With the flood of fad diets and weight loss programs bombarding you from every side, it’s difficult to figure out what you should and shouldn’t eat. It becomes even more complicated when you’ve got one or more medical conditions, such as chronic pain. Before you know it, figuring out mealtimes can become downright stressful. Eating doesn’t have to be a chore, though. Armed with some basic knowledge, you can make nutritional choices that help you stay your healthiest. Eating healthier might even help you control your chronic pain.

Try to eat something from each food group with each meal.

The food pyramid that most of us learned about as kids has now been replaced with the MyPlate guidelines. The food groups are still the same, but the proportions are slightly different. Additionally, the food groups are arranged as though they’re on a plate or place setting, so it’s simple to visualize how much you should each from each food group.

Vegetables ought to take up just over one fourth of your plate. This will help fill you up, which can support weight loss or the maintenance of a healthy weight. In addition, vegetables are packed with different nutrients, so eating a wide variety will provide your body with a lot of different vitamins and minerals. Try to mix up your vegetable intake so that over time, you get as many different nutrients as possible.

Fruit should take up just under a fourth of your plate. When combined, fruits and vegetables should fill half your plate. Again, filling up on fruit instead of high calorie, unhealthy alternatives can support a healthy weight. Fruit is also packed with lots of nutrients. In particular, berries are full of antioxidants, which support a healthy immune system and can even potentially lower chronic pain levels. Eat a big variety of fruit to get a big variety of benefits. When choosing your fruits and vegetables, trying to get a lot of different colors can help you get as many nutrients as possible.

Grains should fill one fourth of your plate. Whole grains, such as barley, oats, brown rice, or wild rice, are unprocessed and still contain everything that makes them healthy. For this reason, try to make sure that at least half the grains you eat are whole. Whole wheat pasta or whole grain breads can also fill this requirement.

Protein should take up the last fourth of your plate. Red meat tends to be higher in fat content, and it’s also been linked to increased inflammation, so it ought to be minimized. Other meats, such as lean poultry or fish, are overall healthier. Additionally, meat-free proteins like beans can be used in place of meat if you really want to cut back on fat while increasing fiber.

Dairy can be a healthy part of a balanced diet. Dairy products contain a lot of nutrients, but they have been linked to a potential increase in pain with some chronic pain conditions, so pay attention to your body. If your pain increases every time you add a dairy product to your meal, consider choosing something like dairy free milks and products (soy or almond are popular), or simply going without.

Eat fresh, whole, unprocessed food as much as possible.

Highly processed foods usually have most of their nutrients removed. Unfortunately, they also usually have other things added, such as sodium, sugars, or unhealthy fats. Before eating foods like pre-packaged snacks or frozen meals, look for an alternative. For example, instead of frozen breaded chicken tenders, check the meat section for raw chicken breast tenders that you can bake them yourself. It won’t take much longer to cook, and the end result will taste better and be much healthier.

Processed meals or foods are often so high in sodium that switching to fresh, unprocessed foods might leave you thinking your new meals are a bit bland. This will change over time as you adjust to a new, low-sodium diet, but you can also explore the spice section to give your food a punch of flavor. Some spices, such as ginger and turmeric, might even be able to help you control your chronic pain.

Following a healthier diet doesn’t mean you have to deny yourself.

If you’re craving a scoop of ice cream or an order of fries from your favorite fast food place, don’t deny yourself so strictly that you get frustrated, throw in the towel, and go on a binge. Instead, allow yourself a small, controlled indulgence once in a while.

You can also look for healthier alternatives that still hit the spot when you’re craving your favorite guilty pleasures. When you’re craving a sweet at the end of the day, have a bowl of fruit. To make it extra special, you can add a little whipped cream to sliced peaches or a light drizzle of chocolate to fresh strawberries.

To satisfy your craving for fries, try cutting a potato into wedges, tossing them in olive oil with one or two of your favorite spices, and baking them. If you’re craving potato chips, look into products like Pampered Chef’s “Make Your Own Chips Set” that allow you to quickly make your own chips without adding any grease, fat, or salt.

Also keep in mind that not all fats are bad. The fats found in fish and nuts are very good for you in moderation. In fact, these healthy fats may even help you reduce your chronic pain.

Don’t forget to think about what you drink.

Drinks that contain alcohol and caffeine may exacerbate pain. Cut back on these, and then pay attention to your body’s reaction when you do have them. If you notice more headaches after your morning coffee or worse aches after your beer with dinner, consider skipping it.

Additionally, check the label before grabbing a soft drink. Regular sodas are full of sugar with no real nutritional value. Artificial sweeteners, like those found in diet sodas, can often exacerbate pain. Some sports drinks have added sodium. To avoid any unwanted additives in your drink, consider switching to plain water or herbal tea. You can add a squeeze of lemon juice if you need a kick of flavor, or you can even try out water bottles that allow you to infuse real fruit for flavor.

Lastly, don’t go from fast food three times a day to a brand new diet overnight. Altering your eating habits takes time and effort, so make the changes gradually. Switch out your vending-machine snacks for fresh fruit or vegetables first. Then choose a meal, such as breakfast, to make healthier. Allow a week or two for each new change to become habit before adding another new change.

What do you do to keep your diet healthy?

Image by Jamie McCaffrey via Flickr

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