The Harvard School of Public Health’s Department of Nutrition has some simple advice for eating well. To get the nutrients you need, the department suggests a plant-based diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Pick healthy fats, like olive and canola oil, instead of saturated and trans fats, and use red meat as a flavoring rather than a main dish.
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Most people are aware of the benefits of embracing a diet high in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Michael Pollan, author of books including "The Botany of Desire," and Marion Nestle, author of "Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health," have made the pitfalls of the standard Western diet a high-profile topic. The obesity epidemic that has first lady Michelle Obama working to change nutrition programs in schools and promoting more active lifestyles has opened the eyes of policymakers and parents alike. Another impetus for the interest in healthy eating is the growing incidence of heart disease and diabetes -- two diet-linked diseases that threaten both the quality of life and the longevity of Americans.
Maybe you question whether eliminating red meat and processed foods from your diet and replacing them with fruits and vegetables and healthy sources of fat can really improve your health. If so, consider what Pollan has written: People eating more traditional diets are healthier than Americans when it comes to cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity rates. In other words, either something to do with what you're eating is making you sick, or something to do with what they’re eating is making them healthier. Combine this information with the fact that three in four Americans don’t get the U.S. recommended daily allowance for vitamins and nutrients, and you can probably see that your diet is far from perfect, whereas traditional diets that have been based on natural foods have allowed humans to survive up to the present.
Because the focus of much food research has been on nutrients, rather than diet, you might be thinking that you just need to eat more of a certain nutrient, such as protein, or cut down on another, such as fat. But this focus on nutrients takes for granted the typical Western diet, despite what Pollan has pointed out -- that four of the 10 leading killers in America are linked to diet. So it’s pretty likely that major shifts are needed. In other words, tinkering with a few of the foods in our diet or a few of the ingredients or nutrients won't do the job. What Americans need to do is change their typical diet.
Eating more fresh fruits and vegetables will help you get the micronutrients you need, because fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins and minerals, anti-oxidants, fiber and healthy omega-3 fats. And eating more whole grains will help you get nutrients, along with carbohydrates, rather than just empty calories from highly refined and processed products.
An easy way to get excited about eating more fruits and vegetables is to leave your grocery store and head to your local farmer’s market. There, you can ask the vendors what fruits and vegetables are in season --chances are seasonal foods will cost less -- and also ask them for cooking ideas and complementary dishes. Eating organic can be more difficult than just eating local. But you’ll get additional benefits from choosing organic fruits and vegetables, because you’ll reduce your exposure to pesticides, and you’ll likely feel good about doing your part to support sustainable farming methods that keep the soil healthy so future crops can taste just as good as today’s.