If you’re confused about what’s healthy and what’s not, I can assure you that you’re not alone. There is so much confusion and misinformation in the nutrition and diet space, so allow me to break down the fundamentals of nutrition and explain what “healthy food” is once and for all.
What is healthy food?
When it comes to eating well, everyone seems to have a different opinion about what is “healthy”. Some advocate for low-calorie foods, others advocate high-protein, low-carb or low-fat foods, while others seem to think it’s simply the addition of more fruits and veggies to the diet. The thing is, “healthy food” is truly not as complicated as it may seem. Put simply, healthy food is real food.
What is real food?
Real food is one ingredient, created by Mother Nature, and comes from a plant or an animal. Real food grows on the land, grazes on the land, or lives in our waters. Real food is whole, single-ingredient food that is rich in nutrients. Real food contains protein, carbohydrates, fat, fiber, and/or water, and is rich in vitamins and/or minerals.
Examples of Healthy Food
Healthy foods are whole foods found in their most natural and unprocessed state, and include:
- Whole Grains
A healthy and balanced diet is one that is primarily composed of micronutrient-dense whole foods with a good balance of protein, carbohydrates, fiber, fat, and water.
Healthy Food vs. Processed Food
While healthy food is whole food, and a healthy diet should primarily include whole foods, it is important to understand that not all processed food is unhealthy. In fact, many processed foods are made of whole foods and can and should be included in a healthy diet!
The processing of food occurs on a spectrum and processed foods come in many forms; from minimally processed to highly processed, and many processed whole foods can be considered healthy.
Minimally processed foods are unprocessed foods that have been slightly altered for the main purpose of preservation (1). This includes cleaning and removing inedible or unwanted parts, grinding, refrigeration, pasteurization, fermentation, freezing, and vacuum-packaging, and includes items such as frozen fruit, bagged salads, cut vegetables, roasted nuts, and frozen lean meats. This level of processing does not substantially change the nutritional value of the foods, in fact, in some cases it can help to preserve it for longer periods of time.
Moreover, there are many prepared and pre-cooked foods and meals that you can find in grocery stores that are still incredibly nutritious and can help to make healthy eating much easier. For instance, items such as tomato sauce, hummus, soup, and salad dressing are often made of whole foods, as well as some brands of cereal, crackers, snack bars, and even frozen meals. The simplest way to determine whether a processed food is made of whole food and is a healthy choice is to read the ingredients.
Why is healthy food important?
Food is vital for life and the quality of food that we consume directly impacts our quality of life. Healthy food provides the body with energy and nutrients to function optimally and maintains or improves overall health. The calories, macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fats), and micronutrients (vitamins, and minerals) found in whole foods are not only the body’s only source of energy but provide the natural building materials for growth and repair and support the health of all systems in the body.
Healthy food is health-promoting in the sense that it gives your body what it needs. In addition to supporting optimal health, vitality, and longevity, consuming a diet full of nutrient-dense food helps to protect against many chronic diseases, including the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer, and reduce the risk of diet-related ailments such as high blood pressure and unhealthy or excessive weight gain (2)(3)(4).
In fact, it doesn’t matter what your goals are, how old you are, or how active you are, the foundation of any good diet comes down to the quality of the food that you eat.
While different health goals require different dietary strategies and approaches, real food is the best foundation. It doesn’t matter if your goal is to lose weight, build muscle, run faster, jump higher, improve your energy, feed your family, or just eat healthier overall, all health goals are best supported by prioritizing whole food.
The reality is, you can do any type of diet well or you can do any type of diet poorly depending on the quality of food that you consume. It doesn’t matter if you are following a vegetarian diet or gluten-free diet, eating the perfect portion sizes or the number of calories, eating the perfect post-workout meal, or eating at the perfect time of day, if you are not prioritizing whole food you are likely missing the nutritional mark.
Tips to Eat More Healthy Food
While the concept of healthy food is simple in theory, the execution can be a little more challenging as changing habits and altering your diet to include more real food can feel overwhelming. So, here are some simple tips to get you started:
- Opt for whole foods. Whether you’re grocery shopping, standing in the kitchen, or reading a restaurant menu, make whole food the priority. Generally speaking, whole foods are unprocessed, one-ingredient plant or animal-based foods and are the most nutrient-dense foods available to you. Look for vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, whole grains, milk, poultry, seafood, and meat, and aim to build your meals around these foods.
- Read the ingredients. While whole foods should be prioritized, not all processed foods are inherently unhealthy. In fact, there are many pre-made items in groceries stores that are completely made of whole foods and are very healthy choices. When in doubt, read the ingredients! The ingredients list is one of the best tools you have at your disposal and can help you determine whether the item in question is primarily made of whole foods or not.
- Cook your meals. Cooking for yourself is arguably one of the greatest gifts you can give to your health. By prioritizing whole foods in your diet and cooking your own meals, you can better control the quality of food you are consuming and limit the amount of highly processed foods, unnecessary additives, and preservatives in your diet. In fact, a study demonstrated that Americans who cook most of their meals at home consume fewer refined carbohydrates, less refined sugar, and fewer calories overall than those who cook less or not at all. (5)
- Consume balanced meals. Consuming balanced meals with a source of protein (beef, chicken, salmon, sardines, trout, tofu, etc.), carbohydrates (oats, brown rice, barley, sweet potatoes, corn, pasta, etc.), fruits or vegetables (broccoli, kale, peas, berries, mangoes, etc.), and fat (olive oil, cheese, nuts, peanut butter, etc.), can help to ensure that you are consuming a healthier diet overall. In addition to prioritizing whole foods, learning how to create a balanced meal is one of the simplest tips you can use to help you increase your consumption of healthy foods, as well as protein and dietary fiber.
- Relax. Remember, healthy foods are whole foods and all whole foods are healthy foods but that doesn’t mean that you can only eat whole foods for the rest of your life! A healthy diet is one that is composed of primarily healthy foods, not only healthy foods. By prioritizing whole foods, creating balanced meals, and cooking your meals, you will be able to create a diet that is composed of primarily healthy foods and still allow for sweets, treats, and indulgences, which are equally important for our health.
The Bottom Line
Healthy food is real food and real food is whole food. Healthy food includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, eggs, dairy products, poultry, red meat, seafood, and shellfish. Prioritizing the consumption of healthy food in your diet and cooking with a wide variety of whole foods is one of the simplest ways to ensure that you are supporting your health and consuming a healthy diet with a solid foundation of high-quality, nutrient-dense, healthy food.