Healthy Eating 101: Expert advice & dietary guidelines on how to eat healthily and stick to it

There are several definitions of “healthy eating” – of course, this depends on whom you ask. Nearly everyone has an opinion on how to eat healthily. These include wellness influencers, healthcare professionals, family members, friends, and even co-workers.

What’s more? There are tons of nutrition articles on the internet with confusing and contradictory rules and suggestions.

This doesn’t make it easy if all you want is a simple way to eat healthily.

Here’s the truth: there’s nothing complex about healthy eating. It is 100% possible to nourish your body with the healthiest foods you can find while enjoying what you love.

Food, after all, is meant to be enjoyed. It should not be counted, feared, tracked, and weighed.

In this article, you’ll get to know the true meaning of healthy eating and how the best way to eat healthily.

Why is healthy eating important?

I’ll explain in a jiffy what healthy means, but first, let me tell you why it is important.

Food fuels your body. It furnishes your body with the nutrients and calories it needs to function optimally. If you eat a diet that is deficient in calories or lacks a couple of nutrients, your health may go down.

On the other hand, if you eat plenty of calories, you may gain a lot of weight. Obese people, for instance, have a high risk of illness such as obstructive sleep apnea, type 2 diabetes, kidney, liver, and heart disease (1, 2).

Also, the quality of your diet affects your longevity, your disease risk, and your mental health.

Processed foods are associated with mortality and a high risk of chronic conditions like heart disease and cancer. Conversely, diets made of nutrient-dense and whole foods are associated with disease protection and increased longevity (3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8).

Heavily processed foods also increase one’s risk of depression, especially among those who lead a sedentary lifestyle (4, 9).

If your diet is loaded with ultra-processed foods, soda, fast food, and sugary beverages but deficient in whole foods like nuts, vegetables, and fish, then there are chances that you may be deficient in certain nutrients, which may hurt your health (10).

Does eating healthy involves following a specific diet?

No, it doesn’t!

Yes, some people may want to avoid certain foods or eat some kind of foods for health reasons, but then, you don’t necessarily have to follow a specific diet to feel at your best.

For example, some people may feel better off on a low-carb diet, while others do better on fatty or high-carb diets.

What this implies is that healthy eating has very little to do with sticking to specific diets or adhering to certain dietary rules. Healthy eating simply involves prioritizing your health and wellness by taking in the most nutritious foods that your body needs.

Of course, the specifics may vary for each person depending on factors such as finances, location, society and culture, and taste preferences.

Keys to healthy eating

Okay, I’ve explained the importance of healthy eating. Let’s go over some nutrition basics.

Eat nutrient-dense foods

Mention “healthy eating” and the first thing that comes to most people’s minds may be “calories.” Yes, calories are important, but you should be more concerned about nutrients.

Nutrients, such as carbs, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals, are what your body requires to function optimally. “Nutrient density” is a term that describes the number of nutrients in a particular food with the number of calories in it (11).

You see, all foods contain calories. However, not all foods are rich in nutrients. For instance, there’s plenty of calories in a box of mac, cheese, or a candy bar, but these foods are deficient in minerals, vitamins, fiber, and protein. Also, foods marketed as “low calorie” or “diet-friendly” may lack nutrients as well.

Let’s use egg whites as an example. They are very low in fats and calories compared to whole eggs. However, one egg white provides at no more than 1% of the daily value for iron, zinc, phosphorus, vitamins A and B12, and choline. On the other hand, a whole egg provides over 5-12% of the daily value for these nutrients (12, 13).

That’s because the high-fat yolk is very nutritious.

It is also important to note that although some nutrient-rich foods, like veggies and fruits, are low in calories, many such as full-fat yogurt, nuts, avocado, fatty fish, and egg yolks are very high in calories, and that’s fine!

Now, the fact that there’s plenty of calories in a particular food doesn’t mean that such food is bad for you. Conversely, because a particular food is low in calories does not mean that it’s healthy for your body.

If you make food choices based on the number of calories they contain, you’re missing the point, entirely.

As a rule of thumb, you should eat foods that are rich in fiber, protein, healthy fats, minerals, and vitamins. Examples of foods in this category include fruits, veggies, seeds, beans, nuts, eggs, and fatty fish.

Your diet should be diverse

Dietary diversity is another major component of healthy eating. Dietary diversity simply means eating a variety of foods.

When you follow a diet that is rich in various foods, you’ll support your gut flora, promote healthy body weight, and protect yourself against diseases (14, 15, 16, 17).

But then, eating a variety of foods may not be as easy especially for picky eaters. If you are faced with this challenge, you can try introducing new foods one at a time. If you are not a fan of vegetables, start by adding your favorite veggie to one or two meals each day and build up from there.

Trying new foods may not be fun at first, but studies have shown that exposing yourself to a particular food increases your chance of getting accustomed to it (18, 19).

Counting macros

Macronutrients are the primary nutrients that you get from food. Examples of macronutrients are fat, carbs, and proteins.

Here’s the thing – your snacks and meals should be balanced between all three macronutrients. Adding fat and protein to fiber-rich carbs will make your dishes tastier and more filling (20).

Let’s assume you’re snacking on some fruit, adding a bit of cheese or a spoonful of nut butter will fill you up faster and better than if you were to eat the fruit just like that.

But then, there’s no harm if your diet isn’t balanced all the time.

Counting macros is best for athletes, models, or people who want a specific body composition, maybe people who want to gain fat or muscle for medical reasons. And you should know that counting macros may result in an unhealthy fixation with calories or food or trigger disordered eating tendencies (21).

Avoid ultra-processed foods

One of the best healthy eating tips is cutting back on highly processed foods. I’m not saying you should avoid these foods completely. No! Many healthy foods like canned beans, shelled nuts, veggies, and frozen fruits are processed.

On the other hand, highly processed foods like baked goods, soda, candy, sugary cereals, and some boxed snack foods contain very few whole food ingredients.

These food items are loaded with ingredients like artificial sweeteners, hydrogenated oils, and high fructose corn syrup (9, 22, 23).

Studies have shown that ultra-processed foods increase the risk of heart disease, depression, obesity, and other complications (9, 24, 25).

Conversely, diets low in processed foods and high in nutrient-dense, whole foods protect the body against disease, increase lifespan, and promote general mental and physical well-being (5, 6, 7, 8).

It is therefore important that you prioritize fruits, vegetables, and other nutrient-dense foods.

Is it right to cut back on certain foods in a bid to achieve optimal health?

Well, yes, it is best to restrict some foods to a healthy diet.

Decades of scientific research have linked ultra-processed foods to poor health outcomes, such as early death, and increased risk of disease (9, 22, 23, 26, 27, 28).

Cutting back on processed meats, soda, ice cream, fast food, fried foods, candy, and packaged snacks greatly improves your health and lowers your risk of some diseases.

We’re not saying you should avoid these foods completely all the time. Instead, eat more nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, fish, and beans, while reserving beverages and highly processed foods for special treats.

Creating a healthy eating habit takes time

Have you discovered that you have an almost unhealthy relationship with food? Fret not. You’re not alone.

Many people have unhealthy eating tendencies or disorders. If you think that you have any of these conditions, then it is critical to get help, and from the right source.

Important ways of developing a healthy relationship with food include:

  • Working with a registered dietitian
  • Working with a psychologist who specializes in eating disorders

Fad dieting, food restrictions, and self-prescribed notions such as “getting back on track” may be harmful. Building a healthy eating habit may take time, but it is best for your mental and physical health.