What is Healthy Food?

Find Out What to Look for in Healthy Food

If you’re confused about what healthy food is, you’re certainly not alone. I used to think that just because I “cooked” at home I was eating healthy. In reality, that was far from true. Nearly everything that I “cooked” came in a box or can and included a long list of artificial ingredients. Then came learning to eat local. A big step in the right direction, but I was still consuming way too many sweeteners – much of which were local and natural; local dairy products; and yes, even locally milled flour. I was getting closer, but my body definitely let me know that I wasn’t quite there yet. So, what is healthy food and how do you really know that what you’re eating falls into that category? Here are the criteria I’ve found that helped me restore my health and keeps me feeling my best. 

Top Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel from Pixels; Bottom Photo by Trang Doan from Pixels

Healthy Food Makes You Feel Good

Healthy food makes you feel good while you’re eating it and most importantly, after you eat it. Here are three important questions I try to ask myself when thinking about the food I eat.

1. Will it make me feel good physically after I eat it? 

There are plenty of foods that I enjoy immensely while I’m eating them but then afterward feel heavy, weighted down or bloated. Whether this is because the food is full of unnatural ingredients, is too heavy in sugar or fat or simply doesn’t “agree” with me, it doesn’t truly matter. If a food doesn’t make me feel physically good while I’m eating it, an hour after I eat it, or three hours after I eat it, it’s not healthy for me. 

2. Does it give me long(ish) lasting energy?

Yes, my beloved bag of Skittles gives me a short blast of energy, but then I quickly crash, leaving me more sluggish than I was before. Healthy food gives me energy that powers my mind and my body for at least three to four hours. If I do need a pick-me-up, I try to choose snacks that give me energy in the moment but also contain nutrients that will fuel me until my next meal. 

3. Do I feel good about where it came from and how it was made, raised or grown? 

When I go through times of not being able to make it to the farmers market as regularly or I haven’t planned well and just have to buy whatever is available, I really feel the difference mentally. I love talking to the people who raise or grow my food. I love knowing that I’m trying to do the least harm possible to the environment, the animals that feed the rest of my family, and those who work hard to produce what we eat. And I love knowing that the food we eat isn’t heavily sprayed with chemicals that could harm us. This is all part of the mental aspect of eating, but it helps to define what is healthy food for me and whether it makes me feel good. 

Photo by Adonyi Gábor from Pexels

Healthy Food is Whole Food 

Whole foods are foods that would generally be recognizable in their natural state. They include fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, eggs, legumes, whole grains, poultry, seafood, lean meats1 and unrefined oils that have been minimally processed.

You’ll notice that whole grains as opposed to refined grains are part of this equation. What’s the difference? Whole grains either come in their whole form or are ground into flour while keeping all parts of the seed. This includes the bran, germ and endosperm, which are full of important nutrients2. On the other hand, Mayo Clinic says that refined grains “are milled to have had the germ and bran removed, which gives them a finer texture and extends their shelf life.”

The tradeoff is that this process also removes many of the nutrients. In many cases, those grains are then enriched, which means that some of the nutrients that were lost are put back inbut not the all-important fiber3. For me, keeping it as close to the way nature made it in the first place with whole grains feels the healthiest, and the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 agrees. In fact, its recommendation is that at least half of the grains that we eat are whole grains1

Healthy Food Comes in a Variety of Colors

When trying to figure out what is healthy food, one of the best clues is to look at its color. You may have heard the saying, “Eat the rainbow,” and this is what is meant by that. As a whole, healthy food comes in a variety of vibrant natural colors. According to Rush University Medical Center, fruits and vegetables get their color from phytochemicals and micronutrients which means that they are full of vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants4

Photo by Anthony Leong from Pixels

Healthy Food Includes a Balanced Proportion of Macronutrients

Macronutrients are what many of us think of when we think of the nutrients in our food, and for good reason. They give us energy and make up the majority of what we eat. Carbohydrates, proteins and fats are all macronutrients.

Carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates, found in foods such as white sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, increase blood glucose levels rapidly. Complex carbohydrates, found in foods high in starch and fiber such as beans and whole grains, increase blood glucose levels more slowly and for a longer time5. We want mostly complex carbs. 

Protein

Protein is important because we need it for tissue maintenance, replacement, function and growth5. It can be found in lean meats, poultry, eggs, seafood; beans, peas, and lentils; and nuts, seeds, and soy products1. These are all healthy foods. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight6. So, for a woman weighing 135 pounds who doesn’t exercise much, the minimum amount of protein needed each day is 49 grams. Again, this is the minimum amount needed. 

Fats

Our bodies need fats for tissue growth and hormone production5, but the type of fat that you eat is important. Saturated fat is most commonly found in animal fats. Except for palm and coconut oils, fats from plants have high levels of monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats5. We want more of those than saturated fat. The estimated average requirement for adults is 20-35% of total calories from fat7. That is about 47 grams to 82 grams of fat per day if you eat 1,800 calories a day. 

What does a balance of macronutrients look like?

According to the USDA’s MyPlate graphic, most of your meal or half of your plate should be made up of vegetables and fruits, with more vegetables than anything. The other half of your plate should be made up of grains and protein with more emphasis on the grains8

What is Healthy Food Can Depend on Portion Size

Of course, any food can be made unhealthy if too much of it is eaten. That’s where regulating your portion size comes in. When thinking about how to divide up your plate with the different types of food, it makes a big difference if we’re talking about filling up the center of a regular dinner plate as opposed to a platter. 

According to the National Institutes of Health, a portion is the amount of food that we choose to eat for a meal or snack9. In other words, the size of our portion is completely within our control. Given how much our portion sizes have increased over the past two decades, thinking about reducing them isn’t unhealthy food restriction. It’s getting back to amounts that let healthy foods be healthy. 

If you want to learn more about what exactly portions are and how reducing them can be good for your health and your wallet, be sure to read this post

Bottom Line on Figuring Out What is Healthy Food

So, what is healthy food? The bottom line is that while there are general guidelines to follow, it’s also very individual. I’ve laid out here the way to think about it that has helped me. Does this mean that I think through every one of these things every time I eat? No. I don’t usually have to at this point. Once these criteria became engrained in my approach to food in general, I didn’t need to put that much thought into it. I automatically know which foods make me feel my best and which ones don’t. 

Does that mean that I always follow that and never eat something that I know isn’t the healthiest or won’t make me feel good? No. But I always have these guidelines in the back of my mind, and I always return to them if I’ve gotten off track for too long. I hope they are helpful for you as well and would love to hear in the comments if you have any other criteria that you consider in deciding what healthy food looks like for you. 

Sources

  1. USDA. Dietary Guidelines for Americans – 2020-2025. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2021-03/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans-2020-2025.pdf
  2. Mayo Clinic. Whole Grains: Hearty Options for a Healthy Diet.  https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/whole-grains/art-20047826
  3. USDA. What are Refined Grains? https://ask.usda.gov/s/article/What-are-refined-grains
  4. Rush University Medical Center. Eat a Colorful Diet. https://www.rush.edu/news/eat-colorful-diet
  5. Merck Manual. Overview of Nutrition. https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/nutritional-disorders/nutrition-general-considerations/overview-of-nutrition?qt=&sc=&alt=
  6. Harvard Medical School. How Much Protein Do You Need Every Day? https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/how-much-protein-do-you-need-every-day-201506188096
  7. USDA. Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs): Estimated Average Requirements.https://www.nal.usda.gov/sites/default/files/fnic_uploads/recommended_intakes_individuals.pdf
  8. USDA. MyPlate. https://www.myplate.gov
  9. National Institutes of Health National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Serving Sizes and Portions.https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/wecan/eat-right/distortion.htm.


Money Saving Tip: Reduce Your Portion Size

Good for Your Wallet and Your Health.

When it comes to food, there are very few of us who can say that our portion sizes are currently too small (except maybe when it comes to vegetables…). In fact, when we’re eating out, our average portion sizes have increased 2-3 times or more from where they were 20 yearsago1. This, in turn, has played a big part in normalizing what we think of as a normal portion, whether we’re eating at home or eating out. So, for most of us, when it comes to saving money while eating healthier, reducing our portion size is one of the easiest and healthiest things that we can do. 

Portion Size vs. Serving Size

According to the National Institutes of Health, a portion is the amount of food that we choose to eat for a meal or snack2. In other words, it’s completely up to us how big or small our portion sizes are. 

Portions often get confused with serving sizes. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that a serving is a standardized or measured amount of food3. It may be stated in tablespoons, ounces or cups but is a standard amount that can easily be measured. 

Take for instance a 16-ounce bag of chips. I could easily eat half the bag in one sitting on a really stressful day. In that case, half the bag or 8 ounces would be my portion size. On the other hand, the bag’s nutrition label says that there are about 16 servings in the bag or 1 ounce or about 11 chips per serving. So, if I eat half the bag, I’ve eaten 8 servings and an outrageous number of chips. Hmmm…. 

As another example, if I have an 8-ounce box of pasta, and I fix half the box as one serving, I’ve had a 4-ounce portion of pasta. If you look at this amount compared to what you get for a dinner serving in many restaurants, it’s about the same. The catch though is that the nutrition label on my box of pasta tells me that 2 ounces is a serving size, so I now have to double all of the values listed. Ouch! 

This is where the National Institutes of Health’s idea of “portion distortion1” comes in. If you want an interesting look at how portion sizes have increased over the past 20 years, be sure and check out their interactive quizzes on that here.

Benefits of Reducing Portion Size

Given the increase in the size of portions over the years, when we talk about reducing them, we’re not talking about unhealthy food restriction. We’re talking about getting back to a healthier way of looking at the amount of food we eat. In general, we simply do not need as much food as many of us are currently consuming. Two of the most significant benefits to reducing our portion sizes come in terms of saving our health and our money.

Health benefits

Regularly eating portions that are larger than what our bodies need takes its toll on our health over time. That’s due in large part because consuming more calories than we burn causes the excess calories to be stored as fat. In turn, too much body fat may cause us to become overweight or obese4. In addition, too many simple carbs and too much sugar can wreak havoc on our blood sugar levels, also resulting in many health problems5. Here are just some of the risks associated with being overweight, obese or simply eating more food than we need. 

  • Eating too much food requires your organs to work harder4
  • Type 2 diabetes6
  • High blood pressure6
  • Heart disease and strokes6
  • Certain types of cancer6
  • Fatty liver disease6

While reducing portion size won’t prevent all of these issues, it will go a long way toward making sure that we’re not needlessly overloading our bodies with food it really doesn’t need or want. It will also enable us to eat a reasonable amount of something that’s not-so-healthy if that’s what we want while at the same time leaving plenty of room for healthy food. 

Money saving benefits

This one is fairly straightforward. If we eat less, our food bill isn’t as high. Again, the idea here isn’t to starve ourselves by any means. That is absolutely not the point. But, if we get back to eating reasonable amounts of food, we can stretch our food budget even further or invest in healthy foods that we might have otherwise thought were too expensive.

Take my bag of chips. What would have been two servings on a couple of really tough days or even 4-5 servings in amounts that many of us would regularly eat, could actually be up to 16 servings. That means that instead of going through a bag of chips a week, one bag may last two weeks. 

The same holds true with my pasta. If you go by the serving size listed on the box, instead of needing two boxes to feed four people, you only need one box to feed four. That’s half the cost in both cases. 

How to Limit Portion Size

The concept of reducing portion sizes is fairly easy. Putting it into practice is where things can get more challenging. Here are some ideas to help get you started.

  • Learn how much of the healthiest foods to eat at different calorie levels by following the  NIH Guidelines.
  • Weigh and/or measure your food at least in the beginning until you learn what an appropriate portion looks like. 
  • Learn what a reasonable serving size looks like without measuring cups or a scale by following the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s Serving Size Card.
  • Drink water about an hour to half hour before you eat. Water is something that most of us need more of, and it will make you feel more full while you’re eating. 
  • Don’t eat from the bag. Set out a serving size or a serving and a half if that seems like a more reasonable amount and put the bag away.
  • Eat healthy snacks at regular intervals throughout the day so that you’re not ravenous  when you sit down for a meal. 
  • Go by the nutrition labels on packages. 
  • If you’re making a recipe from a blog, follow the recommended serving sizes that are usually included. Most blog recipe creators are home cooks. You can normally rely on them to include very reasonable serving sizes as well as the associated nutrition information. 

Bottom Line on Reducing Portion Size

The bottom line on reducing portion size is that we’re not talking about depravation here. We’re talking about eating more intentionally and intuitively as to what your body needs to nourish it. That’s opposed to what your emotions may be making you think they want as well as what may just be habit or conditioned eating. When it comes to portion size, you’re in the driver’s seat, and you’re the one in control. Let that be empowering for you – whatever you decide to eat. 

Sources

  1. National Institutes of Health. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/wecan/eat-right/portion-distortion.htm
  2. National Institutes of Health. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/wecan/eat-right/distortion.htm
  3. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Eat Right. Serving Size vs Portion Size is There a Differencehttps://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/nutrition-facts-and-food-labels/serving-size-vs-portion-size-is-there-a-difference
  4. The University of Texas. MD Anderson Cancer Center. What Happens When You Overeat? https://www.mdanderson.org/publications/focused-on-health/What-happens-when-you-overeat.h23Z1592202.html
  5. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Carbohydrates and Blood Sugar. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbohydrates/carbohydrates-and-blood-sugar/
  6. National Institutes of Health. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Health Risks of Being Overweight. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/weight-management/health-risks-overweight