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Three Essential Keys To a Healthy Diet

Updated May 5, 2020


By Jeff Novick, MS, RDN

These days, it seems like almost every day we hear another breaking news story about diet and health. Seems like even those in the whole-food, plant-based (WFPB) world have become obsessed with the latest super food, super nutrient or super diet.

Here are three key principles that will help you put all this breaking health information into proper perspective and help you make better choices on your WFPB journey to health.

1. Foods Over Nutrients

We often hear of a certain nutrient, such as Vitamin C, and how important and beneficial it is for us. While these nutrients are important, what is more important is the package they come in, and their best package is whole foods. Nutrients work together with each other. By choosing nutrient-rich foods, we are getting much more than the benefit of any one or two nutrients, but the benefit of the whole package and of all the different nutrients in the package working together.

A recent study compared the Vitamin C activity of an apple extract, which was the equivalent of a small apple containing less than 10 mg of Vitamin C to a Vitamin C supplement containing 1500 mg. The antioxidant activity of the apple extract was much higher than the supplement and even more so when the apple skin was included.

2. Variety Within a Food Group

While apples are good and better than a Vitamin C pill, eating a variety of apples and a variety of fruits over time is even better. The reason is that all the varieties of apples have varying levels of their many nutrients (even if picked at the same time from the same tree). The same is true for all varieties of fruits. So, the best way to ensure that we are really getting in all of the nutrients in all the right amounts and combinations is to consume a variety of foods over time within each of the recommended food groups.

3. Dietary Patterns

Beyond consuming a variety of foods within each food group, what matters most is our overall dietary patterns. When we look at long-lived healthy populations, even though there may be some differences, we do see a consistent overall pattern. I have described this dietary pattern as “The Five Pillars of Healthy Eating – A Common Sense Approach To Nutrition.” Here they are:

  1. Plant-Centered – Center your plate and your diet around minimally processed fruits, vegetables, starchy vegetables, roots/tubers, intact whole grains, and legumes (beans, peas and lentils).
  2. Minimally Processed – Enjoy foods as close to “as grown in nature” with minimal processing that does not detract from the nutritional value and/or add in any harmful components.
  3. Calorie Dilute – Follow the principles of calorie density choosing foods that are calorie adequate, satiating and nutrient sufficient.
  4. Low S-O-S – Avoid/minimize the use of added salts/sodium, oils/fats and sugars/sweeteners.
  5. Variety – Consume a variety of foods in each of the recommended food groups.

The next time you hear of the latest super nutrient, super food or super diet, remember, these three essential keys:

  1. Foods Over Nutrients
  2. Variety Within a Food Group
  3. Dietary Patterns

Remembering these three key issues and five pillars of the overall dietary pattern will help you avoid the hype, pick from a variety of minimally processed, nutrient-rich foods within that dietary pattern, and stay focused, simply and effectively, on your health.