What does healthy eating mean to you? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a healthy diet “helps to protect against malnutrition in all its forms, as well as non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer.” Our diets are shaped by many factors, including personal beliefs, preferences, lifestyles, socioeconomic status, and health requirements, but are your eating habits conducive to longevity and optimal health? (34) Although researchers have yet to identify a single optimal diet for humans, certain dietary patterns have been shown to promote general health and ensure nutritional adequacy. Read on to learn more about the importance of good nutrition, healthy eating habits, and the top strategies for improving any diet.
What is a healthy diet?
A healthy diet provides adequate energy (calories) and essential nutrients to maintain optimal health. Generally speaking, all diets are composed of three dietary components that provide calories known as macronutrients. Macronutrients, which include carbohydrates, fat, and protein, are required by the body in large yet varying amounts. Micronutrients, or nutrients needed in small quantities for numerous bodily functions, are also important components of all healthy diets. Examples of micronutrients include vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients (health-promoting plant chemicals). Daily requirements for macro and micronutrients depend on a number of factors such as age, sex, and activity level. (9)
Modern diets are typically calorie-dense but lack adequate micronutrients, contributing to suboptimal nutritional status and poor health outcomes. Nutrient density, the amount of micronutrients relative to calories in a food or specific diet, is a term often associated with healthy diets. No matter how or what you eat, finding a balance between energy density and nutrient density can help promote long-term health. How can this be achieved? Start by replacing “empty calories” found in highly processed foods with nutrient-dense whole foods. Whole foods are central components of healthy diets and include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, and lean protein. (31)
Ultimately, a healthy diet is one that is sustainable for you. Mainstream diet culture encourages fad diets and elimination of large food groups to lose weight or achieve a specific health goal. However, restrictive diets are rarely successful long-term and can have unintended consequences such as disordered eating (e.g., binge eating), weight cycling (yo-yo dieting), and mood disturbances. (5)(14)(25)(29) Finding a dietary pattern that is not only nutrient-dense but realistic, enjoyable, and tailored to your needs, preferences, and circumstances can help you reach your health goals.
Benefits of good nutrition
Adequate nutrition is necessary for various bodily functions, including cognitive function, energy production, immune function, and tissue formation. Furthermore, a healthy diet may reduce the risk of certain chronic conditions and promote good general health. Examples of some of the many benefits of a healthy diet include:
- Aiding digestion
- Facilitating healthy growth and development in children
- Improving immune health
- Prolonging lifespan
- Promoting healthy pregnancies and breastfeeding
- Reducing the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers
- Strengthening bones and teeth
- Supporting healthy skin, eyes, and muscles
- Supporting healthy weight (6)
Different types of diets
Depending on your health goals and dietary preferences, you may choose to follow one of many popular diets. Despite their popularity, many fad diets can be highly restrictive and may thus be lacking several essential nutrients. (19) It’s also important to note that what works for one person may not be suitable for another. By working with your integrative healthcare provider, you can establish the appropriate dietary approach for your needs and dietary preferences. Outlined below are some popular diets used for various purposes:
- Anti-inflammatory: A primarily plant-based diet used to address chronic inflammation and associated health conditions such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease (28)
- Gluten-free: A therapeutic diet adopted by individuals with celiac disease or gluten intolerance that excludes all gluten-containing grains such as wheat, barley, and rye
- Mediterranean: A traditional diet common among individuals living in the Mediterranean region that consists of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and whole grains (1)
- Ketogenic (keto): A high-fat, very low-carbohydrate diet used to promote weight loss and address neurological conditions such as pediatric epilepsy (3)(4)
- Paleolithic (paleo): A dietary pattern inspired by the diets of hunter-gatherers of the paleolithic era that consists of lean meats, fish, healthy fats, vegetables, and certain fruits (18)
- Pescatarian: A primarily plant-based diet that eliminates most animal sources of protein except for fish and shellfish
- Vegan: A strictly plant-based diet that restricts all animal-sourced foods and products
- Vegetarian: A dietary pattern that restricts meat, poultry, and fish but allows other animal products such as dairy, eggs, and honey
5 Healthy diet strategies
Whether you choose to follow a special diet, you’ve been prescribed a diet by your practitioner, or you simply don’t follow any particular diet, there are general guidelines for all healthy eating patterns.
1. Balance your meals
Consuming appropriate portions of healthy foods is an important consideration when building your meals. Servings sizes for common foods include:
- Dairy: 1 cup milk or yogurt
- Fruits: 1 cup or one medium whole fruit
- Meat and poultry: 3 oz
- Nuts and seeds: 1 oz
- Vegetables: 1 cup
- Whole grains: ½ cup cooked (2)(22)
Measuring portion sizes for each food can be cumbersome. Instead, consider the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) simplified food guide, MyPlate, that depicts a place setting of the five major food groups. You can modify MyPlate to meet your dietary needs. For example, if you follow a vegetarian diet, you can replace meat and seafood with beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, eggs, and dairy products. (32)
2. Reduce processed foods
Processed foods such as chips, crackers, frozen meals, pastries, and other packaged foods are common mainstays in the Standard American Diet (SAD), also known as the Western dietary pattern. (11)(17) Processed foods are primary sources of calories, sugar, sodium, and saturated fats for North Americans. Frequent consumption of these foods can contribute to various chronic illnesses such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. (20)
If a food comes in a package, it’s undergone some degree of processing. Scrutinize the nutrition facts label and ingredient list to determine the quality of the food. Is the ingredient list long? Does the food contain ingredients you can’t pronounce? Does the food contain added sugar or artificial ingredients? If the answer is “yes” to any of these questions, the food is likely highly processed. The graphic below highlights some important features to look for on a nutrition facts label.
Replace the processed foods in your diet with minimally processed, healthier alternatives. For example, rather than reaching for a bag of fruit snacks, grab some fresh fruit, or opt for homemade oatmeal instead of instant oatmeal packets or boxed cereal.
Healthy tip: Ultra-processed foods are convenient; however, preparing and pre-portioning healthy foods and storing them in visible spots on your kitchen counter or in the fridge can help make healthy options more accessible. (26)
3. Minimize sugar-sweetened beverages
Excess sugar consumption contributes to excess weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic conditions. (24) Sugar-sweetened beverages are significant contributors to a higher intake of sugar in Western diets. In fact, according to one study, consumers ingested on average 213 calories per day from sugar-sweetened beverages. (3) Sugar-sweetened beverages such as soft drinks, energy drinks, and sweetened tea and coffee beverages (e.g., flavored lattes, blended coffee drinks, sweet tea) offer no health benefits and are best consumed sparingly. (16)
Did you know? Sugar can be disguised under many different names. Download a handout on sugars to learn more.
4. Make more meals at home
Meals from restaurants, particularly fast food restaurants, are typically laden with sodium, fat, sugar, excess calories, and more. Making meals at home allows you to control the portion sizes and ingredients included in your meals. Research demonstrates that frequent consumption of homemade meals is associated with a greater likelihood of having a healthy body mass index (BMI) and lower adiposity (body fat). Furthermore, individuals consuming five or more home-cooked meals per week consume more fruits and vegetables than those consuming home-cooked meals three times per week. (21)
Rest assured, the occasional takeout meal or restaurant visit won’t derail your health goals; however, opting for more homemade meals can promote better nutrition. If you don’t feel comfortable in the kitchen, consider cooking with an experienced friend or family member, try delivered meal kits, or sign-up for a local cooking class to gain confidence in the kitchen.
5. Eat enough fiber
Fiber is only found in plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Adequate fiber consumption is associated with improved digestive health and reduced risk for certain chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and colon cancer. (12)(27)
Considering that many North Americans adhere to a Western dietary pattern rich in processed foods and minimal fruits and vegetables, it’s no surprise that a large proportion of the population doesn’t consume enough fiber. National consumption surveys demonstrate that approximately 95% of the population doesn’t meet daily fiber recommendations. (27) How much fiber is enough? Adult men need about 38 g of fiber per day, whereas women should consume approximately 25 g. (23)
Keep in mind that certain therapeutic diets may necessitate a low-fiber diet. A low-fiber (low-residue) diet may be indicated if you have a particular gastrointestinal condition such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, or diverticulitis. (33)
Food insecurity: a major barrier to a healthy diet
For many, healthy foods are either physically unavailable or economically infeasible. Food insecurity, defined by the USDA as a “disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money and other resources,” is a major limiting factor to achieving a healthy diet. (15) Food insecurity, which affects approximately one in eight North Americans, can be influenced by various factors such as income, employment status, race, ethnicity, disability, access to transportation, and proximity to grocery stores. (7)(10) Children and adults who face food insecurity are at increased risk of various negative health outcomes, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, developmental delays, and poor mental health. (15)
If you’re experiencing food insecurity, seek help from food assistance programs and other local programs, including:
- Local food banks
- Community gardens and farmers markets
- Community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs
- Nutrition North Canada program (NA), Emergency Food Security Fund (AAFC), and Indigenous Community Support Fund (ISC) in Canada (13)
- National School Lunch Program (NSLP), Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the United States (8)(15)
The bottom line
A healthy diet meets your energy requirements while also providing adequate micronutrients. Prioritizing nutrient-dense whole foods over highly processed foods, minimizing sugar, eating enough fiber, and preparing the majority of your meals at home are all effective strategies to improve your diet. If you’re a patient, speak to your integrative healthcare provider about the importance of good nutrition before making significant changes to your diet.
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