Depending on whom you ask, “healthy eating” may take any number of forms. It seems like everyone, including healthcare professionals, wellness influencers, coworkers, and family members, has an opinion on the healthiest way to eat.
Plus, nutrition articles that you read online can be downright perplexing with their inconsistent — and frequently unjustified — ideas and rules.
This doesn’t make it easy if you simply want to eat in a healthy way that works for you.
The truth is, healthy eating doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s totally feasible to nourish your body while enjoying the foods you love.
After all, food is meant to be enjoyed — not dreaded, tallied, measured, and tracked.
This article cuts through the noise to clarify what healthy eating entails and how to make it work for you.
Why does eating healthily matter?
Before we dig into what healthy eating is, it’s vital to clarify why it matters.
First, eating is what fuels you and gives the energy and nutrients your body needs to function. If your diet is deficient in calories or one or more nutrients, your health may suffer.
Likewise, if you eat too many calories, you may experience weight gain. People with obesity have a greatly higher risk of illnesses such type 2 diabetes, obstructive sleep apnea, and heart, liver, and kidney disease (1Trusted Source, 2Trusted Source).
Additionally, the quality of your nutrition affects your disease risk, longevity, and mental wellness.
While diets rich in ultra-processed foods are linked to increased mortality and a greater risk of conditions like cancer and heart disease, diets comprising mostly whole, nutrient-dense foods are associated with increased longevity and disease protection (3Trusted Source, 4Trusted Source, 5Trusted Source, 6Trusted Source, 7Trusted Source, 8Trusted Source).
Diets rich in highly processed foods may also raise the incidence of depressive symptoms, particularly among persons who get less exercise (4Trusted Source, 9Trusted Source).
What’s more, if your current diet is high in ultra-processed foods and beverages like fast food, soda, and sugary cereals but low in whole foods like veggies, nuts, and fish, you’re likely not getting enough of certain nutrients, which may negatively influence your general health (10Trusted Source) (10Trusted Source).
Healthy eating is vital for several reasons, including nourishing your body, getting necessary nutrients, lowering your illness risk, extending your longevity, and supporting optimal mental and physical well-being.
Do you have to follow a certain diet to eat healthy?
Although certain people need — or prefer — to avoid particular foods or adopt diets for health reasons, most people don’t have to follow any specific diet to feel their best.
That’s not to argue that some eating patterns can’t benefit you.
For instance, some people feel healthiest when following a low carb diet, while others thrive on high carb diets.
In general, though, eating healthily has nothing to do with adhering to diets or strict dietary requirements. “Healthy eating” simply means prioritising your wellness by fueling your body with nutritious foods.
The specifics may be different for each person depending on their region, financial condition, culture and society, and taste preferences.
Healthy eating doesn’t include any particular diet. Rather, it means prioritising your health by fuelling your body with nutrient-rich foods.
When you imagine healthy eating, your first thought might be about calories. Even though calories are vital, your primary concern should be nutrients.
That’s because nutrients, including protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, and minerals, are what your body needs to thrive. “Nutrient density” refers to the number of nutrients in a food in relation to the calories it offers (11Trusted Source) (11Trusted Source).
All foods have calories, however not all foods are nutrient-dense.
For example, a candy bar or a box of mac and cheese may be extraordinarily heavy in calories yet lack vitamins, minerals, protein, and fibre. Similarly, foods branded as “diet-friendly” or “low calorie” may be very low in calories yet lack nutrients.
For example, egg whites are substantially lower in calories and fat than entire eggs. However, one egg white delivers 1% or less of the Daily Value (DV) for iron, phosphorus, zinc, choline, and vitamins A and B12, while a full egg carries 5–21% of the DV for these nutrients (12Trusted Source, 13Trusted Source).
That’s due of the nutritious, high fat yolk that eggs contain.
Plus, although certain nutrient-dense foods, such as several fruits and veggies, are low in calories, many — like almonds, full fat yoghurt, egg yolks, avocado, and fatty fish — are high in calories. That’s completely OK!
Just because a food is heavy in calories doesn’t indicate that it’s harmful for you. On the same token, simply because a food is low in calories doesn’t make it a healthy choice.
As a general rule, try to generally eat foods that are high in nutrients including protein, fibre, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals. These foods include veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, fatty fish, and eggs.
Another component of good eating is dietary diversity, or eating a range of foods.
Following a diet that’s rich in varied kinds of food helps your gut bacteria, promotes a healthy body weight, and protects against chronic disease (14Trusted Source, 15Trusted Source, 16Trusted Source, 17Trusted Source).
Still, consuming a range of foods may be tough if you’re a fussy eater.
If that’s the case, attempt to introduce new foods one at a time. If you don’t eat many veggies, start by introducing a favourite veggie to one or two meals each day and develop from there.
Although you may not appreciate tasting new foods, research suggests that the more you’re exposed to a food, the greater your odds of developing accustomed to it (18Trusted Source, 19Trusted Source).
Generally, your meals and snacks should be balanced between the three. In particular, combining protein and fat to fiber-rich carb sources makes foods more full and pleasant (20Trusted Source) (20Trusted Source).
For example, if you’re snacking on a piece of fruit, adding a spoonful of nut butter or a bit of cheese helps keep you satiated than if you were to consume the fruit alone.
Counting macros and following a precise macronutrient diet isn’t necessary for most individuals – except athletes, persons seeking a specific body composition, and those who need to build muscle or fat for medical reasons.
Plus, measuring macros and stressing about staying inside a set macro range may lead to an unhealthy attachment with food and calories or promote disordered eating habits (21Trusted Source) (21Trusted Source).
It’s crucial to remember that some people may thrive on diets that are low in carbs and rich in fat and protein — or low in fat and high in carbs. However, even on these diets, macronutrient counting often isn’t necessary.
For example, if you feel your best on a low carb diet, simply picking low carb items like nonstarchy veggies, proteins, and fats more often than high carb foods would usually suffice.
Highly processed foods
One of the best strategies to enhance your diet is to cut back on ultra-processed meals.
In contrast, highly processed products like soda, mass-produced baked goods, candy, sugary cereals, and many boxed snack meals contain little if any whole food ingredients.
These items tend to pack substances like high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, and artificial sweeteners (9Trusted Source, 22Trusted Source, 23Trusted Source).
Research links diets high in ultra-processed foods to a greater risk of depression, heart disease, obesity, and many other issues (9Trusted Source, 24Trusted Source, 25Trusted Source).
On the other hand, diets low in these items and high in full, nutrient-dense foods have the opposite impact, protecting against disease, prolonging longevity, and improving overall physical and mental well-being (5Trusted Source, 6Trusted Source, 7Trusted Source, 8Trusted Source).
Thus, it’s preferable to prioritise nutrient-dense diets, especially vegetables and fruits.
Include a range of nutrient-dense, whole foods in your diet, taking care to limit excessively processed goods.
Should you cut back on certain foods and beverages for best health?
In a healthy diet, it’s best to restrict some foods.
Decades of scientific study link ultra-processed meals to unfavourable health consequences, including higher illness risk and early death (9Trusted Source, 22Trusted Source, 23Trusted Source, 26Trusted Source, 27Trusted Source, 28Trusted Source).
Cutting back on soda, processed meats, sweets, ice cream, fried meals, fast food, and highly processed, packaged snacks is a sensible strategy to improve your health and minimise your risk of certain diseases.
However, you don’t have to fully avoid these items all the time.
Instead, strive to prioritise whole, nutrient-dense foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, and seafood, keeping highly processed foods and beverages for exceptional indulgences.
Foods like ice cream and candy can be a part of a healthy, well-rounded diet, but they shouldn’t constitute a large part of your calorie intake.
Also Read ABout Best Meatless Sources of Vitamin B12
You should limit your intake of ultra-processed foods and drinks like candy, soda, and sugary cereals, but that doesn’t mean that you have to eliminate these items from your diet.
How to make healthy eating work for you?
Food is one of the many puzzle parts of your day-to-day life. Between commuting, working, family or social responsibilities, errands, and many other everyday factors, eating may be last on your list of worries.
The first step to following a healthier diet is to make eating one of your priorities.
This doesn’t mean that you have to spend hours meal planning or cooking complicated meals, but it does involve some thinking and work, especially if you have a particularly hectic schedule.
For example, going to the grocery shop once or twice per week will help ensure that you have healthy selections in your fridge and pantry. In turn, a well-stocked kitchen makes picking nutritious meals and snacks much easier.
When grocery shopping, stock up on:
- fresh and frozen fruits and veggies
- protein sources like chicken, eggs, fish, and tofu
- bulk carb sources like canned beans and whole grains
- starchy veggies like white potatoes, sweet potatoes, and butternut squash
- fat sources like avocados, olive oil, and full fat yogurt
- nutritious, simple snack ingredients like nuts, seeds, nut butter, hummus, olives, and dried fruit
If you’re drawing a blank at mealtime, keep it simple and think in threes:
- Protein: eggs, chicken, fish, or a plant-based option like tofu
- Fat: olive oil, nuts, seeds, nut butter, avocado, cheese, or full fat yogurt
- Fiber-rich carbs: starchy options like sweet potatoes, oats, certain fruits, and beans — or low carb fiber sources like asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, and berries
For example, breakfast may be a spinach and egg scramble with avocado and berries, lunch a sweet potato stuffed with greens, beans, and shredded chicken, and dinner a salmon fillet or baked tofu with sautéed broccoli and brown rice.
Developing a good connection with food may take time
If you don’t have a good connection with food, you’re not alone.
Many people have disordered eating patterns or eating disorders. If you’re concerned that you have one of these disorders, it’s vital to receive the correct care.
To create a healthy relationship with food, you have to have the correct tools.
Working with a healthcare team, such as a registered dietitian and psychologist who specialises in eating disorders, is the greatest way to start mending your connection with food.
Food restrictions, fad dieting, and self-prescribed notions like “getting back on track” won’t help and may be detrimental. Working on your relationship with food may take time, but it’s vital for your physical and mental wellness.
Also Read ABout Best Meatless Sources of Vitamin B12
Tips for he althy eating in the real world
Here are some realistic tips for you to get started with healthy eating:
- Prioritize plant-based foods. Plant foods like veggies, fruits, beans, and nuts should make up the majority of your diet. Try incorporating these foods, especially veggies and fruits, at every meal and snack.
- Cook at home. Cooking meals at home helps diversify your diet. If you’re used to takeout or restaurant meals, try cooking just one or two meals per week to start.
- Shop for groceries regularly. If your kitchen is stocked with healthy foods, you’re more likely to make healthy meals and snacks. Go on one or two grocery runs per week to keep nutritious ingredients on hand.
- Understand that your diet isn’t going to be perfect. Progress — not perfection — is key. Meet yourself where you are. If you’re currently eating out every night, cooking one homemade, veggie-packed meal per week is significant progress.
- “Cheat days” aren’t acceptable. If your current diet includes “cheat days” or “cheat meals,” this is a sign that your diet is unbalanced. Once you learn that all foods can be a part of a healthy diet, there’s no need for cheating.
- Cut out sugar-sweetened drinks. Limit sugary beverages like soda, energy drinks, and sweetened coffees as much as possible. Regularly consuming sugary beverages may harm your health (27Trusted Source, 28Trusted Source).
- Choose filling foods. When you’re hungry, your goal should be to eat filling, nutritious foods, not to eat as few calories as possible. Pick protein- and fiber-rich meals and snacks that are sure to fill you up.
- Eat whole foods. A healthy eating pattern should be primarily composed of whole foods like vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and protein sources like eggs and fish.
- Hydrate the smart way. Staying hydrated is part of healthy eating, and water is the best way to stay hydrated. If you’re not used to drinking water, get a reusable water bottle and add fruit slices or a squeeze of lemon for flavor.
- Honor your dislikes. If you’ve tried a specific food several times and don’t like it, don’t eat it. There are plenty of healthy foods to choose instead. Don’t force yourself to eat something just because it’s considered healthy.
These tips can help you move toward a healthier diet.
You can also work with a registered dietitian, especially if you’re not sure how to start improving your diet. A dietitian can help you develop a sustainable, nutritious eating plan that works for your needs and schedule.
The bottom line
If you’re interested in healthy eating, making a few tiny modifications can get you moving in the right direction.
Although healthy eating may look a bit different for everyone, balanced diets are generally rich in nutrient-dense foods, low in highly processed foods, and comprised of full meals and snacks.
This guide may help people who are starting on a healthy eating journey — and act as a refresher for others who know nutrition principles but want to delve deeper.
If you want detailed, individualised dietary advice, consult an experienced dietitian.