Great meals don't happen by accident. They require inspiration, planning, and good ingredients, plus the tools and skills to prepare them right.
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The first step is understanding what good food is and what healthier eating really means. After all, the advice seems to change with the weather, which results in a lot of confusion. Let's clear things up.
1. If you want to eat healthier (and lose some weight), eat less
You can eat really well and not have to worry about counting calories if you stick to a proper serving. Most of us don't understand portion control. We're eating double and even triple serving sizes, certainly at restaurants but even at home. Wait a couple of minutes before automatically reaching for seconds. The craving will likely pass.
2. Not all calories are created equal
Your body's fuel comes from three sources: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Your body metabolizes each of these macronutrients differently. For example, for every 100 carbohydrate calories you consume, your body expends only 5 to 10 in the process of digestion. This is officially called the thermic effect of food. By contrast, protein is the calorie-burn champ: For every 100 protein calories you consume, your body uses up 20 to 30 calories just to break that protein down. So, by eating protein instead of carbs, your body will end up with fewer calories to store after digestion is done. Fat is another story: Metabolizing fat requires even fewer calories than carbohydrates, about 3 for every 100 calories. But fat is more satiating than carbohydrates are. This nutrient stays in the gut longer, so it keeps you feeling full so you can say no to seconds. Protein keeps you full longer, too, and since it burns the most calories during digestion, it should figure into most of your meals.
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As a general target, shoot for 20 to 40 grams of protein at each meal. Protein is a muscle builder. If you're looking to bulk up, your protein goal should be higher— about 1 gram of protein for each pound of target body weight you want to reach. It also matters what kind of protein you're eating. Many foods can provide a good dose of protein. Nuts and beans are good sources of protein, but the best sources are dairy products, eggs, meat, and fish. Animal protein is complete—it contains the right proportions of the essential amino acids your body can't synthesize on its own.
3. Fat is not your foe
It's unfortunate that dietary fat and the fat rolling over a fat man's belt are called the same thing. Many people still believe that eating fat will make you fat. It's a fat loss myth, caused by the demonizing of dietary fat by researchers who connected it to high cholesterol and heart disease. Unfortunately, the low-fat craze this thinking spawned substituted more sugar and refined grains for fats in our diets. Since 1971, intake of these unhealthy foods has expanded our daily calorie total by 168— and by extension, our waistlines.
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Dietary fat is essential to good health. Omega-3 fats from oily fish are good for the heart and the brain. Monounsaturated fats, like those found in avocados and olive oil, will help improve your cholesterol profile and ease inflammation and arthritis symptoms. Even saturated fats, such as those found in steak, dark meat chicken, bacon, and butter, are important for good health. Research shows that saturated fat does not raise bad cholesterol levels. Plus, don’t forget that fat makes foods taste great!
4. Sugar is deadly
If you want to point a finger at the true type 2 diabetes culprit, it's sugar, sweet beverages like soda and juice, high-fructose corn syrup, white bread and other refined grains, and baked goods. Here's the problem with these foods: Their sugars enter your bloodstream very rapidly. When you drink a can of soda, all of its sugar—all 12 to 20 teaspoons—goes directly into your blood, and those calories that you don't use immediately for energy will be stored as fat. This can lead to insulin resistance and diabetes, as the sugar overload overwhelms your body's ability to bring your blood sugar levels back to normal.
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5. Fiber makes sugar safe
Kidney beans contain sugar. But if you eat a soda's worth of sugar in kidney beans, it won't have the same dangerous effect as the liquid. That's because the sugar from kidney beans enters your blood slowly, thanks to the fiber content in those beans. Because it passes through your body undigested, fiber slows the absorption of sugar and other nutrients and makes you feel fuller longer, according to a study by researchers at the University of Minnesota. You don't need to eat bowls of beans and bran flakes every day to achieve this effect—just aim for 25 to 35 grams of fiber daily. Favor whole, unprocessed foods like most fruits and vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.
6. Salt isn't always evil
Actually, salt is essential to your health. Your body can't make it, and your cells need it to function. The sodium in salt is an electrolyte, a humble member of that hyped class of minerals that help maintain muscle function and hydration; that's why sports drinks contain sodium. You're constantly losing sodium through sweat and urine, and if you don't replenish that sodium and water, your blood pressure may drop far enough to make you dizzy and light-headed. If you have high blood pressure, you've probably been advised to cut back on salt.
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The mechanism seems clear: Sodium causes your blood to hold more water, so your heart has to pump harder, making your blood pressure rise. But what if you're a healthy guy? Tossing some salt into your pasta water isn't likely to send your blood pressure soaring. That's because 77 percent of the sodium in the average diet comes from processed and restaurant foods, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Just think about how thirsty you feel about an hour after a fast-food meal.) Only 12 percent of sodium is naturally occurring in foods, and just 5 percent comes from home cooking. Compliments to the chef.
Adapted from Guy Gourmet