When you make your own meals, you eat healthier. This is a very straightforward way to improve the nutritional quality of your diet. That is not to say that it is easy. Most Americans struggle to find the time and energy to cook.
In a 2014 study out of Johns Hopkins School of Public health, less than half of the over nine thousand participants cooked one daily meal on a regular basis (at least six times a week). The regular cooks consumed fewer calories, less sugar, and less fat than those who ate out more. This comes as no surprise, as we have all experienced the stuffed feeling when eating the commonly excessive portions served at most restaurants.
Studies of restaurant meals indicate they contain higher amounts of calories, sugar, saturated fat, and sodium than home cooked meals. On average, Americans are consuming 25% of their daily calories from food prepared outside the home. This is a contributor to the lack of adequate nutritional intake, only 20% of US adults meet the USDA dietary guidelines.
A study published in the February issue of the Journal of Preventative Medicine provides a more detailed look at the barriers that keep us out of the kitchen. The researchers interviewed 437 adults in Washington for two years. They found that eating at home was associated with:
This last point is key: eating at home is a strategy for reducing food cost. The perception that healthier food is more expensive is based on the price of prepared meals where a premium is often charged for fresh, whole foods. This leads the author’s to conclude that cooking at home can be a successful strategy to improve the quality of the diet without increasing food costs. To further support this conclusion, the more frequently participants ate out the more money they spent on food and the lower quality their diets. In a 2014 study from the same researchers, time spent in the kitchen was correlated with healthier meals: higher intake of vegetables, fruits, and salads. In terms of cost, they found that those who spent at least an hour on food prep per day spent less on food.
So it is not economics that keeps us out of the kitchen. Instead, lack of time, knowledge and cooking skill are the main barriers to increased cooking. The convenience of eating out drives most Americans to eat prepared meals. With some practice and planning, you can change this trend, save yourself some money and improve your health!
Two recent studies point to nutrition as a strategy for reducing risk of breast cancer and improving outcomes for those already diagnosed. One specific diet and three foods take center stage in these studies: the Mediterranean diet, soy, nuts, and whole grains.
Soy: We have consistent epidemiological evidence that women who consume soy daily in early adulthood have lower incidence of breast cancer. While the mechanism is elusive, research points to the health benefits of two soy based nutrients: isoflavones and phyto-estrogens. These phyto-nutrients appear to modulate estrogen’s influence on the development and proliferation of cancerous cells.
Now we also have evidence that soy may benefit those with cancer. In a newly published study in the journal Cancer, researchers followed over six thousand women after breast cancer diagnosis for nine years, evaluating their health outcomes and soy intake. Participants who consumed the highest levels of soy isoflavones (the amount in about a 1/4 cup of soy milk) had a 21% reduced risk of death compared to those with the lowest intake. Read more about the health benefits and concerns of soy here.
Mediterranean Diet: Evidence continues to accumulate supporting the health benefits of eating this plan heavy, low saturated fat diet. New research published in The International Journal of Cancer which tracked twenty years of health outcomes in over twenty thousand post-menopausal women, found that the closer they followed the Mediterranean diet, the lower their risk of developing hormone receptor negative breast cancer. The highest adherence decreased risk by 40%. In this study, nuts and whole grains had the strongest influence on breast cancer risk. Learn more about the wonders of the Mediterranean diet here.
Here are few tips to get you started eating the Mediterranean way:
• Eat vegetables – at least ½ your plate, twice a day. Don’t forget the flavor, you should always enjoy your meals!
• Change the way you think about meat. Reduce your portion sizes and learn that you can be satisfied without a large serving (or any at all) of meat at every meal.
• Eat seafood twice a week.
• Eat vegetarian meals at least once a week. The more often, the better.
• Use healthy fats: olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds.
• Use whole grains. Experiment with traditional Mediterranean grains like farro, barley, bulgur, and brown, black or red rice.
• Have fruit for dessert. This can satisfy the sweet tooth while avoiding added sugars.
In a recent scientific review of 95 studies and nearly 2 million people, researchers report that the more fruits and vegetables you eat the longer you will live. Their data showed that as daily intake of produce increased, risk of death and chronic disease decreased. They found the strongest benefit from consuming 10 daily servings:
In addition, the researchers attribute 5.6 million and 7.8 million premature deaths worldwide per year to low intake of fruits and vegetables, respectively. Read more about how food can increase lifespan. However, you don’t have to hit the magic number 10 to add years to your life, as little as 2 servings per day provided some protection.
Many people struggle to consume recommended amounts, according to the CDC the average American eats just 2.7 servings per day with about 10% of us meeting the daily 5 servings suggested by most health agencies.
While we still don’t know the exact mechanism of how plant foods promote health, studies have shown they lower blood pressure, blood cholesterol, promote immunity, and decrease inflammation. The authors of this study concluded that health benefits are not from one nutrient in the food but the entire system of nutrients delivered by a variety of produce.
This helpful tool can help you increase your vegetable intake by finding ways to enjoy them more. You can retrain your taste buds and perfect your vegetable palate!
Eat your greens…but only if they taste good, right? And yes, they can- and should be delicious. Many people struggle to eat vegetables because they don’t like them. Well, to be more accurate, usually they don’t like how they are prepared. Some people enjoy a simple side of steamed broccoli, but others just don’t find this inspiring. You should not eat food that you don’t enjoy. However, you should challenge yourself to find ways to cook healthy foods that you do like. Trust me, there are many ways to do this.
Luckily, there are abundant free online resources to get you started and keep you experimenting and enjoying your veggies. Rebecca Katz has written cookbooks focused on using flavor to improve diet and has a recent post about one of the healthiest foods you should eat every day: dark green leafy vegetables.
Food52 has an easily searchable recipe database. Here’s a link to one I created on greens:
As with all vegetables, some nutrients are destroyed by cooking while others are easier to absorb so you should eat them both raw and cooked.
And why should you eat greens everyday? They are anti-inflammatory and one of the most nutrient dense foods; contributing a vast array of vitamins and minerals that are vital for a well functioning metabolism and cardiovascular system. Greens are a good source of:
Learn more about how adding greens to your daily diet can reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, depression, some cancers and cognitive decline here:
High blood pressure is a leading risk factor for disease development, especially of the heart and kidney. We have long known that populations who consume high amounts of sodium have higher blood pressures. Clinical studies indicate that lowering sodium intake in people who eat diets high in sodium and have high blood pressure helps reduce blood pressure. However, there is conflicting evidence and advice about blanket reductions in sodium intake and whether setting a target for sodium intake is beneficial or maybe even harmful for some people.
An alternate way to look at blood pressure and diet is to focus on potassium. Observational studies indicate that diets high in potassium are associated with lower blood pressure, regardless of sodium intake.
Potassium may be protective of blood pressure and counteract the negative effects of salt in the diet. In addition, diets low in potassium appear to increase the negative affects of sodium on blood pressure.
How does this work? Potassium acts like a control mechanism for sodium excretion in the kidney: more potassium in the blood causes sodium to be released into the urine, less potassium causes it to stay in the blood where it may increase blood pressure.
To protect yourself from the risks associated with high blood pressure, and to help reduce your blood pressure if you are already hypertensive, increase your intake of potassium rich foods. Fruits and vegetables tend to be rich sources of potassium and these foods provide many health protective compounds, so it may be that potassium is not the factor but simply a marker of a healthy diet. Regardless of the mechanism, observational studies point towards improving the ratio of potassium to sodium in the diet as a path for health.
How much do you need?
The recommended daily intake of potassium is 4.7 grams per day. That’s almost double what most of us actually consume. Potassium is found in a wide range of foods, but is particularly plentiful in dark green leafy vegetables, orange vegetables, and citrus.
Reach your recommended daily intake of potassium by frequently adding these foods to your daily menu (learn more at Shifting the Balance of Sodium to Potassium.).
We shouldn’t completely forget about sodium in the diet, however. One of the complicating factors with salty foods is that they tend to be highly processed; 75% of the sodium consumed in the US is added to our food during processing. Adding salt while cooking is one thing, regularly eating sodium laden processed foods with multiple synthetic additives, sugars, and refined carbohydrates is another. These foods harm our health in multiple ways and no amount of protective potassium is going to change that.
Read more in a recent meta-analysis of potassium intake and health in the February issue of The American Journal of Physiology.
If you want to improve your health, don’t “go on a diet”. Don’t adopt the latest celebrity endorsed method of restricting your food intake. Instead think about how you can create a philosophy of eating that nourishes your body, your mind, and your spirit. This way of eating should:
This way of looking at eating requires a few things from you:
This is your foodway; a term that describes how you eat and how it impacts the world around you. It takes into account where your food comes from, how it is grown, how it is prepared and how it impacts your wellbeing.
Eating this way offers a path out of the addictive, stressful, and unhealthy food system that most of Americans are hooked on. Establishing your foodway will take some effort, it will take some persistence. You will need to tend to it everyday. If you do, the benefits will ripple throughout your life.
Long a cornerstone of the quick and “healthy” American breakfast, cereals overtook the home cooked meal at American’s tables many decades ago. But the tide is turning on the idea that this is a healthy way to start the day. Recent research points us towards processed grains as a main culprit in our poor dietary health.
Why did we start eating breakfast cereals in the first place? As the BBC documentary The Foods that Make Billions describes it, ready to eat cereals are the biggest success story of the modern food industry. In the early twentieth century, our understanding that fiber was good for digestion and a wealth of other health conditions drove many to promote and consume high fiber grains. Food manufacturers discovered ways to convert these grains into ready to eat cereals through applications of high heat and pressure – similar to the popping of a corn kernel. This technique transformed the grain from a food that needed cooking into a commodity that could be packaged, transported, and stored. As questions about the health of eating too much animal fat penetrated the US consciousness, people moved away from their bacon and egg breakfasts to the grain based bowl of cereal and milk. While some of the advice to eat breakfast cereal was about health, much of it centered on marketing. Ready to eat cereals had a high profit margin and huge sums were spent on advertising to convince the public that they belonged on every breakfast table.
So we know this food worked well for the manufacturers, but what about our health? The health impact of eating cereal is dependent in part on what has been added to it and how much it has been processed. If the cereal has been refined to remove most or all of the fiber, we are left with little more than a box of white bread. If sugar has been added then we have a dessert masquerading as breakfast. As Dr. Lustig of UCSF puts it, “you can eat a bowl of sugar for breakfast or you can forget the sugar and eat a bowl of cereal, they are the same thing.” This is an argument that the digestion of these highly refined grains is little different from sugar: a large load of glucose (and/or fructose) is delivered to the liver, overwhelming our metabolic system resulting in spikes in blood sugar, insulin and triglycerides.
So what should you eat for breakfast? While the whole grain or high fiber version of cereal is a better choice than the low fiber, high sugar one, for the health of your digestive system and your metabolism, a meal based on actual whole grains will serve you better. This can be as simple as oatmeal (that you cook yourself, not the instant variety) or more creative versions using whole grains like rice or millet. Try these grains hot, cold, savory or sweetened with fruit. The options are as varied and colorful as the cereal isle in the store and will save you money. Here are two of my favorite sources for breakfast ideas: