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.
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.
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 in2 but 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
- USDA. Dietary Guidelines for Americans – 2020-2025. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2021-03/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans-2020-2025.pdf
- 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
- USDA. What are Refined Grains? https://ask.usda.gov/s/article/What-are-refined-grains
- Rush University Medical Center. Eat a Colorful Diet. https://www.rush.edu/news/eat-colorful-diet
- Merck Manual. Overview of Nutrition. https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/nutritional-disorders/nutrition-general-considerations/overview-of-nutrition?qt=&sc=&alt=
- 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
- USDA. Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs): Estimated Average Requirements.https://www.nal.usda.gov/sites/default/files/fnic_uploads/recommended_intakes_individuals.pdf
- USDA. MyPlate. https://www.myplate.gov
- 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.