What is Healthy Food?
If you’re confused about what healthy food is, you’re certainly not alone. With so much noise out there surrounding specific diets or ways of eating, it’s easy to get frustrated and overwhelmed. That’s why I’ve put together these basic criteria for determining what healthy food is and what it isn’t.
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.
That’s why keeping refined grains to a minimum and eating more whole grains is the healthiest approach.
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 recommended amount of total fat each day for adults is 78 grams if you eat 2,000 calories a day7. If you’re trying to lose weight, it should be between 60-78 grams per 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. I and many other nutrition experts take it a step further and recommend that 3/4 of your plate be vegetables.
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 recommend that my clients ask themselves when thinking about the food they eat.
Will it make you feel good physically after you eat it?
There are plenty of foods that we enjoy immensely while we’re 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 you, it doesn’t truly matter. If a food doesn’t make you feel physically good while you’re eating it, an hour after you eat it, or three hours after you eat it, it’s not healthy for you. This means that in the case of food allergies or sensitivities, foods that are healthy for some people may not be healthy for others.
Does it give you long(ish) lasting energy?
Yes, a bag of Skittles can give a short blast of energy, but then we quickly crash, leaving us more sluggish than before. Healthy food gives you energy that powers your mind and your body for at least three to four hours. If you do need a pick-me-up, try to choose snacks that give you energy in the moment but also contain nutrients that will fuel you until your next meal.
Do you feel good about where your food came from and how it was made, raised or grown?
I know that 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 at the grocery store, I really feel the difference mentally. That’s because 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 healthy food is for each of us individually and whether it makes us feel good.
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.
What is Not Healthy Food?
Unhealthy food refers to highly processed foods that are high in sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats. These foods include fast food, processed snacks, sugary drinks, and desserts. They provide little to no nutritional value and can lead to weight gain and chronic diseases.
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. The criteria that I’ve laid out here will help you figure out what healthy food looks like for you. Does this mean that you’ll have to think through every one of these things every time you eat? No. Once these guidelines become engrained in your approach to food in general, you won’t need to put that much thought into it. You’ll automatically know which foods make you feel your best and which ones don’t.
Of course, the key is figuring out how to incorporate healthy food into your lifestyle on a regular basis. If you need help doing that, I’d love to work one-on-one with you to figure out your individualized approach. For more information on the health coaching and nutrition services that I offer, feel free to reach out to [email protected].
- USDA.Dietary Guidelines for Americans – 2020-2025.
- Mayo Clinic. Whole Grains: Hearty Options for a Healthy Diet.
- USDA. 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.
- Harvard Medical School.How Much Protein Do You Need Every Day?
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Daily Value on the New Nutrition and Supplement Facts Labels
- USDA. MyPlate.
- National Institutes of Health National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Serving Sizes and Portions.
I think it’s easy to lose sight of what, exactly, constitutes “healthy” food. For example, while carbs are often looked at with skepticism, the truth is that they are needed to promote a healthy way of life. The same can be said for sugars as well, though in moderation, of course.
I agree completely!