Ever hear the advice to “eat the rainbow”? That’s because meals beaming with different colors—red, orange, yellow, green, purple and white, for example—tend to be not only nutrient-dense but also more satisfying in terms of flavor and texture.
For decades, health authorities have encouraged us to eat “balanced meals” that incorporate foods from a variety of groups. Traditional food habits of some of the healthiest populations in the world, such as Greeks and Japanese, differ widely, yet both populations have food variety as one common feature.
The idea is that choosing a mix of foods from within each food group, such as veggies, meat and grains, helps provide a range of essential nutrients and may help prevent certain health conditions, such as heart disease, metabolic syndrome and cancer.
The truth is that there are pros and cons associated with a varied diet.
For example, having limited choices can make meal prep easier and reduce your risk for overeating. However, eating the same meals on repeat also can increase the chances you’ll develop a nutrient deficiency and make a healthy diet seem unappealing long term.
Research suggests that these are some of the main health perks associated with a varied diet.
- Higher intake of essential nutrients
There are three types of macronutrients that our diets provide us with—carbs, fats and proteins—all three of which are essential for overall health.
While some people feel best when limiting their intake of one of these macros (such as carbs and fats), at least for a period of time, we all still need at least some of all three.
The majority of people will benefit from obtaining a mix of macros by eating balanced meals that include different food groups—such as meats, dairy, vegetables, grains, fruits, nuts and beans. Meals that include a combination of all macros tend to be most satisfying and keep you fuller for longer, which means you may be less likely to overeat at your next meal.
Including a variety of fruits and vegetables in your diet is one of the best ways to obtain the antioxidants, vitamins and minerals you need. While you shouldn’t feel obliged to love every single type—for example, maybe kale just isn’t your thing—the more diversity the better.
That’s because each food offers a unique blend of nutrients, especially beneficial antioxidants and phytonutrients that are only found in plant foods. Even different types of foods from within the same food group—such as leafy greens, berries or meats—provide a somewhat different mix of nutrients. Switching things up is a good way to ensure you’re covering all your bases.
- Prevents boredom and burnout
It’s already difficult enough for most people to stick to a healthy diet long term, but when repeating the same meals over and over again starts to feel uninspiring and restrictive, this can make things even more challenging. You might start feeling like you’re eating on autopilot, which means mindless eating and cravings are more likely to occur.
The bottom line is that if you don’t enjoy the things you’re eating and you start feeling deprived, you’re very unlikely to gain any benefits from your diet long term. Eventually, you’ll throw in the towel and decide you’re in need of more fun and flavor.
In order to make healthy eating something you can actually sustain, focus on trying new things often, such as different seasonal fruits, vegetables and grains.
Pay attention to how your cravings shift as the seasons change and honor your instincts by switching up your meals and snacks. Smoothies might hit the spot during the summer but be unappetizing once winter rolls around. Don’t be scared to make changes depending on what’s most convenient plus what you’re craving.
- Supports gut health, immunity and heart health
When you expose yourself to lots of different food groups, you’re more likely to develop greater diversity of healthy bacteria in your gut. This is associated with benefits, including protection against obesity, reduced allergies and enhanced immunity. Some anthropologists believe that our ancestors ate a much greater diversity of foods available in their environments throughout the year than we do today and that they benefited as a result.
Eating a variety of fats and proteins is also important for obtaining a mix of fatty acids and amino acids, which is important for functions like cholesterol balance, cognitive health, mood stabilization, connective tissue healing and much more.
For example, if you include olive oil, nuts, avocado, fish and full-fat yogurt in your diet regularly, you’re obtaining a mix of omega-3s, saturated fat and monounsaturated fat, all of which have unique roles.
- Makes cooking more fun
Meal planning has been shown to be associated with a healthier diet overall and less obesity.
Even if you don’t consider yourself much of a cook, try to view meal planning and cooking as a creative outlet and something you can continually get better at. Experimenting with different types of foods in the kitchen is also a great way to get your kids involved and encourage them to develop an open mind about trying new healthy foods and flavors.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to come up with 100 percent original recipes every week. Rather, you can make simple swaps to keep things interesting, such as trying a different type of leafy green in your salad or a new type of fish.
Here are some other simple ways you can branch out and add more variety to your diet:
- Browse your local farmers market. Ask for recommendations and try what’s in season, which will usually be the best tasting options.
- Try different world cuisines, which will expose you to a variety of foods, cooking techniques, spices and flavors. For example, if you’re usually a Chinese takeout or sushi person, switch things up and give Thai or Vietnamese food a try instead. Ask the waiter for recommendations, or even consider letting the staff choose your meal for you.
- Experiment at home with herbs and spices. An easy way to make familiar ingredients feel new is to add different condiments, spices and flavors to them. Try whisking up a new salad dressing, stir-frying veggies with interesting spices, garnishing your dishes with fresh herbs, or making a new marinade for basic proteins like chicken and fish.
- Subscribe to a food-delivery service, which will automatically provide you with new foods each week and perhaps encourage you to cook unfamiliar ingredients.
All of that being said, if you really enjoy certain healthy foods, then there’s nothing wrong with eating them often, even every day.
Having go-to meals that you make again and again may actually help you stick to a healthy diet and potentially even be beneficial for maintaining your weight, since studies show that food variety might encourage certain people to consume more calories. Plus, repeating meals and snacks makes meal prep and cooking easier, giving you one less thing to worry about.
Aim to keep your diet fun and satisfying by choosing a variety of foods from different food groups, plus different choices from within the same group. Even small changes to your weekly diet can make a big difference to your health. Plus, exposure to a greater variety of healthy foods is more likely to keep you motivated. Until you give new foods, flavors and cuisines a try, you’ll never know what you’re missing out on.
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