We often hear or read “we are what we eat” in discussions about nutrition. Recently I had the opportunity to put this adage to a test: instead of filling a prescription for a statin to address a new diagnosis of high cholesterol, I took six months to try and lower it through my diet. I googled foods to avoid only to discover I don’t eat much, if any, of the key culprits: red meat, fried foods, processed meats, and baked goods. So I researched foods recommended for reducing LDL cholesterol and then conscientiously increased my daily consumption of them.
Reader alert: skip this paragraph if you’re not interested in my experiment*. Rather than three squares, I eat two or three modest meals and then graze (formerly called snack) throughout the day. To my midday bowl of goodness — avocado, cherry tomatoes, celery, blueberries and walnuts in a balsamic vinaigrette — I’ve added cucumber and a quarter-cup of beans. For grazing I said au revoir to cheese, bonjour to whole almonds, pumpkin seeds, peanuts (a legume), apples (not one a day but half), and dry Cheerios (made with whole grains). And I became vigilant about eating fatty fish at least twice a week. Plus relishing a few pieces of supreme dark 90% cacao every day. Our evening menus remain much the same, with the addition of a wholesome Moroccan lentil soup. Plus turmeric seasons several recipes.
Our body needs to consume six nutrients daily from dietary sources: vitamins, minerals, protein, fats, water, and carbohydrates. We find these essential nutrients in a bewildering choice of foods, some healthy, some not.
- Protein is of paramount importance: “the very origin of the word — from the Greek protos, meaning “first” — reflects protein’s top-shelf status in human nutrition.” The amount of protein we need depends on factors such as activity level, age, muscle mass, and overall health, but consuming at least 50 grams daily will help maintain our muscle strength and function. Sources: meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, soy, and whole grains.
- It’s usually best to get vitamins and minerals from food. Consume a broad diet of fruits and vegetables (eat the rainbow), whole grains, beans and legumes, low-fat protein, and dairy products.
- Include healthy fats in our diet: avocados, cheese, eggs, fatty fish, nuts, chia seeds (?!), extra virgin olive oil, dark chocolate, and full-fat yogurt (though beware its sugar content).
- Carbohydrates are the sugars, starches, and dietary fiber in certain foods. The body breaks them down into glucose, the primary energy source for the brain and muscles. Foods high in carbohydrates include bread, pasta, beans, potatoes, rice, and cereals. Pay particular attention to high fiber foods (e.g. pears, berries, brown rice, oats, artichokes, broccoli, almonds) as studies show many of us don’t eat the recommended daily intake of 25 g for women and 38 g for men.
- Drink a glass of water first thing in the morning to help flush out toxins.
- Keep frozen produce on hand for cooking — to help meet the daily requirements and to minimize waste. (Use food labels to choose frozen produce with little to no added sodium, sugar, or saturated fat.)
- Processed and ultra-processed foods are not all considered unhealthy or harmful. Instead of deeming food good or bad based on processing, read the label and let nutritional merit determine choice.
- Don’t eat too many nuts, superfood that they are and great for grazing. Aim for the recommended daily serving size, about 1/4 cup.
- Beans alone and rice alone both lack certain essential amino acids. If eaten together, however, the combination creates a complete protein.
- Dietary supplements can help with our overall health and to meet our daily requirements of essential nutrients but shouldn’t replace the variety of foods vital to our health.
Click on this link to find out your estimated daily nutrient recommendations based on current scientific knowledge. Among other data, mine confirms the necessity to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate in the amount of 11 cups of water every day. While drinking water is crucial, healthy foods — much produce, some dairy, broths and soups — also contribute water to our diet.
Food should support our physical and mental well-being, bringing us both health and happiness. •
* Six months later, my chemistry is trending in the right direction.