The keys to eating for good health are very simple: make good choices, and insist on a balanced diet. The media is saturated with a bewildering amount of dietary advice, much of it contradictory, but here's the good news: you can ignore almost everything except the four basic food groups.
Focus on the same simple brand of nutritional good sense taught in high school. Pick grains, proteins, vegetables, and fruits, and balance those equally. If you want to see some recommended proportions, you can find "plate" diagrams at the Harvard School of Public Health or the United States Department of Agriculture.
For cooking and salads, use as many beneficial oils and fats as you can find. Remember to drink enough water and avoid sugar and salt. Those principles are the foundation of healthy eating.
Focus on Four: The Healthy Food Groups
Here are the four essential categories found in every healthy diet: whole grains, lean proteins, colored vegetables, and fruits. No substitutions, please. If you use products made with refined flour instead of those containing whole grains, you will forego valuable nutrients, and your diet will be less healthy accordingly.
The same goes for using fatty meats instead of lean cuts, fish, nuts, or legumes, but in those cases you will consume unhealthy fats along with your protein. Seeking vivid color in vegetables is a general rule of thumb, but since there are nourishing exceptions you may eat those without risking any benefits. Vary your fruit and vegetable selections for best results.
Fruits mean just that: shop in your produce section. Despite what one manufacturer of a popular rolled fruit product tried to claim, anything fruit-flavored does not qualify as "health food."
Diet and Blood Sugar
Your aim should be to maintain your blood sugar at a moderate and steady level. That is why you should avoid sugar in beverages, including fruit juice, and sweetened foods: that soluble sugar produces a quick rise in blood sugar, and a rebound effect of low blood sugar thereafter. Easily digested carbohydrates like refined flour and potatoes also send your blood sugar up, then down.
When your blood sugar rises and falls, so does your energy level, and any highs and lows can interfere with your performance during the day. The currently popular products touting quick boosts in energy fail to mention there's always a price to be paid afterwards, because the human body demands balance in metabolism.
What's Wrong With Processed Foods?
These foods usually contain far too much sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats while offering few nutrients in return. Some of the additives they contain, like the sodium nitrates and nitrites in processed meats, are needed to preserve color and flavor while inhibiting bacterial growth, but should otherwise be omitted from your diet.
Prepackaged bread, soup, sandwiches, and frozen foods are notorious for harboring excess salt, as are fast foods. In fact, avoiding the dietary hazards found in processed foods alone would be sufficient reason to recommend focusing on whole grains, produce, and the less fatty proteinaceous foods. The extra nutrients that occur naturally in those foods are all added value ingredients, viewed from that perspective.
What If My Favorite Foods Are Unhealthy?
Take heart, because you can occasionally indulge in the guilty pleasure of fast food without wrecking your health. If you eat one hamburger per week, with one order of fries, you'll be safe. If you substitute sweet potato fries for the ordinary variety, you can pick up a few bonus points while enjoying yourself.
Here is where preparing your own food comes into play. You may not be able to find sweet potato fries at your favorite burger shack, but you could certainly fry some yourself in healthy oil (which should be either mono- or polyunsaturated). And you can choose your own mixture of healthy ground meats (perhaps lean pork and poultry) to make the patty.
Cooking your own cleverly constructed meals is also the simple and obvious way to avoid processed foods altogether. Try throwing together whole-wheat pasta with a few tasty vegetables to circumvent the need for a frozen dinner, for example.
Cooking well has gained a great deal of new respect in the past few decades, so much so that some famous chefs are now television stars. You can learn how to prepare your own gourmet meals in a health-conscious way.
Learn How to Add Flavor Without Salt
This is the secret of turning out simple, flavorful, healthy dishes. Some food experts swear that salt merely enhances flavor, but the trained palate can detect the truth: salt has its own separate flavor, just like spices. Not only is it not necessary to add a great deal of salt to what you cook, but you can work magic by adding either carefully chosen spices or another ingredient that contains not only salt but some additional flavor.
For example, if you're making a quick spaghetti sauce for your whole-wheat pasta, use a few anchovies rather than a teaspoon of pure salt. The difference will be both welcome and apparent, and you'll be off to a healthy start in the kitchen.