Eating well does not need to be confusing, and often people set themselves up for failure, by trying to over complicate things. You really don’t need to follow any special “diets”, you simply need to choose clean, whole foods and be a little bit organised. Whilst there are benefits for some people to specific diets and eating strategies, jumping straight into a paleo diet or a keto diet, or intermittent fasting, before you sort out your food selection and basic health habits, is like getting behind the wheel of a racing car, before you can drive.
In the fitness industry, you will often hear the term “clean eating” and essentially, that just refers to choosing unrefined, whole foods in their most natural state possible. It also encompasses the idea of choosing nutrient dense foods to fuel your body, and the activities that you do.
WHAT IS A WHOLE FOODS DIET?
A whole foods diet is pretty simple, it’s about choosing foods in their most natural state possible. Foods that have minimal or no processing, just as nature intended. This includes an abundance of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, minimally-processed grains and dairy, pasture-raised eggs and grass-fed or pasture-raised meats. When foods are processed, more often than not, a lot of “good things” are removed, compromising nutrient content, and usually preservatives and other additives are used. In addition, the way you absorb and digest whole foods is very different to refined foods, so the impact on your body and how it functions is significant. As an example, a whole foods diet promotes better blood sugar stability, and reduces the long term risk of developing lifestyle related diseases such as type II diabetes (1, 2). In general, whole foods will have higher levels of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients and they will be higher in good quality fatty acids, amino acids and fibre.
When it comes to deciding on what to eat, you can start by simply looking at macronutrient sources. The macronutrients in our food are: carbohydrates, proteins and fats, and focusing on quality sources of these is a great place to start when “cleaning up” your diet.
Below you will find a guide to which foods you should choose, and those that you should mostly avoid. The categories look a little something like this:
Choose these: these are your “everyday” food choices. Base your meals around these foods.
Limit these: whilst not “bad” foods, you might consider limiting the consumption of these. Think of them as “sometimes” foods, rather than foods that make up every meal.
Avoid these: foods you should mostly avoid, except on those odd social occasions where they may be available. These foods are processed and of low nutritional value.
Quality carbohydrates are a good source of energy, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre, so the selection of your carbohydrate-containing foods is important. Carbs are the downfall for many people when it comes to clean eating. Processed carbohydrate foods are addictive, and usually easy to over consume. They often leave us in calorie surplus, but still hungry, and can lead to blood sugar instability, that is the foundation for a number of health conditions and metabolic diseases such as obesity, type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease (3).
Choose these: Fresh fruits, starchy and non starchy vegetables, whole grains such as rice, barley and buckwheat, quinoa, corn, oats, legumes and pulses.
Limit these: whole grain breads and crackers, sourdough, whole grain pasta, couscous and rice noodles, muesli and whole grain cereal, dairy and non-dairy milks, dried fruits, trail mix and coconut water.
Avoid these: processed foods such as cakes, biscuits, white breads, pastries, chips/crisps, lollies and chocolate, soft drinks and fruit juices, flavoured milk, cereal bars and packaged snacks, sugar, syrup and sauces. Avoid food with >10g sugar/100g.
PROTEIN RICH FOODS
Protein-containing foods contain building blocks that our body needs called amino acids. Amino acids are used to build and repair muscles and bones. They also have a significant role in the production of hormones and enzymes (4,5,6). Protein is satiating, meaning it leaves you feeling fuller for longer. It can curb cravings, helping us to lose unwanted body fat and build or maintain muscle mass. Whilst most people already hit about 15% of their calories coming from protein, many will benefit from up to 20-35% of calories coming from protein-containing foods. This will vary depending on the individual and their activity. Like all foods, not all proteins are created equal.
Choose these: Grass-fed meats such as beef and lamb, pasture-fed whole eggs and poultry such as chicken, turkey and duck, fish, plant-based protein sources such as legumes, pulses and tempeh, full-fat dairy especially plain yoghurt, cottage cheese and aged cheeses, nuts and seeds and biltong.
Limit these: other cheeses, full cream milk, fatty meats, sausages (high meat content), nitrate free bacon, tofu, most cheeses, naturally sweetened yoghurts, protein powders, meat jerky, minimally processed deli meats, fish with high mercury content such as tuna and swordfish.
Avoid these: processed deli meats such as ham and salami, low-meat sausages, fried and battered meats, hotdogs, chicken nuggets, cage eggs and low fat and sweetened dairy.
Your body needs fatty acids from the healthy fats in our diet to thrive. In the recent past, dietary fats were demonised, and many people removed dietary fat in favour of sugar and processed low fat foods, and as a consequence there was a significant increase in obesity and metabolic disease. Even saturated fats are not as bad in most cases as they were made out to be (7). Fatty acids are essential for your cell metabolism and function as well as cognitive and hormonal health (8, 9). Adding healthy fats to a meal, will help to lower the glycemic load of that meal, hence also impacting blood sugar stability.
Choose these: olive oil, whole eggs, avocado, nuts, seeds, aged cheeses, full fat yoghurt, coconut products such as oil, coconut milk and coconut flesh and fatty fish.
Limit these: butter, cream, cheese, nut and seed oils, nut butters, dark chocolate and fish oils.
Avoid these: margarine, vegetable oils such as sunflower, corn, canola and cottonseed, fatty and processed meats, processed high sugar spreads, trans fats and shortening.
TAKE HOME MESSAGE
Base your meals and snacks around whole foods, and limit or remove processed foods, to improve your health and feelings of well being. A clean diet, as nature intended, reduces your risk of lifestyle related health conditions and metabolic diseases such as type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Whilst the above suggestions are not an exhaustive list of foods to choose and avoid, focusing on whole foods macronutrients with minimal processing, is a great way to begin to “clean up” your diet and feel great!