When it comes to health foods, there is no shortage of options out there, and certainly no lack of recommendations about what we should or should not eat. From organic foods to super foods to “good-for-you” foods, it can be completely overwhelming.
Samir Parikh, MD, colon and rectal surgeon at Riddle Hospital, part of Main Line Health, breaks down his approach to healthy eating and shares some suggestions for the good choices we should all be making on a regular basis.
Specific foods vs. food types
“Healthy eating is not simple,” says Dr. Parikh. “It’s actually quite complicated. I tell my patients, it’s not about the specific foods you should be eating, but rather, about the types of foods.”
Choose foods you like
“When you choose healthy foods to incorporate into your diet, it’s important to choose foods you like,” says Dr. Parikh. “Look at a list of reasonably good-for-you foods and pick the ones you enjoy. If you’re going to eat something you don’t like as if it’s medicine, it’s not going to help your long-term success plan.”
Maintain proper balance
“We cannot live all day on spinach and kale,” says Dr. Parikh. “There are many different areas we should be drawing from. Fruits and vegetables are at the very top of my list—the more colorful, the better."
"Another thing we need on a regular basis are whole grains,” explains Dr. Parikh. “That’s where we get our fiber. I talk to my patients every day about getting enough fiber. Look for high-fiber grains in pasta and bread. If you’re on the go, you can get fiber from a granola bar. It’s hard to say, ‘never eat processed foods,’ but choose naturally-made granola bars when possible. If you’re gluten-sensitive, there are many options out there for whole grains, or you can make your own. We also need good fats. With meat and animal products, look for options that don’t have a high fat content. Choose proper fatty fishes and lean meats, as well as nuts and seeds, as great sources for good fats. Finally, it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough protein. Most people don’t.”
Start with a healthy breakfast
“The first thing you need to do every day is to eat a healthy breakfast,” says Dr. Parikh. “I think one of the best ways to combine everything you need, including a lot of super foods, is a smoothie. It doesn’t matter if you make it in a cheap or expensive blender. Use a variety of berries—strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, acai berries, etc. The more varied and colorful the berries, the better. A smoothie can have a base of milk of any kind—regular, almond or soy—or you can make it yogurt-based. And you can add any available protein powder—animal-based, hemp or other. Top it off with a handful of leafy greens like kale or spinach. This is a power smoothie. And it’s easily adjustable to your taste.”
Spice it up
“Spices have great health benefits,” says Dr. Parikh. “I would specifically call out garlic, turmeric and cinnamon as excellent options. Throw them in in your smoothie, on your salad, or in any food you’re preparing.”
Beans and lentils
“Beans and lentils among the best foods out there,” Dr. Parikh tells us. “They’re a great source of fiber, protein and iron. It’s even okay to get them in the canned format. We’re busy people. We don’t always have time to soak beans overnight and cook them for several hours the following day. Although if you can do it naturally, that’s great. The more your food looks like it came from the earth rather than a can, the better. All beans are good, but I especially like to recommend kidney beans, navy beans, adzuki beans and black-eyed peas.”
The amazing salad
“Like smoothies, salads are a great way to put together a lot of healthy ingredients in one dish,” says Dr. Parikh. “Use a variety of colorful vegetables—orange carrots, green broccoli, red and yellow peppers—they’re filled with anti-oxidants. Add fruit, beans and lean protein. You can even throw in garlic, turmeric or cinnamon. Make the salad dressing yourself, it’s so much healthier than bottled dressings. Even if you can’t do it every time, do it when you can. It makes a difference.”
Does organic matter?
Dr. Parikh admits he is not a big fan of the word organic. “You never know exactly what that terms means,” he explains. “The definition ranges from company to company. Instead, look for foods that are free of antibiotics and growth hormones.”
Dr. Parikh calls out a few key superfoods we should consume on a regular basis.
- Berries – any kind
- Green tea and certain white teas
- Tomatoes – they contain good-for-you lycopene
- Green, leafy vegetables and cruciferous vegetables (things that look like trees) such as broccoli and cauliflower
- Nuts – walnuts and almonds, in particular, have great health benefits
- Red grapes (and also red wine) – both contain resveratrol
Preparation is key
“One of the things I talk about often is how you cook,” Dr. Parikh explains. “When you broil, grill or sear food, it creates carbon, which is a carcinogen. It’s better to slow cook your foods using methods such as boiling, poaching, braising and baking. Learning basic, healthy cooking skills is so important. For the less healthy comfort foods you love, look for ways to adjust those recipes to make them healthy or, at least, healthier.”
The restaurant challenge
“When you’re eating at a restaurant, avoid deep-fried foods and fatty meats like chops and beef—things with bones,” cautions Dr. Parikh. “Also, most of the bread on the table is not high fiber or whole grain.
“Of course, all of this does not mean you can never eat some of your favorite, more indulgent foods again,” Dr. Parikh reminds us. “This is about moderation. In your soul, you need to make sure you are happy and satisfied. When you’re indulging, enjoy what you are eating 100 percent. And then go right back to making healthier choices.”