A colossal cheat sheet for women in their 20s and mid-30s, The Girl’s Guide (Workman Publishing, 2015) by Melissa Kirsch is an indispensable resource for finding your way in the world. Kirsch offers fresh insights into issues new and old, from friendship and romance to work and play. The following excerpt on creating a well-balanced diet was taken from the chapter “Health and Body Image.”
Eat This Up: A Healthy Diet That’s a Cinch
We all know how important it is that we eat well. The problem is that so many of us eat unconsciously, grabbing food on the run without thinking about how we truly are what we eat.
Start now by making a balanced diet your priority. You don’t want too much or too little of any one type of food—you need protein, but you also need nutrients from whole grains and calcium from dairy products and vegetables. Think of the old saying, “Everything in moderation,” and let it guide your eating habits.
Nutrition is actually about nurturing yourself—so let’s not forget how pleasurable eating is. We’ve all had stupendous meals that rival great sex (and a few so-so meals that totally trounce bad sex, but that’s another conversation).
Good Eats: Foods You Should Have Lots Of
First things first. We’ve got three main food categories: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. We need all of them in balanced proportions. The 40/30/30 approach is favored by many scientists—that means you eat 40 percent of your diet in carbohydrates, 30 percent in protein, and 30 percent in fat. You don’t need to measure it out by the ounce—it’s a pretty equal split, with an emphasis on carbohydrates. So let’s unpack the grocery cart.
Carbohydrates have been wrongly vilified over recent years. They provide the body with its main source of energy, allowing proteins to be used for the body-building functions for which they’re intended. The best place to get carbohydrates is by way of whole grains. Whole grains are grains that aren’t processed, so their nutrients are still intact. Whole grains include brown rice, quinoa, millet, buckwheat, and oatmeal. The usefulness of whole grains has been widely recognized in the food industry—today you’ll find bread and pasta made of them, as well as bulk bins of these grains at both the big grocery stores and the little health food boutiques. You can also get carbohydrates from vegetables, beans, and fruit. The grains in white bread and processed cereals are not considered whole because they’ve been processed within a millimeter of their lives.
Proteins provide nitrogen and amino acids for our body’s proteins—skin, muscles, brain cells, and hair; they’re also used to make antibodies, which fight infection. Proteins provide helpful enzymes, which control the rates of chemical reactions in our bodies. You can get protein from milk, cheese, yogurt, meats, fish, poultry, beans, eggs, and tofu.
Fats are a class of food we actually need despite what seems like an all-out media campaign to banish them from our diets. Without fats everything goes to hell: Our brains stop thinking properly, our organ functions decrease, our blood slows down, we lose energy, our skin and hair and eyes all suffer. This doesn’t mean you should be downing forkfuls of Crisco—there are, as you might have suspected, “good” and “bad” fats. You can get saturated fat, necessary to make certain hormones in our bodies, from animal products like meat, butter, and dairy. Saturated fat is necessary, but high in cholesterol, so watch your intake. You can get very important and cholesterol-lowering unsaturated fat from fish and vegetable oils as well as from avocados, nuts, and fish. The unsaturated fat known as omega-3 that’s found in fish is recommended by doctors for promoting heart health and a variety of other bodily functions.
Fruits and Vegetables
Okay, so you’re eating your whole grains and you’re taking in the right amount of carbs, protein, and fats. What else do you need to know?
Well, word on the street is that you’re not eating your fruits and vegetables. And they contain most of the vitamins and minerals you need to maintain a healthy, energetic body. They keep you regular and provide antioxidants. You need at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. That’s a lot of roughage, but it’s not as difficult to work into a daily diet as you might think. We’ve all had the best intentions, stocking the fridge with broccoli, eggplant, tomatoes, apples, pears, and four pounds of grapes, only to have the whole paycheck’s worth go bad because we can’t eat them fast enough. Try shopping in smaller batches, sharing groceries with a roommate, or throwing a potluck dinner party where you can socialize over the excess fruit and vegetables.
We also forget how important it is that we drink water. It’s good for every part of our bodies, especially the kidneys and bowels. Our nutritionist recommends one to two liters of water a day for women: “We’re in the habit of drinking coffee in the morning to wake up, which automatically puts us at a water deficit because coffee is a diuretic, meaning it makes us lose water. We also lose a lot of minerals, like magnesium, potassium, and calcium, when we drink coffee.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to cut out my morning joe—it’s one of the few consistent rewards I have for getting out of bed. So while I find those who are able to quit caffeine very virtuous, what works for me is drinking a big glass of water before I have a cup of coffee, and then keeping a bottle of water by my side throughout the day and drinking it even when I don’t necessarily feel thirsty. Sometimes we mistake thirst for hunger—so drinking water often satisfies what we perceive as hunger cravings. Juices and sodas are not, for the record, good substitutes for water. They contain sugars and caffeine and other unnecessary stuff that loads us up with useless calories and doesn’t fill our nutritional needs.
Vegetarians Can’t Live on Rabbit Feed Alone
If you’re a vegetarian, you need to make sure you’re getting enough protein (swap the meat and eggs for nuts, beans, and soy), iron, and vitamin B12. Get iron from dried beans, spinach, dried fruit, and iron-enriched foods. B12 comes naturally only from animal products but can be found in some fortified (not enriched) breakfast cereals, fortified soy beverages, some brands of nutritional (brewer’s) yeast, and vitamin supplements.
Vegans must find alternative sources for calcium and vitamin D that we omnivores get from dairy products. Try calcium-fortified soy beverages, tofu, spinach, molasses, and oatmeal.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Girl’s Guide, by Melissa Kirsch, published by Workman Publishing, 2015.