If you asked 10 people this question, you could very well get 10 different answers. Some people would say that it is eating a vegan, or vegetarian diet. Others would tell you not to eat carbs, while others would say it’s all about balance, moderation, and the food itself is not the only factor.
So, how do we sort through all these different opinions and figure out what it actually means to “eat healthy?”
Well, I guess the first thing we have to do is to agree on what healthy means. Since we could be here all day going back and forth about whether different foods were healthy or not, let’s say that healthy is more about your own personal health, and not the food.
This means whether or not you are eating healthy is determined by your current health status. Are you healthy? Are you at a healthy body weight? Are all of your health markers on point (cholesterol, blood pressure, etc.)? Then you are probably doing a pretty good job.
If you read my last article about how to choose the right diet, you will remember that I laid out some principles to follow. It wasn’t about one diet being better than the other, it was about certain boxes that you need to check. After that, they will all work about the same. Well, the same is true about healthy eating, and here are some principles to follow.
Principle #1 Calorie Balance
Since almost all health markers improve when we are at a healthy body weight, the first thing you need to do is keep your calories under control. Assuming you are already at a healthy weight, you will figure out what your “maintenance” calories are, and try to stay right around that total so you do not gain or lose weight.
If you are at an unhealthy weight, then your first priority should be to get to a healthy weight, and then worry about rest of these principles.
Principle #2 Food Composition
Now if we were talking about trying to change your body composition (eg. Dieting) then this would not be as high a priority. However, since health is the main focus here, we want to move this up the list before we talk about carbs, fats, and proteins, to make sure that you are getting them from mostly healthy sources.
This means that your carbs are coming mostly from whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Your fats are coming from mostly unsaturated sources like nuts, avocado, and some oils. Last but not least your protein sources should be comprised of lean meats, eggs, and dairy. If you do not eat animal products, you will need to piece together complete sources of plant proteins making sure that you are getting all your essential amino acids, and enough protein (which we will talk about next).
Principle #3 Macronutrient Balance
Your macro nutrient balance will play an important role in your body composition. We already talked about how being at a healthy weight was important for your health, but we also want to maintain our muscle tissue, and minimize fat tissue.
This means that we will need to place a priority on our protein intake. Since protein is the only macro that helps repair and build muscle, we want to make it a high priority in our diet. Recommendations range from .8 grams per pound of body weight to 1.2 grams per pound. The more muscle you have, and the harder you are pushing your muscles, the higher your intake should be.
Carbohydrates would come next. Carbs are your body’s primary source of energy. If you think about them like this, then it makes sense that you should eat more carbs when you are really active, less when you are less active. This could mean as little as 1 gram per pound of body weight on really inactive days, and as much as 2.5 grams on super active days (long hikes, distance runs, etc.)
Fats would come last as you do not need much fat in your diet to be healthy. Minimum levels of fat should be around .3 grams per pound of body weight. This is a minimum number, and can certainly be higher as long as your other macros are taken into account. They should also be primarily unsaturated fats.
Principle #4 Enjoy Your Life
I just discussed 3 principles that, if followed will guarantee you are eating healthy. Awesome, let’s all eat healthy forever (eye roll). Who does that? Certainly not me. This does not mean that you can never enjoy your favorite dessert, or have alcohol, or any of that. What this means is that 80-90% of your eating habits should resemble the first 3 principles, and the rest of the time you can enjoy your life.
Eating healthy is great, and your body will love you for it. However, your mental health is also important and not eating or drinking foods that you love will take a toll on your mental health. Make sure that you allow yourself to enjoy your favorite foods once in a while, and you will have a healthy mind, and body.