Depending on who you ask, “healthy eating” can take a number of forms. It seems that everyone – including healthcare professionals, wellness influencers, co-workers, and family members – has an opinion on the healthiest way to eat.
Additionally, the nutrition articles you read online can be downright confusing with their contradictory and often unfounded suggestions and rules.
This doesn’t make it easy if you just want to eat in a healthy way that works for you.
The truth is, healthy eating doesn’t have to be complicated. It is entirely possible to nourish your body while enjoying the foods you love.
After all, food is meant to be enjoyed, not feared, counted, weighed, and tracked.
This article cuts through the noise to explain what healthy eating means and how to make it work for you.
Why is it important to eat healthy?
Before delving into what healthy eating means, it is important to explain why it is important.
First, food is what gives you energy and provides you with the calories and nutrients your body needs to function. If your diet is deficient in calories or one or more nutrients, your health may suffer.
Similarly, if you eat too many calories, you can experience weight gain. People with obesity are at significantly higher risk for diseases such as type 2 diabetes, obstructive sleep apnea, and heart, liver, and kidney disease (1 trusted source, 2 trusted source).
Also, the quality of your diet affects your risk of disease, longevity, and mental health.
While diets high in ultra-processed foods are associated with higher mortality and increased risk of conditions such as cancer and heart disease, diets that primarily comprise whole, nutrient-dense foods are associated with increased longevity and protection against diseases (3 Reliable source, 4 Reliable source, 5 Source, 6 Reliable source, 7 Reliable source, 8 Reliable source).
Diets rich in highly processed foods can also increase the risk of depressive symptoms, particularly among people who exercise less (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 vegetables, nuts, and fish, you’re likely not eating enough nutrients, which can affect negatively your overall health
Do you have to follow a certain diet to eat healthy?
Although certain people need, or choose, to avoid certain foods or to adopt diets for health reasons, most people do not have to follow any specific diet to feel their best.
That is not to say that certain eating patterns cannot benefit you.
For example, some people feel healthier on a low-carbohydrate diet, while others thrive on high-carbohydrate diets.
However, in general, eating healthy has nothing to do with following diets or certain dietary rules. “Eating healthy” simply means prioritizing your well-being by feeding your body nutritious foods.
The details may be different for each person depending on their location, financial situation, culture and society, and taste preferences.
The basics of healthy eating
Now that you know why healthy eating is important, let’s look at some nutrition basics.
When conceptualizing healthy eating, your first thought might be about calories. Although calories are important, your main concern should be nutrients.
That’s because nutrients, which include protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals, are what your body needs to thrive. “Nutrient density” refers to the amount of nutrients in a food relative to the calories it provides (11 Trusted Source).
All foods contain calories, but not all foods are rich in nutrients.
For example, a chocolate bar or a box of mac and cheese can be incredibly high in calories but lacking in vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber. Similarly, foods marketed as “diet-friendly” or “low-calorie” can be very low in calories but lacking in nutrients.
For example, egg whites are much lower in calories and fat than whole eggs. However, an egg white provides 1% or less of the Daily Value (DV) for iron, phosphorus, zinc, choline, and vitamins A and B12, while a whole egg contains 5-21% of the DV for these nutrients ( 12 Reliable source, 13 Reliable source).
That’s because of the nutritious, high-fat yolk in eggs.
Also, while some nutrient-dense foods, such as many fruits and vegetables, are low in calories, many, such as nuts, full-fat yogurt, egg yolks, avocado, and fatty fish, are high in calories. . That is perfectly fine!
Just because a food is high in calories doesn’t mean it’s bad for you. Similarly, just because a food is low in calories does not make it a healthy option.
If your food choices are based solely on calories, you are losing the sense of healthy eating.
As a general rule of thumb, try to eat mostly foods rich in nutrients like protein, fiber, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals. These foods include vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, fatty fish, and eggs.
Another component of healthy eating is dietary diversity, meaning eating a variety of foods.
Following a diet rich in different types of foods supports gut bacteria, promotes a healthy body weight, and protects against chronic diseases (14 Trusted Source, 15 Trusted Source, 16 Trusted Source, 17 Trusted Source).
Still, eating a variety of foods can be difficult if you are a picky eater.
If that’s the case, try introducing new foods one at a time. If you don’t eat a lot of veggies, start by adding one of your favorite veggies to one or two meals a day and work your way from there.
Although you may not like trying new foods, research shows that the more you are exposed to a food, the greater your chances of getting used to it (18 Trusted Source, 19 Trusted Source).
Macronutrients, the main nutrients you get from food, are carbohydrates, fat, and protein. (Fiber is considered a type of carbohydrate.)
Generally, your meals and snacks should be balanced between all three. In particular, adding protein and fat to fiber-rich carbohydrate sources makes dishes more filling and flavorful (Trusted Source).
For example, if you are eating a piece of fruit, adding a tablespoon of nut butter or a little cheese helps keep you fuller than if you were to eat the fruit alone.
However, it is okay if your diet is not balanced all the time.
Counting macros and following an established macronutrient plan is not necessary for most people except athletes, people looking for a specific body composition, and those who need to gain muscle or fat for medical reasons.
Additionally, counting macros and obsessing over staying within a certain macro range can lead to an unhealthy fixation on food and calories or cause messy eating tendencies (21 Trusted Source).
It is important to note that some people can thrive on diets that are low in carbohydrates and high in fat and protein, or low in fat and high in carbohydrates. However, even on these diets, macronutrient counting is not normally necessary.
For example, if you feel better on a low-carb diet, simply choosing low-carb foods like non-starchy vegetables, protein, and fat more often than high-carb foods will suffice.
Highly processed foods
One of the best ways to improve your diet is to cut down on ultra-processed foods.
You don’t need to avoid processed foods entirely. In fact, many healthy foods like shelled nuts, canned beans, and frozen fruits and vegetables have been processed in one way or another.
In contrast, highly processed products like sodas, mass-produced baked goods, candy, sugary cereals, and certain boxed snacks contain little or no whole food ingredients.
These items tend to contain ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, and artificial sweeteners (9Trusted Source, 22Trusted Source, 23Trusted Source).
Research links diets rich in ultra-processed foods with an increased risk of depression, heart disease, obesity, and many other complications (9Reliable source, 24Reliable source, 25Reliable source).
On the other hand, diets low in these foods and high in nutrient-rich whole foods have the opposite effect, protect against disease, extend lifespan, and promote general physical and mental well-being (5Source of Trust, 6Source of Trust, 7Source of Trust, 8 Trusted Source).
Therefore, it is better to prioritize foods rich in nutrients, especially vegetables and fruits.
Should I Cut Down Certain Foods And Drinks For Optimal Health?
In a healthy diet, it is better to restrict certain foods.
Decades of scientific research link ultra-processed foods to negative health outcomes, including increased risk of illness and premature death (9 Trusted source, 22 Trusted source, 23 Trusted source, 26 Trusted source, 27 Trusted source, 28 Trusted source) .
Cutting back on soda, processed meats, candy, ice cream, fried foods, fast food, and highly processed packaged snacks is a smart way to improve your health and reduce your risk of certain diseases.
However, you don’t need to completely avoid these foods all the time.
Instead, try to prioritize nutrient-dense, whole foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, and fish, and save highly-processed foods and beverages for specialty treats.
Foods like ice cream and candy can be part of a healthy and complete diet, but they should not be a significant part of your calorie intake.
How to make healthy eating work for you
Food is one of the many pieces of the puzzle in your daily life. Between commuting, work, family or social commitments, errands, and many other daily factors, food may be the last thing on your list of worries.
The first step to eating a healthier diet is to make eating one of your priorities.
This doesn’t mean you have to spend hours preparing meals or cooking elaborate meals, but it does take some thought and effort, especially if you have a particularly busy lifestyle.
For example, going to the grocery store once or twice a week will help ensure you have healthy options in your refrigerator and pantry. In turn, a well-equipped kitchen makes choosing healthy meals and snacks much easier.
When you go shopping, stock up on:
fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables
protein sources such as chicken, eggs, fish, and tofu
bulk carbohydrate sources like canned beans and whole grains
starchy vegetables like white potatoes, sweet potatoes, and squash
fat sources like avocados, olive oil, and full-fat yogurt
Simple and nutritious snack ingredients like nuts, seeds, nut butter, hummus, olives, and dried fruit
If you’re going blank at mealtime, keep it simple and think in groups of three:
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 carbohydrates: Starchy options like sweet potatoes, oatmeal, certain fruits, and beans, or low-carb fiber sources like asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, and berries
For example, breakfast might be a spinach and egg scramble with avocado and berries, lunch a sweet potato stuffed with vegetables, beans and shredded chicken, and dinner a salmon steak or baked tofu with sauteed broccoli and brown rice.
If you’re not used to cooking or shopping, focus on just one meal. Go to the grocery store and buy the ingredients for a couple of dishes for breakfast or dinner for the week. Once that becomes a habit, add more meals until most of your meals are prepared at home.
Developing a healthy relationship with food can take time
If you don’t have a good relationship with food, you are not alone.
Many people have disordered eating tendencies or eating disorders. If you are concerned about having one of these conditions, it is critical that you get the right help.
To develop a healthy relationship with food, you need the right tools.
Working with a healthcare team, such as a registered dietitian and psychologist who specializes in eating disorders, is the best way to start improving your relationship with food.
Food restrictions, fad diets, and self-prescribed notions like “getting back on track” won’t help and can be harmful. Working on your relationship with food may take time, but it is necessary for your physical and mental health.
Tips for healthy eating in the real world
Here are some realistic tips to get you started with a healthy diet:
Prioritize plant-based foods. Plant foods like greens, fruits, beans, and nuts should make up the majority of your diet. Try to incorporate these foods, especially vegetables and fruits, into every meal and snack.
Cooking 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 a week to start.
Buy food regularly. If your kitchen is stocked with healthy foods, you are more likely to prepare healthy meals and snacks. Make one or two grocery shopping a week to have nutritious ingredients on hand.
Understand that your diet will not be perfect. Progress, not perfection, is the key.
Find yourself where you are. If you are currently eating out every night, cooking a home cooked meal full of vegetables per week is significant progress.
Cheat days are not acceptable. If your current diet includes “cheat days” or “cheat meals,” this is a sign that your diet is out of balance. Once you learn that all foods can be part of a healthy diet, there is no need to cheat.
Eliminate sugar-sweetened beverages. Limit sugary drinks like sodas, energy drinks, and sweetened coffees as much as possible. Regular consumption of sugary drinks can harm your health (27 Trusted Source, 28 Trusted Source).
Choose foods that are filling. When you’re hungry, your goal should be to eat hearty, nutritious food, not as many calories as possible. Choose high-protein and high-fiber meals and snacks that are sure to fill you up.
Eat whole foods. A healthy eating pattern should consist primarily of whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and protein sources such as eggs and fish.Hydrate wisely. Staying hydrated is part of a healthy diet, 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 splash of lemon for flavor.
Honor your dislikes. If you’ve tried a specific food several times and you don’t like it, don’t eat it. Instead, there are many healthy foods to choose from. Don’t force yourself to eat something just because it’s considered healthy.
The bottom line
If you’re interested in healthy eating, making a few small changes can help you move in the right direction.
Although healthy eating may seem a little different for everyone, balanced diets are generally high in nutrient-dense foods, low in highly processed foods, and made up of hearty meals and snacks.
This guide can help those just starting out on a healthy eating journey and act as a reminder for those who know the basics of nutrition but want to dig deeper.
For detailed and individualized dietary advice, consult an experienced dietitian.