A healthy diet is one of the 4 pillars of health. Slowly but surely, people are starting to become aware of how diet impacts their health. Research has really begun to show how what we eat has a significant impact on our health, energy levels, how we feel and our disease risk. Eating a well balanced diet is one of the most important factors to preventing, managing and reversing chronic disease, as well as just feeling all round awesome so you can live your best life!
So here are my 17 best diet habits that if done consistently on a day to day basis, can help improve energy levels, overall wellbeing and prevent/manage chronic disease.
1. Increase water intake and reduce (or eliminate) the intake of high calorie, sugar laden beverages (fruit juices, flavoured milk, sports drinks, soft drinks, alcohol, energy drinks and sugar in hot beverages). Replace a high calorie beverage for water. Carry a water bottle with you.
Drinking calories can sometimes be the hidden cause or a large contributing factor behind weight gain. Our brains are not very effective at registering satiety signals in response to high calorie drinks, therefore one can easily overshoot their caloric intake during the day by drinking too much of these sugar sweetened beverages and not feel full. Not only do these drinks contribute to weight gain, they are also harmful to our health. Most of us don’t drink enough water because we drink too much of these high calorie drinks. This is not to say one of these drinks can’t be enjoyed every once in a while, however predominantly we should be drinking water or even teas.
2. Eat slowly. Take 20 minutes to finish a meal. Time it.
It takes approximately 20 minutes for our satiety signals to kick in, which tell us we are full. Therefore, taking our time to eat meals will make us feel fuller quicker, without overshooting our caloric intake. Studies show that people who eat faster are more likely to gain weight. Most of us eat on the run (e.g. driving, standing) and watch TV or use technology while eating, this can also lead to mindless eating causing us to eat quicker. Therefore when eating try to consume your food away from distraction, chew your food throughly, sit at a table, put your knife and fork down between bites and take at least 20 minuets to eat your meal.
3. Eat until 80% full.
Knowing what it feels like to stop eating when you are 80% full helps avoid the uncomfortable feeling of overeating, which puts a lot of stress on our digestive system and contributes to weight gain.
4. Eat a whole, unprocessed meal 3 times per day.
Research shows that individuals who eat and adhere to a diet that mostly consists of whole, minimally processed, nutrient rich foods such as meats, fish, eggs, dairy, seafood, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, whole grains, fruit, vegetables and healthy fats like coconut oil, butter, animal fats, olive oil and nut oils, tend to be healthier than those who don’t. This is because a whole food diet is rich in nutrients and anti-oxidants, that help decrease inflammation and oxidative stress, which is the main underlying cause of chronic diseases.
On this note, I would like to point out that not ALL processed food is “bad” for you and the term “processed” can sometimes be hard to define. Making such a blanket statement could mislead people away from some “processed foods,” which are healthy and can be incorporated into a healthy diet. Furthermore, I’m sure you have also heard the phrase “don’t eat anything out of a box, packet, can or container.” Once again, making a blanket statement such as this, might turn people away from some potentially healthy foods that are bought in packets, containers and boxes.
Food processing is not necessarily a bad thing as it can sometimes make healthy foods more shelf stable, more nutritious and more accessible to us.
Here is a list of common foods found in the supermarket that are “processed” or come in a box/packet/container/can/jar/tin/bottle that can complement a healthy diet.
- Raw nuts and seeds (no flavours, no added salt, no added sugar or vegetable oils)
- Frozen fruit and vegetables
- Smoked and cured fish/meats (no added sugar or flavours).
- Canned fish (in spring water or olive oil with no added flavourings, sugar or vegetable oils).
- 100% pure nut butters without added salt, sugar and vegetable oils (e.g. almond and peanut).
- Coconut oil, olive oil, nut/seed oils (e.g. avocado, macadamia, sesame).
- Wholegrain breads and wraps.
- Muesli/granola with nuts and seeds and without the added sugars/sweeteners, preservatives and additives.
- Natural Greek, Kefir and coconut yoghurt without the added flavourings and sugar.
- Butter, cheeses, milk and creams (all full fat).
- Rice and other whole grains.
- Coconut, nut and grain flours.
- Deli foods (vegetables) that are pickled, fermented and are in vinegar as well as olive oil.
- Coconut milk and coconut cream.
- Canned beans, legumes, lentils, beetroot and corn.
- Sauerkraut and kimchi
Ultimately, the goal is to eat food that has gone through MINIMAL processing to get to your plate, rather than avoiding EVERYTHING processed. Just use common sense and think about how much processing the food would have needed to go through to get to your plate. Try to avoid the above foods when they have added flavourings as this usually means added sugar, salt, additives, preservatives and vegetable oils, which end up making them unhealthy.
5. How much protein do you need?
At each meal, eat 2 palms of protein dense food if you are male and 1 palm if female. The protein source should ideally be the size and thickness of your open palm.
Whether food is from an animal source or a plant source, each food has unique and varying amounts of calories, fats, carbs, protein, fiber and other beneficial nutrients such as phytonutrients found in plants foods. Foods are classified as either a protein, carb or fat source, depending on which nutrient is in the highest amount compared to the other nutrients. Therefore, protein dense foods are the best from animal sources because they are higher in protein when compared to other nutrients and they are higher in protein when compared to plant based sources of protein such as grains, beans and legumes. Also, animal based protein is more bioavailable to the body, which means it is better absorbed when compared to plant based protein sources. Lastly, plant food that are high in protein (e.g. beans, legumes, grains) are also high in carbohydrates, where as animal based protein sources are high in protein (as well as other vitamins and minerals) but very low in carbohydrates.
Good protein sources include the following:
- Whey protein powder
- Eggs (2 eggs = 1 palm)
- Tinned fish (1 small can = 1 palm)
- Natural Full Fat Greek Yoghurt (2 TBS = 1 palm)
- Smoked fish
- Red Meat (not processed meat like bacon).
Protein is very important to maintain muscle mass, which is like our fat burning machinery. It also helps support healthy bones, certain brain chemicals that make us feel happy, connective tissue (e.g. joints), as well as our immune system. It is our most satiating nutrient because it takes a lot of energy to digest and absorb, therefore it stays in the gut for longer, making us feel full for longer. It also prevents fluctuations in blood sugar – which leads to more sustained energy levels throughout the day. Animal based protein sources are also some of our most nutrient dense foods, which means eating them gives you a good dose of satiating protein and nutrients for very little calories.
When eating protein sources, try to make sure you are consuming home prepared protein sources that are cooked in healthy oils (e.g. olive oil, butter, coconut oil) and flavoured with herbs and spices rather than sauces (e.g. tomato sauce, BBQ sauce etc).
When eating out, make sure it is a whole-food, healthy protein source such as a steak, sushi, grilled fish and grilled chicken with limited sauces. The protein source should not be in a burger, on pizza, in a pasta, deep fried and in a pie, with lots of sauce and oils. The protein source should be as simple as possible.
6. How many vegetables do you need?
At each meal, eat 2 fists of vegetables if you are a male and 1 fist if female (the more the better).
Be adventurous with your vegetable intake. Eat lots of colors. Eat as many colors as you can throughout the day. Red, green, yellow, orange, red, purple! Eat the rainbow! Salads are a great way to increase vegetable intake in your diet.
I’m sure it is obvious by now how important fruit and veggies are for our health. They are essential components of a healthy diet, which protect us from disease providing a vast array of phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, fibre (to support our gut bacteria) and anti-oxidants. Fibre also forms a gel in the gut and draws water towards it. This ultimately slows digestion and absorption of other nutrients (e.g. sugar) in the gut leading to increased satiety as well as decreased post meal blood sugar levels.
Here is a general guide to eating a varied amount of vegetables that will cover most of the plant nutrients that are beneficial to our health and prevent disease:
- 2 serves of brassica vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy, brussel sprouts, cabbage and kale.
- 2 serves of vegetables from the onion family such as garlic, onions, leek and shallots.
- 2 serves of mushrooms.
- 2 other vegetables such as beetroot, leafy greens like spinach, dark berries, olives, carrot, tomato, cucumber, capsicum and celery.
Obviously some vegetables can’t be consumed raw, however some can. And while various methods of cooking may destroy certain nutrients, it also makes others more bioavailable to our bodies by breaking down plant cell (fibre) walls or destroying plant chemicals that impair nutrient absorption/decrease digestive enzyme function (e.g. phytic acid). By breaking down fibrous plant cell walls, cooking can help make vegetables easier to digest, therefore if you feel like you get gas and bloating after eating certain vegetables, try cooking them and see how you feel. Some vegetables are higher in fibre than others, which is why cooking can help decrease the fibre load on the body that can contribute to uncomfortable digestive symptoms.
Moreover, juicing and smoothies is also another great way to increase vegetable intake. Juicing is similar to cooking, while it may remove some fibre and increase the rate of absorption of plant sugars, it breaks down plant walls making nutrients more available to our bodies.
NOTE: Protein and non-starchy vegetables should be the foundation of your diet. If you are going to over eat on any types of food, it should be whole-food protein sources and vegetables that aren’t deep fried or drenched in sauces filled with unhealthy oils and sugar (home cooked meals is how you avoid healthy meals being cooked in unhealthy oils and sauces). Protein and vegetables make you feel fuller for longer, without excess calories due to their high nutrient density and high fibre content, as well as the fact that they take longer to digest and move through the gut.
7. How much carbs do you need?
At each meal, eat 2 cupped hands of carbs (fruit or starch) if you are male and 1 cupped hands of carbs (fruit or starch) if female.
There are two main types of carbohydrates. Complex and simple carbohydrates. Complex may be referred to as dietary starch and are made of mostly glucose molecules strung together like a necklace or branched like a coil. Because they are branched, they often take longer to digest and absorb into the blood stream, therefore making you feel more satiated and minimizing the amount of glucose absorbed into the blood stream at once. The branched nature of complex carbs means that not all of it is digested and absorbed in the small intestine. This means some of it will move into the large intestine, where these sugars feed the healthy bacteria in our gut. Complex carbohydrate sources also contain many other beneficial nutrients such as fibre, vitamins and minerals. Fibre can be tough to breakdown in our digestive system, which is why most it is unabsorbed in the small intestine and again provides food for bacteria in the large intestine.
On the other hand, simple carbohydrates are made of straight chains of glucose, as well as one or two sugar molecules containing glucose, galactose and fructose. They are the quickest source of energy, as they are very rapidly digested and absorbed into the blood stream due to their simple chemical structure. This means simple carbohydrates provide no food for the good bacteria in the large intestine.
Many processed carbohydrate sources such as confectionary, baked and fried goods, pasta and noodles contain high amounts of simple carbohydrates, therefore leading to increased blood glucose spikes after ingestion.
It must be noted that fruit also contain a lot of simple sugars, however they also contain fibre, which slows the digestion and absorption of the simple sugars into the blood stream. Fruit also contain many other beneficial nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants.
Complex, healthy carb dense foods include:
- Sweet potato
- Whole-grains such as Quinoa, Buckwheat, Amaranth, Brown rice
- FRUITS (simple carbohydrates) (1 piece of fruit = 1 cupped hand)
- Natural sweeteners like honey (simple carbohydrates)
- Mueslis that contain whole-grains and seeds
- Good quality wholegrain bread (1 piece = 1 cupped hand)
- Wholegrain flours from grains like quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth (whole-grain ground and used)
Carbohydrates are our energy nutrient. Glucose is the brains main fuel source and it is also our muscle preferred fuel source. Many health experts have “demonized” carbs as bad for your health and the sole cause of health issues like obesity and diabetes. However, carbohydrates as a nutrient are not intrinsically bad themselves, rather it is the type/source of carbohydrate, which makes it beneficial for your health or not. Processed and refined carbs (e.g. baked and fried food, confectionary, pasta, white bread, noodles etc) are not so beneficial for your health (if they form the foundation of your diet), however, whole-food carbs like whole grains, sweet potato, potato, pumpkin and fruits have a vast array of health benefits and have been shown in research to benefit health. Instead of worrying about carbs, focus more on the types of carbs.
8. How much fat do you need?
At each meal, eat 2 thumbs of fat dense food if you are male and 1 thumb if you are female.
Good sources of fat in the diet:
- Nuts (10 nuts = 1 thumb)
- Nut/seed oils (sesame oil, flaxseed oil, macadamia oil)
- Avocado oil
- Avocado (1/4 = 1 thumb)
- Nut butters and nut/seed flours
- Olive oil
- Milk cream (1 TBS = 1 thumb)
- Coconut oil/coconut cream/coconut milk/coconut flour/coconut yoghurt (1 TBS = 1 thumb)
- Palm oil
- Try and cook with saturated and monounsaturated fats like olive oil, coconut oil, butter and animal fat (e.g. lard). They are the most stable at high temperatures.
- Avoid cooking with all vegetable oils (e.g. soy oil, canola oil, safflower oil etc). Takeout and restaurants almost always use vegetable oil to cook their food. Also, if you look in most packaged and bottle foods you will see vegetable oils present. These oils go rancid at high temperatures and are inflammatory in nature therefore causing inflammation in your body, which is damaging to your health.
- Foods that are also high in fats include your protein sources like eggs, meat, fish and dairy.
- Cooking in oil can count as your added fat source.
- Use oils like olive oil with vinegar for salad dressings.
Healthy fats are an essential part of a well balanced diet. Fats are needed for healthy brain function, hormone production, energy production and to maintain healthy cells.
While fats are a crucial part of a healthy diet, dietary fat sources like nuts, avocados and healthy oils can also be very calorie dense. Therefore, if you are looking to lose weight, be very mindful of your servings sizes around foods like avocado, nuts and oils. These foods can be easy to overeat on, which in turn increases overall caloric intake.
Drizzling oils for cooking and salad dressings, eating a 1/4 avocado per day and a maximum of 30 nuts per day, is more than enough to provide the body with healthy fats while keeping calories low.
9. Eat healthy snacks if you are hungry between meals.
Most people fall down with their snacking. They may eat healthy meals but then they crave something sweet after dinner or mid-afternoon. Healthy snacks can increase the overall nutrient density of a person’s diet as well as put a stop to cravings for palatable and calorie dense food. Eating healthy snacks takes a bit of food preparation and organisation because unhealthy snacks are in packets, wrappers or containers hence making them more convenient to carry around.
Here are some healthy snack ideas that may need to be stored in a cooler bag if you are on the run.
- nuts with goji berries and dates – raw, unsalted, unflavored
- cut up vegetables with hummus
- whey protein powder with water
- low carb protein bars
- Wholegrain wrap with a protein source (e.g. chicken), butter and vegetables
- cheese/cream cheese with smoked salmon, vegetables and rice crackers
- cottage cheese and cucumber
- dark chocolate (70%)
- Greek yoghurt/kefir yoghurt/coconut yoghurt (unflavoured, no added sugar) mixed with nuts, seeds, berries, honey and cinnamon
A note on body size:
Of course, if you’re a bigger person, you probably have a bigger hand. And if you’re a smaller person… well, you get the idea.
Your own hand is a personalized (and portable) measuring device for your food intake. Calorie counting is tedious, inconvenient and often inaccurate. True, some people do have larger or smaller hands for their body size. Still, our hand size correlates pretty closely with general body size, including muscle, bone – the whole package.
The meal guide above is based on 3-4 meals per day.
You may have 2-3 big meals and 1-2 snacks in your day. Every time you eat main meals, you should try to have a protein, carb, fat and vegetable source. In between meals, make sure you are having healthy snacks.
This is just a template and guide to follow, portion sizes will obviously vary depending on your goals, how you feel and how your body responds! Increase or decrease the amount of food you eat depending on how you feel.
Ultimately, when you look at your plate, it should look something like this.
Lastly, in order to eat in this way, food preparation is important. If the healthy food is not available, it is unlikely you will make good decisions around your food choice. Without proper food prep and planning, your diet changes are doomed to fail. So plan your days and make sure you prepare meals for when you will not be at home. Here are just a few tips for meal prep and planning.
- Plan ahead: Look at your busiest days in the coming week for which you might need pre prepared meals to take to work or to have ready when you get home late in a rush.
- Make a menu: Jot down ideas for your prepared meals. Keep it general and simple. Plan meals that contain similar ingredients so you save money and time at the supermarket. Nothing 5 star.
- Shop for ingredients: Buy the ingredients for your meals.
- Pre cook time-consuming meal components or even pre cook certain meals: These foods include things like chicken, veggies, potatoes, rice etc. Also, chop up anything that also may be time consuming.
- Store conveniently: Pack your pre-prepared food in stackable, clear containers and make them accessible in the fridge.
- Cook in bulk: Cook in bulk so you have left overs for other meals.
10. Shake concept: If you don’t have enough time to prepare a meal based on the guidelines above, implement the shake concept.
A super shake is an easy way to get a healthy meal into you, when you are in a rush and don’t have time for meal prep. All you need is a good blender and the ingredients. It follows the same dietary principles as stated above (i.e. protein, vegetables, carbs and fats) however it is just blended in a smoothie. The recipe is as follows:
- 1 scoop of a high quality, grass fed whey protein powder with no carbs (protein).
- 2 fists of spinach or some kind of green leafy vegetable (vegetable).
- A healthy fat source like coconut oil or coconut cream or coconut yoghurt or avocado or nuts or pure nut butter (fat).
- Frozen berries, banana or any frozen fruit of your choice (carbs).
- Water or milk as a liquid
(try different ingredients to see what suits your taste buds, just as long as it has a vegetable source, protein source, fat source and carb source)
For some extra taste you can add things like cacao, cinnamon, spirulina or mint leaves. They too have some great health benefits.
11. Apply the 80/20 rule.
Follow the above guidelines 80% of the time. Food is awesome and it is ok to “splurge” on not so healthy foods and meals. However, as long as the FOUNDATION of your diet is good and these “splurges” are saved for special occasions like meals eaten out with friends and family (because social connection is important to health and food may facilitate this), then there is no problem. “Unhealthy” foods and meals in the context of a whole-food diet has never been shown to do harm. In saying that, when eating out try your best to eat foods with protein, vegetables and healthy carbohydrates. These foods should have minimal amounts of sauce, oils and deep frying.
12. Create a healthy and supportive home environment. Remove the non-essential foods from both your fridge and pantry. Make your house a safe haven for healthy eating. Also, try to decrease your time in environments that are not conducive to your health and eating goals.
This also means removing any sauces in the home. Most sauces are full of hidden sugars (calories) and vegetable oils, which can sometimes turn a healthy protein and vegetable meal into something not so healthy, if these sauces (e.g. mayo, tomato sauce, sweet chilli sauce, asian sauces, chilli sauces, commercial salad dressings etc) are added. Rely on straight vinegars, natural sweeteners, soy sauce, lemon juice, healthy oils, herbs, spices, salt and pepper to add flavour to food, rather than processed sauces.
Lastly, be aware of pickled and jarred fruit and vegetables, as they usually have hidden sugars added to them (check the label). The goal is to try eat food as close to its natural form as possible.
13. Create routine. Try to eat your meals at around the same time each day.
14. Don’t grocery shop when you’re hungry. This will increase chances of buying unnecessary and likely calorie dense food.
15. Distinguish the difference between emotional eating and eating for nourishment (boredom, sadness, stress, grief etc.).
16. Have self compassion. If you do go off track with your eating, recognise it, accept it, acknowledge it, move on and do better with the next meal. Self compassion around food is associated with better health outcomes and a healthier relationship to food. Many people either see themselves in a “diet phase” or not in a diet phase. Having this mentality leads to shame and guilt when people go off their “diet.” However, eating healthy (i.e. whole-food diet with a balance of plant foods and animal foods) should be a consistent part of a healthy lifestyle and a few unhealthy meals here and there does not mean you have to throw all your healthy diet and lifestyle habits into the drain.
17. Nutrition and exercise:
Eat a balanced meal according to the guidelines above, 1-2hours before your workout and 1-2 hours after your workout. If you do not have enough time or you can only fit a meal in less than 60 minutes before your workout, implement the shake concept.
DO NOT implement all of these habits at once! Start from number one and work your way through the list. Implement a new habit every 1-2 weeks once you nail the previous habit. Research shows that individuals will follow a new dietary strategy 85% of the time if they are introduced one at a time, with enough time in between each habit to implement them in your daily life. Introducing two habits at a time brings the percentage down to 55%!
A gradual, habit based approach to changing your diet is the most effective way to making long term, sustainable change. A way to help you keep track is to maybe implement a habit diary, whereby each day you keep track if you have completed the habit.