If you’re looking for a basic overview of the best foods to eat when hunger strikes so you can nourish that lovely body of yours, you’re in the right place. We’re going to look over the three major food groups of protein, fats, and carbohydrates to give you some ideas of what to look for in each for optimal nutrition.
Because there is a lot out there on nutrition. From Keto to Paleo, from vegan to flexitarian, the labels and monikers people use to describe themselves or their way of eating can be overwhelming. This post is going to break down the three major food groups (called macros) to focus on the things you need when eating a meal. Nothing too fancy, just the simple, easy nutrition basics of eating real food and getting these three food groups into your body so you can continue living the life you want.
Disclaimer: I am not a nutritionist or dietician. This is a broad and general overview; a place to help you think more about what you put in your body, but not intended for individualized advice. Please talk to a physician, nutritionist, registered dietician, or another medical professional about that kind of help!
Why Food Matters
But first, a little story on why I think this is worth talking about in the first place.
I really like to eat.
Maybe it’s the Type 7 (you can read more about the enneagram here!) in me or the memories associated with food, but I really enjoy a good meal.
Not too long after I got married, I started putting on some weight. Not a lot all at once, mind you, but after several years I was about 15 pounds heavier than I was on my wedding day.
I wasn’t exercising as much, sure, (I was a college athlete after all) but I didn’t think I was eating that much more.
And things really got interesting during PT school, when my stress levels were out of control. Feel free to raise your hand if you’ve ever eaten to feel better or to stay awake. Yep, me too. (And I still struggle with this sometimes!)
But I really came to grips with the way food was affecting me after I graduated from my doctoral program. Even though I felt like I wasn’t under as much stress, things were still not quite right.
My hormones were all out of whack, my body just didn’t feel right, and I was having anxiety issues. Not the highlight of my life.
After seeing a few different doctors, I finally made my way to a functional medicine MD who tested me for a plethora of things, one of which was gluten intolerance.
You guessed it, cutting back on the gluten was right for me.
Now I don’t tell you this story to say you need to get off gluten or you should see about that stress you’re hanging on to (though I think both of those things might be interesting to work through with someone), but I tell you because it highlights the point that what we put in our body is important.
Food is more than just the delicious meal you are looking forward to or the hurried bite you shove in your mouth on the way out of the door in the morning.
I could go off about the mind-body connection here – and I might in another post – but for now, we’re just going to get to a nice list of some foods to consider when thinking about your next meal.
The 3 food groups to include in every meal
Let’s make it simple. When you sit down to a meal, instead of worrying about all the ins and outs, let’s break it down to the three food groups to include in every meal: proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. These foods even work together in digestion to help you get the most out of your meal. Let’s dig in!
This macronutrient is good for building and maintaining muscle mass, which is important for several reasons, not the least of which is picking up kiddos and the like. Other benefits include helping you feel full, keeping blood sugar more stable, and helping with recovery after exercise.
I don’t like to stress out about the numbers behind how much I am supposed to eat for optimal functioning, so I like to look at this list and shoot for eating from the protein-rich category as much as possible. (But if you want to know, one source says adequate intake is 55 grams/day for 150 lb female, and optimal intake is 109-116 g/day for a 150 lb female who strength-trains.)
As an aside, if your budget allows, choose meat and dairy products that are local, grass-fed, and pasture-raised. And if not, choose leaner cuts. The fat is where most of the yucky stuff live (if that yucky stuff happens to be fat-soluble). Also, opt for seafood that’s wild-caught or from organic farms. Again, less yucky stuff. And ideally, a little more sustainable.
Some options for protein include:
- Game Meats (bison/buffalo, boar, elk, rabbit, venison/deer)
- Dairy** (watch for fat vs protein content)
- Protein Powder***
- Beans/Legumes (watch for carb vs protein content)
- Nuts/Seeds and their butter (watch for fat vs protein content)
* Some types of seafood are better than others for the ratio of omega-3 to mercury. You can read more about that here
**For some people, dairy isn’t their friend. You may want to check in with your body and see how it affects you.
*** You may want to talk to your doc about protein powder if you’re pregnant. Also if you do decide to use protein powder, think about blending it with veggies for more complete nutrition.
Aside from imparting a lot of the tastiness in our food, fats are important for making hormones, signaling between our cells, and helping keep the proper structure of our cell membranes. Plus, like protein, they help us feel full longer.
But you do want to watch out for trans fat. Look for hydrogenated fat or partially-hydrogenated fat on the ingredient label, or trans fat on the nutrition label. To really avoid these, it’s best to eat unprocessed or minimally-processed foods as you are able.
As far as portions go, for foods super high in fat like butter, nut-butters, or oils, think about a thumb-sized amount being about 1 serving (which is about what you need at every meal, and about ½ that for a couple of snacks). For foods like eggs, beef, or milk, look at the nutrition label for ease.
When cooking with fats, think about the smoke point. If you’re cooking at high heat, you want to use fats that will be more stable under these conditions. Examples include coconut oil, ghee (my personal favorite, ‘cause it is soooooo tasty), and avocado oil. For lower temps, olive oil and butter are great.
Some options for fats include:
- Dairy* (not reduced fat)
- Fish (Herring, Salmon, Sardines)
- Fruits (Avocado and Coconut)
- Meats/Poultry (dark meat or less lean cuts)
- Nuts/Seeds and their Butters
- Oils (Ghee, Olive Oil, and Coconut Oil are my personal favorites)
- Fat-based condiments/dressings (guacamole, hummus, mayo, pesto)
*For some people, dairy isn’t their friend. You may want to check in with your body and see how it affects you
First off, let me tell you that carbs are not all bad! In fact, fruits and vegetables are considered carbs. However, there is a reason that carbs get a bad wrap – all those little sugary treats (ice cream, cookies, soda) are also considered carbs. And so are pasta, bread, and grains.
So when we’re thinking about the carbs we want in our diet, we want to try and choose carbohydrates that add to our health.
As an aside, for many people (myself included) gluten doesn’t play nice. In fact, for some people, all grains are not best for their digestion. And if you’re like me, you may not even realize the impact gluten or other grains may have on you. If you’re having any health symptoms, it may be worth having a blood test run as a starting point to see if you have any inflammatory markers or cut out grain and see how you feel.
(If you’re looking for a great cookbook to help with this, my favorites are from Danielle Walker with Against All Grains)
Some options for carbohydrates include:
- Whole grains (think about the amount of processing, less is generally more in this case)
- Fruits (A portion of fruit is typically around a fist, except for dried fruit, which is closer to a cupped handful)*
- Vegetables (A portion of veggies is about the size of a fist. Try to eat more of the low starch options when looking to meet your daily needs for vegetables.)
*Fresh or frozen are typically a better choice over dried as far as sugar content goes
Hopefully, this list will help give you a starting point for making simple, easy nutrition choices about the food you feed your body (and if you’re pregnant, your little one too). Remember to focus on real food first and foremost. And shoot for the highest quality you can afford – especially meats. But don’t beat yourself up either! There’s something to be said for intuitive eating and taking in what your body tells you it wants. Just do the best you can with wherever you are in your journey.
Also if you are struggling with your relationship with food, I encourage you to reach out (try looking into the body positive movement). Food should not be our enemy, but one source of our energy.
And if you’re struggling with your connection to your body, be sure to check out my ABCs for getting back in touch with it.
Have any tips for fitting more good stuff into your diet?