It’s hard to define a healthy diet in strict terms. Everyone has different nutritional needs and lifestyle restraints, which is why nutrition experts advise moderation and mindfulness.
“When it comes to healthy eating, moderation is important because you’re in it for the long haul; eating healthy for one month isn’t going to help you,” says Jessica Begg, a registered dietitian at Shift Nutrition in Calgary. “You want to make it sustainable so that you can still eat fun foods every now and then, but the majority of your day, and your days, are spent eating healthy.”
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Food and nutrition are cumulative, which means in order to reap the benefits of good food, you need to eat it in the long-term.
“People think they can undo a year’s worth of poor eating with one week of a juice cleanse, but the body doesn’t work that way. It’s about long-term exposure to good nutrition.”
That may sound like a fairly easy thing to accomplish — after all, this kind of eating plan allows for some “fun foods,” as Begg says — but unless you have these foods handy and stocked in your kitchen, it’ll be difficult to pass up the temptation (and convenience) of less healthy takeout options.
Below, Begg outlines seven foods and groups of foods that you should always have on hand to help you keep your healthy eating plan on track.
#1 Frozen dishes
This may go against everything we’ve been taught about healthy eating, but it’s one of the best ways to stave off the desire to sit down after a long day of work and order a pizza.
“I want to make it easy for people to eat well, so I always tell my clients to treat their freezer as their friend. If you’re cooking something like stew or soup, try to squirrel some away in the freezer that you can pull out in a pinch. Think of these as emergency meals.”
It’s also always a good idea to have some frozen vegetables on hand that you can easily toss into a skillet for a quick stir-fry or add to any dish as a side.
Begg also advises stocking up on locally produced frozen meals, whether they’re soups, meat pies or ravioli, since they tend to use local ingredients and fewer chemicals or preservatives.
“There’s often a local company that’s cooking good frozen meals that you can prepare in no time.”
When you’re looking to round out a dish with some satisfying starch, rice is always a good idea. Depending on the type of rice, it can be a good source of protein and fibre (mainly basmati and brown rice).
“While brown rice is better than white rice because it has more fibre content, I don’t necessarily push that on my clients.”
The reason for this, Begg says, is because a lot of traditional meals call for white rice, and she finds that pushing brown rice on someone who doesn’t like it is more likely to drive them to throw their hands in the air and abandon their healthy eating habits altogether.
“As long as you’re getting in whole grains more than 50 per cent of the time, you can eat white rice. And it’s a lot easier to get most people to eat brown bread than brown rice.”
#3 Beans and chickpeas
These legumes aren’t just for vegetarians — they provide a beneficial wallop of protein while being easy on the wallet.
“If you use beans as a source of protein versus animal fat, you’re considerably decreasing your saturated fat intake which in turn, decreases bad cholesterol.”
Plus, they’re high in fibre, which contributes to a decreased risk of colorectal cancer and lower blood-sugar levels, as well as zinc, copper and iron.
Bonus: the fibre will also help keep you feeling full longer.
#4 Ground flaxseed
There’s a reason why flaxseeds are often referred to as the original superfood. They’re high in fibre, omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, antioxidants and lignans, which have been shown to have cancer-fighting properties.
“It’s really easy to add ground flaxseed to things like smoothies and cereals, or even just sprinkle it into whatever you’re cooking.”
#5 Cruciferous and allium vegetables
We’re talking things like broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage (cruciferous) and garlic, onion, leeks and scallions (allium).
“These vegetable groups have been shown to decrease the risk of various cancers, as well as boost immunity,” Begg says. “In fact, studies have shown that people who consume few vegetables doubled their risk of cancer versus people who eat vegetables regularly.”
The allium vegetables, in particular, have been shown to protect against stomach, colorectal and prostate cancers, while cruciferous vegetables are heart-healthy, and contribute to lowering bad cholesterol and blood sugar.
Begg is also a very strong proponent of eating local and seasonal vegetables as much as possible.
“You’ll get the most nutrition from food that is grown seasonally and locally.”
For a list of when fruits and vegetables are in-season, click here.
#6 Citrus fruits and berries
There’s very little that’s as satisfying or enjoyable as a delicious orange or a perfectly ripe strawberry. And as it turns out, there’s little that’s as good for you, too.
Citrus fruits are packed with vitamin C, which is important for strengthening the immune system as well as supporting the skin, in addition to B vitamins, potassium, phosphorous, magnesium and copper. They’re also a good source of fibre, antioxidants and could help in reducing the risk of kidney stones.
Berries are also great sources of vitamin C, fibre and antioxidants, as well as anti-inflammatory anthocyanins (strawberries and raspberries), vitamin K and manganese (blueberries), and phosphorous, selenium and quercetin (raspberries). But if there’s one super berry, it’s the blackberry, which has the highest amount of antioxidants and loads of phytochemicals known to help fight a number of cancers.
#7 Nuts and seeds
If you’re looking for a quick and satisfying fix, reaching for nuts and seeds is a great idea since they’re an excellent source of polyunsaturated fat and have been shown to decrease the risk of heart disease. They’re also high in fibre, which means they’ll keep you feeling full longer.
“But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing when it comes to nuts and seeds,” Begg says. “They’re quite high in calories and if you eat a lot of them on their own, you’ll likely be consuming a lot more calories than necessary. Try to mix them with a fruit or vegetable to prevent overeating.”
Finally, Begg recognizes that sometimes people crave something sweet or salty, and those snack-y tendencies also usually denote some actual underlying hunger.
“My advice is to pair it with something healthy so you prevent yourself from overindulging. Have some sliced cucumbers along with your bowl of chips or add some fresh berries to your ice cream.”
This way, you’ll satisfy your sweet or salty tooth while also filling up on something healthy.
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