From my early childhood, I was fascinated with food! I loved to eat a lot and thus was really chubby. Every single time I went to grandma’s the first thing I did was to check what was new in the fridge!
Although I was really cute, my overeating had to come to an end. So, my mom took me by the hand and started educating me about nutrition, exercise, and a healthy lifestyle.
That’s how I started developing passion and interest in the health aspects of food and to be my own lab mouse.
Yes, I must admit, I was one of those girls who was always trying different diets, sometimes even counting calories. But all these experiments actually taught me how to listen to my body, and I really think that this is one of the key skills we should all learn to really use — not only in nutrition, but also in life in general.
Listening to my heart and instinct led me to follow my passion, which is I how I decided to abandon my job as a food technologist and pursue PhD studies in nutrition and metabolism at the University of Belgrade. I have been researching the health-related impact of various foods, with a focus on polyphenol-rich foods and cardiometabolic health, ever since.
I am not a dietitian and I don’t advise people on their dietary habits. Nevertheless, the first question that people ask me when I tell them my profession is, without exception: “What should I eat to be healthy?’’
I’ve been asked so much, in fact, that I’ve had to start coming up with a good, clear, basic answer to this pretty tricky question! So, I’ll share my basic — but solid — recommendations about how to eat truly healthily with you, too!
Some Basic Recommendations
There is now a lot of evidence outlining which foods and beverages are health-promoting for humans, and which are not.
Indeed, the new dietary recommendations provided by government agencies and legislators have established a pretty clear and straightforward list of dietary advice based on solid, sufficient evidence from human studies.
The easiest way to start eating healthier, then, is to follow these established recommendations. Not only will they help you maintain your body weight, but they will also nourish your cardiovascular and metabolic health and lower your risk of many chronic diseases.
Of course, when you look at the recommendations as a whole, they might seem complex and a little overwhelming, but you can make them simpler by dividing them down into your main nutrients. So:
- carbohydrates: get your carbohydrates from whole, not refined, grains (such as whole grain bread or pastry). When you have sugar cravings, eat simple sugars from fruits, not junk food!
- fats: consume healthy fats from cold-pressed oils, nuts, and lean meat.
- protein: get your protein from vegetables, fish and lean meat (and cut down red meat). If you’re not a meat lover, eat more legumes, mushrooms and green, leafy veggies.
Try to eat vegetables as much as you can. And don’t forget to hydrate.
Laid out like this, healthy eating doesn’t seem so complicated, does it?
Be Creative and… Patient
Creativity is one of the major driving forces in our lives! As we get older, we tend to forget that we should never stop playing! Try to apply this concept on your diet as well! Be creative and play.
Eat natural as much as you can and avoid processed food. Your kitchen can be your own factory – try some new recipes and treat yourself with some raw fresh cookies instead of manufactured ones!
Lower your salt intake by experimenting with spices and you’ll see that you can produce even more delicious dishes than you can find in the store!
Try to find and experiment with recipes using organic and local food. If they’re not available or affordable at your grocery store, explore your nearby farmer’s market or find a local supplier you can trust and buy food that has been produced with minimum pesticides directly from them.
Finally, it’s also very important to be very patient and lenient with yourself. A healthy diet should be lifelong and that kind of change requires time. Think about your relationship with food as a journey and enjoy every moment!
How to Actually Implement Dietary Changes
It’s easy to talk about a healthy diet, but the real question is: how do you actually make it a reality in your life, everyday? Reading scientific evidence about healthy diet may teach you why you should follow certain dietary recommendations and suggest specific changes you could implement.
There is, however, another type of evidence that people tend to forget to review: the empirical evidence that your body gives you when you make dietary changes.
After a lot of talking with my friends about nutrition, I realized many of them know the nutritional values of most foods (primarily because of media coverage of healthy and unhealthy foods), but what they don’t know (or deliberately ignore) is how they feel after consuming individual foods. They never really stop for a moment to think about what their bodies are trying to tell them about which foods are good for them and which ones aren’t.
And I think it’s absolutely critical to really pay attention to these signs. You have to communicate more with your body and listen to its feedback after a meal. That’s the best way to figure out which dietary choices are the best for you!
Listen to Your Body and Learn How to Eat Truly Healthily
Luckily, thanks to advances in scientific knowledge and technology, the medical community, in general, is starting to agree with me about the importance of individualizing your diet. We are finally moving towards personalized medicine and personalized nutrition!
We know that all people have their own genome variations and an individual microbial profile in their gut, which makes them all respond differently to the same dietary choices.
Researchers are really starting to truly understand that although an apple a day can keep the doctor away, some of us just can’t eat them because their simple sugars cause cravings and bloating.
Examples like this highlight why it’s good to pay attention when you follow a generic recommendation; feel what your body’s telling you, and decide if it’s actually a good recommendation for you, personally, or not.
So, how do you do this, practically?
Let’s explore an example.
Let’s say, for our example, that you want to switch from eating chocolate to eating fruits for an afternoon snack. How would you do that in a way that listens to your body?
First, you’ll want make the switch — eat fruits instead of chocolate for a couple of days. Then, on the second or third day, try to remember how you felt after the chocolate and compare it to how you feel now after your afternoon snack.
Did the chocolate leave you craving more sugar? Did you feel fatigue and grumpy?
How do you feel, now, after having a piece of fruit instead? Do you have more energy? Feel fuller? Can you feel any difference at all? Listen to your body and try to remember those sensations!
And, on the flip side, when you sometimes treat yourself to an afternoon piece of chocolate after you’ve gotten used to eating fruit (which you will — you’ll crave the fruit just like the chocolate, promise!), pay attention to how that makes you feel.
You may feel how much extra stomach acid is released into your belly, feel the pH dropping and your stomach hurting. It may make you feel irritable or sluggish or make you crave more junk.
If this happens, don’t feel bad or guilty. On the contrary! Recognize that this means your body knows how to tell you when you’re eating health-diminishing foods and when you’re eating health-promoting foods! Knowing this, and really feeling it, is one of the first steps towards truly living a personalized, healthy lifestyle.
Science and doctors can tell you what is healthier based on evidence, but the best way to apply it, and stick with it in practice, is to experience better health with a healthier diet and really learn, by heart, how much better your body feels when you eat a healthy diet.
Take Home Message
When you decide to take your first steps toward healthier diet and lifestyle, go slowly. Take it step by step. Don’t forget that it’s a lifelong journey. Try to enjoy it and be as creative and playful with the transition as you can. Nutrition can be fun and delicious!
Be more present in the moment and listen to your body. Use these feelings to fine-tune general healthy diet recommendations to fit your body and lifestyle perfectly. Use the signals your body gives you to become your own dietitian and design your own, personalized healthy diet!