Most of us know what foods are healthy and unhealthy. It’s finding a way to make healthy eating a way of life that trips most people up.
With March being National Nutrition Month and headlines enticing us with weight-loss tips before bathing-suit season, it’s a good time to examine how nutritious eating benefits our waistline as well as our health. But with new diets and “health foods” touted regularly, it’s hard to separate the science from the hype.
The first few years of a person’s life can set the path toward future health, says Yale public health professor Rafael Pérez-Escamilla, who served on the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board.
“The preferences for foods get very strongly set in the first 1,000 days of life,” he says. Breastfed babies whose mothers eat a healthy, well-balanced diet rich in vegetables are more likely to accept vegetables as children because of exposure to a variety of flavors in utero and infancy, research shows.
That said, it’s never too late to start reducing packaged foods, sugar, salt and red meat, Pérez-Escamilla says. Consuming a healthy diet nets health benefits, even without weight loss, he says. Healthy eating boosts mood and reduces the risk for chronic diseases.
Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, plant oils and whole grains is best for human and planetary health, reports Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston.
Sustained weight loss
Research shows that when people commit to losing weight, long-term success is rare. Most lose weight then plateau after six months, and within three years, they’ve gained the weight back, says UConn psychological sciences professor Amy Gorin, director of UConn’s Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy (InCHIP).
“Unfortunately, the message with weight management is not sexy,” Gorin says. Even an extra 10 calories consumed beyond what we burn per day causes weight gain over time.
Long-term studies show that losing weight and keeping it off takes sustained effort, consistent, healthy eating and exercise habits, planning and weekly weigh-ins, Gorin says.
The National Weight Control Registry, which studies those who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for at least a year, reports that 98 percent of participants reported modifying their food intake to lose weight; 94 percent increased their physical activity, with 90 percent averaging about an hour of exercise per day; 78 percent eat breakfast daily; and 75 percent weigh themselves at least weekly.
Keto diet, intermittent fasting
The ketogenic (keto) diet and intermittent fasting are two of the hottest trends in the dieting world.
The keto diet appears to reduce inflammation and increase metabolism, both of which have multiple health benefits. High-fat keto diets restrict carbohydrates so the body taps fat as an energy source when it runs low on glucose or stored carbs. The body turns the fats into ketones — molecules produced by the liver during periods of low food intake that are used for energy.
For nearly a century, the keto diet has helped stop seizures for people with epilepsy, says Susan Masino, professor of applied science at Trinity College in Hartford. “There’s solid evidence; some people have been on this diet for many years and are very healthy,” she says. While there are insufficient scientific studies on the long-term impacts on the general population, research shows that it also helps those with type 2 diabetes, Masino says.
Reducing chronic inflammation helps lessen the risk for illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and fatty liver disease. The Mediterranean diet, vegetarian diets and low-carb diets also offer anti-inflammatory benefits.
Intermittent fasting also triggers the body’s use of ketones for fuel. The two most common forms of intermittent fasting are eating within an 8- or 6-hour window and fasting for the remaining 16 or 18 hours a day, and 5:2 fasting — eating just one moderate-size meal two days a week and a regular diet the remaining five days.
While the initial results of intermittent fasting are promising, Gorin says, there are insufficient long-term human studies.
Brain and body boosters
These brain-benefiting foods also protect your heart and blood vessels, research shows.
Green, leafy vegetables: Leafy greens such as kale, spinach, collards, and broccoli are rich in vitamin K, lutein, folate and beta carotene.
Fatty fish: These are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids, healthy unsaturated fats linked to lower blood levels of beta-amyloid—the protein that forms damaging clumps in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Choose fish low in mercury, such as salmon, cod, pollock and, once a week, canned light tuna.
Avocado and flaxseeds: Packed with omega-3 fatty acids.
Berries: Flavonoids, the natural plant pigments that give berries their color, also help improve memory, research shows.
Coffee and tea: Those with higher caffeine consumption scored better on tests of mental functions, reports a study in The Journal of Nutrition. Another study showed that it boosts short-term memory.
Walnuts: Nuts are excellent sources of protein and healthy fats, and walnuts are high in a type of omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which helps lower blood pressure and protect arteries.
Making healthy eating work
Planning ahead makes it easier to cook from scratch. (And keeping processed foods out of the house makes it easier to stick to your goals.)
Make meals or roast veggies for the week on Sundays.
Chop and prepare ingredients the night before and store in containers for a quick salad after work or to toss into a crockpot in the morning.
Keep frozen veggies and fruit on hand when you don’t have time to wash and chop.
Rinse canned fruits, veggies and legumes the night before so they’re ready to go after work.
Make peanut butter and almond butter in a food processor and avoid added sugar, salt and preservatives.
Nuts and seeds make healthy, portable snacks and add flavor and nutrients to salads.