People around the world want to eat healthily but with such a vast array of food options out there, as well as so many potential pitfalls on the way to wellness, it can be difficult to know what path to follow. Learning what healthy eating means, as well as seeking out advice on helpful dietary and lifestyle habits, is essential if you want to take your healthy eating to the next level.
What Constitutes a Healthy Diet?
Most experts agree that a healthy diet consists of eating a balanced amount from the four main food groups-protein, fruits and vegetables, grains and bread, and dairy – as well as a smaller amount of food from the fifth food group, which consists of sugary or fatty foods. Many people think that eating healthy means eliminating many of our favorite foods but that simply isn’t true! As long as your food intake is adequately balanced and provides the nutrients that your body needs every day, there aren’t many restrictions. For example, eating ice cream or chocolate cake every day isn’t a form of healthy eating, but occasionally giving yourself a treat (from the fifth food group) is certainly encouraged.
In simple terms, a healthy diet means eating more fruits and vegetables, as well as fiber-rich, starchy and fresh foods, while reducing your intake of high-fat, high-sugar, and overly processed foods. Within a healthy diet, there are countless other recommendations but that is the general shape your diet should take.
Healthy Eating Pyramid
For decades, people have been basing their dietary intake on a healthy eating pyramid, and despite its simplicity, it has held up over the years. Before we dig into more specific aspects of a healthy diet, it is important to understand more about the five major components of the healthy eating pyramid.
Fruits & Vegetables
Experts recommend getting five servings of fruit and vegetables every day, which should represent roughly 1/3 of your daily intake. Fruits and vegetables tend to be low in calories and fat, but high in dietary fiber, minerals, and vitamins, as well as antioxidants and even protein. The average serving size is one fruit (e.g., a banana or orange) or 3-4 tablespoons of vegetables, or a small bowl of salad.
Protein is a key ingredient in our diet, as it represents our ability to develop muscles and repair the body. Most people get their protein from meat sources, such as beef, poultry, and fish, but there are also other replacements, particularly for vegetarians, such as tofu or tempeh. This part of the food pyramid also provides a rich supply of minerals and fats, both good and bad, so eating lean meats is strongly encouraged. Two servings per day of this category are recommended.
Bread, Starch & Cereals
These grain-based foods are essential for our fiber intake, as well as B vitamins and certain minerals, and it is believed that these should also be about 1/3 of your meals by volume. A single serving maybe two slices of bread, or a bowl of oatmeal. These types of food should be included in every meal in some way, as this can speed and improve the digestive process. Too many of these foods, however, means a high intake of carbohydrates, which will affect your blood sugar and could result in fat deposition.
With high levels of calcium, protein, and other key minerals, enzymes, and probiotics, dairy products like milk and cheese should make up roughly 1/6 of your total food volume per day. This could be a 1-ounce piece of cheese, a glass of milk, or a small bowl of Greek yogurt. Although some diets such as vegans, must get these nutrients from other sources, many people enjoy adding these foods to their daily intake. However, there are also fats in dairy products, so excessive consumption is not recommended.
Avoid Fat, Sugar & Processed Foods
Often considered the “bad” part of the diet, these foods are typical sweets and junk foods, those items that are high in fat, salt, and sugar. While small amounts of these nutrients are needed, we can get most of them from other parts of our diet, so while these treats are delicious, they can be disastrous to your health and should be eaten only in very small amounts.
Keys to a Healthy Diet
Following the serving guidelines in the healthy eating, a pyramid is a great start, but there are even more specific guidelines such as increasing potassium intake, eliminating trans fats, limiting alcohol, eating colorful food, ensuring you get key nutrients, adding fiber to your diet, consuming more whole grains and substituting certain proteins.
Not only is eating colorful food fun, but it is also a good indication that you’re eating plenty of good nutrients and antioxidants. Some of the best antioxidants for overall health, such as lycopene and beta-carotene, help to give peppers, carrots, tomatoes, grapefruit, and guava their color!
Eliminate Trans Fats
Eliminate trans fats from your diet if at all possible. These are the worst types of fat for the body and are found in high quantities in donuts, cakes, muffins, and pies, particularly those made with hydrogenated vegetable oil. You can make sweet things without this dangerous ingredient, so read this label carefully.
More Raw Foods
Eating more raw fruits and vegetable aid in boosting mental and physical health. Raw foods impact mental health more positively than cooked, canned, and processed foods.
Boost Fiber Intake
Boosting your fiber intake will optimize your digestive system to make other foods more bioavailable, while also improving your cholesterol levels and keeping your blood sugar levels in check.
Increase Potassium Intake
The vasodilating properties of potassium are impressive and can help to lower blood pressure and optimize water balance in the body. Adding more bananas, kidney beans, avocados, and potatoes to your diet will help keep that mineral level high.
Some nutrients are hard to access when you are trying to eat healthily and limit certain food types. Calcium and vitamin B6 are two of the most common nutrient deficiencies people on a diet have. Using supplements may be necessary, but these nutrients are also accessible in certain legumes and vegetables.
More Whole Grains
More whole grains means more fiber and better digestive health, plus a lower amount of simple carbohydrates (like those in white bread).
Reduce Alcohol Intake
Cutting down on your alcohol intake can shave hundreds of calories off your daily intake, not to mention protecting your liver health and lowering oxidative stress around the body.
Healthy Eating Habits that will Change your Life
Aside from the food you eat, several eating habits can have a serious impact on your overall health and wellness, such as enjoying mealtime preparation, eating exciting food, preparing your meals, avoiding supplements, prepping and storing ingredients and switching up your cooking methods.
Eat more Exciting Food
Eating healthy doesn’t mean eating boring food; in fact, the journey towards discovering a healthier diet will likely take you to food from other cultures, so be open and receptive to trying new things in the name of health.
Preparation and Storage
Something as simple as pre-chopping your vegetables and storing it in a refrigerator can make cooking at home more pleasant and healthy, as you are less likely to just stop and grab something on the way home, knowing that half the job is already done!
Make your Meals
Eating out makes it hard to track calories and cut down on bad fats, but cooking at home is always a healthy option.
You should eat as many of your nutrients as possible, rather than replacing them with supplements. The body benefits in other ways from that food, aside from the core nutrients.
Change of Cooking Methods
Cooking in certain ways or with certain ingredients (e.g., frying with corn oil versus grilling with coconut oil), can make a huge difference in the nutritional impact of your meals. Do your research and try out some healthier preparation methods!
Healthy Eating Habits for Children
Setting the course for a healthy life begins in childhood, so instilling certain healthy values in children is critical. Some of the healthiest habits you can teach your children to relate to healthy snacks, eating low-fat dairy products, shopping for their food, reading food labels, eating speed, staying hydrated, reward systems, and mealtime habits.
Shopping: Take your children shopping so they can begin to learn what to look for in terms of health, rather than being distracted by colorful labels!
Food Labels: Make reading food labels a game, comparing which foods are healthier as you prepare meals at home.
Eating Speed: Encourage your child to eat slowly, as this will train their metabolism and help them recognize the sensation of actually being full!
Snacks: Introduce healthy snacks, like raw vegetables and dip, early on in childhood, so your kids recognize and appreciate the possibilities of “good” food.
Water Intake: Staying hydrated, especially for active children, is crucially important. Make sure they know that the habit is just as important as they grow up!
Reward Systems: Using foods as rewards, such as getting a cookie after finishing your peas, establishes the idea of some foods being inherently bad, and others as good. Don’t encourage this thinking in your child!
Mealtime Habits: Don’t watch television while you are eating and make sure they put their phones away. Make mealtime an enjoyable experience that focuses on food and those around you, no distractions.