so many great resources online for recipes (and I'll be linking some of my favorite food blogs soon, so look out for that)! Unless you know you are unable to restrain yourself, my advice is: don't forbid yourself anything, try everything. Having a square of chocolate from time to time isn't going to kill your efforts, but eating the rest of the slab that same day will.
Moderation + portion control = keys to a healthy, beautiful diet.
What eating guidelines do you guys follow, and why?