Though there is no perfect way of eating, putting in the effort to eat a balanced diet can lead to more energy and maintaining a healthy body mass index.
Registered Dietician Nutritionist and University of Texas Rio Grande Valley Lecturer Dr. Lisa Salinas said the way people should eat is dependent on what outcome they are looking for. She worked in hospitals and private practice before joining UTRGV in 2018 and focuses on “big picture general health,” which generally leans in the direction of a more plant-based diet.
“This doesn’t mean being vegan or vegetarian, but just making sure you have enough fruits and vegetables,” said Salinas, adding that means having between five to eight servings a day. “When I think plant-based, I think increasing your beans, increasing fruits and vegetables, and things of that nature.”
While steaming vegetables is considered the healthiest cooking method, Salinas said the best way to cook them is the way you’ll eat them. She also recommends branching out to try new types of produce.
“The best way is just to explore the grocery store or farmer’s market and hop right on to Google,” she said. “For sure you’ll find a great recipe to highlight a new ingredient. You may like it, you may not, but at least you tried it.”
And due to their properties, some plant-based foods have a host of positive effects on the body. Oranges and strawberries are high in vitamin C, which helps combat oxidized stress and fatigue. The nitrates in beets help improve blood flow. Hummus, edamame, avocado, seeds, beans, and green leafy vegetables also improve energy levels due to their fiber, carbohydrate, vitamin, and mineral content. The potassium and vitamin B6 levels in bananas “contribute to overall good health.” Brown rice, oats and sweet potato — all high in the enzyme manganese — aid metabolism, regulate blood sugar, and contribute to decreased inflammation.
Another energy source can be found in caffeine. Salinas said there is evidence of the caffeine found in coffee and green tea improving energy levels, diminishing fatigue, and improving alertness. But she warns of not over-consuming the stimulant by limiting your caffeine intake to 150 to 200 milligrams per day, which is about a cup-and-a-half of coffee. And if someone is concerned or having trouble reducing their consumption, she suggests switching to green tea due to a naturally occurring compound that “mellows” out the caffeine, so the body’s response is not so harsh.
“For myself, what I do is half decaf, half caffeinated,” she said. “That way I get a little zing from the caffeine but I’m not overdoing it.”
As for how to balance the three main macronutrients in food, United States dietary guidelines recommend adults consume 45 to 65 percent of their daily calories from carbohydrates, 25 to 30 percent from fat, and 10 to 35 percent from protein.
Salinas said a healthy lifestyle can result from these guidelines, but people need to be careful what sources of food they eat to fulfill these macronutrients.
“Although 25 to 30 percent should come from fat, it is recommended no more than 5 to 6 percent is from saturated fat, which is going to be fat from your meats and high-fat dairy products,” she said.
Meanwhile, examples of unsaturated fats include avocado, nuts, olive oil, and canola oil.
And while up to 35 percent of one’s recommended total calorie intake can come from protein, Salinas said unless the individual is an athlete or otherwise has an extremely high activity level, they don’t need more than .8 to 1 gram of protein per kilogram of their weight.
“I’m a believer in trying to get what you need from foods, opposed to supplementation,” she said.
As for carbohydrates, which are the body’s most important source of energy, Salinas said it is best to opt for a complex carb.
“I’m not referring to potato chips or sugary cereals,” she said. “I like to see a carb go beyond offering more than just energy. I like to see high fiber. I like to see it has not been stripped of all its grain, because the grain aspect of a carbohydrate is not only what provides it with fiber, but with vitamins and minerals.
“I always encourage somebody — when it comes to bread, pasta, rice — look for the whole grain option.”
The importance of a high-fiber diet is for two main reasons: supporting gastro-intestinal health and supporting consistent energy levels by slowing down the absorption of food.
On top of eating a well-rounded diet, Salinas stresses the importance of drinking enough water. As a rule of thumb, if you feel thirsty, you are already dehydrated. So, she suggests thoughtfully drinking water throughout the day.
“Water is a part of all the processes that occur in our bodies,” she said. “If we don’t have enough water, we become dehydrated, which can actually slow down cellular function and cause fatigue.”
One resource she recommends for calculating how many servings of a food group and how many calories to consume is choosemyplate.gov. It takes height, age, weight into consideration and produces a healthy, balanced diet plan.
She said this and tracking macronutrients can be helpful to get used to eating in a way they feel their best.
“After a while, you’ll start to understand what your day needs to look like to give you the most amount of energy and maintain your weight,” Salinas said. “I would also encourage someone to reach out to an RDN because they’re going to give evidence-based info on what the science says, which is ultimately the truth in nutrition.”