What constitutes a healthy diet?

The ingredients of a healthy diet

We already know that not all vegan foods are healthy. So simply avoiding all animal products does not automatically lead to optimal results.

In the introduction to his How Not to Die Cookbook Michael Gregger, M.D. writes:

The best available balance of evidence suggests the healthiest diet is one that minimizes the intake of meat, eggs, dairy, and processed junk, and maximizes the intake of fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans, split peas, chickpeas, an lentils), whole grains, nuts and seeds, mushrooms, and herbs and spices – basically real food that grows out of the ground. Those are our healthiest choices.

Finding the right balance

The main nutrients that our bodies need are:

  • Macronutrients: carbohydrates, fat, fiber, protein, water.
  • Minerals: calcium, iodine, iron, magnesium, potassium, selenium, zinc.
  • Vitamins: A, B-complex, B2, B12, C, D, E.

[TODO: Write a separate article about each of the above nutrients and provide links from here]

To get the right amounts of the above nutrients, a healthy diet includes more of some foods and less of others. It’s like a pyramid, and I like the food pyramid of Ordinary Vegan best:

(image used with permission)

To form a wide and stable nutritional base, make sure to eat lots of fruits and vegetables every day. Don’t forget to include a few servings of leafy greens. Supplement with plenty of whole grains and legumes. Round off with just a few nut and seeds every day.

Notice that the pyramid does not list any refined sugar, chocolate, cookies, ice cream, etc. While these foods are not prohibited, you should not eat them daily. Rather keep them for special occasions.

Vary your ingredients widely

Different foods are rich in different vitamins and minerals, so it’s best to consume a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, seeds, and nuts.

As a fun game, see if you can consume at least 4 different colors of food every day.

For best results vary the foods you eat from one day to the next and try different cooking methods.

Aim for raw or minimally processed

To maximize the amount of available nutrients, eat your fruits, nuts and most vegetables raw. And cook or process grains and other vegetables as little as possible.

Fruits and vegetables have their maximum nutritional content when they are fully ripe and freshly picked. Frozen fruits and vegetables are usually picked locally and gathered at optimal ripeness. So they are usually preferable to fresh ones which were picked days or weeks ago, unripe, and transported over long distances[source needed].

Eat whole(some) food

Going back to the How Not to Die Cookbook, Michael Gregger describes “whole food” as “food that is not overly processed. In other words, nothing bad has been added, nothing good has been taken away.”

To illustrate, let’s look at what most people eat: white bread, white bread rolls, and white rice. These started out as whole grains, but then the germ and bran were removed. What remains, the endosperm, contains mostly carbohydrates. But the bran and germ are also rich in protein, fiber, iron, vitamin B and omega-3 and omega-6 fats.1 Ironically, to counteract the loss of the bran and germ nutrients, the food industry artificially enriches refined grains with a few vitamins. However these are still missing the myriad of other nutrients present in the bran and germ.

So, here are some easy guidelines:

  • Consume the entire fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts.
    • As discussed above, chose whole grains over refined (white) rice or white flower.
    • Prefer fruits and smoothies over fruit juice (fiber missing, some vitamins broken up due to the mechanical and thermal processing).
    • Instead of peeling cucumbers, apples, etc. wash them well. If you are still worried about pesticides, choose organic produce from a supplier you trust.
    • Of course I don’t expect you to eat the inedible parts: (apple, pear) seeds, (cherry) pits, (avocado) peels or (walnut, pistachio) shells. 😊
    • Prefer raw complex sugars (e.g. dates) over refined ones (sugar cubes, conventional cakes and sweets, chocolate).

Supplement what’s missing

Various supplements: vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron

Everyone on a plant-based diet needs to supplement vitamin B12. Also, depending on where you live, you might need to boost your vitamin D during the winter months.

To find out if all your other values are in the normal ranges or if any further supplementation is needed, you might want to test your blood values every 1 or 2 years.

Information sources:

  1. Wikipedia, "Whole grain"

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