We all have a mental list of our favorite foods, but then there's our go-to picks that always show up on our plates. Whether it’s a result of being busy, lazy, picky, or some combination thereof, if your day-to-day menu looks like Groundhog Day, it’s time to break even your healthy eating habits.
Variety—More Than the Proverbial Spice
“A varied diet is essential for optimal health and prevention of cancers and chronic disease,” says Ashley Bade, RD, co-founder of Honest Mom Nutrition. “If you keep to the same handful of food choices on most days—even healthy ones—your body is only getting the nutrients that those fruits and veggies can offer and missing out on the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that the body can get by eating a range of colorful, nutritious fruits and vegetables.”
More and more research is showing just how important it may be to eat a rainbow of foods. A recent study out of the University of Pennsylvania found that people who ate the widest variety of foods also were the most likely to sleep the recommended 7–8 hours per night. “A more restricted diet could lack some of the nutritional coverage to promote healthy sleep,” says Michael Grandner, PhD, lead author of the study. “On the other hand, sleep loss may disrupt the hormones that regulate hunger and appetite, leading to more high-calorie diets that are less nutritionally broad. Also sleep loss could impair your ability to make healthy food choices.” This adds to the evidence that both are key to overall health.
Your Preferences May Predict Your Health
If you’re a picky eater, you’ve probably gotten your fair share of flak from anyone serving you food over the course of your life. But Brie Turner-McGrievy, PhD, MS, RD, says it’s not your fault. She says flavor preferences, or “tasting profiles” as she calls them in her recent study, are thought to be genetically determined and can’t be changed. Her research looked at long-term health consequences of favoring particular flavors and found individuals who have both a strong preference for sweets (so-called “sweet likers”) and strong aversion to bitter flavors (“supertasters”) may have an increased risk of developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Since many vegetables like spinach, broccoli, onions, and arugula fall into the bitter category, it makes sense that avoiding them—and seeking sugar—leads to unhealthy consequences.
But interestingly, people who had neither of those profiles also had the higher risk of chronic disease than those who had only one or the other. “Research has shown that non-supertasters may also have lowered perceptions of taste, which can lead to overconsumption,” Turner-McGrievy says. “It’s possible that if a non-supertaster is also a non-sweet liker and not favoring sweet foods, they may eating very high-fat foods, like meat and cheese.”
The good news is Turner-McGrievy thinks pinpointing your preferences and outsmarting them could help you prevent disease and protect your health. “If you find that you are avoiding bitter vegetables, you may be a supertaster,” she says. “Finding ways to incorporate more vegetables into your diet would therefore be important. This could mean favoring sweeter veggies, like sweet potatoes and carrots, or finding ways to enjoy more bitter veggies, like pureeing cooked spinach into spaghetti sauce.” If you crave sweets, she suggests finding healthy substitutes for the usual fair like fruit and diet beverages. And if you fall into the neither-nor category, start keeping a closer eye on portion size.
Easy Ways to Mix Up Everyday Eats
“When working on variety I recommend taking a typical meal and swapping a typical ingredient for something similar,” Bade says. Try these simple swaps:
- If you eat oatmeal for breakfast… “Instead of having that healthy bowl of oatmeal plain, add a handful of almonds for some added calcium for bone health and monounsaturated fat for heart health,” Bade says. Maybe try a different grain a few days a week too, quinoa for example works great as a hot cereal and provides more protein than oats.
- If you eat salad for lunch… “Trade romaine lettuce in your lunch salad for spinach,” Bade says. “You’ll still get the great vitamins A and C that the romaine lettuce provides but you’ll also get antioxidants such as lutein, zea-xanthin and beta-carotene from spinach, which can help with eye sight and prevention of chronic disease.”
- If you eat a veggie side at dinner… “Swap your typical broccoli or green bean side for a serving of kale, which research shows contains at least 45 measurable antioxidant flavonoids—packing a big cancer-preventing punch,” Bade says.
- If you eat lean meat at dinner… “Swap out your usual chicken for a protein-packed serving of salmon to add heart-healthy omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids,” Bade suggests.