People talk all the time about the importance of "eating healthy" without ever stopping to think about what "eating healthy" means! How can you eat healthy if you have never stopped to define it? Strength trainers and bodybuilders are the worst, often to them "healthy" simply means IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros). Stop by the squat rack at the gym and take a poll and ask who eats healthy, and 9/10 will give you a resounding "Yes!" Grill them on what "eat healthy" means to them and they will talk about getting the proper mix of nutrients to maximize strength and muscle gain. Thats a great start but that is only the tip of the iceberg about what "healthy" means!
Its instructive to start with the definition of health according to the Merrium-Webster dictionary
Health: The condition of being sound in body, mind, or spirit; especially : freedom from physical disease or pain
So to be healthy requires one to be strong so IIFYM is a great idea but its only the beginning. What about the "freedom from physical disease or pain" part?
Here are the requirements of a healthy meal:
- It must fit your macros. You must get the proper mix of basic nutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fats as well as the proper number of calories. IIFYM is required for optimal muscle growth and strength gain. To find out about optimal bodybuilding nutrition for muscle gain, check out my article: bodybuilding nutrition made simple. As mentioned before, most strength trainers and bodybuilders stop right here at #1 but there is a LOT more to good nutriton than this!
- A healthy meal must contain vitamins. Prevent diseases like Beriberi, Pellagra, Scurvy, Rickets, night blindness by providing sufficient vitamins. The definition of vitamin is "a natural substance that is usually found in foods and that helps your body to be healthy". By definition then, a healthy meal must contain the proper mix of vitamins. Vegetables and fruits are the best sources.
- A healthy meal must contain sufficient fiber. Remember that the definition of healthy is to be free of disease. There is very strong evidence that dietary fiber can prevent a host of very serious diseases: type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and digestive disorders. A meal without fiber is not a healthy one. Legumes, vegetables, whole grains, and fruits are all excellent sources of fiber.
- A healthy meal has a minimum of simple carbs. Refined sugar, alcohol, enriched and bleached flour, and white rice are all best minimized in a healthy meal. Replace them with complex carbs.
- A healthy meal helps prevent cancer. Consuming LOTS of raw fruits and vegetables helps prevent cancer - the brighter the colors, the better. Make sure to get foods high in omega-III fatty acids like flax or salmon. Healthy meals have lots of anti-oxidants like beta carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin E.
- A healthy meal helps keep lipid levels in check. A diet rich in vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and fruits that is high in fiber and low in fat can drastically reduce your risk of heart disease by lowering your cholesterol. Oats are the best of the whole grains for lowering cholesterol. Best estimates are that about 10% of the US population is on statins (prescription drug used to lower cholesterol), its a huge health problem that can be controlled thru eating healthy in most people!
- A healthy meal is free from carcinogens. There are some naturally occurring carcinogens but its mainly the man made ones that we need to worry about. The top ten most contaminated food items in America are: Beef, poultry, milk, cheese, strawberries, raspberries, apples, pears, tomatoes, and potatoes. Pesticides have drastically increased farmer's yields and lowered food prices but at a cost to our health. Eating organic foods is a good way to minimize your exposure to pesticides. Acrylamide is carcinogenic and its formed when food is heated above 120C (250F). This might be part of the motivation for the "raw" movement. You might think twice before making foods cajun style.
- Healthy food is free of heavy metals. Free from poisons like heavy metals like mercury, lead, and cadmium. Tuna is a perfect example. Tuna used to be thought of as a perfect food because it lived so far out at sea that it grew in pristine, clean environment. Well, we learned that man has done a pretty good job of polluting the entire planet, including the oceans. Although the heavy metal concentrations in the sea water are low, animals concentrate it and the higher up the food chain an animal is, the more it concentrates the heavy metals. Your best bet to avoid heavy metals is to eat low on the food chain where the metals have not yet been concentrated.
- Healthy food is free of poison. This sounds so obvious as to be stupid, but its not. Just this year, consumers report magazine found that much of the rice sold in America contained alarmingly high levels of arsenic. This is a tough one and I'm not sure how to avoid it other than having a lab test everything before you eat it which obviously is not possible.
- Healthy food helps you maintain low bodyfat. Obesity related diseases like diabetes and heart disease are the number one killers in America and keeping lean is an essential part of being healthy. Meals that are high in non starchy vegetables, legumes, and whole grains help maintain low bodyfat.
- For some, healthy means low sodium. Notice I said for some, not everyone. For about 10% of people with high blood pressure, its made worse by consuming salt so for these people, reducing salt can be a matter of life and death. For normal, healthy individuals though, salt is not that big a deal. Salt does make you retain more water but that water weight goes away after about 48hrs when you return to a low salt diet. In fact, in many athletic endurance events, getting lots of salt is very important. Yes, you should keep it as low as you can - dont go drinking bottles of soy sauce. If you are doing a photo-shoot or contest, definitely lay off the salt for the 3 days prior to maximize vascularity and definition.
- Healthy meals dont have things in the ingredients list your grandma wouldn't recognize! Contains nothing your grandmother wouldnt recognize: things that sound like things from a chemistry set.
- Genetically Modified Foods are probably best avoided in healthy meals. No proof here, just a feeling. Playing God is going to get us in trouble.
DYEV - Do You Eat Vegetables?
tldr? If all that is too complicated for you, then let me boil it down for you - eat your vegetables, the non-starchy, colorful ones. Eat lots of legumes and whole grains like oats. Eat fruit. Eat as low on the food chain as you can and eat organic where you can afford it. Eat lean cuts of meats. Everything in moderation. Avoid simple carbs, fried foods, and junk food. Get your omega-IIIs. QED.