It’s the first rule of healthy eating: eat a wide variety of foods.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (USDA and DHHS, 1980) advises you to consume something from all 5 major food groups: fruits and vegetables, (whole) grains, meat, poultry, fish and legumes, dairy products, and fats and sweets. You should also try to vary with ingredients within each food group.
But did you know that on average, we only eat 25 different kinds of foods in 3 days? In contrast, research suggests that our hunter-gatherer ancestors used to collect over 55 unique plants to secure food all year round. That’s a pretty big difference! But why should you want to bring more variation to your daily diet?
By eating a wide range of foods, we ensure we get the necessary vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients in, without consuming too much of one kind. What’s more, nutrients work together to get absorbed and utilized by the human body. For example, vitamin C increases the absorption of the iron found in plants, while the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K are best absorbed when you eat them with – you guessed it right – healthy fats. By putting different kinds of food on your plate, you effortlessly increase your chances of smart food combinations.
You also need 8,000 to 11,000 units of antioxidants each day to protect your cells against free radicals – molecules that are linked to the development of heart disease, cancer and diabetes when their levels become too high. Especially when you’re sick, stressed or sleep deprived, you need to consume plenty of fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices in to get the recommend intake of antioxidants in.
And finally, the largest study published on the human microbiome shows that, no matter which diet followed, people who eat more than 30 different plants each week have a bigger variety of healthy gut bacteria than people who only consume 10 or fewer plants per week. That’s an important finding when you realize that your gut health plays a major role in your overall physical and mental wellbeing.
The problem is that, even if you think you’re having varied diet with cereal in the morning, sandwiches for lunch and pasta for dinner, chances are you’re mostly eating (unrefined) wheat. The typical Western diet is heavy in wheat, soy, corn and sugar. And the preserved, processed foods we all love, contain little vitamins and antioxidants.
So how can you add more variation to you diet, without too much stress and effort? Take a look at these 7 strategies to get you started.
This blog post contains some affiliate links to resources you may find helpful, at no extra costs to you. All opinions are my own.
7 Strategies to Easily Get More Variation in Your Diet
1. Learn about healthy alternatives
If you want to add more variation to your diet, the first step is understanding which healthy substitutes there are for your usual ingredients. An online search will give you much more elaborate examples, but here’s a short list to get you started:
- Dairy. Instead of your regular (cow’s) milk products, add nut milk to your cappuccino, enjoy soy yogurt or stir coconut cream through soups, curries or desserts.
- Wheat. There are so many more grains than just wheat! Have overnight oats, millet porridge or buckwheat granola for breakfast, eat spelt bread for lunch, and substitute couscous with quinoa or amaranth for dinner. You might not even need grains when you make cauliflower rice and collard green wraps!
- Meat. Are beef or chicken often your protein of choice? Try adding fatty fish packed with omega 3’s to your menu, and go meatless at least once a week so you can enjoy eggs, beans, mushrooms and fermented soy for dinner.
- Vegetables. Stuck on peas, carrots and cauliflower again? You’re not the only one. Experiment with leafy greens you’re less familiar with, like kale or mustard greens. Rotate night shades, cabbages, root vegetables and legumes during the week. Eating vegetables with every meal is another great strategy to get plenty of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in.
When you know your options, you can start to add more variation to your diet.
2. Meal plan like a pro
I know deciding ahead of time what you’re having for dinner sounds boring and overly organized to some of you. But meal planning has been one of the most effective health-boosting tools and energy-saving hacks in my daily life.
The benefits? You’ll never find yourself without inspiration when dinner time rolls around. Plus, you can do all or most of your grocery shopping in one haul – which is a major energy drain for most spoonies. What’s more, having an overview of your meals makes it easier to vary between meat, fish, poultry and vegetarian dinners, or mix up burritos, pasta and rice dishes with meat-and-potatoes.
Want to learn how to meal plan like a pro too? Check out the upcoming Healthy Meal Planning Bundle with digital cookbooks, grocery lists and meal prepping tips for every diet.
3. Have staple meals with rotating ingredients
I get it, you don’t want to come up with new recipes every day, let alone for every meal. The good news is, you don’t have to! You can simply add more variation to your diet by rotating the ingredients in your staple meals.
Let’s say you enjoy yoghurt, granola and fruit in the morning like me. Instead of always eating Greek yogurt with blueberries, alternate between different kinds of dairy and toppings. You could have coconut yoghurt with peaches and puffed quinoa on one occasion and plain yoghurt with banana, cacao nibs and walnuts on another.
The same principle works for soups, salads and staple dinners like Taco Tuesday. It’s not exactly a punishment to take turns between a classic ground beef taco, Hawaiian pineapple shrimp tacos and Brussel sprouts tacos with roasted corn and chimichurri, right? Or what about a taco rice bowl to switch things up?
Depending on the meal, you can rotate ingredients every other day, every week or the next time you’re getting groceries – whatever works for you.
4. Eat the rainbow
It’s the easiest way to ad more variation to your diet: think in colours.
Did you know that each plant colour signals a different nutrient? For example, orange vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes and pumpkin are rich in betacarotene, the pre-cursor of vitamin A that supports eye health and cell growth. Leafy greens on the other hand, get their dark green colour from chlorophyll, a nutrient with blood-building and wound-healing properties.
So, as comfy as mac and cheese can be, no more beige meals! Sprinkle parsley or basil over that pasta and have a simple tomato salad on the side. Add sprouts and slices of cucumber to your sandwich and live up your porridge with raspberries, cacao nibs and seeds.
Eating the rainbow is a simple strategy to ensure you eat a wide variety of nutrients. So when you’re meal planning and grocery shopping, enjoy the entire range of colourful fruits and vegetables.
5. Follow the seasons
Eating the best produce the season has to offer has multiple benefits. Fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables are packed with vitamins, minerals and flavour. Enjoying strawberries in summer and mushrooms in autumn is also an eco-friendly action that makes healthy eating more affordable. And finally, following the seasons brings variation to your diet.
For us here in the Netherlands, that means having kale, cabbages, sauerkraut and root vegetables in winter, an abundance of greens in Spring, berries late Summer, and apples, pears and mushrooms in Fall. A lot of different ingredients as you can see! You may not eat them all in the same week, but eating with the seasons does help you to explore more different foods, besides your pantry staples.
Check out seasonal produce calendars and your local farmers market to find out which produce is in season in your part of the world.
6. Spice up your meals
Variety is the spice of life, right? Take that literally by adding more fresh herbs and spices to your meals.
Throughout history, herbs and spices have been touted for their health-boosting abilities. And for good reason. Cloves, ground cinnamon, oregano and turmeric are all packed with antioxidants, whereas garlic and ginger contain potent medicinal properties.
Even with a small spice cabinet, you can add different flavours and nutrients to your meals. If you love a Mediterranean style of cooking, stock up on dried oregano, basil and thyme, or grow your favorite herb in a window box. When you’re great at curries and stir fries, peppers, turmeric and coriander are must-haves in the kitchen. And of course cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and raw cacao make any sweet dish taste better.
For more inspiration, check out ’15 Health-Boosting Herb Recipes‘ and ‘Spice Up Your Health: 16 Fragrant Recipes with Healing Powers’.
7. Upgrade your drinks
Drinking water all day long surely is a smart choice. But maybe you want to give one drink a day a fun but still healthy upgrade.
You could infuse your water with fruits, cucumber, fresh herbs and cinnamon sticks. Tea is also known for its health benefits, from supporting heart health to balancing blood sugar levels. Add ginger, honey and a slice of lemon to your English tea for an extra health boost, or swap one cup of coffee for anti-oxidant rich green tea.
‘Superfood lattes’ are a great pick-me-up and treat wrapped up into one, whereas veggie juices and green smoothies will provide you with all the vitamin C you need. So don’t stop at foods to bring more variation into your diet, rotate your drinks too!
Do you try to add variation to your diet or are you more a ‘staple meal’ kinda person? What’s your go-to strategy to eat a wide range of foods and nutrients?
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