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A healthy diet goes hand-in-hand with exercise when it comes to losing weight. Maintaining good nutrition is not just important for keeping the pounds off but is also vital for preventing chronic diseases, which is responsible for seven in 10 deaths in the U.S. each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Around half of all American adults (around 117 million people) have one or more preventable chronic diseases, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), “many of which are related to poor quality eating patterns” as well as the lack of physical activity.
Certified personal trainer and fitness nutrition specialist Michele Canon, who is a STRIDE XPRO for Xponential+, told Newsweek that the healthiest lunch options are ones that are centered around protein, low in processed carbohydrates and have a moderate amount of fat.
However, often what we grab for lunch from a deli or takeout venue can contain hundreds of hidden calories and sugar.
So that gigantic turkey wrap that comes with a side of chips and fruit can cause weight gain, mid-afternoon energy crashes as well as sugar cravings. This is because a wrap, turkey sandwich or even a bowl with grains can be very heavy in carbohydrates, Canon explained.
“When the carbohydrates are out of balance, we get an insulin spike which then crashes a couple of hours later. This leads to that mid-afternoon slump where many of us crave something sweet or grab a coffee drink to help get us through.
“We can avoid all of this simply by making better choices at lunch. The best advice I can give is to pack your own lunch,” she said.
What Makes a Healthy Diet?
According to the USDA’s latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), a person’s nutritional needs should be met by “nutrient-dense” foods and beverages (which provide vitamins, minerals, and other health-promoting benefits), while limiting items that are high in added sugars, saturated fat and sodium.
Below are the core elements of a healthy diet, as outlined by the DGA:
- All types of vegetables: This includes dark green, red, orange types as well as starchy vegetables, beans, peas and lentils.
- Fruits: Especially whole fruit is recommended.
- Grains: At least half of your grain intake should be whole grain.
- Dairy foods: This includes fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese, and/or lactose-free versions, fortified soy beverages and yogurt as alternatives.
- Protein: This includes lean meats, poultry, eggs, seafood; beans, peas, and lentils; and nuts, seeds, and soy products
- Oils: This includes vegetable oils as well as oils found foods such as seafood and nuts.
What Should a Healthy Lunch Include?
Nancy Clark, a registered dietician and fellow at the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) told Newsweek there is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” lunch, but rather a “balanced” or “unbalanced” diet.
“Even a ‘bad’ lunch can be balanced into an overall healthful diet,” she said.
A balanced lunch should include at least three, if not four, of the following types of foods, according to Clark:
- Protein: For building and repairing muscles
- Grain: For fueling muscles
- Fruit and/or vegetable: For vitamins and minerals
- Dairy or some sort of calcium: For bone health
Below nutritionists share tips for the best healthy lunch ideas for weight loss.
Healthy Lunch Ideas for Weight Loss
1. Grain bowl
Roxana Ehsani, a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) who can be found at RoxanaEhsani.com and national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Newsweek. “Grain bowls are one of the most versatile, easy to put together and healthiest lunch options to have. They are super versatile; you can change up the ingredients you include so they are different for each day.”
Ehsani said a grain bowl lunch should always consist of the following:
- A whole grain: This could be farro, buckwheat, millet, barley, brown rice, wild rice, whole wheat pasta, or oats.
- Vegetables: Try a mix of raw, grilled, roasted and/or air-fried vegetables.
- Protein: Try black beans, lentils, edamame, tofu, eggs, chicken, salmon or tuna
- A healthy fat: This could be an olive oil and lemon juice dressing, avocado chunks, walnuts, almonds, chia seeds, flax seeds or hemp seeds.
“Get creative,” Ehsani said. “Grain bowls offer up endless possibilities, and consist of a balanced and nutritious meal ensuring you stay full for hours.”
Below are examples of different grain bowls to try:
- Meatless: Made with quinoa, tofu, edamame, mixed roasted veggies, and miso sauce.
- Mediterranean style: Made with farro, lentils, romaine lettuce, Persian cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, with olive oil, vinegar and topped with hummus and feta cheese.
- Mexican style: Made with brown rice, chicken, black beans, corn, lettuce, tomatoes, avocado and cotija cheese.
2. Protein Salad
People tend to think you need to eat salad every day to be healthy and they stick to one made with just vegetables like lettuce and tomatoes, which “doesn’t offer them any satisfying power,” Ehsani said.
“Typically it’s missing protein, a grain and/or a healthy fat option. My favorite salads consist of lots of veggies, a healthy fat-based dressing, a good source of protein and a side of grains,” she said.
Canon also recommends a healthy high protein salad, consisting of around two to four cups of greens, four to six ounces of lean protein (such as chicken, turkey or tuna), avocado slices and “loaded with veggies of your choice.”
Choose a dressing that is vinaigrette-based and made with olive or avocado oil, she added.
Salads don’t need to be boring and can be a versatile option for lunch you can change up each day, the RDN explained. Below are some foods you can have in your salad, as recommended by Ehsani:
- A bed of greens: You can stick to one type or do a mix of spinach, kale, romaine, arugula, iceberg or baby mixed greens.
- Other vegetables: Try caramelized onions, shredded carrots, diced beets, grilled eggplant or roasted peppers.
- Protein: Stir-fried tofu, hard-boiled eggs, air-fried chicken breast, smoked salmon, a can of tuna, a can of garbanzo beans or sirloin steak strips.
- A healthy dressing: Agreeing with Canon, Ehsani recommends a dressing made with olive oil or avocado oil. Or you can mix it up with flaxseed oil, vinegar or lemon juice.
“You can have your fully loaded salad with a slice of sprouted bread or side of quinoa or whole wheat pita chips,” the RDN added.
Ehsani recommends a broth-based soup like chicken noodle soup, minestrone or lentil soup. These are nutritious lunch options as they include a source of protein and are also a “high-volume food,” meaning they’re high in water content, she said.
Canon also suggests “hearty soups or stews” for lunch, such as ones made with lentils or chili.
“Research has found that people who consume high volume foods stay full for longer, feel more satisfied, and help keep you hydrated,” the RDN said. Enjoy your soup with a slice of whole wheat toast and/or an apple or pear, she added.
Clark recommends having wrap filled with beans and some cheese as well as dices of tomato and lettuce.
Ehsani said: “Sandwiches are great on the go foods and perfect for traveling.”
To make it a healthy and filling sandwich, she advises using whole wheat, whole grain or sprouted bread slices. Fill it with protein such as smoked salmon, low-sodium turkey breast slices or grilled chicken strips. You can add a “healthy fat” such as mashed avocado or a spread of hummus as well as low-fat cheese slices, if desired.
“Don’t forget the veggies,” the RDN said, such as sprouts, shredded carrots, baby spinach leaves or shredded romaine or arugula, tomato and cucumber slices or sliced mushrooms. “If you’re worried about your sandwich going soggy, pack the veggies in a separate container and add them to your sandwich or wrap right before eating,” she said.
Clark also advises having a turkey sandwich, made with cheese and slices of whole wheat bread, and a side of vegetable soup.
Cannon also recommends either a wrap or sandwich, choosing breads or tortillas that are sprouted and 100 percent whole grain. “Load it with four to six ounces of your favorite nitrate-free deli meat, veggies, avocado, mustard and an avocado oil mayonnaise,” she said.
What the aforementioned protein salad, soup, wrap and sandwich options have in common is that they’re loaded with fiber and protein.
Cannon explained: “Fiber helps blunt blood sugar absorption and protein takes longer to digest which will help us stay fuller longer. Choosing balanced options like those above will keep us from grabbing that late afternoon sugar filled coffee drink.”
6. Peanut Butter and Bananas
Enjoy a sandwich made of peanut butter and slices of banana with a glass of milk, Clark said.
7. Vegetable Snack Plate
Ehsani said if you find that you don’t have much in your fridge to pull together a meal for lunch, “you can fill your plate or a tupperware container with satisfying snacks,” such as baby carrots, celery, pita bread, hummus and a pear.
8. Greek Yogurt
For a light lunch, try Greek yogurt with almonds, granola and berries, Clark suggested.
Ehsani said another option could be to have tortilla chips, guacamole, salsa and baby bell peppers with a cup of Greek yogurt.
9. Apple, Cheese and Crackers
For another light and quick option, have an apple with some cheese and crackers, as recommended by Clark.