Knowing the basics of how, what, and when to eat is essential in following a healthy food plan. You are what you eat, so you better do it right!
What to Eat In Your Healthy Food Plan
Foods of all kinds can be classified in one or more of the following categories:
Rice, breads, noodles, beans, and other starchy sort of things. These typically provide good sources of complex carbohydrates. This is probably your main energy source.
Broccoli, radishes, green beans, corn, etc. Like fruits, they also provide vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, incomplete proteins and fiber.
Chicken, eggs, beef, fish, crab, etc. are all sources of protein. Technically, almost everything you eat has some protein in it, but with few exceptions only animal sources contain all of the amino acids that your body needs to build human proteins. Excluding water, it is what 80% of your body is made of, so it especially important in your healthy food plan with regards to building and maintaining the stuff you are made of.
Milk, cheese, yogurt, tofu, etc. are all dairy products. Although often from cows, dairy can come from any milk producing animal. Dairy contains some vitamins and minerals, most notably plenty of calcium, an important mineral for strong bones. It also contains some carbohydrates, fats, and protein. There is a lot of controversy over milk safety for humans, especially from cows that are fed hormones. However, there no scientific evidence indicating that cows fed hormones have any effect on people. In fact, milk from cows that are not fed hormones and ones that do, are chemically identical.1
Fats and Oils
Until somewhat recently, fat was something to avoid. Well, it still is…to a point. The body needs and uses even the “bad” fats to some extent, but there are also many fats that are now considered “good.” The good fats are usually found in higher amounts in seafood and plant sources whereas the “bad” fats tend to dominate in animal sources. If it is solid at room temperature it’s mostly “bad” fat, like bacon or beef grease. If it’s a liquid, it’s mostly good fat like olive oil. Really, there isn’t “good” and “bad” at all. But what is bad is not getting enough of the ones we used to call “good.” Namely omega-3’s.2
How Much to Eat In Your Healthy Food Plan
First of all, how much food to eat will vary from person to person depending on many factors such as activity level, body size, physical goals and convenience. For instance, an individual that goes running for 45 minutes every day needs more food to maintain a healthy eating plan than someone who plays tennis once a week. Likewise, a 6’6 man will need much more food than a 5’2 woman, just like an SUV needs more fuel than a motorcycle. There are also people that are genetically predisposed to deal with calories differently. All things being equal, one person may never worry about their diet and stay slim whereas someone else might constantly fight weight gain.3
It Depends on YOU
“How much” does not have a one-size-fits-all answer either. However, some suggestions may help you get started. For example, if you find you are relatively thin right now, then you probably eat about what you need. If your activity level increases, so should the amount of food you eat, at least in theory. If you become less active, your food intake should decrease.
The “average” male should probably consume about 2000 calories per day from food. If you are above average or active, that number may need to increase. Likewise, if you are below average size or very inactive it should go down. The “average” female should probably look to hit about 1500 calories. Now, these numbers are only very rough estimates because not only is there really no such thing as “average,” you can be sure that you are not it. Calorie needs can change based on age, activity level and genetics. This also assumes that these “average” people we are talking about are not trying to lose weight in which case these numbers would look smaller yet.
How Often Should I Eat?
‘How often’ is the next matter of business when it comes to creating a healthy food plan. Optimal health is most easily reached with a diet that consists of 4-6 small meals per day. This can also be done as 3 good sized meals and 2 or 3 small snacks in between. It should be pretty obvious that eating 1800 calories once a day is not the same as eating 600 calories 3 times a day. Likewise, eating 600 calories 3 times daily is not the same as eating 300 calories 6 times daily, but they all equal a total of 1800 calories.
That being said, spreading out your food consumption is essential for a healthy eating plan for two reasons. First, eating more frequently provides your body with a steady stream of nutrients. Secondly, it increases your metabolism. If you go too long without eating your body becomes catabolic, meaning it begins to break down muscle tissue and store fat. Frequent meals keep you anabolic, a state of building muscle and tearing down fat.
Granted, eating every 3 hours or so is not possible for everyone. A surgeon can’t just stop a heart transplant to go get a snack, but many of us can make the time even if we think we can’t. If you can only get 4 meals one day, that’s OK. We’re shooting for at least 5, but things don’t always work perfectly every time. Just remember that learning how to be a healthy person doesn’t require perfection, but you still want to come close.
Eating at Bedtime ≠ Weight Gain
Also, don’t fret that eating 5 or 6 times per day requires one meal to be close to bedtime. There is nothing inherently fattening about eating before bed. Many overweight people, who obviously are not following a healthy eating plan to lose weight, eat a lot at night (after work). That’s where this myth probably comes from. They may only be eating one big meal during the day, making their body break down muscle and want to store fat. Then they eat at night and their body stores it all as fat. It isn’t the fact that they eat before bed that makes them fat, but the way they eat throughout the day.
How much of each food group should I eat?
This question does not have a concrete answer either, I’m afraid; it depends mostly on your goals. For instance, a bodybuilder would want more protein in their diet and a dieter would want fewer carbs than the “average” person. Chances are you aren’t concerned with copious amounts of muscle and like I mentioned before, if you have weight to lose, just following the general ideas on this site alone can make a significant difference in your size.
The “Average” Diet
So, we will consider what “average” people should eat. I will do this in the form of a pie chart. Remember, everyone will be much different in terms of how much food they should eat, so I won’t talk about number of servings or calories. The pie chart (below) consists of relative quantities. This is meant to indicate how much of the food you eat should be from each food group. So, the person who eats 3000 calories per day will still have the same proportions as the one who eats 1500 calories per day. The difference will be the total amount of food, just more or less of all food groups.
In the ideal world, all the approximate proportions of each food group would be present in every meal. However, life is often not ideal, so many times your meals will not contain all food groups every meal, but other meals will include different food groups. In other words, you don’t need to have fruit at every meal, but it should still constitute about fifteen percent of your diet daily. That being said, each food group should show up in at least 2 meals every day. So maybe you don’t have veggies at breakfast, but for lunch you might have an entire chicken salad, so you are still filling your need for veggies.
The Food Pie-A Healthy Food Plan
This is the food groups pie chart of approximately what proportions of each food group should be present each day in a healthy eating plan. Remember, this is not precisely what you need each day, just approximately. You may never get these proportions exactly, but try to stay relatively close to it and if you don’t do dairy, just replace it with more fruits and veggies.
Regardless of your goals, if you want to be a healthy person then the pie chart of food groups is your friend. If you are looking for a healthy eating plan to lose weight, eat less of everything of course, but cut your carbs (grains) significantly. If you want to build muscle, crank up your milk and meat, but not at the expense of other groups, and if you just want to be healthier, follow it as is.
WHAT Should I Eat?
Like I mentioned before, you are probably not going to include all food groups in their proper proportions at every meal. If you can, that’s great, but it’s not terribly practical. Here are some healthy food plan ideas that might help:
Bowl of low sugar cereal (with nonfat milk)
1 Granola bar
Small bowl of beans and rice
4 oz. chicken breast
4 oz. steak
Small baked potato
Small bowl of cooked carrots
Half a BLT
1 piece of toast
Handful of grapes
Small bowl of stew (noodles, meat, veggies)
Glass of apple juice
Bowl of rice pilaf (rice, celery, onion, etc.)
Bowl of mixed vegetables
Glass of nonfat milk
Half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich
Bowl of cauliflower w/cheese
2 eggs mixed with a little cheese, peppers and onions
1-piece toast (lightly buttered)
BLT sandwich (with some mayo)
1 glass of nonfat milk
1 bagel (no cream cheese)
1 bowl of green beans
1 glass of grape juice
1 hard-boiled egg
I realize that you may be horrified at the idea of eating that many times and that much food every day. Nonetheless, these menus are meant to be certain foods, not necessarily certain quantities. They are rough estimates based on the “average” person, which none of us really are. Everyone’s needs are different, so let me give you an example of how you apply this to your personal healthy eating plan. Let’s take a second look at this dinner:
1 bowl of green beans
1 glass of grape juice
If this were my dinner, I would eat:
3 Chicken sandwiches
1 large bowl of green beans
1 large glass of grape juice
My Mother-in-Law would eat this:
½ Chicken sandwich
1 small bowl of green beans
1 small glass of grape juice
I am very active male, work out 6 days a week and weigh 200lbs at 5’10. My mother-in-law is about 5’5, 120lbs. and not that active. Clearly my calorie and nutrition needs are much higher than hers and so I eat far more, although neither of us is overweight. Each of us follow a healthy food plan tailored to our personal needs.