If you asked 10 people how they would define “healthy diet,” you would likely get several different answers. The most basic definition of a healthy diet is that it best supports your overall health and wellness and prevents disease. While certain foods have been scientifically proven to fit this definition, a healthy diet must be personalized.
This article examines what it means to design a healthy diet, including tips for eating healthy and what foods to incorporate—and which to minimize.
What Does “Healthy Diet” Mean to You?
When you’re trying to design a healthy diet for yourself, the first order of business is to determine what a healthy diet means. The word “healthy” is subjective and is defined differently depending on whom you ask. Overall, a healthy diet for you may not look the same as a healthy diet for someone else.
Consider the following factors when you’re determining what a healthy diet means to you.
Counting calories and macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, and protein) is unnecessary for most people. Some people may benefit from keeping track if their ultimate goal is healthy weight loss, while others are better off focusing on the overall quality of their dietary pattern. Determine which better aligns with your goals and preferences.
We live in a world where “healthy” and “natural” are widely used marketing terms to persuade consumer purchasing decisions. However, these descriptors aren’t always accurate. Rather than buying packaged items proclaiming health benefits, veer toward minimally processed plant foods and lean proteins. These are always your best sources of nutrition.
Nutrients of Concern
If your healthcare provider has ever identified a nutritional insufficiency in you, add sources of those nutrients to your diet. Sometimes, a healthcare provider will recommend that you take an additional supplement to make up for deficiencies.
If you lead an active lifestyle, ensuring your dietary pattern provides the energy and nutrition needed to support your performance is essential. Have you tried driving your car 100 miles on a near-empty tank? It just doesn’t work. The same is true for fueling your body to function correctly.
If you have existing medical concerns, such as having heart disease or obesity, this can influence the types and amounts of certain foods that might make up your healthy diet pattern. Consider these when determining your version of a healthy diet.
How Foods Make You Feel
Beyond the nutritional composition of the foods in your diet, it’s important to notice how your body responds to certain foods. For instance, if you experience any adverse reactions to a food, it may be best to exclude it from your diet.
Healthy eating does not mean you must shop at a particular store or spend a certain amount each week. Some of the most nutritious foods, like canned beans, dried lentils, tofu, and bananas, are the least expensive.
Foods to Incorporate Into a Healthy, Balanced Diet
Nutrition is a continuously evolving science. However, certain aspects of nutritional science are undisputed.
Diets based on minimally processed foods are associated with better health outcomes. Consider these types of foods when planning your healthy eating pattern:
- Fruits: Apples, pears, berries, avocado, tomatoes, grapes, and oranges
- Vegetables: Leafy greens, broccoli, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, onions, and mushrooms
- Whole grains: Oats, barley, millet, quinoa, amaranth, brown rice, and 100% whole wheat
- Legumes: Chickpeas, lentils, green peas, peanuts, black beans, and kidney beans
- Nuts: Almonds, walnuts, cashews, Brazil nuts, and pistachios
- Seeds: Sunflower seeds, pepitas, hemp seeds, chia seeds, sesame seeds, and flax seeds
- Lean proteins: Fish, tofu, and tempeh
On the other hand, the Western diet is associated with a higher prevalence of obesity and risk for other chronic conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, digestive disorders, inflammatory conditions, and cancers.
This way of eating is generally characterized by a high intake of saturated and trans fats, sodium, and added sugar from ultra-processed and animal-derived foods and sugary beverages. It also lacks health-promoting nutrients like fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Everyday Tips to Plan a Healthier Diet
Once you better understand the healthiest type of dietary plan for you, you can start implementing some positive habits.
Some tips to help you make healthy food choices include:
- Evaluate your current eating pattern: Get clear about where you’re starting by writing down three days of typical meals, snacks, and beverages to provide a snapshot to work from.
- Identify areas for improvement: As you reflect on your current eating pattern, note areas you can change for the better. Create goals around how you will make healthier choices.
- Take inventory: Pull foods from your freezer, fridge, and pantry that you want to find a purpose for, and think of some ways you might use them.
- Make a plan for the week ahead: Based on your inventory, early in the week, outline a weekly eating plan. Planning is a great habit that can help prevent last-minute food choices that don’t support your goals.
- Find inspiration and support: Healthy eating is easier when you have others doing it with you or when you have helpful resources available. Find support from friends, family members, or coworkers who have similar goals.
- Keep your eye on the goal: Healthy eating doesn’t mean making perfect choices at every meal and snack opportunity. Allow yourself the freedom to prioritize nutrition and joy through food.
Which Diets Are Healthy for Most People?
Whether you’re talking to a group of people or searching the internet for answers, you can find advice in support of any way of eating. That’s why it’s important to stick to what the science has to say.
For most people, a healthy diet consists of the following:
- Predominantly plant-based foods: Foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are nutrient-dense, meaning that they provide an abundance of nutrition in a small serving. They are naturally anti-inflammatory, high in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, and only contain natural sugars (versus added ones).
- Minimal ultra-processed foods: Fast foods, sugary beverages, and other convenience items tend to provide empty calories. This means they contribute to your overall energy intake but tend to be poor in overall nutrition, leaving you unsatisfied.
- Balance and variety: A healthy eating pattern incorporates different types of foods. You might think about it in terms of eating the rainbow and creating balanced meals. Different colors and types of foods help provide a variety of nutrients.
Involve Your Healthcare Provider
When you’re trying to make a significant diet change to support your health or are unsure what a healthy diet should look like, ask for help.
Healthcare providers are a resource for all your health needs, including what you’re eating. While most medical doctors are not thoroughly trained in nutrition (though some are), they can refer you to a registered dietitian.
A registered dietitian has an extensive education in human nutrition, including completing a dietetic internship, registration exam, and continued education credits. They can provide you with individualized nutrition advice to support your health goals.
While “healthy” is a subjective term, there’s no denying the positive connection between a healthy diet and overall well-being. Research shows that eating a varied diet based on minimally processed foods, an array of plant foods, and limiting ultra-processed items is the best approach for most people. This way of eating provides a variety of important nutrients that support long-term healthy outcomes.
World Health Organization. Healthy diet.
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