DISCLAIMER: The author is neither a nutritionist nor registered dietician. Information contained herein was gathered from many sources and can be found in the literature of such organizations as the World Health Organization, the American Dietetics Association, the American Council on Exercise, National Institutes of Health, and others. Consult with a physician before making changes to your diet or exercise programs.
The more nutrients-per-calorie a food has, the more nutrient-dense it is and the healthier it is for you. Numerous scientific studies have shown that the incidence of many diseases can be reduced or eliminated by increasing the nutrient-density of one's diet through increased consumption of whole plant foods.
(modified from "Eat to Live" by Dr. Joel Fuhrman)
In short, the healthiest diet you can construct centers around vegetables, beans, fruits and whole grains. The more you eat from these four food categories, the more nutrients you give your body to be healthy. These foods are also the highest in fiber and water, which means they can fill your stomach without giving you excess calories. This is why one of the keys to healthy weight-loss and weight-maintenance is eating as many whole plant foods as possible.
When you eat processed foods, you are eating the macronutrients (carbohydrate, fat, protein) but missing the micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, phytochemicals). And it is the micronutrients that actually protect your health. It is also the micronutrients that help to satisfy hunger, sending your body clear signals that it is being nourished adequately so that you don't overeat.
If not consuming animal products, it is recommended that one ensure regular intake of beans, lentils, and whole grains to get sufficient protein.
Oxidation in the body can produce free-radicals and eventually damage cells. Damaged cells are generally a bad thing and can lead to various conditions and diseases. Anti-oxidants are molecules that slow or prevent other molecules from oxidizing and thus increase health by decreasing cell damage. The most recent laboratory testing of anti-oxidant levels of foods reveals the following as the best (per serving):
Other foods with high antioxidant-levels from the most nutrient-dense food categories include:
Note that many foods and beverages made with ingredients like cocoa powder (chocolate) and coffee are less-healthful because of other added ingredients, such as butter, cream, etc. And alcoholic beverages such as wine should be consumed in moderation, which is considered to be a maximum of 1-2 drinks per day. And decreasing one's intake of caloric beverages (e.g. fruit juice, milk, alcohol, etc.) can be a powerful tool in maintaining a healthy weight. Black coffee and plain tea are essentially calorie-free and can be considered a healthy addition to your diet.
So what about all these multivitamin supplements? No multivitamin can take the place of a healthy diet. That's because there are thousands of known and thousands of unidentified nutrients (a large portion are phytochemicals found in plants) in whole foods and no supplement contains these thousands. At best there will be a few dozen, but it is theorized that the real benefits from nutrients depend on how they interact together. And scientists are still guessing at how that happens. The bottom line is: get your vitamins, minerals, and the rest from food, not supplements.
It's important to note that a number of studies have been done on supplemental Vitamin A and Vitamin E. These studies have shown a *decrease* in health associated with supplementing these vitamins. Again, get your vitamins from food.
Omega-3 fatty acids have received a lot of press in recent years. They are an important type of fat that reduces inflammation in the body, among other things. Generally, people in the U.S. do not get enough and should increase their intake of some of the following in order to do so:
The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) recently modified its food recommendations to encourage higher consumption of low-fat or fat-free dairy products. Dairy fat, highest in products like cheese, cream, full-fat milk, and ice cream, is certainly bad for your health. It is prudent to avoid this kind of fat (and most animal fat) as much as possible, since these fats contain large amounts of saturated fat which triggers your body to overproduce cholesterol. Therefore, if you consume dairy products, it's better for the health of your heart and arteries to choose fat-free versions of them.
Consuming dairy is not necessary for good health, however. If you'd like to try avoiding dairy completely, there are plenty of non-dairy alternatives to milk, cheese, etc. And these alternatives are often fortified to match the same levels of calcium, vitamin D, and other beneficial nutrients found in dairy. If calcium is your big concern, check with your doctor to determine whether it's a supplement you should be taking. Other foods high in calcium include: dark leafy greens, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds.