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What is a healthy diet? There are many programs for weight maintenance and an equal number of health benefit claims. Gluten free, no carbs, high protein, Mediterranean, fasting and juice diets, prescription diets. It's overwhelming!
What about realistic adherence, eating enjoyment, and proper nutrition as we age? Let's take a look.
The Standard Food Pyramid
Most of were raised on the standard USDA food pyramid. We try to get our fats, carbohydrates, and proteins from a wide range of sources. Humans are designed to be omnivores, although we benefit from vegan diets as long as good plant-based protein sources are included. Some of us are good at eating whole foods while others grab readily available processed snacks and meals.
Experts recommend that women eat 1600 to 2000 calories per day and men consume 2000 to 3200 on average. Of course size varies as do our metabolisms and activity levels. Even so, calories quickly add up and must be chosen carefully because even the "empty" ones are included and our concern is optimum nutrition.
We are encouraged to keep fat calories between 20% and 35% of our total caloric intake per day, and these are best derived from the "good" fats.
- We need essential fats for our bodies to process the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.
- Fats provide the fuel that keeps us energized.
- Among the healthiest types are omega 3 polyunsaturated fats and omega 6 fatty acids, which help increase good cholesterol and aid heart function.
- Mono-saturated fats improve insulin function and blood sugar levels. Good sources are nuts, seeds, avocado, and olives. These oils are liquid at room temperature.
Proteins should comprise between 10% and 35% of our daily calories.
- Proteins are the building blocks of our cells.
- They provide the 9 essential amino acids that our bodies can't make.
- Soybeans and animal sources are the only foods that provide all 9 essentials.
- Vegans can get ample nutrition from beans, lentils, yeast, and soy.
Complex, rather than simple carbs, break down more slowly and go further in regulating even amounts of blood sugar over a longer period of time. Candy bars and other simple sugars lead to a short-lived energy surge followed by a crash and burn. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas, which regulates fat metabolism. Calories derived from carbs should be between 45% and 65% of one's daily total.
- Carbohydrates are a good source of dietary fiber.
- Carbs are used primarily for energy.
- Carbs regulate insulin and blood sugar levels and aid the brain and nervous system.
- Carbs are broken down by the amylase enzyme and stored as glucose by the liver and muscles.
- Excess amounts of carbs are stored in fat cells.
The Importance of Homeostasis
Homeostasis is the state of balance when our metabolic systems are functioning efficiently. Our body works naturally to maintain this state and will make adjustments to achieve it. The process works so well that we don't think about it.
The body will strive for a "set weight" determined by a person's individual metabolic rate. Factors that influence this are:
- brain metabolism
- body fat
- blood glucose
When one is overweight, the body will produce the hormone leptin which signals the brain to turn off appetite. If it is underweight, it calls on the hormone ghrelin to stimulate food cravings.
Homeostasis plays a part in regulating body temperature too. This is called thermoregulation and is controlled by the hypothalamus. Factors like exercise, fever, and organ function can raise or lower internal temperature. The body will correct it to its near optimum state by these methods:
- Vasodilation or vasoconstriction
- Hormonal increase of metabolism by the thyroid gland
Homeostasis in the pH of our cells and blood is mainly regulated by the liver and the kidneys, but the lungs and intestines also play a part in eliminating metabolic waste.
All cells, except those of the skin, are surrounded by an intracellular fluid which the body maintains at a neutral pH. It is buffered by phosphate to maintain homeostasis. Extracellular fluid comprises one third of our whole fluid volume and surrounds the outer environment of cells. A large component is plasma and its purpose is to transport electrolytes. Acids in it are buffered by bicarbonate.
As we process the nutrients in food, glucose and proteins are oxidized into the energy (ATP) that supports our cells and all metabolic functions. Lactic acid is also produced by exercise. The by-product of all these functions is metabolic waste that is broken down by our liver, enters the bloodstream, is filtered by the kidneys, then excreted.
These waste products are primarily eliminated as urine, sweat, and carbon dioxide through exhalation.
Evaluating Diet Plans
Many of us diet for weight loss, however, we benefit more by eating for health.
If we consider the design of our metabolisms, we'd see that our bodies function optimally when we eat from all three groups: proteins, fats, and carbohydrates in their least processed forms.
The popular Atkins diet and similar keto regimens that push proteins and limit carbs put an excess load on the kidneys and rely on fats for energy. There is a risk of ketoacidosis where the buffering of acidic proteins cause the kidneys to excrete more calcium. This can lead to kidney stones and bone loss.
Balancing fruits, vegetables, and fiber will help prevent bone loss and lower acidity. Fiber is a key to healthy gut bacteria, increased immune function and reduced inflammation.
To counteract this potentially harmful renal load, here are some keto friendly additions for fibers and carbs.
- Flax meal and chia seeds
- Leafy greens
- Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli
These provide mineral rich options with magnesium, calcium, and healthy fatty acids. Calcium and magnesium help the kidneys convert vitamin D into its active form that the body can efficiently use.
Healthy carbohydrates produce glucose which the body needs for optimum energy. Decreasing levels will prompt the pancreas into releasing more glucagon and the liver to release more stored glycogen into the bloodstream which can raise blood sugar levels.
Programs that promote their own foods like Weight Watchers and NutriSystems are highly successful for weight loss but are limiting and unsustainable over time because they are built around their own meals, are expensive, and often lead to yo-yo dieting. Weight Watchers is currently trying to rebrand as a healthy lifestyle option rather than a diet plan. SlimFast substitutes shakes and energy bars for whole foods, adding sugars along the way.
The Esselstyne Diet, designed for cardiac health, is a plant-based, whole food diet, but it does not allow fats in any form. No nuts, no oils, no olives or avocados. Fats are essential for healthy cells, nerves, and muscles. They are also necessary for the absorption of vitamins A, D E , and K.
Gluten free diets are in the fad spotlight but designed for those who have Celiac disease. It believed that cutting out gluten will help prevent bloating and inflammation while increasing energy. It is important to still consume good sources of fiber and healthy carbs for proper metabolic function. Wheat, barley, and rye contain B vitamins and iron, so finding alternative sources is recommended. Probiotics are an option before a total elimination of gluten.
Juice cleanses are believed to clear toxins, increase energy, and boost the immune through vitamin absorption. They have a serious downside in that they are high in sugar without the benefit of fiber which can cause glucose levels to spike. The body also needs sources of fat and protein which will be lacking on a longer cleanse. This can cause muscle weakness, brain fog, and dizziness. Freshly juiced vegetables and fruits are delicious as are smoothies. It's better to enjoy them with a balanced diet.
Effective diet plans need to look at habits, not eliminate favorite foods. They should also encourage mindful food preparation and eating. The Noom program is on point with all of these, addressing the psychology of eating, promoting better choices and lifestyle habits, and tracking calories, exercise, water intake, and health. Their color system suggests eating from all groups. It makes one think of the differences between calorie dense foods and those with more water like raisins vs grapes when choosing to fill a daily calorie budget.
In assessing most balanced eating plans, the two that stand out as the healthiest are the South Beach Diet and the Mediterranean one it is based on. These promote lean meats and seafood, eggs, cheese, omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids like nuts, avocado, and olive oil along with ample fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. Even if meats, dairy and eggs were eliminated for vegans, it still has a solid foundation for eating as nature intends for us.
Optimum Health Plan
Eat For Health
Choose carbohydrates from complex sources with good nutrients rather than sweets with empty calories. High fructose corn syrup is ever-present in sodas and processed foods. Too much consumption of this type results in excess glycogen storage in the liver which can cause a fatty liver regardless of body weight.
Eating smaller meals throughout the day instead of few large ones stokes energy and keeps glucose levels even.
The key is to balance favorite proteins with ample vegetables, fruits, seeds, and nuts. Totally eliminating favorite foods only serves to make a diet fail. Instead, go to a farmer's market and load up on fresh leafy greens and vegetables, vine-ripened fruits, whole grains, honey, agave syrup, and olive oil.
Go ahead and get that fresh blueberry cobbler with a coffee or enjoy a glass of wine. When you make a habit of healthful eating, it's okay to indulge occasionally without the guilt. Live well.
Rodrigues Neto Angéloco, L., Arces de Souza, G. C., Almeida Romão, E., & Garcia Chiarello, P. (2018). Alkaline diet and Metabolic Acidosis: Practical approaches to the Nutritional management of chronic kidney disease. Journal of Renal Nutrition, 28(3), 215–220. https://www.jrnjournal.org/article/S1051-2276(17)30257-1/pdf
Sobel, A. (2019, August 6). A 2,000-calorie diet: FOOD lists and meal plan. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/2000-calorie-diet.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3195546/ alkalizing foods and bone health
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2012 Catherine Tally
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on September 23, 2017:
I used to eat a raw diet, but it became too expensive, lol. Who would think vegetables and fruit cost so much. I like how you explain this. :)
Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on April 30, 2013:
I'm so glad that my hub provided new info for you! I recommend Ume plum paste- just a small bit in hot water as a tea- as a very effective alkalizer. It is especially good for digestive disorders. Thank you for stopping by to read. I appreciate your thoughtful comments. :)
ElleBee on April 30, 2013:
Very interesting. I've heard a bout pH based dites before but not in a lot of depth. This is definitely something I am interested in learning more about and possibly incorporating into my diet.
Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on January 10, 2013:
Thank you for the helpful link to the USDA site. There is much good information there. I feel that it is fine to have caffeine in tea , coffee, and chocolate-esp. dark in moderation, but avoid sodas. ( I drink 2 cups of coffee w/ soy milk in the morning and sometimes an iced cup in the afternoon. )
I appreciate your thoughtful comments and your following me.
Felipe717 from Philadelphia, PA on January 10, 2013:
Great Hub! Limiting caffeine would be difficult at this point but it will be something I will work toward. The USDA modified the food pyramid and changed it into a food plate. One criticism of the pyramid was too many servings of grains so they updated it and here is a link to it, http://www.choosemyplate.gov/food-groups/
Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on October 16, 2012:
Thank you for the kind comments! It is nice to be able to keep tabs on healthy pH in such a convenient way. My best to you.
Glen Nunes from Cape Cod, Massachusetts on October 15, 2012:
Thanks for this information. I've heard about the importance of pH in the body, and trying to neutralize acidity, but I thought it was more complicated t