If your most significant memory of proper eating is being forced to clean your plate as a child, well, with all due respect to your parents, it’s time to create some new memories.
As an adult looking to live healthy, the first thing to know is that it’s OK to put the fork down when you’re full—no matter what’s left on the plate. As Vanderbilt University professor Kelly Haws advises, “one could argue that good advice for someone trying to manage their food intake would be not to clean their plate.”
Yes, managing your diet is a big part of a healthy lifestyle, particularly as you age. A good understanding of the fundamentals of diet and nutrition can go a long way to maintaining your health.
So, shake-off those behaviors that were ingrained in your childhood and grab hold of the most contemporary nutritional science.
The benefits of good nutrition
Keeping your weight in check makes you look good and feel good. It can certainly add a bounce in your step. But there are hard-core benefits to your health that are important to recognize. Three prominent institutions present a consistent voice on this point.
According to the National Institutes of Health, proper nutrition may help prevent some diseases, such as osteoporosis, high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.
Harvard Medical School cites research over the years that has shown that dietary patterns such as the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet and the Mediterranean diet, which are mostly plant-based, have demonstrated significant health benefits and the reduction of chronic disease.
And the Cleveland Clinic specifically weighs in on men over age 50, saying that a healthy diet can help them reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and some types of cancer.
Bottom line, the science provides a strong link between diet and health. So, what does a healthy diet look like?
The foundations of healthy diet
According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, a healthy eating plan gives your body the nutrients it needs every day. The Institute recommends a plan with four core elements: an emphasis on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat dairy products; the inclusion of lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs and nuts; limitations on saturated and trans fats, sodium and added sugars; and control of portion sizes.
This last tip on portion size is one of my go-to tactics. It’s one I found was predominant among the healthy-behaving men I studied.
The Mayo Clinic provides some great insights into the details of portion control. Their tips include using a small plate or bowl, and tracking the number of servings you eat. One serving of pasta is about 1/3 to ½ cup, or about the size of a hockey puck. A serving of meat, fish or chicken is about 2 to 3 ounces, or about the size and thickness of a deck of cards.
Snacks and comfort foods
One of the biggest challenges to your diet is snacking and the desire for comfort foods. Fortunately, these cravings can be managed in a way that allows you to partake — just reasonably.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you can enjoy your favorite foods even if they are high in calories, fat or added sugars. The key is eating them only once in a while and balancing them with healthier foods and more physical activity. They suggest eating them less often, eating smaller amounts and trying a lower-calorie version by using lower-calorie ingredients.
If you are like my wife and me, you dine out a lot or, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, order take-out. This can present certain challenges, but with a little thought and some creativity, you can enjoy the benefits of restaurant dining and still eat healthy.
The National Institute on Aging provides a number of tips that can help you navigate your way to tasty and healthy selections. Their recommendations include: avoiding fried food and choosing foods that are baked, broiled, braised, grilled, steamed, sauteed, or broiled; staying away from special sauces and asking the kitchen not to top your dish with butter or whipped cream; and selecting foods with a tomato-based or red sauce instead of a cream-based or white sauce. One tip that I follow frequently is to take home leftovers.
Beyond what you eat are the behaviors that can support your nutritional intake and control systems.
The American Heart Association offers a number of suggestions that fall within the category of dietary strategies. They recommend that you read labels to compare nutrition information, eat only as many calories as you use up through physical activity, and choose foods mindfully because even with healthier foods ingredients and nutrient content can vary a lot. If you want to lose weight, they recommend taking in fewer calories or burning more calories.
Having set forth the standards for a healthy diet, it is important to acknowledge the obvious — it’s hard! With a constant barrage of advertising promoting the temptations of all that is unhealthy, eating healthy is a huge undertaking.
This challenge is perhaps best demonstrated in Americans’ adherence to federal guidelines for fruit and vegetables. According to an analysis performed by the CDC, only 9% of adults ate the recommended amount of vegetables and 12% ate the recommended amount of fruit.
The choice is yours
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines state it clearly when it comes to adopting healthy dietary practices: “it is never too late to make improvements.”
As to what diet is best for you — low-carb, keto, Paleo, intermittent fasting or others—that is a decision that should be based on your individual circumstances. I lean toward a low-carb approach. Several years back, I saw a big difference when I stopped eating bread, pizza and other obvious sources of carbohydrates. Still, as the experts allow, I will have an occasional piece of focaccia bread and love a small biscotti with my espresso. The balance has served me well.
Nutrition is major part of a healthy lifestyle. Like the other components, the science spells out the benefits to our health. Our social relationships provide other perks. Wherever you can find the motivation, embrace it. The choice is yours.
Louis Bezich, senior vice president of strategic alliances at Cooper University Health Care, is author of “Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50.” Read more from Louis on his website.