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Whether you want to lose weight, prevent diabetes, high blood pressure and other diseases, or just stay fit and healthy, tailoring your eating habits is vital. Yes, you do need exercise and in the case of some diseases, you might also need medications. But the right diet goes a long way in contributing to your health, and that’s the reason why every doctor, nutritionist and healthcare provider highlights it.

According to a study published in the Journal of the Georgia Public Health Association in 2016, lifestyle behaviours like having an unhealthy diet is a major risk factor for chronic diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and hyperlipidemia. An excess of sodium, cholesterol and sugar, and a deficit of fruits, vegetables and whole grains lead to poor health outcomes. So, eating right and sticking to a healthy diet is a necessity for all.

Eating right is about making healthy recipes. And what makes recipes healthy? Choosing the right ingredients matters just as much as cooking techniques. If you want to optimise your health then cooking meals at home is also very important. A study published in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity in 2017 showed that people who consumed home-cooked meals were able to maintain better dietary quality, had a normal range body mass index (BMI), and normal percentage of body fat.

The prospect of cooking meals at home daily can be daunting for some of us, but the following tips will help you kickstart this habit and sustain it. From choosing the right fruits, vegetables, whole grains, proteins, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices to understanding which cooking medium and technique you should use, this article will give you all the guidelines you need.

  1. Is counting calories important?
  2. How to choose fruits and vegetables?
  3. How to choose grains and lentils?
  4. How to choose proteins?
  5. How to choose nuts and seeds?
  6. How to choose the right oil for cooking?
  7. How to choose the right herbs, spices and seasonings?
  8. Salt and sugar in healthy recipes
  9. What’s the healthiest cooking method?
  10. Takeaway

Is counting calories important?

If weight loss is the main reason behind tailoring your diet, then supervising your calorie consumption is very important. All foods provide energy, and calories are the measure of this energy. If you burn the same number of calories you consume throughout the day, then you will be able to maintain the right body weight. If you burn more than you eat, you will lose weight. On the other hand, if you eat way more than you can burn, it will lead to weight gain.

This is the reason why a number of diets focus on counting calorie intake. But it’s important to understand that while counting calories might help you lose or gain weight, it is no guarantee for optimal health.

Calorie counting can help you monitor intake, but this is just the measure of energy. There’s much more to nutrition than keeping a track of energy levels. If in the process of counting calories, you cut an entire food group out of your diet, you might ultimately have a nutritional deficiency for that group - which in turn can lead to diseases. So, the best way to eat right to stay healthy is to include foods from all groups in your regular diet. Your diet should include all types of ingredients, even salt, sugar and fat, in the right amount.

How to choose fruits and vegetables?

Fruits and vegetables should be an integral part of your daily diet. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends at least five portions or 400g of these foods per day to lower the risk of serious health issues, including heart diseases, stroke and some types of cancer

All fruits and vegetables are rich sources of carbohydrates, dietary fiber, folate, vitamin C and potassium. They are also low in calories. Some fruits and vegetables - like carrots, spinach, papaya, apricots, mushrooms, capsicum, and broccoli - are also rich in vitamin A, vitamin B, vitamin E and vitamin K. Fruits and vegetables are also rich in antioxidants, so apart from preventing diseases, they can also improve blood circulation, boost your immune system, improve your skin and hair health. 

Remember the following when choosing fruits and vegetables:

  • Always choose to buy fresh fruits and vegetables from your local market. 
  • Seasonal ingredients also have added nutritional benefits, so make sure the fruits and vegetables you pick are in season.
  • Inspect the surface of the produce to make sure there are no bruises, dents, and signs of rot or insects.
  • Most fruits and vegetables can be eaten raw, so taste them before buying them if you can. Even local fruit and vegetable sellers allow you to taste before you buy, so use this opportunity to pick the best.
  • Make sure the fruits and vegetables you buy are firm to the touch, smell fresh and have vibrant colours. This improves their longevity and it’s also a way to make sure that you like what you’ve chosen, and will definitely eat it.
  • Talk to the sellers. They will be able to share details about fruits and vegetables, especially how they are grown and the best season to buy them in.
  • Always wash vegetables and fruits before eating them raw or cooking with them.

How to choose grains and lentils?

Whole grains are the seeds of grass-like plants and are also known as cereals. Rice, wheat, buckwheat, quinoa, corn, millets, barley, etc., are all grains that are available in the market - whole or in the form of flour. Grains have a high fibre, protein, vitamin, mineral and antioxidant concentration and help fight heart disease, stroke, obesity, diabetes, inflammation, indigestion, and also reduce the risk of cancer.

Lentils are the edible seeds of plants from the legume family, and come in many shapes, colours and varieties. Lentils are packed with protein, folate, fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Increased consumption of lentils is usually associated with a lower risk of protein deficiency, heart diseases, high cholesterol, obesity, high blood pressure, etc.

Meals in many parts of India are built around whole grains and lentils, be it sambhar-chawal or daal-roti. Their nutritional value makes them a necessary part of a healthy diet, too. These foods are also very easy to cook - often the addition of water to pressure-cook or cook the food item in a pan is enough. This also makes grains and lentils versatile, and that’s the reason why every culture around the world has very different ways of using them. Here are some things you should keep in mind while picking grains and lentils:

  • Grains and lentils usually have a longer shelf life, so make sure you stock up smaller quantities of as many varieties of each as you can. This will help you pick different grains and lentils each day and stop your meals from getting monotonous.
  • Make sure you store grains and lentils in airtight jars. You can place neem leaves in the jars to prevent the growth of fungus.
  • Wash grains and lentils thoroughly and many times to remove starch and traces of pesticides before use.
  • Once cooked, grains and lentils can be stored for two-three days. But make sure cooked grains and lentils are stored in airtight containers in the refrigerator or in a cool place.

How to choose proteins?

Meat, fish, eggs and dairy products are good sources of proteins. If you want to gain weight or improve muscle growth, then having enough proteins is all the more important. Lean meats like skinless chicken and turkey are good sources of vitamins and minerals like selenium and choline. Most fish varieties are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D and vitamin B2, calcium, phosphorus and many other minerals. 

Eggs are cheap, and a great source of vitamin D, vitamin B6, vitamin B12 and minerals like selenium, zinc, iron and copper. Dairy products and plant-based proteins like tofu and soy are good options for vegetarians. Here are a few things you should keep in mind while buying proteins:

  • Buy fresh, no matter what you’re buying. Ask the butcher when the lean meat was cut.
  • While buying fish, check the smell (should not be fishy), the eyes (should be bright and shiny) and gills (should be clean and red). 
  • Check the label of eggs and dairy products before buying. If you’re buying dairy products like cheese and paneer (cottage cheese), make sure they don’t have any signs of fungus or mould.
  • Do not put raw chicken, fish and eggs in the same containers. This can lead to cross-contamination.
  • Always get the proteins cleaned and wash them thoroughly before cooking.
  • Avoid buying processed meat, fish and dairy products. These usually have excess sodium, sugars and preservatives which are harmful.
  • Don’t store raw or undercooked protein in the refrigerator for more than a day.
  • Don’t store cooked proteins in the refrigerator for more than two-three days.

How to choose nuts and seeds?

Nuts are essentially fruits with an inedible hard shell enclosing an edible seed. Most nuts are the seeds of trees, except peanuts, which are the seeds of a legume but share the characteristics of nuts. Seeds actually come from vegetables (like pumpkin), flowers (like sunflower, poppy and chia) and crops (like flax and hemp). Most seeds have nutrient profiles similar to those of nuts, which is why they are usually put in the same nutritional category and often packed together as part of diet foods.

Nuts and seeds are rich sources of protein, carbohydrate, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, fibre, phytochemicals like polyphenols, flavonoids, phenolic acids and catechins, vitamins and minerals. These nutrients are the reason why the consumption of nuts and seeds can help prevent weight gain, diabetes, high cholesterol and heart diseases. Here are a few ways you can include nuts and seeds in your diet:

  • Nuts and seeds are versatile and easy to carry. You can easily replace unhealthy snacks with roasted nuts and seeds.
  • Nuts and seeds might be more expensive. You can buy them in bulk when they are in season, which will ensure that you get them fresh and for the right price.
  • Don’t buy salted, roasted, or processed nuts and seeds. Roasting nuts and seeds is very easy and can be done on a hot pan any day. So try not to buy processed nuts and seeds to avoid ingesting too much sodium and preservatives.
  • Store nuts and seeds in airtight jars in a cool place. This will increase their shelf life.
  • Add nuts and seeds to everything you cook to ensure enough daily intake.

How to choose the right oil for cooking?

Oil is a cooking medium used in all households across the world, and it does more than adding flavour to your food. The right cooking oil can improve your heart health and add vitamins and minerals to your diet. This is because all cooking oils, or fat, is sourced from fruits (like olive oil and coconut oil), nuts (like groundnut oil) and seeds (like sesame oil and mustard oil). Some, like ghee, are made from dairy.

Here are a few things you need to keep in mind if you want to buy the healthiest cooking oil:

  • Choose oils rich in monounsaturated fats, like canola oil, olive oil, peanut oil and sesame oil if you want to cook at medium to high temperatures. These oils do not oxidize or break down at high temperatures.
  • Pick ghee if you want to fry anything. Ghee has a very high smoking point and doesn’t break down at high temperatures.
  • Do not use fats or oils high in polyunsaturated fats, like soybean, sunflower and sesame oils for cooking. These oils oxidize at high temperatures and release chemicals like aldehyde and lipid peroxide, which are harmful. Use these oils raw in salad dressings instead.
  • Do not overstock oil. Buy it in small amounts. This will reduce excess use in cooking and also avoid oxidation from exposure and spoiling.
  • It’s a healthy practice to not reuse cooking oil. If you have an excess, or leftover used oil, throw it out instead.

How to choose the right herbs, spices and seasonings?

Herbs and spices are essential ingredients in cooking, and not just because they add flavour and colour to dishes. Spices are derived from the roots, barks, fruits, seeds and leaves of plants, but should not be confused with herbs - which are the leafy parts of small plants and are mostly used for garnishing and flavouring. While many people find the use of whole spices convenient, most spices are also found in ground or blended forms. Herbs are usually found in fresh and dried forms.

Most herbs and spices are rich in phytochemicals and antioxidants, and are good for heart health, cognitive function, skin health and inflammation. Some, like turmeric, have curcumin which has anti-cancer benefits. Many commercially sold sauces have a blend of spices, herbs and fruits (like tomato), and are sold as seasoning agents. Here are a few things you should keep in mind while buying herbs, spices and seasonings:

  • If you’re buying herbs, always go for the freshest ones. Smell them and crush them a little to check if the aroma is strong.
  • If you’re buying dried herbs, check the packaging and expiration dates. Dried herbs are more strongly flavoured than fresh ones, so use them in smaller quantities.
  • It’s best to buy whole spices and grind them yourself at home, because this eliminates the risk of adulteration.
  • Store spices and dried herbs in airtight jars and keep them in a cool, dark place.
  • The flavour and benefits of herbs and spices fade over time, so do not use these beyond their expiration dates.
  • While buying readymade sauces with spice and herb blends is more convenient, stay away from them. Most of these sauces have added sugar and sodium content, and have added preservatives to increase their shelf life - all of which are harmful.

Salt and sugar in healthy recipes

You might wonder if salt and sugar should even be added to healthy recipes, but the fact is that without these your food would not taste the same. But there’s a downside to this: too much salt and sugar increase the risk of heart disease, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, etc. On the other hand, sodium deficiency can lead to electrolyte imbalance and a spate of diseases.

While the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that your sodium intake should be under 1.5 grams per day, the WHO says that up to two grams of sodium a day is okay for healthy people - common salt contains 40% of sodium by weight. So eating a teaspoonful of salt a day can give you all the sodium you need. If you already have a diagnosed heart condition or suffer from hypertension, your doctor might tailor your sodium intake accordingly. Similarly, your body needs glucose to function, and the AHA recommends that your daily intake be limited to 37.5 grams (about seven teaspoons) for men and 25 grams (five teaspoons approximately) for women - keep in mind that this sugar limit includes the sugar you get from eating carbs as well as added sugar.

Cutting sugar and salt completely out of your diet is therefore not something you can or should do. The better option is to choose the right salt, and substitute sugar with healthier options. Here are a few ways you can do this:

  • If you’re using table salt or iodized salt for cooking, use nominal amounts of it. 
  • Kosher salt and sea salt have the same amount of sodium as table salt, so use nominal amounts of these too.
  • Himalayan salt or rock salt has trace amounts of minerals, so if you’re using it add it at the end of cooking or on top of salads.
  • If you get cravings for something sweet, satiate them with fresh fruits instead of sugary desserts.
  • Honey, maple syrup, jaggery, cane sugar and palm sugar are good substitutes for sugar. Use them to bake or cook desserts.
  • Avoid sugary drinks, sugary snacks and salty snacks. Apart from being heavy in sodium and glucose, these are also full of harmful preservatives.

What’s the healthiest cooking method?

Now that you know how to choose the best and healthiest of ingredients, turn your attention to the other big question - how to cook food. Of course, there are a lot of foods which can be consumed raw, and these include all fruits, herbs, nuts and seeds, some fish and most vegetables. But if you want to cook healthy meals, you should know which are the healthiest methods of cooking. Here is an overview of cooking methods and their benefits, so you can choose the ones best suited to your needs:

  • Stir-frying and sauteing: These are quick and easy ways of cooking, and are healthy if done with the right oil at the right temperature. Use oils like olive oil, rice bran oil, peanut oil or cow ghee for these methods, so that you can saute or stir-fry at medium and high temperatures without adding harmful aldehydes to your food.
  • Poaching and blanching: These techniques involve cooking food in broths, stocks or salted water which is gently simmering just below boiling point. Poaching is a very healthy and underrated method of cooking, and works really well for vegetables, fish, eggs, chicken and turkey. Add whole spices and dried herbs to poaching liquid to amp up the flavour of your dish.
  • Roasting, baking and air-drying: These methods are considered to be healthy - and they are - but there are a few conditions in which roasting can be harmful. If the temperature of the oven is too high when cooking starchy foods, like potatoes and bread, it can release a carcinogen called acrylamide. Keep the temperature of the oven at medium or low and slow-cook your food for best results.
  • Steaming: This is probably the healthiest method of cooking since it requires no cooking agent and involves slow-cooking at low or medium temperatures. Steaming works well whether you’re cooking vegetables and grains or fish and chicken.
  • Boiling: This cooking method is also healthy since it requires no cooking agents or oil. Boil at a low or medium temperature and add whole spices or dried herbs to the liquid to add more flavour. 
  • Frying and deep-frying: These methods usually require more oil and are therefore not healthy. Deep-frying can be very harmful if it is not done right - if, say, the oil is not hot enough, you are reusing old oil, you fail to use an oil with a high smoking point, or if you eat deep-fried food regularly. Mustard oil, ghee, canola oil, peanut oil, sesame oil and sunflower oil have a high smoking point and may be used for frying.

Takeaway

Being mindful of what you eat or add to your diet is a good way of staying fit and healthy. But to follow a healthy, balanced diet you do need to understand what goes into the making of your food. This is the reason why studies have linked home-cooked meals to good health, and you too should stick to food cooked at home to prevent diseases and unnecessary weight gain.

To do this, you should choose the right ingredients - including a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, lentils, proteins, herbs, spices, nuts and seeds - to cook with. It’s best to use oils that don’t break down at high temperatures for cooking, but some oils (like olive oil) can be used raw as well as cooked with. Salt and sugar add flavour to food, but you should eat them nominally. Using sugar substitutes like jaggery, honey and maple syrup is a good idea.

Of all the cooking methods invented by mankind, poaching, boiling and steaming are the healthiest ones. If you pick the most nutritious ingredients, use the healthiest cooking agents and method for every meal, chances are that you will be able to prevent seasonal infections, fever as well as chronic diseases.

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