Food variety: The spice of life

"My diet is so boring...I eat the same foods every day."

"The waitress at the cafe no longer asks me what I want for breakfast. She knows I'll have black coffee, orange juice and a toasted bagel without cream cheese."

"Is it bad to eat the same foods day after day...?"

Many athletes eat the same foods every day, day after day, week after week, year after year. Their typical menu is based upon bagels, turkey sandwiches, grilled chicken breast, broccoli, rice and frozen yogurt.

This repetition keeps life simple, eliminates decisions and feels safe -- safe from "getting fat" by eating foods with unknown calories, as well as safe from eating the "wrong food" which might contribute to digestive upset while exercising.

Some athletes are content with their self-described "boring diet." But if you eat a repetitive diet and wonder about the healthfulness of this pattern, you might want to think about the benefits of eating more of a variety of foods.

Eating a variety of foods helps you consume a wider variety of nutrients. For example, if your only fruit is apples, you'll fail to get the folic acid that's found in oranges. If your primary protein source is chicken breast, you'll miss out on the iron and zinc that's better found in beef.

Eating a variety of foods reduces the chances of getting excessive amounts of a food that might be harmful. For example, if the grapes you eat every day happen to have a bad pesticide on them, you'll consume a higher dose than if you were to alternate grapes with bananas, oranges and kiwi. Or, if you eat several nutrient fortified energy bars every day, you might get too much of one mineral, which could create an imbalance with another mineral eaten in smaller amounts.

Eating a variety of foods reduces the needs for supplements

By eating many types of foods, you can better consume more of the over 600 known compounds that food offers, including not only the 13 known vitamins and 22 essential minerals, but also numerous other minerals, phytochemicals, fibers and health protectors found in whole foods.

Whole foods offer more nutrients, and better absorbed nutrients, than do pills. For example,

  • The iron in meat is absorbed better than that in pills.
  • The fiber in bran cereal is preferable to taking a fiber supplement or laxative.
  • Getting calcium from milk replaces the need for calcium supplements. Calcium aside, milk drinkers have a diet that is overall more nutrient dense compared to milk abstainers. Forget the story: "I don't drink milk...I take a calcium supplement instead." You fool only yourself by thinking a pill (or two or 20) can replace a variety of whole foods!

Eating a variety of foods enhances your overall health

Studies suggest that people who eat from a wide variety of food groups tend to be healthier and have a reduced risk of disease, including heart disease and diabetes. At each meal, you should plan to eat from at least three of the five foods groups:

  • Grain
  • Fruit
  • Vegetable
  • Meat, fish, poultry, nuts, beans and other protein-rich foods
  • Lowfat milk, yogurt, dairy and other calcium-rich foods

You should also eat different types of foods within each group. For example, by eating a variety of differently-colored fruits and vegetables (tomatoes, carrots, spinach, oranges, watermelon, blueberries), you will consume a variety of the anti-oxidants that protect against the formation of cataracts in your eyes.

Because eating a variety of foods is so important, the nutrition professionals in Australia have launched a food campaign to encourage Australians to eat 20 to 30 different foods a week. Currently, most Australians eat only 15 to 18 different foods. I'd dare say the same holds true in this country (if not fewer)! Let's count the number of foods typically eaten by two types of active people:

Example #1. The weight-conscious exerciser: 1. bagel, 2. turkey breast, 3. sandwich bread, 4. lettuce, 5. tomato, 6. pretzels, 7. apple, 8. energy bar, 9. yogurt, 10. spaghetti, 11. spaghetti sauce, 12. broccoli, 13. fat-free frozen yogurt. Oops...only 13!

Example #2. Junk food Junkie: 1. coffee, 2. Big Mac, 3. Coke, 4. chocolate chip cookies, 5. M&Ms, 6. pizza, 7. Chinese fried rice, 8. ice cream, 9. potato chips, 10. beer. (How many of these items even count towards "real" food...???)

What's your number?

Now, it's your turn to do your math! For the fun of it (and for your education, as well), write down what you eat for a week and count the number of different foods you consume. How did you do? If the number looks grim, here are some tips for enhancing food variety:

Bagels: select from a variety -- pumpernickel, rye, whole wheat, poppy, sunflower seed. Top with jam, peanut butter, almond butter, lowfat cottage cheese, lite cream cheese, lox.

Sandwich fillings: there's life beyond turkey breast! Lean roast beef (the kind you can get in a deli) is a fine alternative -- and offers far more vitamins and minerals. Peanut butter provides positive fats that lower the risk of heart disease. Tuna with lite mayo is OK, as is hummus.

Snacks: Be creative and bypass yet-another rice cake, pretzel or energy bar. How about almonds and dried fruit, yogurt with granola, apple with low-fat cheese, vegetable soup with rye crackers, graham crackers with peanut butter? Target two foods per snack (and three+ foods per meal). Consider cutting back on energy bars for routine snacks. Many are little more than sugar coated vitamin pills with a little added protein. They commonly lack fiber and phytochemicals -- the important components of the fruits they tend to displace from the athlete's snack menu.

Pasta: Pasta is not a vitamin packed food; the tomato sauce on top and the veggies on the side add the nutritional power to the pasta meal, as does the protein in the lean beef, turkey, tofu or beans added to the sauce. Round out the meal with lowfat milk, salad (lettuce, carrot, pepper, tomato), crusty whole grain bread and berries for dessert. You'll enjoy a 10-food sports meal that invests in both performance & health!

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