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Raise Your Hand if You Eat the Same Meals Week After Week

Do this to get out of your food rut and achieve better health.

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same meal, repeated, collage, illustration
Ethel Staff Photo Illustration (Stocksy)
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Are the meals you eat the same, week after week? When was the last time you tried a new food?

If you’re still pondering resolutions for 2024, how about resolving to get out of a food rut and to help improve your health at the same time? All it would take is making a few small changes the next time you do your weekly food shop.

It’s something I’ve been considering for myself, especially after I realized one morning that I have eaten the exact same granola-and-yogurt breakfast every day for a decade or more. And lately, I’ve let our vegetable choices dwindle to two: broccoli or salad. Or that I know it’s Thursday because I always make marinated chicken thighs for dinner that day.

Talk about a rut.

Widening our food choices is not just a matter of avoiding boredom. Recent studies suggest eating a wider range of healthy, fiber-rich foods can increase the good bacteria in our gut that help protect us against disease and infection. Eating the rainbow of colorful fruits and vegetables may also help maintain mental sharpness as we age,

Harvard researchers reported in a 2021 study, published in the journal Neurology, that eating more brightly colored foods, like oranges, strawberries, blueberries and bell peppers which contain high levels of antioxidants, is associated with lower odds of developing cognitive decline.

Older women, in particular, may benefit from a more varied diet: A long-term Japanese study, published in the journal Clinical Nutrition in 2023 — that included 21,000 women ages 45 to 74 who were followed for an average of 11 years — found that women eating a more diverse diet had a lower risk of disabling dementia.

In many ways, eating a narrow range of foods is a global problem. While research is increasingly finding the health benefits of dietary diversity, humans are eating fewer and fewer kinds of food. According to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, about 75 percent of the world’s food is now generated from only 12 plants and five animal species. And the average Western diet includes only a fraction of that.

Dr. Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist and instructor at Harvard Medical School, has built a career around figuring out which foods may affect both our physical and mental health. Naidoo is the director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of This Is Your Brain on Food, as well as the upcoming Calm Your Mind with Food. To her, variety is not just the spice of life, it’s the key to a healthier life.

Eating a wide variety of foods “ensures you are getting a wide variety of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to support both physical and mental health,” she said, explaining that, in particular, eating many different kinds of plant foods, like vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes, provides fiber and probiotics that feed the good bacteria in our gut. Naidoo adds that gut-healthy dining also boosts the mind, and “has been linked to reduced inflammation, particularly in the brain, which supports a good mood, reduced stress, healthy brain aging and optimal neurotransmitter function.”

Variety in your diet may also help you live longer. A study of 59,000 women, ages 40 to 76, who were followed for nearly 10 years, found that those whose diet regularly included a variety of 16 to 17 healthy foods — fruits, vegetables, whole grain breads and cereals, fish and low-fat dairy — had a 42 percent lower mortality compared to women who ate eight or fewer healthy foods. The study was published in 2002 in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

On her website, Naidoo offers her patients and others the following simple guidelines for adding more variety to their diet to help both their physical and mental health. As for me, I’ve taken the rainbow rule to heart. I’ve added more colorful sliced fruit and berries to my granola-and-yogurt breakfast, a variety of vibrant vegetables to my salad at lunch. For dinner, it’s no longer just broccoli but spicy roasted carrots, stir-fried Chinese cabbage and snow peas, or simply adding red, yellow and orange sauteed bell peppers to the sauce for my pasta. My motto now is: More colors, better health.

4 Simple Ways to Enhance Your Diet:

1. Be whole, eat whole. Nutritional psychiatrist Uma Naidoo says to follow the 80/20 rule, where 80 percent of your diet should focus on whole, real foods with plenty of fiber. This includes vegetables, fruits (whole, not juice), nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains and a clean protein, such as wild-caught salmon, eggs from pasture-raised chicken or organic tofu. The remaining 20 percent of the time you have some flexibility.

2. Eat the rainbow. Throughout the day, try to eat plant foods in the colors of the rainbow — red tomatoes, orange carrots, leafy greens, blueberries and purple cabbage. All these vivid foods contain a treasure trove of vitamins, minerals and inflammation-fighting antioxidants, plus other benefits. For example, research, including a 2020 study in the International Journal of Molecular Science, has found that the lycopene that gives tomatoes their intense color may also be protective against bone loss in post-menopausal women. That includes the tomatoes in your salad and the tomato sauce on your pasta.

3. The greener, the better. Dark, leafy greens, like spinach, Swiss chard and romaine, do a body good, but they also do a mind good. Greens contain folate, an important vitamin that maintains the function of our neurotransmitters and that has been associated with a decrease in depressive symptoms and improved cognition.

4. Consistency and balance are the key: To optimize our health in a lasting way, it’s important to create sustainable dietary and lifestyle changes, rather than falling into quick fixes. Follow the 80/20 rule to achieve balance and be mindful of how eating certain foods makes you feel. Are you cranky or need a nap after a sugary or low-protein breakfast? Pay attention to your mental health symptoms in response to various foods and use this to guide your choices.

What do you try to do for your health on a daily basis? Let us know in the comments below.

Follow Article Topics: Health
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