Knowing the basics of how, what, and when to eat is essential to understanding healthy living.  You are what you eat, so you better do it right!

What to Eat

Foods of all kinds can be classified in one or more of the following categories:

Grains– rice, breads, noodles, beans, and other starchy sort of things.  These typically provide good sources of complex carbohydrates.  This is your main energy source.

Fruits– Apples, pairs, plums, grapes, bananas, etc.  You know what fruits are.  Among other things, these provide antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Vegetables– Broccoli, spinach, green beans, corn, etc.  We all know what would be classified as a vegetable.  Like fruits, they also provide vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber.

Protein (meat)- Chicken, turkey, beef, fish, crab, etc. are all meats.  This is where you will get most of your protein  This is often an under-eaten group, but remember; about 80% of your dry weight is protein.  In other words, if you sucked out all of the water from a person, 80% of what is left would be protein.

Dairy- Milk, cheese, yogurt, tofu, etc. are all dairy products.  Although often from cows, dairy can come from any milk producing animal.  Dairy contains some vitamins and minerals, most notably plenty of calcium, an important mineral for strong bones.  It also contains some carbohydrates, fats, and protein.  There is a lot of controversy over milk safety for humans, especially from cows that are fed hormones.  However, there is really no scientific evidence that it is detrimental, just theory at this point.

Fats and Oils- Until relatively recently, fat was something to avoid.  Well, it still is…to a point.  The body needs and uses even the “bad” fats to some extent.  There are also many fats that are now considered “good.”  The good fats are usually found in higher amounts in seafood and plant sources whereas the “bad” fats tend to dominate in animal sources.  If it is solid at room temperature it’s mostly “bad” fat, like bacon or beef grease.  If it’s a liquid, it’s mostly good fat like olive oil.  In the fats/oils group in the food chart it is referring to added fats because obviously you will get some fats in the food you are already eating.  However, these “added” fats should mostly consist of good fats such as found in peanut butter, olive oil, and seafood sources.

How Much

First of all, how much food to eat will vary from person to person depending on many factors such as activity level, body size, physical goals, and convenience.  For instance, an individual that jogs for 45 minutes every day needs more food to keep his body running than someone who plays tennis once a week.  By the same token, a 6’6 man will need much more food than a 5’2 woman, just like an SUV needs more fuel than a motorcycle.  There are also people that are genetically predisposed to deal with calories differently.  All things being equal, one individual may never gain weight (fat) eating like a pig whereas someone of similar size and activity level may need to count calories to avoid unwanted weight gain.

“How much” does not have one answer for everyone.  However, some suggestions may help you get started.  For example, if you find you are relatively thin right now, then you probably eat about what you need.  If your activity level increases, so should the amount of food you eat, at least in theory.  If you become less active, so should your food intake decrease.  The “average” male should probably consume about 2000 calories per day from food.  If you are above average or active, that number may need to increase.  Likewise, if you are below average size or very inactive it should go down.  The “average” female should probably look to hit about 1800 calories.  Now, these numbers are only very rough estimates.  They can change based on age, activity level, genetic predisposition, etc.  I am also assuming these “average” people are not trying to lose weight in which case these numbers would look more like 1500 and 1200.  Dieting will be mentioned later; our purposes are to help improve health in general.  However, simply following the ideas set forth herein will put your body in an optimal state to lose unwanted pounds.

How Often

‘How often’ is the second matter of business when it comes to eating food.  Optimal health is most easily reached with a diet that consists of 5-6 small meals per day.  This can also be done as 3 good sized meals and 2 or 3 small snacks in between.    It’s pretty obvious that eating 1800 calories once a day is not the same as eating 600 calories 3 times a day.  Likewise, eating 600 calories 3 times daily is not the same as eating 300 calories 6 times daily.  The reason for this is two-fold.  First, eating more frequently provides your body with a more steady stream of nutrients.  Secondly, it also increases your metabolism.  If you go to long without eating your body becomes catabolic, meaning it begins to break down muscle tissue and store fat.  Frequent meals keeps you anabolic, a state of building up muscle and tearing down fat.

Granted, eating every 3 hours or so is not possible for everyone.  A surgeon can’t just stop a heart transplant to go get a snack, but many of us can make the time even if we think we can’t.  If you can only get 4 meals one day, that’s OK.  We’re shooting for at least 5, but things don’t always work perfectly every time.  Just remember that learning how to be a healthy person doesn’t require perfection, but being close is still important.

Also, don’t fret that eating 6 times per day requires one meal to be close to bedtime.  There is nothing inherently fattening about eating before bed.  Many overweight people eat very little during the day and much more at night.  That’s where this myth probably comes from.  They may only be eating one small meal during the day, making their body break down muscle.  When they eat at night, their body stores a lot of that food as fat to get them through the next day.