Salad is not the only item on the menu for a healthy diet. (Credit: Getty Images)
All of us need a healthy diet. You know that processed foods are associated with obesity and cardiovascular disease. You probably also know that eating food high in salt can lead to hypertension, and beverages with added sugars could elevate your risk for type 2 diabetes. And yet you find yourself often powerless against your cravings for burgers and fries. What to do?
In 2021, the American Heart Association (AHA) recognised that giving people a list of "healthy" and "unhealthy" food would not make a substantial difference in the way people eat. So instead, the health organisation emphasized how people can improve their current dietary patterns, whether prepared and eaten at home or outside the home.
In its nutrition guide to promote a healthy heart, AHA talks about the benefits of fruits and vegetables. It doesn't forbid pasta or burgers, which the organisation recognises as readily available and convenient to eat. Instead, it suggests that if you eat meat, you should choose lean cuts, avoid processed meats and stay within your calorie limit.
Test your knowledge about healthy diet
Hydrogenated fats found in processed, fast and fried foods are dangerous for the heart. (Credit: Getty Images)
How knowledgeable are you about nutrition? The true-or-false answers to the eight statements below are based on AHA's evidence-based dietary guidance in 2021. The idea is to integrate these dietary patterns into your current eating style in order to promote a healthy diet.
1. Frozen or canned fruits and vegetables are less nutritious
Whether frozen, canned or dried, whole fruits and vegetables provide as much dietary fibre as fresh ones. But it is better to eat them as whole foods, rather than drink them in juice form. Also, picking colourful fruits and vegetables can help you up the benefits you receive as these types are more nutrient-dense.
2. Plant-based meat is healthier than meat from animals
Answer: not always true
AHA requires "some caution" when it comes to plant-based meat alternatives because many of these may be considered ultra-processed. They may also contain added sugar, saturated fat, salt, stabilisers and preservatives. AHA also points out that "there is limited evidence on the short- and long-term health effects of these plant-based meat alternatives." Check the nutrition label before buying.
3. Meat is not the only source of protein
Here are a few more choices:
- Protein-rich plant-based foods like legumes and nuts, which are also high in fibre
- 2 to 3 servings of fish per week (as long as it is not fried)
- Low-fat or fat-free dairy products
4. Tropical oils have bad fats
Tropical oils like coconut and palm oil contain high levels of trans fats, which increase the "bad" LDL cholesterol in your body and decrease your "good" HDL cholesterol. Your LDL cholesterol levels will thank you for using safflower, sunflower, canola and olive oils instead.
5. It's okay to drink alcohol in moderation
Some dietary guidelines advise one alcoholic drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. (Credit: Getty Images)
But AHA makes it clear that if you do not drink alcohol, do not start. The more you drink alcohol, the higher your risk of stroke and heart disease. If you drink already, keep your alcohol intake at a moderate level and don't indulge in binge drinking.
6. Corn syrup is added sugar
A food or beverage that involves the inclusion of sugar during its preparation or processing contains added sugar. Watch out for the following types of sugar additives in the ingredient list:
- Corn syrup
- Maple syrup
- Concentrated fruit juice
7. Whole wheat products do not have sodium
Foods may be labelled 100 per cent whole wheat or organic, but this does not mean they don't contain sodium. Always check the nutrition information of "healthy" processed foods, meals prepared outside the home, packaged foods and restaurant meals. The recommended daily allowance for sodium is 2,300 mg a day.
8. No need to count calories if you're eating healthy
It is still advisable not to go beyond the recommended calorie intake – 2,000 calories for women and 2,500 for men. You are likely to gain weight if you don't control your portion sizes. Struggling to manage your calories? Counteract this with 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week to maintain a healthy body weight.
The right healthy diet for you
For a low-cholesterol diet, always load up on fruits, vegetables and healthy protein sources. (Credit: Getty Images)
These dietary patterns illustrate the closest thing to a diet that fits all. Infusing them into your dietary routine will be good for your heart, immune system, weight and brain, too. They are also featured as a part of many other diet plans to treat specific health conditions. For example, here are three recommendations for a healthy diet for people with acid reflux, high blood pressure and diabetes.
A study by Harvard researchers suggests that an "anti-reflux lifestyle" might prevent 40 per cent of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) symptoms, which occur at least weekly. The diet that fits the bill is the Mediterranean style – a diet high in good fats and carbs. It champions plant-based foods and little to zero red meat (an acid reflux trigger).
What's in a Mediterranean diet?
- Whole grains
Hypertension or high blood pressure is the No. 1 risk factor for heart disease. The good news is you can manage it with the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension). This scientifically-proven eating style lowers blood pressure and reduces cardiovascular risk factors. DASH is low in sodium and high in potassium.
What's in a DASH diet?
- Whole grains
- Low-fat or fat-free dairy products
Diabetes plate method
Diabetics require a diet that will help manage their blood sugar. Those with type 2 diabetes can avoid insulin injections by eating correctly. Although people with type 1 diabetes will always need insulin injections, diet management is vital to avoid health complications. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends the Diabetes Plate Method to get the right balance of vegetables, protein and carbohydrates.
What's in a Diabetes Plate Method?
ADA advises using a 9-inch (23 cm) plate to get portion control right. The plate should be divided into three:
Half of the plate: non-starchy vegetables
- Broccoli or Cauliflower
- Cabbage (green, red, napa or bok choy)
- Leafy and salad greens
- Green beans, pea pods, snow peas and sugar snap peas
- Peppers such as bell peppers and hot peppers
- Squash such as zucchini, yellow squash, chayote or spaghetti squash
One-quarter of the plate: lean protein foods
- Fish like salmon, cod, tuna, tilapia or swordfish
- Shellfish like shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels or lobster
- Lean beef cuts
- Lean pork cuts
- Lean deli meats
- Cheese and cottage cheese
One-quarter of the plate: carbohydrate foods
- Whole grains
- Starchy vegetables such as green peas, plantain, pumpkin or sweet potato
- Beans and legumes
- Fruits and dried fruit
- Dairy products like milk, yoghurt or milk substitutes (i.e., soy milk)
You don't need to have acid reflux, hypertension or diabetes to try any of these diets. However, once people achieve their goals – reducing weight and eliminating heartburn, for instance – it can be tempting to go back to old habits. Resisting the draw of your favourite red meat dishes can sometimes be a challenge, consequently leading to another bout of acid reflux.
The more realistic approach would be to apply the dietary patterns AHA outlines for overall good health. As a result, you get more fibre, low saturated fat and cholesterol, while simultaneously maintaining a low environmental impact. You don't have to force yourself to go on a vegan diet if you're a meat lover – instead, simply opt for lean, non-processed meat.
Trying to stick to healthy dietary patterns can take work and self-motivation. If you need extra support, take part in a wellness programme like AIA Vitality to help you power through your wellbeing goals. It can give you that extra push to finally get on a healthy diet.
American Heart Association. 2021. Dietary Guidance to Improve Cardiovascular Health: A Scientific Statement. [online] (Accessed on June 10, 2022)
World Health Organization. 2020. Healthy Diet. [online] (Accessed on June 10, 2022)
American Diabetes Association. 2020. What is the Diabetes Plate Method? [online] (Accessed on June 10, 2022)
Cleveland Clinic. 2021. DASH Diet, What Is It, Meal Plans and Recipes [online] (Accessed on June 10, 2022)
Journal of American Medical Association. 2021. Association of Diet and Lifestyle With the Risk of Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease Symptoms in US Women. [online] (Accessed on June 10, 2022)
Eat Right. 2020. Make it Mediterranean. [online] (Accessed on June 10, 2022)