"What should I eat?" is a question that comes up all the time in the field of nutrition. To answer it for yourself, you first must evaluate where you are on the spectrum of nutrition habits. One end holds those whose diets are unbalanced in terms of macro- and micronutrient content, which we'll refer to as the "content avenue." On the other end are those who are generally eating healthy, well-balanced diets but want to fully optimize their menus by eating fewer processed foods; let's call this side the "process avenue."
The Content Avenue
The U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services state that the optimal macronutrient proportions in a balanced diet are as follows:
- Carbohydrates (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes): 45 to 65 percent.
- Protein (meat, fish, poultry, soy, beans, legumes): 10 to 35 percent.
- Fat (oils, nuts, spreads): 20 to 35 percent.
An easier way to visualize this is through the Harvard School of Public Health's Healthy Eating Plate, which illustrates how these proportions break down at every meal:
- Half of the plate should be filled with fruits and vegetables.
- A quarter filled with whole-grain, starchy foods.
- A quarter filled with protein foods.
- A glass of water and a small amount of healthy oils on the side.
Do you believe that you're eating a balanced diet as these examples show? If not, then you want to focus on this avenue. By eating the proper amounts of macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat), you should be getting adequate amounts of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). This is a great place to start when revamping your diet.
Examples of improving your diet using the content avenue include:
- Increasing your fruit and vegetable intake.
- Potentially reducing how much protein you are eating at every meal.
- Choosing whole grains over refined grains.
- Switching from sweetened beverages to unsweetened beverages.
The Process Avenue
There are many ways to follow a theoretically balanced diet and still unknowingly be consuming altered amounts of macronutrients, micronutrients, and ingredients that don't fit into either category. For example, say a quarter of your plate is appropriately filled with a protein food -- but it's a food that has been highly processed, like a hot dog. This food choice adds more components to the meal than just protein, including unreasonably high amounts of sodium and food additives such as nitrite, which has been linked to increased risk of localized cancer.
Because food additives have undergone minimal research, we don't know explicitly how they are metabolized, how they affect the metabolism of other nutrients in the body, and what long-term effects they may have on our health. Processed foods also tend to be higher in sodium, saturated fat, and trans fat. Therefore, it's not a bad idea to try to minimize the amount of processed foods you're eating. Mother Nature did not produce foods with additives in them, and that may be for good reason.
Examples of improving your diet using the process avenue:
- Choose foods that are as close to their natural forms as possible.
- Choose natural or organic versions of your favorite foods.
- Reduce the amount of processed foods you eat per day or per week.
Tying Them Together
Whether you're trying to achieve a healthful diet by focusing on nutrient content or by learning about the process that food goes through before hitting store shelves, understanding where your diet stands is the first step. Following a balanced diet should be your first priority, and only when you're comfortable with that should you shift your focus to learning about processed foods. It doesn't matter which avenue you're focusing on as much as it matters that you're paying attention to your diet and are interested in eating healthy.