Healthy eating can be hard at times, especially with the amount of processed food options available in this day and age. I have compiled a comprehensive guide to eating healthy, one that will take the guessing out of what to eat and prevent you from having to read 150 page books to figure out general guidelines for healthy eating!
The BasicsThe most basic thing to note is that foods and grains grown out of the ground are mostly healthy, and processed foods are mostly not healthy. This is not necessarily true for everything, but it is a good starting place when beginning your health food journey. Of course, treat yourself to a processed food item every so often, as it is unrealistic to switch to a completely raw/natural diet at the drop of a hat. Just try not to let the processed food world consume you. It’s easy to get addicted to sugar or high fat/high sodium foods, but the benefits from eating healthy will not only show on the outside, but will also make you feel better on the inside.
Regarding how often you should eat, how big your meals should be, what your exact plate should look like to fit your diet, a registered dietician/nutritionist will be able to help you narrow down the specifics. Toddlers and pre-teens should have separate meal patterns, as well as teenagers, pregnant women, and older adults. Everyone's meals should look different based on their own individual bodies and their life stages, but all should be health and nutrition focused.
MealsMeals should follow along with the dietary guidelines set out by the US health department. To put it plainly, there are 5 major food groups, and you should incorporate each group into every meal if possible. The 5 major food groups are fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy. While making sure you are getting all of those groups into certain meals, you will want to try to avoid added sugars, saturated fats, and high sodium levels as much as possible.
Outlining the Food GroupsAs mentioned previously, the five major food groups are vegetables, fruits, protein, dairy, and carbohydrates. Each one is a category that fits the obvious foods you have known since you were little, but some might surprise you.
- Vegetables - There are the obvious ones, i.e. carrots, celery, asparagus, beets, etc., but did you know that a pumpkin is a vegetable? Because of its sweetness and the fact that it has seeds, most people think it is a fruit, but it is a vegetable! I bet you also didn’t know that corn is considered a vegetable. Most people think it is a grain because it is ground up and used so often in chips, tortillas, flours, and things of the sort. But corn is a vegetable and is a very versatile one at that!
- Fruits - Apples, bananas, and oranges are the most common fruits eaten in american households. However, you shouldn’t rule out some less common fruits that are just as good for you like dates, elderberries, and jackfruit. Jackfruit can even be cooked to resemble the taste of meat for people following a vegan, vegetarian, or pescetarian diet!
- Protein - Protein can be most commonly found in meat and poultry, i.e. beef, porl, and chicken. For people following a vegan, vegetarian, or pescetarian diet however, there are a lot more protein options than just meat. Protein can be found in eggs, dairy products, fish, nuts, and legumes and beans (lentils, chickpeas, split peas, tofu, etc.).
- Dairy - When people think of dairy they immediately think of milk, but there are other forms of dairy that can be fit into a healthy diet as well. Yogurt and cheese are two more sources of dairy that are very easily accessible and will fit right into your healthy diet. Ice cream, butter, and cream are sources of dairy that do not need to be completely cut out, but should be consumed minimally in order to keep up a consistent healthy diet.
- Carbohydrates - Carbohydrates, carbs for short, can be found in just about anything, across any food group (for certain food groups, depending on the way it is processed). There are good carbs and bad carbs. Good carbs include whole grain breads or pastas, quinoa, oats, and kidney beans. Bad carbs include foods high in sugar and fats like candy, certain breads, certain pastas, and high processed things of the sort.
Vitamins and MineralsVitamins and minerals are a necessary part of a healthy diet. Some of the most important vitamins and minerals to incorporate into your everyday diet are Vitamin D, Vitamin B-12, Vitamin C, Magnesium, Calcium, Zinc, Iron, and Folate. The best way to get these are through natural/raw fruits, vegetables, and grains. If your body is not absorbing them fully or test results show you are lacking in certain vitamins and minerals, this is when a multivitamin should be taken. Consult your physician for more information on if you should be taking a daily multivitamin and what it should include if so.
Frequency of MealsEverybody's body is different, so everyone needs specific meal plans, but the frequency of meals consumed daily doesn’t matter too much when the meals are healthy. You could have six small meals a day, or 3 big meals a day, and still be okay as long as they are healthy. If you are consuming a lot of processed foods in every meal, it might be time to reevaluate what you are eating on a daily basis.
Specific DietsThere are plenty of diet trends gaining popularity in the United States currently. There are diets that have come about due to food allergies or intolerances such as gluten free or dairy free diets. There are also other diets that have come about for health, environmental, or compassionate reasons, such as vegan diets, vegetarian diets, or pescatarian diets. There are other diets that help people lose weight or are specific to other healthy eating goals such as the keto diet, the mediteranean diet, and the paleo diet. Each diet follows its own specific path, limiting certain foods and amping up the intake of other foods. There are hundreds of different diets that are made for different things, but some can be dangerous. If you’re looking to start out on a diet, make sure you talk to a healthcare professional before determining which diet is right for you and your specific nutritional needs.
Example MealsFor example, take a sandwich for lunch. Your protein can be found in the lean meat in the sandwich, or another protein source (a black bean burger for example) if you are vegan or vegetarian. Dairy could be the cheese or mayo on the sandwich (or vegan cheese and mayo substitutes for a diet without dairy), vegetables could be lettuce tomato and onion, or whatever vegetables you prefer on your sandwich. The carbs could be the multi-grain bread around the sandwich, and you could have a side of fresh fruit. Congratulations, you just made a healthy, well-balanced meal!
For another example, you could have a pasta salad for dinner. You could get your carbs from a whole grain pasta, and vegetables and fruits from whatever options you decide to put in the pasta salad. Your protein could come from beans, chickpeas, or meat that you’re putting in the salad, and your carbs could come from the dressing you’re using or any bread on the side.
Meeting your nutrition needs is easier than you think! And remember, if you can’t fit all of the necessary nutrients into every meal, don’t beat yourself up, especially at the beginning of your nutrition journey. It takes time to mold yourself into the person you want to be, give yourself grace. You’re learning every day, and if nobody else has noticed the changes you’ve made yet in your life, don’t forget that I am proud of you!
Healthy Eating in ConclusionTo close out this guide, I want to make it clear that eating healthy does not necessarily equate to “being skinny” or losing weight. While some people's individual healthy eating goals might be to lose weight, the ultimate motivating factor should be to make and keep yourself healthy and happy. Always keep in mind that weight does not determine health, healthy habits and actions do!
I would also like to point out that everybody’s body is different. I am not a healthcare professional or a registered dietician, just outlining public information from easily accessible sources. If you are having trouble sticking to a healthy diet, you should consult a healthcare professional such as your physician or a registered dietitian/nutritionist.