What does a healthy meal look like?
When I Googled that question I got 55 million search results. Wow! What does that mean? Are there 55 million ways to eat healthy? Are there that many variables that would make a healthy meal?
Of course not. We all know that when you search Google you are going to get many similar results.
But the size of this search result in indicative of how many people are looking for “The Answer” to this question. Then there are people (like me), organizations, doctors, and food manufacturers who all have an interpretation of what “healthy eating” and “healthy meals” should look like.
How am I qualified to answer this question?
My approach to health and wellness is not dogmatic. Everyone is unique. Every person has a unique physiology that will affect what they can eat, what foods may cause discomfort (allergies, indigestion, or a more severe reaction), and how their body responds to macro nutrient balance.
Some people feel better eating higher amounts of dietary fats along with fewer starchy carbohydrates. Others feel better eating lean proteins, healthy grains, and lots of vegetables and fruit.
Some people eat meat, while others prefer to be vegetarian or vegan. I’m not a fan of choosing to eat this way for political or ethical reasons. These choices have nothing to do with our genetics. I would rather someone choose not to eat meat because it makes them feel better and improves their health.
Disclosure: I was a lacto-ovo vegetarian for almost five years between 1990 and 1995. I had been experiencing a lot of digestive discomfort and determined that this would be a good change for me, and it was. But towards the end of this period I felt low-energy, always hungry, my face looked pale and lacked colour, and I began to crave meat. I re-introduced meat into my diet, making sure my portions were small and choosing healthy, lean cuts of meat. I immediately began to feel better and I have never gone back.
My interest in health stems from the many health issues and food and environmental allergies I had as a child. How I reacted taught me a lot about eating. I have a sensitive digestive system and physiology and I’m fortunate to have a strong mind-body awareness. When I eat processed foods with sugar, chemicals, and preservatives, my nervous system reacts negatively. This has been my real-world, lifelong experience and learning. My reactions to food have taught me that eating unprocessed, home-cooked, natural food is what works best for my body and mind.
This is a foundational truth, which no one can dispute: unprocessed food in its natural state is healthy. Think of foods like vegetables, fruits, raw unsalted nuts, beans, lentils, fish. and meats.
However, if you have a nut or shellfish allergy, then those foods are not healthy for you. If you have lactose intolerance then dairy is not good for you, and so on.
My point is that food in its raw, unprocessed form is healthy. Whether you can tolerate it or not is an individual issue. Whether you choose to eat it or not is again an individual issue. But a vegan arguing that eating meat is bad for you is wrong. You might as well deny that our ancestors didn’t eat meat.
Is it safe to say that the hormones and chemicals used to raise factory farm animals is bad for us? Is it safe to say that raising cattle is hard on the environment and that many manufactures treat the animals poorly? Absolutely! The research and the evidence seems to be decisive on this topic. That doesn’t mean eating meat is unhealthy, especially if you can choose 100% grass-fed beef and hormone-free chicken, etc.
A healthy meal is a balanced meal. It will consist of a lean source of protein (chicken, turkey breast, tuna, salmon, pork loin, whey protein powder, etc.), healthy fats (olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, nuts) vegetables, fruit, and possibly a starchy carbohydrate (grains or beans).
Why do I say “balanced”? When you eat a balanced meal you are more likely to get a broad range of macro and micro nutrients. Also, you are eating in a way that won’t negatively affect blood sugar levels. For example, eating a chocolate bar is not a balanced meal. The high amount of sugar will spike your insulin levels, which is bad for fat loss and not recommended for diabetics.
Choosing to eat starchy carbohydrates with your meal depends on your health and fitness goals and the time of day. Healthy starches are foods like whole grain brown rice, whole grain breads (made from sprouted grains, stone-milled flour, or sour dough starter), quinoa, potatoes, etc.
To improve your health eliminate processed foods, such as those made with white flour (white breads, pastas), granola (high in sugar), most cereals, muffins, cakes, and prepared desserts (all of which contain added sugar, chemicals, preservatives, etc.).
Generally speaking, the best times for starchy carbohydrates are at breakfast and post-exercise. In both cases your blood sugar level (insulin levels) is at its lowest and needs to be replenished.
Try to avoid eating starchy carbohydrates for dinner or before bed if you have a lot of body fat to lose. Limit starchy carbs to two possible times:
I’m not a fan of counting calories. That may be useful in certain circumstance (e.g. you’re a diabetic or an athlete), but for most of us it’s a nuisance.
If you are buying any type of processed food it’s helpful to know how to read the nutritional label on food packaging. For example, the amount of sugar per serving size, the % macronutrient split between protein, carbohydrates and fats, as well as the list of ingredients.
How do you manage your weight and energy levels when eating home-cooked meals? The easiest solution is to use visual ratios for portioning food onto your plate.
The amount of fruit and grains you consume in a day will depend on your individual weight-loss goals and level of daily activity. For example, do you sit behind a desk all day and then go home and sit, or are you on your feet all day working outdoors or as a manual labourer?
If you are working to lose body fat or support a healthy weight a 4:1 ratio of vegetables to fruit is my recommendation. You may chose to limit fruit to 1-2 servings per day. Eat one serving with breakfast and an optional second serving after vigorous exercise (along with lean protein).
Why? Real fruit (eaten as fruit, not juice) is healthy and good for you.
Fructose (the sugar found in fruit), when consumed as the whole fruit, is healthy. There is more than enough research to show that fructose as a sugar replacement in processed foods is not something you want to eat.
The issue with fruit and weight loss is about the total calories consumed per day. A serving of fruit has more calories than a serving of vegetables. So if your goals is to lose body fat you don’t want to eat more calories. You want, instead, to eat fewer calories and to feel satisfied. This is when vegetables come to the rescue. Eat four times the amount of vegetables to fruit per day and you will feel satisfied and have consumed fewer total calories.
Not sure how to get enough healthy fruits and veggies in your diet? Check out this helpful cheat sheet on my Pinterest board.
A good rule of thumb if you don’t want to count calories (which can be misleading) is to use the size of your fist as a measure. Add one fist-sized amount of protein and two fist-sized portions of vegetables on your plate. Remember that the fist-sized amount of a starchy carb is optional.
Need help picturing this? Try this visual Calorie control guide for men and women.
Did you know that food presentation can have a positive influence on your weight-loss goals?
Blogger James Clear wrote an interesting article about using plate size and colour as a strategy for weight-loss and food choice.
Clear cites research showing that if the colour of your plate matches the colour of your food, you will eat 30% more. That’s a huge number!
How can this help you?
If you’re eating pasta with a red sauce, use a white plate to eat less. Conversely if you want to eat less of a fettuccine Alfredo (a white sauces) use a dark coloured plate.
Do you want to eat more of your healthy, green veggies but not feel like you’re forcing yourself Use a dark green plate!
Plate size also determines the volume of food eaten at a serving. If your brain sees a lot of space around the food on your plate it thinks the portion is small. Conversely, if you serve the same amount of food on a smaller plate your brain thinks you are about to eat a larger portion.
Here is a concrete example from the research that Clear cites: a simple shift from a 12-inch plate to a 10-inch dinner plate resulted in a 22% decrease of food eaten at a single serving.
This simple psychological trick could help you lose up to 10 pounds per year!
Take-home message: if you want to lose weight use every strategy possible to help you succeed — including the size and colour of your dinnerware.
Eat well to be well!