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What Should I Eat to Stay Lean, Fit, and Healthy?

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By: Erin Coleman, B.S. - Nutritional Science, R.D., L.D.,

Writer at The Fit Father Project

what should I eat

Answering the question “what should I eat” and taking action can drastically improve your health, wellness, and overall quality of life.

“What should I eat” isn't as simple as it may seem — there is A LOT of conflicting information out there about which foods are good or bad for you.

Knowing more about nutritious food choices and meal planning is the best way to get and stay lean and reduce your risk of:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Obesity
  • Cancer
  • Other chronic conditions

So, if you want to know once and for all “what should I eat” … read the list below to find out 10 things you should add to your diet and six things to avoid.

What Should I Eat?

The foods below are nutritious because they're loaded with essential nutrients, reduce chronic disease risks, or aid in healthy weight management.

Consider adding the following foods to daily meal plans:

Berries

Raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, cranberries, and other berries are loaded with fiber, vitamins, minerals, and disease-fighting antioxidants.

Berries are lower in calories than many other types of fruits and can give you a quick boost of energy from the natural sugars they provide.

Berries contain less than 100 calories in each 1-cup portion, but still fill you up.

Some types of berries provider up to 8 grams of fiber in each cup, which is an excellent way to help reduce high cholesterol naturally and aid in healthy weight management.

Add 2-3 servings of fruit to daily meal plans to optimize your health and reduce chronic disease risks.

Non-Starchy Vegetables

When asking yourself the question, “what should I eat,” consider non-starchy vegetables.

These nutritious veggies are low in calories, high in fiber, and rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other essential nutrients.

They can aid in healthy weight management, as non-starchy veggies often contain just 5-40 calories in each 1-cup portion.

Low-calorie vegetables to add to daily meal plans include:

  • Spinach, kale, arugula, and other leafy greens
  • Celery, carrots, cucumbers, and tomatoes
  • Mushroom, onions, and bell peppers
  • Zucchini, asparagus, broccoli, and cauliflower

Increasing your intake of these and other non-starchy vegetables can boost your energy, lower your cholesterol, and reduce your risk of cancer and other chronic diseases.

The fiber in veggies can help you lose or maintain a healthy weight, lowering your risk of developing obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

Disease-fighting antioxidants in vegetables help ward off cancer and keep your immune system strong.

Skinless Poultry

Chicken, turkey, and duck are excellent sources of lean protein, vitamins, and minerals.

Skinless, un-breaded poultry products are virtually carbohydrate-free.

Poultry is a good source of iron, zinc, and B vitamins.

Adding chicken, turkey, or duck to meal plans offers you nearly 25 grams of quality protein, containing essential amino acids your body needs daily to function properly.

Protein-rich poultry helps fill you up without extra calories, making it an excellent addition to any weight loss or fat loss plan.

It aids in muscle building to help you achieve the lean physique you desire.

Top vegetable salads with cooked poultry, grill it, add poultry to kabobs, or eat chicken, turkey, or duck in soups, chili, sandwiches, stir fry, omelets, or casseroles.

Fish and Seafood

Like poultry, fish, shrimp, scallops, crab, and other types of seafood are loaded with protein, vitamins, and minerals.

Fish and seafood are rich in vitamin D, iodine, B vitamins, calcium, phosphorous, zinc, iron, potassium, and magnesium.

Some types of fish, particularly salmon and tuna, are loaded with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which can optimize brain and heart health.

For this reason, the American Heart Association recommends eating fish twice weekly to lower your risk of a heart attack or stroke.

Fish and seafood often contain about 20 grams of high-quality protein, which helps you build or maintain lean muscle, achieve or maintain a healthy weight, increase your metabolism, and keep your appetite in check.

So when the question “what should I eat” crosses your mind, consider adding fish or seafood to soups, salads, stir fry, or kabobs, or grill them as part of your main course.

Avocados

Avocados are packed with essential fatty acids, which can optimize heart health when used in place of saturated animal fats.

Avocados help boost satiety to aid in healthy weight management.

They enhance vitamin absorption, help you sustain energy for long time periods, and play a key role in ketogenic dieting.

In addition to being an excellent source of nutritious dietary fat, avocados are a great source of fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, vitamin E, B vitamins, potassium, magnesium, lutein, and beta-carotene.

To reap the numerous health benefits avocados offer, eat them with whole grains, rice, omelets, soups, salads, quinoa, turkey or veggie burgers, or any breakfast or main dish you choose.

Olive Oil

Like avocados, olive oil is loaded with nutritious, satiating fats that enhance heart health.

It can help lower blood cholesterol and blood pressure, and reduce chronic disease risks when you consume olive oil in place of not-so-healthy fats.

It's a good source of essential micronutrients, including vitamin E, vitamin K, and antioxidants, which keep your immune system strong and reduce inflammation to help you feel better overall.

Studies show that olive oil can reduce your risk of obesity, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes.

Additional research found that consuming olive oil may reduce your risk of developing certain types of cancer.

Add olive oil to just about any meal or menu plan.

Use olive oil to roast or saute veggies, on salads, and in casseroles, homemade soups, omelets, chili, or stir fry.

Legumes

Legumes are an answer to the question “what should I eat” for numerous reasons.

Black beans and other nutrient-dense legumes are loaded with up to 8 grams of fiber and 8 grams of protein per cup, vitamins, and minerals.

They're a good source of iron, zinc, magnesium, potassium, and B vitamins.

Legumes help reduce high cholesterol and your risk of heart disease and diabetes.

They boost satiety, aid in healthy weight management, and lower your risk of becoming overweight or obese.

Eat legumes or other plant-based starches in place of refined grains.

Consider adding the following legumes to healthy meal plans:

  • Black beans, pinto beans, or kidney beans
  • Navy beans, lima beans, or other dried beans
  • Chickpeas, green peas, split peas, or black-eyed peas
  • Lentils

Add legumes to soups, chili, salads, whole grains, casseroles, stir fry, or cook them with olive oil as a side dish.

Consider a nutritious, homemade refried pinto beans recipe!

Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds are another answer to the “what should I eat” question.

They're loaded with vitamins, minerals, fiber, up to 7 grams of protein per serving, and heart-healthy fatty acids.

Nuts and seeds are rich in B vitamins, vitamin E, magnesium, calcium, potassium, iron, zinc, and antioxidants.

These superfoods can reduce high cholesterol and your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer.

While nuts and seeds are high-calorie foods, they don't contribute to weight gain.

In fact, studies show that higher nut consumption is associated with lower body weights and less unwanted weight gain over time.

Nuts and seeds help boost satiety, keeping you full for longer time periods.

Consider eating:

  • Sunflower seeds
  • Chia seeds
  • Flax seeds
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Walnuts
  • Cashews
  • Almonds
  • Walnuts
  • Pistachios
  • Peanuts

Add nuts or seeds to oatmeal, whole-grain cereal, salads, or cooked whole grains.

Blend these superfoods into protein-rich shakes or eat them as a snack.

Whole Grains

Whole grains are an excellent source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

They're rich in B vitamins, folate, iron, magnesium, and potassium.

Studies show that high whole-grain intakes are associated with lower body mass indexes (BMIs), as they aid in healthy weight management.

The fiber in whole grains helps reduce high cholesterol, high blood sugar, obesity, and your risk of overeating.

Examples of whole grains to consider include:

  • Quinoa
  • Brown rice
  • Wild rice
  • Barley
  • Buckwheat
  • Millet
  • Bulgur
  • Popcorn
  • Oatmeal
  • Whole-grain bread
  • Whole-grain pasta
  • Whole-grain cereal

Choose whole-grain bread instead of white bread, whole-grain cereal in place of sugary cereal, whole-grain pasta instead of regular pasta, and brown rice or quinoa in place of white rice.

Eat oatmeal for breakfast or blend it into protein shakes.

Dairy Foods, Plant Alternatives, and Protein Shakes

Dairy foods, plant-based alternatives, and protein shakes are beneficial for your health for numerous reasons.

These foods are often packed with protein, calcium, vitamin D, phosphorous, iodine, and B vitamins.

Examples include:

  • Low-fat milk
  • Almond milk or other plant milks
  • Low-fat cottage cheeses
  • Greek yogurt
  • Plain kefir
  • Reduced-fat cheese
  • Whey, casein, or plant-based protein powder

Studies show that ingesting 30-40 grams of casein protein, found in milk products and certain protein powders, before you sleep can increase muscle building and your body's metabolism.

Aim to eat 3 servings of dairy foods or plant-based equivalents daily.

Drink protein shakes in place of meals if you'd like to lose weight, or between meals to build or maintain lean mass.

Which Foods Should I Avoid?

Steering clear of certain foods and drinks can benefit your health, increase energy levels, help you build muscle, reduce chronic disease risks, and aid in healthy weight management.

The next time you're wondering “what should I eat,” try to AVOID the following foods:

Sugary Drinks

Sugary drinks might give you a short burst of energy, but this is often followed by a drop in blood sugar and energy.

Soda, sweet tea, lemonade, sports drinks, many energy drinks, and sugar-sweetened juice drinks often contain a lot of added sugar but few essential nutrients.

They can contribute to sweet cravings and unnecessary calories, increasing your risk of weight gain and increased body fat.

Steer clear of sugary drinks when you can.

Diet Drinks

Diet drinks, such as diet sodas, are often low in calories or calorie-free, but studies show these artificially sweetened beverages are still associated with metabolic disease and higher body weights.

Sweet-tasting diet foods and drinks can induce cravings for added sugar.

They usually aren't satiating, and may increase your risk of diabetes and obesity.

Steer clear of diet drinks in favor of water or nutrient-dense drinks like protein shakes, milk, and vegetable juices.

Sweets

When asking the question “what should I eat,” you probably already know that sweets don't make the list.

But avoiding cookies, cakes, ice cream, and other sweet treats might seem easier than it really is.

If you struggle to avoid foods containing added sugar, try boosting your intake of fiber, protein, avocados, nuts, other healthy fats, and fruits to help you feel satisfied.

Don't keep sweets in the house and make the decision to avoid them for a week or two. After that time frame, you might not crave sweet treats anymore.

Refined Grains

Refined grains are often easy to give up, as you can replace these grains with fiber-rich whole-grains, sweet potatoes, corn, peas, beans, lentils, or other fiber-rich starches.

Refined grains, such as white bread and white rice, contain less fiber and fewer nutrients than whole-grain foods, so steer clear of refined grains whenever possible.

Fried Foods

Fried foods, such as fried chicken, chicken fried steak, fried fish or seafood, french fries, onion rings, and mozzarella sticks, can add unnecessary calories to your meal plan.

Studies show that increasing your intake of these and other fried foods boosts your risk of chronic diseases.

Choose skinless (un-breaded) poultry, seafood, or fresh organic meats instead of fried meats, sweet potatoes in place of french fries, and reduced-fat cheese instead of mozzarella sticks.

Processed Meats

Processed meats, including hot dogs, sausage, ham, salami, bacon, and many deli meats, are often high in sodium and preservatives.

According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), processed meats can cause cancer.

Many are high in saturated fat and calories, increasing your risk of high cholesterol, heart problems, and obesity.

Opt for non-processed meats, chicken, fish, shrimp, or other seafood in place of processed and fried meats to meet your body's protein needs without excessive sodium and preservatives.

Getting Started with Clean Eating

When wondering “what should I eat” to stay healthy and lean, consider nutritious foods on the list above, avoid certain foods, and join the Fit Father Project to lose weight, build muscle mass, stay motivated, and keep chronic disease risks low.

Sign up for free FFP diet and exercise plans to get started on the journey toward a healthier life today!

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Erin Coleman B.S. - Nutritional Science, R.D., L.D.

Writer at The Fit Father Project

Erin Coleman is a registered and licensed dietitian with over 15 years of freelance writing experience.

She graduated with her Bachelor of Science degree in nutritional science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and completed her dietetic internship at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Prior to beginning her career in medical content writing, Erin worked as Health Educator for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Internal Medicine.

Her published work appears on hundreds of health and fitness websites, and she’s currently working on publishing her first book! Erin is a wife, and a Mom to two beautiful children.

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