What To Eat: An Evidence-Based Guide

Dec 27, 2018

This question is stationed prominently on many people's minds. Paradoxically, the more you read about nutrition and diet, the less you might feel like you know how to feed yourself. When did it get so confusing? You have to eat something, so what should it be?

Let's go through it, in a comprehensive, science-backed way. We'll answer the question of what to eat, depending on your goal. A woman wanting to run a faster marathon needs to choose differently than her friend who wants to lose weight, and their pal who is worried about preventing cancer has different priorities completely.

  • For weight loss, your most important task is to eat things that help you create a calorie deficit.
  • For sports nutrition, your most important task is to eat foods that help you take in enough energy, carbohydrates, and protein for optimal performance and recovery.
  • For disease prevention, you want to choose foods that are high in some nutrients, and low in others
  • For mending a disordered relationship with food, follow the guidelines for everyone, eat some of everything, and don't let your brain get wrapped up in details of what foods you choose. Stay focused on how much and why you are eating (and yup, those guides are coming soon).

Learning which foods are best for your particular priorities takes some effort, so various shortcuts have been created. They save you from thinking as much, but they also limit your freedom. Here are two of the most common ways people oversimplify what to eat.

Oversimplification #1: Following A Meal Plan Someone Else Created

A meal plan tells what to eat and how much of each thing. You can find meal plans in fitness magazines, on Pinterest, and as part of many popular diet books.

Pros:

The big draw here is you don't need to think. Grocery shopping is easy because you can see on one page what you'll be eating that week.

Cons:

Monotony and inflexibility. You might not like the food on the meal plan, or you might want to eat out. Are you going to bring your own food to social events and special occasions? Usually, your favorite foods won't be on the meal plan.

You also might find yourself very hungry and annoyed. The meal plan won’t adjust to your workouts, rest days, illness or hormonal cycles, so some days it might be not enough food, other days more than you need. Sticking to a meal plan can end up adding more stress to your life than it saves.

Oversimplification #2: Diets Which Forbid Various Foods Or Require Eating From A "Clean" Or "Approved" List

Pros:

It can give you a sense of control and organization, even superiority to choose “clean” or “approved” foods.

Cons:

Research doesn’t support it. Swearing off foods is associated with worse outcomes, including weight gain and binge eating.

What's Left? Eating Intelligently

So if you don’t want to take a shortcut, and are ready to learn a bit, it turns out that you can eat everything, and reach your goals by choosing some foods deliberately more often, others less often. This is the method we recommend because it is effective for reaching various physical goals and the method most supported to contribute to mental wellness. And it’s one of our core tasks at One By One Nutrition, teaching people What To Eat.

Thing To Eat: Protein


Guidelines For Everyone:

Proteins are formed from long strings of amino acids linked together. There are some amino acids that our bodies can make, but others (so-called "essential amino acids") we have to obtain from our food. Like vitamins and minerals, not getting enough amino acids can lead to a deficiency, and cause health problems.

Protein-rich foods include meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, milk and dairy products like yogurt and cheese, tofu, soybeans, other beans and legumes, as well as supplemental proteins like protein powders.

Some foods like wheat, nuts, and seeds contain smaller amounts of protein but also contribute to our daily total. The amount of protein that you need to maintain health and prevent deficiency is not all that much. Getting 0.8 - 1 gram of protein per kilogram you weigh is enough. That's pretty easy for most people even if you are vegetarian. Extra protein certainly won't hurt, though, so bear in mind that's just a minimum. And you can feel free to choose the protein sources you enjoy most. It’s perfectly okay if you play favorites in this category and variety is not as crucial as getting enough.

Specifics For Weight Loss:

If you want to lose weight, there are a lot of benefits to including extra protein above the minimum amount required for general health. Higher amounts of protein are helpful in reducing hunger which makes it easier to stick to a lower calorie diet. Research supports getting about 30% of your daily calories from protein if you're trying to lose fat and keep muscle. An easy way to think about that in real life is getting 30-40 grams of protein into every meal. That looks like a palm size of poultry, meat or seafood, or a cup of egg whites, cottage cheese or Greek yogurt. Foods like tofu, whole eggs, beans, cheese, whole wheat bread, soybeans, and peanut butter can help you reach that protein total if you have several servings or combine 2-3 of them together at a single meal, but a single serving of any of them provides only 6-10 grams of protein.

Getting 30% of your calories from protein is tough if you are a vegetarian, but getting close is better than not trying, so do what you can with the knowledge that more protein will aid in meeting your goals.

Protein supplements are an option which some people choose for convenience but they are absolutely not a necessity. Some evidence points to whey protein as being more advantageous for weight loss than other protein types.

Specifics For Sports Nutrition:

Athletes need more protein than the average person. Since they also need more calories, this often works itself out naturally because they eat more! Athletes need 1.2-1.8 grams of protein per kilogram body mass, depending on their sport and the degree of muscle mass they maintain.

Similar to general health and weight loss guidelines, a variety of protein sources are suitable. Spreading protein intake over the day helps with getting enough in, and many athletes find adding a post-workout recovery shake or meal combining carbohydrates and protein aids performance.

Specifics For Disease Prevention:

The sources of protein in a person's diet can have a profound impact on long-term health. Getting more protein from seafood and legumes has been linked to lower cancer rates according to a 2017 paper published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (Farvid). Extensive population studies have indicated that consuming more plant protein reduces the risk of dying, especially if that replaces processed red meats in the diet (Song).

So if you want to take extra steps to minimize your chronic disease risk, consider adding in more vegetarian protein sources like beans and tofu and dialing back on red meat intake. However, vegetarian diets which contain more unhealthy foods like juice, refined flour, french fries, and sugar increase heart disease risk, so don’t be fooled into thinking that omitting meat or animal foods automatically makes a diet healthy (Satija).

Things To Eat: Vegetables And Fruits


Guidelines For Everyone:

Fruit and vegetables are sources of essential nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Inadequate intake of fruit and vegetables can lead to several dietary deficiencies. For the general population, adults are recommended to consume a minimum of 5 cups of combined fruits and vegetables daily.

What to choose is up to you, since there are really no poor choices among fresh fruits and vegetables. Choosing a variety and preferentially selecting the most colorful ones will help you attain the widest spectrum of nutrition, and prevent you from getting bored.

Specifics For Weight Loss:

Because they are low in caloric density and high in fiber and water, fruits and vegetables play an important helpful role in weight loss (Rolls). To reap the maximum benefits, aim to fill half of your plate or bowl with raw or cooked fruits and vegetables at every meal. Try to avoid canned or frozen fruits with added sugar, vegetables overloaded with high-calorie sauces or dressings, or fried vegetables, since these aren’t as healthful as their whole food counterparts.

Specifics For Sports Nutrition:

Athletes have similar needs for vegetables and fruit as non-athletes, however, two points can help maximize performance. Filling half of the plate with vegetables could possibly lead to inadequate carbohydrate intake if you get too full, so adjust the portions of fruits and vegetables to ensure adequate complex carbohydrates can still fit in comfortably. Second, high fiber meals may contribute to discomfort if eaten immediately before intense exercise, so athletes should determine their own individual tolerance for fruit and vegetables in the hours before exercise. Bananas, strawberries, spinach and other potassium-rich fruits and vegetables can help replace electrolytes lost in sweat and are easily digested after a long sweaty workout. Consider blending up a smoothie with fruit, spinach and protein powder after a hard training session in hot weather.

Specifics For Disease Prevention:

Consuming ample amounts of fruits and vegetables, as well as a broad assortment of colors has protective benefits for coronary heart disease, cancers, diverticulitis, and stroke (Van Duyn, Steffen). The lowest risk of all-cause death has been determined to be five or more servings of fruit and vegetables a day according to one analysis (Wang), whereas other papers report additional protection against heart disease in people consuming seven or more (Oyebode) or eight or more servings daily (Joshipura).

To ensure a wide range of disease-fighting compounds are ingested, consumers should aim to include dark green leafy vegetables, orange carotenoid-rich vegetables, as well as members of the cruciferous family (cabbage, broccoli, and related plants). Particularly beneficial fruits include flavonoid-rich berries and citrus fruits.

Things To Eat: Fats


Guidelines For Everyone:

Dietary fat intake can healthfully range from 25% to 35% of total calories for the general population, though certain medical conditions may call for extremes of low or high fat consumption. Fats can be obtained from many foods, including nuts and seeds, oils, butter, cheese and other dairy products, meats, seafood, avocados, olives, chocolate, coconut, and egg yolks. Scientific evidence also supports limiting saturated fat to 10% or less of total calories and minimizing trans fat to as low as possible.

Specifics For Weight Loss:

No specific changes are necessary for a person seeking weight loss, as the moderate intake of fat appropriate for general well being is also optimal for satiety. However, creating a calorie deficit typically calls for the average person to reduce their fat intake somewhat, in particular, if they have habitually consumed 35% or more of their calories from fat. High-fat diets interfere with leptin signaling and favor the development of obesity (Toniazzo).

Specifics For Sports Nutrition:

There are no specific adjustments needed to fat intake for athletic performance. Just make sure to take in enough carbohydrates and protein, and enough calories overall to maintain your weight.

Specifics For Disease Prevention:

Reducing intake of saturated fat has been linked to lower cardiovascular disease risk (Zong) Replacing 5% of total energy as dairy fat with polyunsaturated fats or plant-based fats has been associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease (Chen). Consistent with this observation, consuming nuts is associated with reduced risk of heart disease, total cancer, and all-cause mortality, and mortality from respiratory disease, diabetes, and infections (Aune). This positive effect holds true for both tree nuts and peanuts, so don’t discriminate. Consuming higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids has shown benefit in preventing many chronic diseases including depression, age-related cognitive decline, and several types of cancer (reviewed in https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/)

Things To Eat: Grains And Starches

Guidelines For Everyone:

Foods which fall into this category include bread, pasta, hot and cold cereals, rice, barley quinoa, rye, farro, polenta, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. The starch category also includes the dozens of things made with flour, like baked goods, tortillas, croissants, and gnocchi.

Grains and starches are rich sources of complex carbohydrates, B vitamins, fiber, and minerals. Choosing whole grains over refined grains, and unprocessed foods like potatoes rather than instant potato flakes helps to ensure that a person's diet provides enough fiber and nutrients. Plus, these foods release glucose at a slower rate into the bloodstream, helping with blood sugar management and providing steady energy instead of peaks and lows.

Specifics For Weight Loss:

Individuals seeking to lose weight can absolutely include grains and starches in their diets, despite the claims of low carbohydrate diets that these food are highly fattening. The best choices for a weight loss diet are high in fiber, such as barley, whole wheat pasta and bread, quinoa, farro, and potatoes with the skin. Cooked whole grain cereals like oatmeal are also highly satiating since they absorb water while cooking.

Specifics For Sports Nutrition:

Complex carbohydrates are essential for athletic performance, as well as recovery and adaptation to training. The amount of carbohydrates needed depends on the amount and intensity of activity, as well as the athlete’s body size.

For a general starting point to build a sports nutrition diet, we recommend athletes aim for a cup of cooked starchy food at each main meal, even on rest days. That might be oatmeal, rice, potatoes, pasta, or a couple slices of whole grain bread or toast. Additional carbohydrates can be included as a pre or post workout snack, or as supplemental nutrition during workouts longer than 90 minutes.

For meals immediately before, during or after exercise, easily absorbed carbohydrates work best and minimize the risk of stomach or gut discomfort. In this instance, sports foods or drinks containing sugar may be the only digestible option if whole food carbohydrates just aren’t tolerable. Alternately, lower fiber choices may be suitable, such as rice cakes, white bread, pretzels or bagels. The rest of the time, high fiber, whole grain choices are best and sugar should be minimized, just as in other healthy diets.

Specifics For Disease Prevention:

A higher intake of whole grains reduces all-cause mortality and risks of heart attack and cancer (Steffen, Helnæs, Aune). Getting as close as you can to choosing all your grain foods as whole grains is a wise move for health, so think of oatmeal, whole wheat bread and pasta, farro, quinoa, and brown rice as staples. Almost all homemade baked goods can be made with whole grain flour, so consider using it in pancakes, muffins, bars, waffles, and pancakes.

Things To Eat: Beans And Legumes

Guidelines For Everyone:

Beans or legumes have some really fantastic qualities which make them awesome additions to your diet. They are rich in plant protein, and also provide ample carbohydrates, so they give you a two-for-one macronutrient punch. They are some of the highest sources of dietary fiber you can find; in fact, a serving of beans has more fiber than oatmeal, broccoli, or a fiber-fortified granola bar. A 2017 report offers evidence that Americans who consume legumes tend to take in greater amounts of important nutrients such as fiber, protein, folate, iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium and have lower BMI scores (Garcia-Bailo).

Plus, they are incredibly economical and shelf-stable, which makes them a superb ally if you’re watching your food budget or often need to pull together a meal last minute from what’s in your pantry. You can choose from dried beans and peas, most of which need to be soaked and boiled, or canned varieties which are already cooked. There isn’t any nutritional difference, but dried ones are usually cheaper and canned ones are significantly more convenient. Other legume foods include peanut butter, green peas, edamame (green soybeans) and tofu, as well as bean-based soups like lentil and black bean soup.

Specifics For Weight Loss:

Legumes are a great way to help get the protein you need to manage appetite, plus the carbohydrates you need to keep your daily activity up. Bean or lentil soups, and stir-fry with tofu are low-calorie density meals that will fill you up and help your weight loss journey. We also recommend keeping a bag of frozen peas in your freezer, not only will it come in handy as an ice pack if someone has their wisdom teeth out, but they make a great add-on to convenience foods like canned soups or leftovers if you need to bulk them up a bit more. Frozen green peas can go into chili, soup, casseroles, rice, stir fry, pasta dishes, or hold their own as a quick side dish with some seasoning.

Be careful with peanuts and peanut butter, these delicious foods are higher in calories and fat than other legumes, so use portion control to keep them from adding too many calories to your day. One or two tablespoons of peanut butter or ¼ cup of nuts is a serving. Likewise, read the label and choose your portion deliberately if you purchase hummus or bean dips to keep an eye on the fat and calories. (We know how easy it is to keep scooping out of the container!) If you enjoy refried beans, the ones you buy in a can are often much healthier than what is served at Mexican restaurants. Traditional refried beans are made with lard or shortening and often have a lot of added fat.

Specifics For Sports Nutrition:

Beans are excellent sources of slow digesting carbohydrates, protein, iron and other key nutrients athletes need. Peanut butter sandwiches are an excellent on the go food for long hours of hiking, skiing, and cycling. Care should be taken with high fiber meals including beans before intense training or racing to avoid inconvenient bathroom trips.

Specifics For Disease Prevention:

Substituting beans for red meats is associated with a decreased risk of metabolic syndrome (Becerra-Tomás). Soy foods such as tofu and edamame are associated with decreases in breast and gastrointestinal cancer risk (Messina, Tse, Yu, Lu), and lower incidence of stroke and coronary heart disease (Yan).

Things To Eat: Desserts And Treats

Guidelines For Everyone:

Some of the most wonderful experiences we can have in life are savoring delicious foods, many of which are sweet, creamy, crispy, and not very nutritious. But that doesn’t mean they are off limits. To maintain a generally healthy diet, the important thing is that we choose desserts and treats like alcohol, fried foods, and candy relatively infrequently and in smaller portions than the wholesome foods like the categories already discussed. Think of them as dietary accessories, rather than staples. We often use the guideline of 10% of total calories from treats as being a healthy goal. (If you aren’t sure how prevalent treats are in your diet, try our observation exercise inside our free course library to figure it out).

When it comes to sugars or sweet foods like muffins and cookies, the type of sugar used does not make a nutritional difference. Don’t be fooled into thinking that brown sugar, honey, “organic cane sugar crystals” or maple syrup is a healthier choice than regular old sugar - they are all the same to your body. On the other hand, it is a helpful distinction to differentiate between added sugars and naturally occurring sugars, such as those in a pear or a glass of milk. Health research indicates that limiting added sugars is the most important for having a high-quality diet and good health, but it’s not necessary to worry about limiting your fruit or milk intake.

Specifics For Weight Loss:

When you are committed to creating a calorie deficit to lose weight, it’s important that every calorie counts. Especially if you are eating treats, an important strategy for success is to learn to choose the ones which are your absolute favorites. That way, you keep the best experiences of taste enjoyment in your life without squandering calories on things you don’t really enjoy. Another skill that helps with treats is modifying the portion size and frequency, which means shifting how and when you eat your treats instead of trying to cut them out completely (which never works).

You might also find that substitution helps you. If you can find a lower-calorie version of a dessert or drink that you enjoy, go for that one if it helps you in creating an overall calorie deficit. Beware of the “health halo” effect, however, and remember that you might not be saving any calories if you eat twice as much. If two or three bites of full-fat ice cream hit the spot for you, it’s a better weight loss choice than a whole pint of diet ice cream that leaves you feeling gypped. 

Specifics For Sports Nutrition:

Athletes have higher calorie needs than less-active people, and with that comes a bit more wiggle room to fit in sweets and treats without causing weight gain. However, athletes may pay a higher price for consuming alcohol, as its glycogen depleting and dehydrating effects can seriously hamper performance, blood glucose control, and general ability to perform for 1-2 days after consumption. So if you’re the sporty type, alcohol management is especially important.

Specifics For Disease Prevention:

If maintaining health is your primary concern, other than limiting your treats to maintain a healthy body weight (which is very important), try to reduce your intake of added sugars, sugar-containing drinks, and deep-fried food as much as possible. It’s also very impactful on health to avoid sources of trans fat such as commercially baked pastries, whipped toppings, or pie crust. Scan ingredient listings to avoid products which contain partially hydrogenated oils.

A few select treats provide a health benefit in terms of polyphenols. Red wine and cocoa solids (a component of chocolate) contain polyphenol compounds which have demonstrated cardiovascular benefits and may reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes (Chiva-Blanch). These benefits are lost though if you have more than 1 glass of wine daily or more than 3-6 ounces of chocolate a week, so moderation is wise (Yang, Tresserra-Rimbau, Greenberg, Gong).

Above all, eat happily and enjoy your food.

References

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