Everyone knows that it is important to eat a healthy diet, but actually achieving that goal can be more difficult. There are endless fad diets and new “superfoods”, as well as weekly changes to the list of which foods might get you sick. Maintaining a consistently healthy diet can be daunting, but if you understand the framework of a good dietary regimen, it is easier to stick with your goals and improve your overall wellness.
What is a Healthy Diet?
A healthy diet can be defined in many ways, but the general understanding is that a healthy diet is a balanced diet. The percentages may be different, but the three main categories of food are protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Generally, 20-35% of your daily calories should come from protein, 20-35% should come from fat, and 45-65% should come from carbohydrates. Those categories determine where the majority of your energy comes from, in the form of calories, but there are further divisions within those calorie areas.
You also need to consider what other nutrients come along with those calories, as well as potentially unhealthy substances that you should limit or completely eliminate from your diet. That is where the Harvard Food Pyramid comes into play.
Healthy Diet Food Pyramid
The Harvard Healthy Eating Pyramid is a helpful tool to visualize what constitutes a healthy diet and the types of food that you consume each day. It also helps in knowing the general concentrations and relative importance of different food varieties. There are six layers to this pyramid, as follows.
- At the bottom of the pyramid, forming the foundation of the pyramid is whole-grain foods and vegetable oils. Generally speaking, you should have these foods at every meal, as they provide a significant amount of carbohydrates in the form of fiber and complex sugars, in addition to healthy fats in the oils.
- The next layer is fruits and vegetables. 2-3 servings of fruits are recommended each day, along with a similar amount of vegetables, if not more. This is another area for carbohydrate consumption, which generates most of our energy on a daily basis.
- Above fruits and vegetables are nuts, seed, and legumes, of which you should have 1-3 servings per day. These sources of calories are in the form of fats, protein, and carbohydrates, which have a number of other health benefits.
- This layer includes fish, poultry, and eggs, which you can have 0-2 servings of each day, representing a sizable amount of protein in the diet.
- Dairy products are the second to last layer of the pyramid, meaning that only a small amount of these should be consumed each day. These high-fat and high-protein foods also provide quite a few minerals and other essential nutrients, but should still be consumed in moderation, due to the variety of fats they contain.
- The very peak of the pyramid is divided into red meat, as well as white bread, white pasta, potatoes, sugars, sweets, soda, junk food and other low-quality carbohydrates. Red meat should be consumed only a few times per week, and the same is true for sweets and simple sugar carbohydrates.
If you maintain a balanced, healthy diet based on the Healthy Eating Pyramid, you will definitely be able to see and feel the results.
Keys to a Healthy Diet
Some of the most important aspects of a healthy diet include eating smaller meals more often, avoiding fast food, not skipping meals and drinking more water.
Avoid Fast Food
Cutting out fast food is an excellent way to maintain a healthy diet, as even a single fast-food burger can have upwards of 600 calories in it, as well as a significant amount of sodium and trans fats. This can throw your calorie intake off for the day, increase your “bad” cholesterol levels and elevate your blood pressure.
Eat Smaller Meals More Often
If you eat 5-6 meals per day, rather than 3 large meals, you can have more diversity in your diet. This will allow you to get all of your necessary servings of nutrients, while also decreasing your desire to snack between meals or overeat once you finally reach dinner. This gives you more control over what you eat every single day.
If you know you like to snack, it’s better to carry healthy snacks when you are at work or out for the day, rather than popping into corner stores for potato chips, fast food, or sugary treats. Bring a bag of nuts, or some sliced celery sticks and carrots, so you can sate your hunger, while also taking care of key nutrients of your daily intake.
Everyone can afford to drink a bit more water, as it helps to keep the body feeling full, which lowers the chances of mindless snacking. Water also helps to flush out the body and detoxify it, due to the increased urination, which can improve digestive efficiency and nutrient uptake.
Do not Skip Meals
When you skip meals, it may feel like you have a calorie deficit in your favor, but being excessively hungry can lead to poor dietary choices, as well as overeating. You want consistent intake of nutrients throughout the day so your metabolism remains constantly active.
Eating a Balanced Diet
Many people around the world fail to eat a balanced diet every day, and you may be one of them. The best ways to improve your dietary habits is to ensure healthy eating by eating more lean protein, adding salads to your day, increasing fiber and switching to whole wheat, among others.
Most people fail to take in enough fiber every day, which can lead to gastrointestinal distress, constipation and bloating. It can also negatively impact the body’s ability to intake nutrients, so you won’t be getting the most out of your meals, even if you are eating from the other essential food categories.
Grabbing a burger or cooking a steak may seem appealing, but the high-fat content of these foods should be replaced with more lean forms of protein. Poultry and fish are good options for other types of animal products, but you can also get more protein from beans, legumes, seeds, tofu, avocado, or many other low-fat options.
You can eat as many vegetables as you want throughout the day, as the rich vitamin and mineral content, and generally, low-calorie count, makes these ideal side dishes. Adding 1 salad to your meals for the day is an excellent way to increase energy, boost the metabolism, improve digestion and avoid simple sugars.
White bread and pasta may be inexpensive, but there is very little nutritional value aside from pure calories. These simple carbohydrates break down quickly and the energy is rapidly used up, causing a “sugar” crash. Whole grain options are more flavorful and much better for keeping the foundation of your food pyramid strong.
Instead of drinking coffee, have a cup of green tea at the end of your meals, or on your way to work in the morning. In addition to a lower amount of caffeine, green tea is packed with antioxidants that can regulate your metabolic pathways and support immune health.
Simple Ways to Plan & Enjoy a Healthy Diet
There are many great ways to maintain a healthy diet, such as planning your meals ahead of time, allowing yourself cheat days, using portion control, staying away from the scale and exercising regularly.
Avoid the Scale
Looking at the scale and not seeing immediate results can be very frustrating, and may cause you to slip up on your diet. Pay attention to consistently following a healthy diet, and the results will follow. However, healthy weight loss and weight management take time and patience, so stop holding yourself accountable to unrealistic (or unhealthy) fitness goals.
Plan Your Meals
Going grocery shopping at the beginning of the week based on a plan for your meals ahead is a great way to ensure that you maintain your food pyramid balance, save money on food, and have a plan in place when your week inevitably gets hectic.
Rather than eliminating entire chunks of your diet that may be less than healthy, simply exercise portion control and limit the amount of those foods. A diet shouldn’t feel like a punishment, just an adjustment of your dietary norms.
In a similar vein, it is important to give yourself a break from time to time and congratulate yourself on remaining steady with your diet. This is when you can eat the top portions of the food pyramid, such as going out for ice cream or cooking yourself a Porterhouse steak. These motivating “cheat days” will help you dive back into your diet the next day.
Changing your diet alone simply isn’t enough; you also need to incorporate regular activity and exercise into your regimen. Following a healthy diet will also be easier once you experience the difference in energy and endurance that you have when you’re giving your body the nutrients it truly needs.