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Eat Right: Nutrition Basics

Back off yo-yo diets! Eat the right foods and you'll be on your way to an energetic, healthy, in-shape, and happy body. We got the inside scoop from Jena la Flamme, an expert nutritionist, food counselor, and the owner of Jena Wellness in New York, and from Erica Mathers, a holistic health counselor.

Photo: Stockbyte

What's the key to healthy eating?

The key is to become intensely curious about your body -- what it likes and doesn't like, what it craves and why. Investigate these questions with the same quality attention you'd give when getting to know a new friend.
Every person is unique and metabolizes food differently than the next; therefore, you are really the ultimate expert on how to eat well for your own body. I always advise tracking the effects of the foods you eat, noting how you feel immediately after eating and then how you feel two hours later. The foods that make you feel great in the short- and long-term are the ones you should be incorporating into your diet.

What foods should be avoided?

Stay away from fast food and prepackaged foods. They have been depleted of their energetic and nutritional components through industrial processing. There are scores of people who are overweight yet starving at the same time. This is because the processed foods they eat are high in calories but don't offer any nutritional components.
In short, processed foods are low-energy foods, and to push the point further, they're energy-robbing foods. They drain your body of precious vitamins and minerals, weakening and aging you.

tips for healthy eating

1. Get plenty of sleep.

2. Make sure that you're feeding your whole body -- mind, spirit, and soul -- by eating pleasurable foods, not just the ones you think are "good" for you.

3. Drink plenty of water.

4. Do things that you enjoy with your body -- walk, bike, dance, make love, hang with friends.

5. The more you feed the body these pleasures, the less it will look to food to fill the space that these occupy.

6. Happily and guiltlessly indulge now and then.

What foods give energy?

Whole foods are high-energy foods. When thinking about what foods have a lot of energy, trace how close that food is to its source. The plants you eat -- where did they come from? The meat and seafood -- what kinds of lives did they live, how did they die, and how long has it been since then 'til they got on your plate? The closer you are in proximity to the source of your food, the more energy it's likely to give you.
Also, consider the color and texture of your food. Would you rather eat bright, green, steamed broccoli or gray, limp, overcooked broccoli? The answer is obvious, of course, because you intuit which one contains more energy for your body -- the one that's pleasing to the eye, delightful in texture, and rewarding in taste.

What are good foods for avoiding sickness?

Garlic is a powerful antiviral and antibacterial agent. Other foods and spices that strengthen the immune system are ginger, turmeric, and foods that are high in vitamins C and A.
Though they have been villainized, saturated fats are powerful immune boosters. (There's good reason that your Grandma's chicken soup -- made from a whole chicken and complete with golden droplets of floating fat -- gained its reputation as the remedy for any ailment.) While you shouldn't go overboard with any one food, there's really no dietary reason to stay away from quality (organic), natural (unprocessed) fats. Butter, olive oil, nuts, seeds, coconut, coconut oil, fish, and meat are all good sources of the essential nutrients found in fats and that will help your immune system stay strong.

What are the best foods for losing weight? The worst foods?

This is both a simple question and a tricky one. Everybody knows the basics of how to lose weight. That is, eat well, exercise, get plenty of sleep, and drink lots of water. Beyond that, eat whole foods, cook at home, stay away from processed and prepackaged foods, and eat in restaurants only now and then.
Delving deeper than that requires you to become an expert in the requirements of your own body. Everybody is unique -- one person can eat ice cream and lose weight (if they've deprived their body of fats altogether); another can eat tons of "carbs" and stay thin. These examples fly in the face of conventional pop wisdom. However, the fact that so many people follow some diet or another and are still overweight indicates that something isn't quite right. Get curious and begin to learn what foods you respond well to. It will be tons of fun and one of the best possible things you can do for your health.

What's the best way, food-wise, to curb cravings?

Cravings are an indication that your body is in need of something, so pay attention! It wouldn't drive you to raid the refrigerator if the need weren't urgent.

Drink water A craving may be an indication that you're actually thirsty, so make sure that you're not dehydrated. When you feel a craving, first drink two glasses of water, wait 20 minutes, and then see if you still have the urge to eat. Note: By the time you actually feel thirsty, you're far beyond the point of needing water; prior to that moment, you may have felt hungry or had an unexplained craving.

Question your mood If you still have the urge to eat but recognize that you're not really hungry, ask yourself a few questions. First, determine if your "hunger" is really about food or if it's about something else, perhaps an emotion. If your craving is for something besides food, then do your best to find resources for dealing with these issues on their own terms instead of distracting yourself from them by eating.

Pinpoint the craving If you've made it through this line of inquiry and are certain the craving actually is about food, try to find out what kind of food you want. Sweet? Crunchy? Sour? Salty? Creamy?

Consume the healthiest version Now start thinking of options to fulfill that desire. Provide yourself with the best quality of food that you can to satisfy your craving. If it's pizza, figure out what it is that you enjoy the most about it (cheese?) and eat the highest quality version of it (such as fresh mozzarella pieces) instead of the lowest quality version (processed American cheese, for example).

What are good foods for avoiding stress?

Foods that keep you balanced will help you manage the stress in your life. These are whole foods, and there's a wide variety of them -- whole grains, leafy greens, fruit, and beans. Processed foods, on the other hand, particularly ones that are high in sodium and sugar (high fructose corn syrup is the sneaky sugar substitute), deplete the body, stressing it and making you more susceptible to feeling off-balance and tense.

What are good foods for cleansing the body of toxins?

Leafy greens are hands-down the best blood detoxifiers -- and they're also the foods most strikingly absent from the American diet. Kale, collard greens, mustard greens, broccoli rabe, Swiss chard, beet greens, spinach, escarole, and dandelion greens are the basics. Eat at least two servings of these daily and mix them up. Don't just eat spinach!

What about diet trends? Do they help? Do they hurt?

Diet trends are interesting to follow, and they sometimes bring to light valid new nutritional information. However, diet trends are often fueled by an industrial consumer culture and rarely backed by research that shows they work. Also, keep in mind that diet trends are almost always accompanied by scads of products designed for you to purchase -- books, CDs, special prepackaged foods, or supplements. They're interesting and certainly not harmful if you remember that ultimately you know best about what's good for your body. Experiment. Find out what foods make you feel full of life and energy and what ones don't.

A final note: Starving yourself will never help you lose weight. It will only slow down your metabolism and lead to further weight gain in the end.

-- Tia Albright

See More: Getting in Shape