What is the healthiest way to eat? Here’s the answer
Low-carb, low-fat, Mediterranean, paleo — there’s no shortage of diet options. But what does healthy eating actually look like? Turns out, it’s not that complicated. Here’s what you need to know.
We know that a healthy diet has lots of benefits. It can make us feel better, lower our risk of chronic illnesses and help us live longer. But figuring out what “healthy” actually means isn’t always easy.
Every day there’s a new headline about what you should or shouldn’t eat. Studies often share new findings on how certain foods may help or hurt us. Fad diets come and go. New products pop up that promise speedy weight loss. Not to mention the advice you might get from friends, family and influencers. It can be overwhelming and confusing.
The truth is that healthy eating doesn’t have to be complicated. Many types of foods can be part of a wholesome diet. Here’s what you need to know about eating to support your health.
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What is a healthy diet?
First, let’s define “diet.” You might associate the word with a strict eating plan, one that limits calories or cuts out certain foods. It might be something you do for a short time to lose weight.
Here, “diet” simply means the foods a person eats every day. Another term for it might be “eating pattern.” A healthy diet includes a variety of foods from different food groups. It should meet your needs for essential vitamins and minerals. It should also provide enough calories to help you stay at a healthy weight.1
All foods can be part of a healthy diet. You don’t need to cut out foods or food groups. “People are different. The best way to eat healthy is the way that works for you and your lifestyle,” says Jacki Howard, RDN. She’s a health coach for Optum. Of course, it’s fine to stay away from certain foods for personal or religious reasons or if you have an allergy.
You can improve your energy and support your health by choosing nutritious foods most of the time. These include:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains
- Fat-free or low-fat dairy
- Lean meat, poultry or seafood
- Beans, legumes and soy foods
- Nuts and seeds
Healthy diets have room for treats and fun foods, too. You should limit foods with added sugars, salt and unhealthy fats. But you don’t have to cut them out completely. The key is having them once in a while, not every day.2
What are the benefits of healthy eating?
Studies show that people who follow a healthy eating pattern reap big benefits. These include:
- Better heart health. The right foods can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. Fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, nuts, legumes and seeds give the most protection, according to the American Heart Association. Eating less red meat and limiting sugary drinks helps, too.3
- Longer life. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables can help you live longer. Having five servings of produce daily is linked to a 13% lower risk of early death, compared to eating two servings per day. Whole fruits and vegetables are a better choice than fruit juice. Read the latest ikaria lean belly juice reviews.
- Healthy weight. Certain foods make it easier to reach or stay at a healthy weight. One major study found that vegetables, whole grains, fruit, nuts and yogurt seem to be the most helpful for weight loss. Diets high in sweets, processed snacks and sugary drinks can cause weight gain.
- Lower cancer risk. No one food can protect against cancer. But you can lower your risk for many types of cancer by choosing more plant foods.5 Red, yellow, orange and green fruits and vegetables may be especially powerful. They contain protective nutrients and tend to be low in calories.6
- Better brain health. A healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables may help keep your brain sharp. Research shows that eating just 100 grams more of fresh produce per day may lower cognitive impairment and dementia risk by 13%. That’s about equal to an extra piece of fruit or half a cup of cooked vegetables. Check these alpilean reviews.
- Healthier gut. Filling up on fiber can support the health of your gut. A healthy gut is linked to better heart health, a stronger immune system, better mood and many other health benefits. Find fiber in whole grains, fruits, vegetables and beans. For better digestion, follow these easy tips.
Find more simple tips for healthy eating on our Until It’s Fixed podcast
What are macronutrients?
Macronutrients, or macros, are nutrients the body needs in large amounts. They include protein, fat and carbohydrates. (Carbohydrates are often called “carbs”). Most foods contain some of each macro. But certain foods are higher in certain macros. For example:
- Carbohydrates are found in grains, bread, pasta, fruits and beans. Some vegetables, such as potatoes, corn and winter squash, are also high in carbs.
- Protein is found in meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, eggs, nuts, beans and soy foods such as tofu and tempeh.
- Fat is found in butter, oils, avocado and nuts. It’s also found in meat, dairy and seafood.
There are no specific recommendations for how much of each macro you should eat. Howard suggests a range of 45% to 65% of calories from carbs, 20% to 35% from fat and 10% to 35% from protein. But she says you don’t have to worry too much about the exact amounts. “If you’re eating a balanced diet and not restricting food groups, you’re likely getting the amounts you need,” she says. “I would focus more on the quality of the food you’re eating before stressing over the macros.”
What are micronutrients?
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals. They’re needed by every part of our body. They help with everything from fighting infections to building strong bones and regulating hormones.
There are at least 30 essential vitamins and minerals. “Essential” means that your body doesn’t make them — you have to get them from food. Different foods have different vitamins and minerals. Eating a variety of healthy foods is the best way to make sure you meet your micronutrient needs.
To make healthy choices, look for nutrient-dense foods. These are foods high in micronutrients but low in calories. Fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy are all nutrient-dense choices. For instance: A slice of whole-grain bread and white bread each have 80 calories. But whole-grain bread has more protein, fiber, magnesium and B vitamins. That makes it more nutrient-dense.8
What about supplements?
Most people don’t need to take vitamins or supplements, says Lauren Spradling, RD. She’s a wellness coach for Real Appeal with Rally, part of Optum. But older adults, pregnant women and those with food allergies or diet restrictions might need them. Check with your doctor to see if a supplement is right for you.9