This is not a stupid question. Not any more. A hundred years ago, maybe it was. But these days it’s difficult even to tell what is ‘food’ any more, it’s so processed and packaged and prettily presented.
Don’t you wish there was just a simple list of foods you should eat, without any of the complicated stuff about macronutrient splits and what cavemen ate? Well, this is that list.
It’s a quick trot around the different types of food and some examples of each. The information applies whether you are male or female, trying to gain weight or lose it. Simply adjust quantities to suit.
Any fish is good for you. Fish is high in protein and oily fish is high in good fats as well, so you really can’t go wrong with fish. Avoid fish in batter; breadcrumbs are okay unless you are trying to lose weight. Try to buy fish that is caught sustainably or not over-fished.
|White fish (high protein, low in fat)||Oily fish (high protein, high in good fats)||Shellfish (high protein, low in fat)|
Meat tends to have a higher saturated fat content than fish but you can limit the amount of fat you take in if you choose lean cuts of meat. White meat is less fatty than red meat. Meat is high in protein so is generally a good thing from a diet point of view unless you are vegetarian or environmentally conscious.
|White meat||Red meat||Very fatty meat (try to avoid)|
Mince (choose the leanest possible mince)
Be fussy about meat, know where it has come from – eat free range, grass-fed etc. Avoid meat that has been processed or reconstituted, e.g. chicken nuggets. There could be all kinds of crap in there!
All beans are good for you. They are a good source of protein (especially for non meat and dairy eaters) and complex carbs.
Any vegetables, in large quantities, with every meal (yes, even breakfast if you can). Dark green vegetables in particular are good for you (spinach, broccoli). Potatoes don’t count!! (see Starchy carbs below)
Rule of thumb: whenever you make a meal, e.g. evening meal, lunchtime salad, include three different vegetables
Avocado (high in good fats)
And many, many more…
Otherwise known as white foods and alarmingly high in the modern diet. They are not evil but try not to over-indulge. We tend to consume more carbohydrate than we really need, so limiting it where possible is a good thing. Brown or wholegrain versions are much better for you than the refined white versions, so opt for brown rice, wholewheat pasta, wholemeal bread and so on.
Rule of thumb: have as an accompaniment rather than the main bulk of the meal. For example, don’t have a dish that is mostly pasta with a few shreds of vegetables thrown in; have the pasta on the side and make sure the meal is mostly vegetables and fish/meat.
Dairy products are high in protein. They also contain saturated fat but if you go easy on portion sizes you will be getting good nutrition without too much saturated fat. If you want to really cut down on the fat content, stick to egg whites and skimmed milk. Try to avoid ‘fat free’ yoghurt though as it is high in sugar and additives.
Rule of thumb: great in moderation – unless you are vegetarian, then you might need more to bump up your protein intake.
|Quark (lower fat content than cream cheese)
Yoghurt (full fat in moderation, since ‘low fat’ yoghurt is high in sugar)
Great source of protein, good fats and complex carbs. Eat in moderation as fat content can be high – unless you are trying to gain weight.
|Nut butters (peanut butter, almond butter)
Everyone knows fruit is good for you. But don’t make the mistake of eating fruit instead of vegetables and think you are getting your nutrition. You should eat more vegetables than fruit.
Beware of fruit juice and smoothies if dieting – they are nutritious but also fairly high in calories for a drink. It might be better to drink water and eat an orange than to drink orange juice.
Honey (great to add to yoghurt, porridge etc as a sweetener)
Dark chocolate (good for you in moderation!)
Protein supplements are a very useful source of extra protein and are surprisingly filling. However they are usually very sweet and sugary as well. Protein shakes are better than protein bars, since the sugar content of bars tends to be high. Useful for non meat-eaters of course.
Many people supplement with fish oil. This is high in the good fat, omega-3, and very useful if you don’t eat much oily fish.
Don’t consume/severely limit:
- Alcohol (useless calories)
- Foods marketed as diet foods or low fat foods (low fat = high sugar!)
- Sweets, cakes etc
- Chocolate (apart from high quality dark chocolate)
- Takeaway pizza, kebab, curry
- Ready meals
- Any junk food really. C’mon, you know that.
Soup is a good diet meal. Most shop-bought soups are predominantly carbohydrate with very little protein so they won’t fill you up and don’t contribute much to your diet, nutritionally or calorie-wise. Soup is often eaten with bread and butter – again not much protein, extra carbs which you don’t need. You would be much better off with a nice big tuna salad!
Diet foods are good if you are on a diet. Although they are trumpeted as low fat or fat free, the fat is simply replaced with sugar in order to make them palatable. They are also not very filling as they tend to be full of sugary carbs and not much else.
Fruit and nut bars/flapjacks. Although these are marketed as healthy and nutritious because they contain fruit, nuts and seeds, they generally have a very high sugary content (syrup, sugar, honey etc) and lots of carbs (oats, maybe chocolate etc) so they should basically be treated as sweets/cakes. If you want the goodness of fruit and nuts, just eat actual fruit or a handful of nuts.
Fat is bad. It isn’t all bad – there are ‘good’ fats and ‘bad’ fats and we need the good fats, so don’t automatically avoid all fat. See above for foods which contain ‘good’ fats (oily fish, seeds, nuts, olives). Even a moderate amount of saturated fat (egg yolks, butter) won’t do you as much harm as having cake on a regular basis. Avoiding dietary fat often leads people into eating excessive sugar, which will make you fat.
Pasta is a healthy meal. No it isn’t. Pasta itself has little nutritional value, it’s just starchy carbohydrate. You can have good stuff in a pasta dish (e.g. vegetables, chicken) but the amount is crucial. Pasta you get in a restaurant has – in my experience – very little else but pasta (great profit margins)! If you make it at home, pile in the veggies and protein and keep the pasta portion modest (70g per person), then it can be okay.
Toast is healthy. Again, toast is mainly carbs and a bit of fibre (but if you are eating plenty of vegetables you don’t need any fibre from bread). Not much nutrition, loads of carbs. Like pasta, it can be massively improved by eating it with the right things. A protein topping (peanut butter, sardines, baked beans, cheese, eggs) can be a nutritious meal/snack. But too often toast is eaten with jam or marmalade – not good.
What’s the issue with carbs?
Most people eat too much of them and they get stored as fat. It’s the nature of the modern diet. It’s really hard to avoid carbs, they are everywhere. So actively limiting them results not in low carb but in moderate carb.
Don’t forget that vegetables and fruit are excellent sources of carbohydrate. So you don’t need too much from other sources like bread, rice etc unless you are an endurance athlete with special nutritional needs.
If you focus on eating more protein, you naturally end up eating fewer carbs, because the protein makes you feel fuller and therefore less likely to fill the gap with carbs.
Women are unlucky because many more high carb foods are marketed specifically to women. Pasta, ‘diet’ snack bars, cakes, chocolate and so on are all targeted at women. So we need to be extra vigilant!
Classic example of what not to eat: Pizza Express has recently introduced a pizza with the middle cut out which they are marketing to women as a ‘healthy’ pizza. It is no such thing. It is just a pizza that is a bit smaller and has a side salad. It’s still full of saturated fat, salt and white carbs. Do have one if you want to, but please don’t kid yourself that there’s anything healthy about it. It’s like having half a cake instead of a whole cake – it’s still a cake.
And by the way, the same applies to that ‘skinny muffin’ – in fact anything labelled ‘skinny’ that is clearly a cake.
So…what should I eat again?
Food that you make yourself (so you know exactly what’s gone in it). Food that your great grandmother would recognise as food (so that doesn’t include pop tarts). Food that looks fresh, smells nice, looks like someone grew it or farmed it or plucked it out of the ocean.
If you want a cake on the odd occasion, have a cake. It’s only a problem if you have cake every day. Kidding yourself that it is ok to have one every day for breakfast because some clever marketing person labelled it ‘skinny’ is just asking for trouble.
Need a bit of inspiration? England rugby player Riki Fluety on his 30th birthday apparently had a chicken breast with a candle in it instead of a cake. There’s dedication for you!
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