What is a healthy diet? Diets, meal plans and recipes
When it comes to choosing a healthy diet, there are an array of characteristics you should look for, says Amy Kimberlain, a Miami-based dietitian and certified diabetes educator who is also a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and of dietetics.
There is no single factor that determines whether a diet is healthy or right for you. Instead, you should keep in mind that there are a number of healthy eating plans out there — the key is to find the one that works for you not just for a week or two, but for the long haul, says- she.
“It’s important to start thinking about nutrient-dense foods – no food is ‘good’ or ‘bad’,” she says. “Our goal is to include as many food choices as possible that contain vitamins, minerals, fiber and/or other nutrients.”
What is a healthy diet?
While there’s no one definition of healthy eating, a diet that optimizes your health should cover some nutritional basics, says Lisa Jones, a registered dietitian in Philadelphia.
“When choosing a healthy diet, it’s important to work with your healthcare provider and a registered dietitian to find the right one for you,” Jones says. “Everyone’s needs are different, so what works for someone else may not work for you. The key is to find a diet that you can stick with for the long haul.
What to consider when choosing a diet
While there’s no single way to determine what a healthy diet is for you, dietitians recommend weighing these factors:
When deciding if a healthy diet is right for you, it’s important to consider a few basic principles about its practicality, says Lisa D. Ellis, registered dietitian in private practice in Manhattan and White Plains, New York. She is also a Registered Dietitian for Eating Disorders and a Registered Clinical Social Worker.
Here are the questions you should ask yourself about the practicality of healthy eating:
- Can you track it anywhere?
- Can you go out to eat at a restaurant or at a friend’s house while maintaining your food strategy?
- Do you need to buy special foods, and if so, are they affordable on your food budget?
- Are there any packaged foods you need to keep buying to stay on the diet, and if so, is this restriction too onerous?
Keep in mind that diets that prohibit certain foods or food groups can put you at risk for nutrient deficiencies. For example, for people who are prone to iron deficiency and do not consume other sources of iron, a healthy diet that excludes red meat can lead to iron deficiency. She notes that red meat is just a source of iron, and many people omit meat from their healthy diets without a problem. Beans, fortified cereals and spinach are also sources of iron.
“A long-term diet that is so restrictive that it leaves the dieter irritated and uncomfortable with the diet could also be problematic,” Ellis adds.
The science of nutrition is constantly evolving, and new research continues to shed light on the healthiest diets for optimal health, Jones says.
Currently, research suggests that a healthy diet should be rich in:
Studies also suggest that a healthy diet should be low in:
- Added sugar.
- Saturated fat.
For example, in 2021, the journal Nutrients published a large study of more than 16,000 middle-aged and older participants that researchers followed for more than 20 years. Adherence to the Mediterranean diet was associated with a 20% lower overall risk of dementia, the researchers concluded.
A sustainable diet is well-balanced with a wide variety of food choices, Ellis says. “A sustainable diet does not eliminate any of the major food groups, because each food group provides nutritional value,” she says. “Rather than promoting major changes in his diet, I recommend small changes made over time; sudden major changes in his diet can be difficult to maintain in the long term.
An unsustainable diet would have inflexible rules of any kind of major food restriction. A diet that bans entire food groups — or limits food combinations — tends not to be sustainable.
“Diets that are only meant for a specific period of time are by design not sustainable beyond their specified duration,” says Ellis.
Carbohydrates are an essential part of a healthy diet, providing the body with energy to fuel physical activity and support brain function, Jones says. “However, not all carbs are created equal. Simple carbs, like those found in candy and white bread, are quickly absorbed by the body and can cause blood sugar spikes,” she says. “Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, are slowly digested and broken down into glucose, providing a more stable source of energy.”
The best sources of complex carbohydrates include:
These heart-healthy foods also contain fiber, which helps regulate blood sugar and support gut health. “Incorporating complex carbohydrates into a healthy diet can help ward off heart and liver disease while promoting healthy kidney function,” Jones says.
A healthy diet includes a variety of different types of foods, including fats. Fat is an important part of a healthy diet because it provides essential nutrients, helps the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins, and protects the organs.
“However, not all fats are created equal,” Jones says. “Although all fats have the same basic structure, they can be classified into two main groups: saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fats are found in animal products, such as meat, poultry and dairy products. They are also found in coconut and palm oil. Unsaturated fats are found in vegetable oils, such as olive oil and canola oil. They are also found in nuts, seeds and avocados. Most experts agree that a healthy diet should include a balance of saturated and unsaturated fats. When it comes to saturated fats, moderation is key. And when it comes to unsaturated fats, it’s best to choose those that are high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids.
Saturated fats, found in animal products and processed foods, may increase the risk of heart disease. On the other hand, unsaturated fats, found in nuts, seeds and plants, can help lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease. “When choosing foods that contain fat, it’s important to opt for those that are high in unsaturated fats,” Jones says. “Plus, healthy fats can also help promote satiety and improve the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Including a variety of healthy fats in your diet is an important part of maintaining a balanced and nutritious diet.
A healthy diet contains a variety of protein-rich foods that provide the body with the amino acids it needs to build and repair tissue, Jones says. Protein is essential for growth and development, immune function and cell repair.
Animal sources of protein are complete proteins and include:
- Dairy products.
Plant protein sources are incomplete proteins, but can be combined to provide all essential amino acids.
“The best way to make sure you’re getting enough protein is to eat a variety of protein-rich foods, including lean meats, fish, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds,” she says. “Eggs and dairy products are also excellent.”
The biggest challenge in choosing a healthy diet
The biggest challenge for consumers is deciphering the recommendations and deciding which recommendations apply to their personal lifestyle. “There’s no one-size-fits-all diet,” Jones says.
If you’re trying to find the best diet for you, consulting a dietitian is a good idea. “A dietitian can help break down nutrition information into bite-size pieces so consumers can digest it well,” she says. “Consumers often say diets are hard to follow. This can be solved by customizing a meal plan based on their nutritional needs and food preferences. If your favorite food is pizza and you go on a diet that eliminates it completely, it will be hard to maintain.
Jones agrees with Kimberlain that consumers should avoid labeling certain foods as “good” or “bad.” “Instead, eat mostly nutrient-dense foods most of the time and plan fun treats for a healthy balance,” she says. “As a result, it’s easy to follow for life because it becomes a way of life compared to a diet.”