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Best Nutrition for a Healthy Weight

Natalie
Stein
Best Nutrition for a Healthy Weight
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Weight loss is largely related to what you eat and drink, so it’s important to know some basic nutrition. It can help you choose foods that support weight loss at supermarkets, when selecting recipes, and when eating at restaurants.

Here are some basic topics to learn about.

  • The importance of eating healthy
  • Carbohydrates
  • Protein
  • Fat
  • Water

Let's dive into why these topics are important and how to select nutritious options that support a healthy weight.

The Importance of Eating Healthy

Weight management is about balancing calories. In particular, weight loss is about creating a calorie deficit. Still, there’s more to it than calories. Healthy eating not only makes weight management easier, but it also improves short-term and long-term health.

Healthy Eating and a Calorie Deficit

Creating a calorie deficit means consuming fewer calories than you expend, or burn. That’s how you lose weight.

Here are two reasons why healthy eating can make it easier to create a calorie deficit.

  1. More nutritious foods can be more filling. They can help decrease hunger compared to consuming the same number of calories from less nutritious foods and beverages.

2. Healthier foods are often less calorie-dense. Serving sizes are greater, and that helps reduce hunger compared to consuming less nutritious, higher calorie-dense foods and beverages.

It’s easier to manage calories long-term with more nutritious foods.

Healthy Eating and Health

Numerous research studies have linked nutritious foods to health benefits. In contrast, diets high in low-nutrient and processed foods have been linked to health risks.

Here are some examples of health conditions that food choices can affect.

  • Heart disease and stroke risk
  • Type 2 diabetes and prediabetes
  • Alzheimer’s disease and age-related cognitive decline
  • Depression and mood
  • Certain types of cancer
  • Bone health and risk for osteoporosis and bone fractures

It can feel rewarding when you visit your healthcare provider and learn that measurements such as cholesterol levels, blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and other indicators have improved.

That’s a common experience for people who improve their eating habits and lose excess pounds.

Feeling Better with Healthy Eating

Many people feel the effects of eating well quickly. It can happen within minutes, hours, or days.

Here are some changes you may notice when you eat more nutritious foods compared to less nutritious ones.

  • Having more energy
  • Sleeping better
  • Thinking more clearly
  • Having a more positive mood
  • Having less indigestion

You might also feel proud of yourself when you make choices that are good for you.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are your body’s main source of energy. They provide 4 calories per gram. When your body digests carbohydrates, it breaks them down into a type of sugar called glucose.

Glucose goes into your bloodstream and raises blood glucose levels. Your body releases insulin to help bring blood glucose down to normal levels. Some glucose is used for energy, but excess glucose turns into body fat.

Sugars and starches are the main types of carbohydrates in foods.

Natural and Added Sugars

Some sugars are naturally found in food. These are called natural sugars and are often found in nutritious foods.

  • Fruit is high in a type of sugar called fructose. Fructose spikes blood sugar levels, but the benefits of fruit’s nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals usually outweigh the disadvantages of fructose.
  • Lactose is a type of sugar in milk. It doesn’t have much of an effect on blood sugar, and it’s often in nutritious products like milk, cheese, and yogurt.

Some vegetables and beans have a small amount of natural sugars.

Some sugars are added to foods to sweeten them or add volume. Added sugars add calories and spike your blood sugar, and they don’t add many essential nutrients. They’re often in foods and beverages that are high in calories and low in nutrients. They can also be found in surprising foods.

Here are some common sources of added sugars.

  • Sugar-sweetened beverages like soft drinks, sports drinks, fruit drinks, sweet tea, and flavored coffee beverages
  • Cookies, cake, pie, candy, chocolate, and pastries
  • Ice cream, pudding, and custard
  • Jam and jelly
  • Salad dressings and condiments like teriyaki sauce, sweet and sour sauce, and ketchup
  • Tomato soup and pasta sauce
  • Flavored oatmeal, most breakfast cereals
  • Frozen pancakes and waffles
  • Flavored low-fat yogurt

Here are some examples of added sugars that you may find in the list of ingredients.

  • White sugar or sucrose
  • Fructose, corn syrup, or high fructose corn syrup
  • Brown sugar
  • Molasses
  • Honey
  • Agave syrup
  • Brown rice syrup or rice syrup

Starches

Starches are complex carbohydrates. Your body breaks them down into glucose during digestion, and they go into your blood. That raises your blood glucose levels and causes an

insulin response, just like when you eat sugar. Some starchy foods are more nutritious than others.

Here are some examples of starchy foods.

  • Grains, like wheat, rice, oats, and quinoa
  • Bread products like sliced bread, pita, English muffins, tortillas, bagels, and rolls
  • Other flour-containing foods like cakes, croissants, doughnuts, cookies, and muffins
  • Potatoes and potato products like French fries, hash browns, and tater tots
  • Other starchy vegetables, like sweet potatoes, parsnips, green peas, corn, and winter squash like acorn and butternut squash
  • Many packaged foods like cereal, potato chips, corn chips, rice cakes, and crackers

Dietary Fiber: A Special Carbohydrate

Dietary fiber is a group of carbohydrates that aren’t sugars or starches. Your body cannot digest dietary fiber, and healthy bacteria in your gut metabolize it.

Here are some possible health benefits of dietary fiber.

  • Stabilizes blood sugar levels
  • Lowers cholesterol levels
  • Supports bowel regularity
  • Supports normal blood pressure

Plant-based foods are natural sources of fiber. Here are some examples.

  • Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Beans, peas, and lentils
  • Whole grains
  • Nuts, seeds, and peanuts

Generally, less processed foods are higher in fiber.

  • Fruit is higher in fiber than fruit juice
  • Raw vegetables are higher in fiber than cooked vegetables
  • Whole grains are higher in fiber than refined grains

Carbohydrate Serving Sizes

A serving size for carbohydrates has about 15-20 grams of carbohydrates. Here are some examples.

  • 1 slice of whole-grain bread or ½ whole-grain English muffin
  • ½ cup of cooked brown rice or whole-wheat pasta
  • ½ cup of corn or peas
  • 1 small potato or ½ small sweet potato
  • 2 cups of air-popped popcorn
  • 1 ounce of whole-grain crackers

Non-starchy vegetables are low in calories. They often are low in carbohydrates and high in dietary fiber. A serving size is ½-1 cup, but you can have more. Aim to fill half your plate with vegetables at most meals. They’ll fill you up and nourish your body without adding many calories. That’s a great trick for losing weight.

Here are some non-starchy vegetables.

  • Lettuce, spinach, kale, spring greens, and collard greens
  • Broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and cabbage
  • Green beans
  • Mushrooms
  • Cucumbers
  • Tomatoes
  • Onions
  • Beets
  • Carrots
  • Asparagus

How Much Carbohydrate Is Healthy?

The adequate intake of carbohydrates is 130 grams per day. That’s the minimum amount that is adequate for most adults which is about 520 calories, or about 26% of calories if you’re on a 2,000-calorie diet.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans set the recommended range at 45-65% of total calories. That’s 225-325 grams per day on a 2,000-calorie diet.

An easier way to figure out your carb intake without counting grams may be to look at servings per meal or snack. A general guideline for most meals is 2-3 servings of high-carb foods per meal. Here are some examples.

  • A cheese sandwich with 2 slices of bread, a salad, and 1 piece of fruit
  • 1 cup of oatmeal with ½ cup of fruit and peanut butter or an egg
  • Salmon with vegetables, ½ cup of brown rice, and ½ cup of fruit
  • 1 cup of plain yogurt with nuts or seeds and ½ cup of fruit
  • A veggie burger on a whole-grain bun with carrots and kale chips

Stick to 1-2 servings of carbs for a snack. Here are some examples.

  • ½ whole-grain English muffin with peanut butter
  • 1 apple with low-fat cheese
  • 2 cups of air-popped popcorn

The goal for most people is to limit added sugars to a maximum of 25 grams a day. That’s the amount in any (one) of the following (not all)!

  • 3 fun size candy bars
  • 5 cream-filled sandwich cookies
  • ½ 20-ounce bottle of soda
  • 1 container of sugar-sweetened yogurt and 1 packet of flavored instant oatmeal

Added sugars per serving are on the nutrition facts panel of packaged foods. You can also find added sugars listed in the list of ingredients. They come in different forms.

A low-carb diet can mean anything under 45% of calories from carbs. A keto diet, or a ketogenic diet, is a very low-carb diet. It’s best to talk to your healthcare provider and get proper support before starting a low-carb or keto diet.

The general recommendation for dietary fiber is to get at least 14 grams for every 1,000 calories you eat. The average American gets half that amount, so it’s a good idea for most people to consume more fiber. Plus, foods naturally high in fiber tend to be better for health and weight loss.

You can see more high-fiber and nutritious carbohydrate choices, including guidelines for serving sizes, here.

Protein

Protein can be a source of energy. It has 4 calories per gram, just like carbohydrates. However, protein has many other roles.

Here are some reasons why your body needs protein.

  • Necessary for muscle growth and recovery
  • Needed for the production of certain hormones like insulin
  • Supports immune function
  • Transports oxygen, nutrients, and other compounds in the body
  • Maintains metabolism
  • Satisfies hunger and helps slow digestion

Protein is special because it’s made up of building blocks called amino acids. When your body digests proteins from food, it breaks them down into amino acids. Then, your body can use amino acids to build or create new proteins.

Sources and Serving Sizes of Protein

Here are some foods with protein

  • 20-30 grams of protein: 3 ounces of skinless chicken, lean ground turkey, tuna, or fresh fish or shellfish
  • 15-20 grams of protein: 1 cup of cooked beans or lentils, or 1 cup of plain Greek yogurt
  • 6-8 grams of protein: 1 ounce of cheese, 1 container of yogurt, 1 cup of dairy or soy milk, 1 egg, ½ cup of tofu, 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, 1 ounce of almonds, or ¼ cup of quinoa
  • 5 grams of protein: 1 cup of oatmeal
  • Smaller amounts of protein: vegetables, many whole grains

Protein Quality and Plant-Based Proteins

A high-quality protein has each of the essential amino acids that your body needs. All

animal-source proteins are high-quality, or complete. Eggs, poultry, fish, and dairy products are examples. Soy and soy-based products like tofu are also complete protein sources.

Most plant-based proteins are incomplete. However, you can get all of the amino acids you need by eating a variety of plant-based protein foods throughout the day. Here are some examples of combinations of plant-based proteins that have all of the essential amino acids.

  • Peanut butter on whole-grain bread
  • Pea soup with barley and vegetables
  • Lentil soup with vegetables
  • Beans and brown rice
  • Bean burrito on a whole-wheat or whole-grain corn tortilla
  • Falafel or hummus on whole-grain pita

How Much Protein Do You Need?

Most adults need about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Someone who weighs kilograms, or 176 pounds, would need about 64 grams of protein per day. Protein needs can increase if you’re losing weight fast, if you’re training hard, or if you’re recovering from an injury.

Most Americans get plenty of protein. Getting more than 20-30 grams at a meal doesn’t have additional benefits. If you don’t want to count grams of protein, it’s a good guide to get a portion of a high-protein food per meal.

Here are some examples of meals with adequate protein for most people.

  • 3 ounces of chicken or fish with vegetables
  • 1 can or pouch of tuna with celery sticks and whole-grain crackers
  • Yogurt parfait with 1 cup of plain yogurt, 1 cup of fruit, and 1 ounce of almonds
  • ½ cup of cottage cheese with 2 tablespoons of seeds
  • Veggie burger on a whole-grain bun with 1 cup of steamed broccoli
  • 4 egg whites with vegetables and 1 ounce of low-fat cheese

For snacks, a smaller portion can do. A hard-boiled egg, an ounce of low-fat cheese, or 1 ounce of nuts can provide enough protein for most people for a snack.

Protein Precautions

Getting enough protein can help with weight loss, and protein is essential for life and health. However, getting too much may be unhealthy. High amounts over a long period may lead to an increased risk of heart disease, low bone mineral density, and kidney or liver problems.

It’s best to talk to your healthcare provider if you’re thinking about following a high-protein diet.

Choosing Nutritious Protein Sources

The best sources of protein are low in saturated fat and high in nutrients. These types of proteins are best for weight loss and health.

Here are some nutritious sources of protein.

  • Fish, including canned tuna
  • Shellfish like shrimp, clams, and scallops
  • Skinless chicken and turkey
  • Lean ground turkey
  • Soy protein and soy-based protein foods
  • Eggs and egg whites
  • Reduced-fat dairy products like low-fat cottage cheese, low-fat cheese, skim milk, and nonfat yogurt
  • Legumes like beans, split peas, and lentils
  • Nuts, seeds, peanuts, and their butters

Fatty and processed meats can be unhealthy. Lean red meat may also be linked to heart disease.

Here are some protein sources to limit.

  • Steak
  • Ribs
  • Bacon
  • Processed meats like hot dogs, sausages, ham, salami, pepperoni, bologna, and deli turkey breast

Also, breaded and fried proteins like fried chicken and popcorn shrimp are high in calories, fat, and carbohydrates.

You can see more lean protein choices, including guidelines for serving sizes, here.

Fat

Fat has 9 calories per gram. It’s the most calorie-dense macronutrient. That’s why high-fat foods tend to be higher in calories than low-fat foods. Some fats are considered healthier than others.

Here are some of the healthier types of fat.

  • Omega-3 fatty acids are heart-healthy and they have other benefits. Most Americans should get more of them. They’re in fish, shellfish, flaxseed, and walnuts
  • Monounsaturated fats are considered heart-healthy, and they’re famous from Mediterranean diets. Olive oil, canola oil, avocados, and peanuts are sources
  • Polyunsaturated omega-6 fats are neutral to healthy. Nuts, seeds, peanuts, and vegetable oils are sources

Here are some less healthy fats.

  • Saturated fats are linked to heart disease and diabetes risk. Foods high in them include palm oil, fatty meats, butter, cream, and full-fat dairy products
  • Trans fats are considered the least healthy fats. They’re in fried foods and some processed foods with partially hydrogenated oils

Small Servings Are Best

Since fat is high in calories, it’s best to keep portion sizes small. Here are some examples of good amounts to have at one time.

  • 1-2 teaspoons of oil
  • ¼ cup of avocado or ½ small avocado
  • ½-1 ounce of nuts, peanuts, or seeds
  • 1-2 tablespoons of nut butter, peanut butter, or seed butter A serving size of fish for omega-3 fatty acids is 3 ounces.

You can see more healthy sources of fat, including guidelines for serving sizes, here.

Water

Water has 0 calories, but it’s considered the most important nutrient. You can only go a few hours without taking in water before your body starts to have effects.

Your body needs water for every process. Water is essential for metabolism, temperature regulation, circulation, waste production, and more. Water also reduces hunger.

Signs of mild dehydration can include headaches, lack of energy, dizziness, and confusion.

Meeting Water Requirements

You may need 8-12 or more 8-ounce servings of water daily. That is the amount in 4-6 16-ounce bottles of water or in 3-4 24-ounce water bottles. Water needs increase if you’re ill, if you sweat heavily or exercise a lot, and if the weather is warm or humid.

Plain water, ice water, and sparkling water are good options. For flavor, consider adding a sprig of rosemary or mint, slices of peach, strawberry, or cucumber, or a wedge of lemon, lime, or orange.

Other fluids can also count towards your daily water requirements. It’s best to choose low-calorie options. Here are some examples.

  • Regular or decaffeinated black coffee
  • Unsweetened hot or cold green, black, or herbal tea
  • Low-sodium broth

Fruit juice and milk also count towards your water requirements, though they’re higher in calories. It’s best to keep consumption in check.

Using Water for Weight Loss

Water can help with weight loss because it reduces hunger. Research studies show that increasing water consumption can help with weight loss. Some ways to increase water intake include drinking an extra 1-2 cups before meals or with meals.

Here are some ways to increase your water intake.

  • Set a timer to remind yourself to drink
  • Track water intake with an app or notepad
  • Get several water bottles or a pitcher of water ready and make sure you’ve emptied them by the end of the day
  • Tie water drinking to another action. For example, you might drink a bottle of water every time you use the bathroom

You can increase the weight loss benefits of drinking water if you swap water for caloric beverages like soft drinks, juice, and sports drinks.

Here are some approximate calorie contents of common beverages so you can see how many calories you can save by consuming water or a low-calorie drink instead.

  • 100 calories: 8-ounce cup of juice or low-fat milk
  • 150 calories: 12-ounce can of regular cola, lemon-lime soda, or other soft drink
  • 200 calories: 28-ounce bottle of a sports drink
  • 250 calories: 20-ounce bottle of juice or soda
  • 300 calories: Large coffee beverage with syrup pumps and milk

Another option is to swap caloric beverages for water and a serving of a nutritious food. For example, you might switch orange juice for water and an orange, or have water and cheese instead of milk. Foods tend to be more filling than caloric beverages.

The Bottom Line for Nutrition and a Healthy Weight

Consuming a wide variety of healthy foods can help keep you nourished and full. Rely on vegetables, high-fiber sources of carbohydrates, lean sources of protein, and healthy fats for the majority of your diet to support a healthy weight. Also, drink plenty of water or other low-calorie beverages to get you closer to your goals.

Start making small changes to your nutrition today to lose weight and feel your best. Remember, your Lark coach is here to help every step of the way!

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