I grew up eating what I like to call a state fair-inspired diet. The cuisine of my Midwest hometown included lots of potatoes, cheese, and ultra-processed foods.
I also ate a lot of added sugar. I started the day with cereal and orange juice. Sweets were just part of the day.
Then I grew up and learned the effects of a poor diet: Obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers. It was time to do something about my diet.
I took the unconventional step of enrolling in a graduate nutrition program. Throughout the two-year program, I took steps to clean up my diet. My priorities were to prevent chronic health conditions and feel good. I wasn’t concerned with weight loss.
Along the way I learned that giving my body proper nutrition helped me feel more energetic, get sick less, and have more mental focus.
To save you two years and $30,000, here’s what I learned and incorporated into my life. Take what works for you and leave the rest. You know you best!
Eat More Vegetables
I added more vegetables. Every cell in your body has a job to do and runs on the micronutrients largely found in fruits and vegetables. Aim for at least three serving of vegetables per day. I always have frozen vegetables on hand, so I can easily sneak them into breakfast. If I’m scrambling eggs, I’ll add bell pepper slices, spinach and/or chunks of sweet potato. I don’t even notice the beets, spinach, and riced cauliflower I add to a strawberry-banana smoothie.
I cut way down on salt. Why? This is the biggest contributor to diet-related deaths. The salt in a typical American diet is reducing quality years of living. But do have some salt. Your body needs some.
Fun fact: Potassium has the opposite effect that salt does. It makes arteries more flexible, which reduces risk of heart disease and strokes. My favorite sources are beans and sweet potatoes. You’ll also find potassium in fruits and veggies. Aim for 4,700 mg per day. Most Americans don’t get enough.
Cut Down on Sugar
Your body doesn’t need added sugar. It gets all you need from whole foods. As I mentioned, I had a serious sweet tooth. Now, I keep a fruit bowl on the counter and reach in to satisfy my need for something sweet. But I don’t deprive myself. If I really want a treat, I’ll walk to the store to get it.
Skip Red and Processed Meat
I quit eating red meat. Why? It’s a known carcinogen and is sustainable at the rate of about 6 ounces per month. Your body and the planet can only handle about one three-ounce patty every other week.
Even Out Protein
I distribute protein at every meal, but just a little. The body likes when it gets protein regularly throughout the day. So, I’ll have some nut butter with breakfast, some beans with lunch, and a little chicken with dinner. Protein is not the star of my meal anymore. We only need about 10–35% of our calories to come from protein. Most Americans are surprised they actually get too much.
Be Smart About Bread
The biggest source of sodium in the American diet comes from bread and baked goods. A slice of bread can have more salt than a serving of potato chips even though you don’t taste it as much. Also, it really is as important as you’ve heard to choose whole grain breads.
Skip the Supplements
If you eat a variety of foods, you really don’t need to take multivitamin supplements. There is no magical super thing you can buy in a canister that is going to make you reach your goal weight or immune to disease. The best thing you can do for immunity is eat fruits and vegetables, go for a walk, and get your vaccines (if you can). Plus, study after study shows that your body absorbs more nutrients when it gets them in whole food form rather than pill form.
I learned to really pay attention to how I feel. When I start the day with something sweet like waffles or a refined bread, I feel nauseated by mid-morning. Some days I want an afternoon cookie or evening hot chocolate, so I have it. No guilt!
Add Intuitive Movement
While I was eating more intuitively, it took graduating during a pandemic to learn to move intuitively. I’ve found that I really enjoy a walk or two each day with some hills thrown in with a couple yoga sessions each week.