Every year delivers new food and health trends. Many fittingly reflect the times and are worth embracing such as eating more sustainably, reducing food waste, expanding the variety of vegetables and flavours in meals and getting a better night’s sleep… all great ideas. Some become lasting, valuable ideas while others are short-lived fads that only temporarily feed our brain’s desire for novelty. Advances in technology have brought incredible innovations – smart fridges, ‘phygital’ use of videos to guide home cooking, and robotics that assist in labour shortages at many points in the food system. It’s impressive to watch these increasingly become part of our everyday life.
I have studied and worked in the area of well-being for nearly four decades. As someone who provides guidance on healthy living, I annually reflect on trends and assess how they fit in with what I think are six proven ‘secrets’ to a healthy life. These 6 truths rise to the surface no matter what other trends roll in or out of style and they are strategies I see the healthiest people I’ve worked with over the years consistently embracing.
1. The Wheel of Health and 80-20 Rule
No matter how passionately we embrace good eating, food is just one spoke in an entire wheel of health. No amount of micromanaging eating makes up for a lack if other influences on well-being are ignored. Staying active, getting fresh air, maintaining good sleep habits, avoiding drugs, and limiting alcohol all matter.
A healthy sense of self-worth is also critical in staying motivated to take health-promoting actions. Happiness level, affected by the health of our work life, relationships, community and more, impacts choices we make. Some spokes in the wheel, like the big one – genetics – aren’t in our control yet profoundly influence health. Economics is also a key determinant of health. The ‘secret’ is to consistently make healthy choices within the factors we do have control over.
If we can be consistent at least 80% of the time with healthy choices, we see great results. Perfection is not the goal, nor it is realistic. We don’t just eat for physical nourishment. Pleasure, comfort, tradition, celebration…many reasons factor in. Allowing room to be flexible about 20% of the time is a strategy that can be upheld permanently, plus it reduces guilt and prevents an on-and-off the bandwagon lifestyle.
Think of the healthiest people you know. Are they constantly on a new diet or are they consistently maintaining solid habits on the daily? There is truth in that “boring is the new not-boring”. What we may perceive as the ‘boring basics’ of steadily making health-promoting choices with food, sleep, exercise, work-life balance and more is what actually make our life less boring. It leaves us energetic and able to do the things that bring excitement, adventure and joy.
2. A Plant-Based Eating Approach
Eating more plants is not only on trend but is wise. It’s how we get enough fibre and the multiple health-promoting properties of vegetables, fruit and whole grains. Making at least half our plate plants in most meals is a proven strategy for reducing risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other chronic health challenges. Plan meals by choosing the vegetables that will be the star of the meal and accompany with moderate portions of whole grains and quality protein.
There is also an increasing choice of plant protein in the marketplace whether soy- , nut-, or legume-based. Animal sources of protein like fish, chicken, turkey, eggs, wild game, pork, and lean beef can still be included. Another boring yet proven strategy: variety, moderation and balance. In emphasizing plants, buy Canadian-grown options including lentils, barley, oats, peas, flax, eggs, carrots, cabbage and more. Grow a garden if you can. Remember that eating is not a competitive sport and flexibility is perfectly okay.
3. Quality Matters
Paying attention to the quantity we eat matters. Portion control and mindful eating matter too. Taking a quality approach further checks off many boxes on the well-nourished list. To choose quality food, go with homemade as much as possible. To get more fibre, emphasize whole grains over refined starches, choose fresh or frozen versus highly processed, eat with the seasons, buy local when possible and know that local trumps organic. Safe food handling and washing is important whether using organic or conventional produce. Expensive doesn’t mean better. Consistently eating balanced meals does more over a lifetime than following short-term fads proclaiming benefits of a ‘super food’.
4. Cooking is Non-Negotiable
Whether you like to cook or not, having someone in the home who can cook nourishing meals matters over a lifetime. Cooking meals is not only less expensive than eating out all the time, but also results in consuming less sugar, salt and bad fats while getting more fibre. There is typically better portion control, less food waste and less packaging garbage generated. Leftovers provide easy meal and snack options for the next days. For many, cooking brings comfort, joy and a sense of accomplishment. Make cooking a simpler task by keeping a list of meals the family enjoys for quick reference, maintain a well-stocked pantry, fridge and freezer and use a grocery list to add to as things run low. Semi-prep as you put food away by washing, cutting and keeping a large container of ready-to-eat vegetables in the fridge. Involve the whole family in this important task and life skill of cooking.
5. Diets Don’t Work
There have always been diets and always will be. It’s big business and feeds our brain’s desire for something new. Fit For Life was one of many diets du jour decades ago; later came The Zone, 40-30-30, Eat Right for Your Blood Type…Wheat Belly, The South Beach Diet, Keto Diet, Paleo Diet… it never ends. If I had to pick one approach, I could get behind that can work for life, it would be the Mediterranean Diet, full of fresh produce and overall good balance. Having had the opportunity to visit Spain, I see at least part of why it works so well. Not only fresh, local food, but also a relaxed lifestyle in the sun, leisurely meals, adequate rest, exercise, and minimal processed food. It is much less of a ‘diet’ and more of a consistent healthy approach. I can support a short-term diet IF it results in getting back on track and permanently adopting healthy lifestyle habits. I cannot endorse it if it leads to an ongoing cycle of weight loss and gain. Regardless of weight or diet, knowing your blood pressure, blood sugar and blood cholesterol along with how energetic you feel are the best indicators of if it’s working well.
6. Healthy Aging IS Possible
Years ago, I had the privilege of assisting a 92-year-old woman who came to see me to ensure she was eating well and doing all she could to stay healthy. From the moment she contacted me, I knew I was going to learn more from her than I could possibly teach her. She was not on any medications, made homemade soups, used butter, went for daily walks. Like all the healthy seniors I have worked with and know, there are a few common actions contributing to their vibrant life. Here are a few biggies:
- They live with an attitude of hope, gratitude and optimism.
- They stay connected to community.
- They think long-term versus fads. “BORING” actually works!
- They apply the 80-20 approach in MOST areas of life.
- They cook at home and stay hydrated.
- They get fresh air and adequate rest every single day.
- They see their doctor to know blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, and do cancer screenings.
- They exercise. We are designed to move!
- They get enough fibre: 30 grams per day over age 50.
- They take vitamin D.
- They limit sugar, salt, bad fats and alcohol.
I can truly sum up 37 years in food and nutrition with these 6 truths as the secrets to great health. It’s what the many and healthiest folks I’ve had the privilege to meet do consistently in their lives.
Patricia Chuey is a keynote speaker and contributor to Canadian Food Focus.