We can all benefit from eating healthier – but what does it mean for a food to be healthy? Today, we’re going to give you a brief guide on what makes foods healthy and how we should look at diet from a bigger perspective.
What is a healthy diet?
When we discuss how important it is to have a healthy diet, people often question what a healthy diet is and how they should plan their own food and drink to have one. The fact is that no food is healthy or unhealthy, except in the context of a whole diet. You could say that sweets are ‘unhealthy’ because of their sugar content, but this is only a real concern if you’re likely to consume too much sugar overall during the day. If you consume 0g of sugar throughout the day (this is basically impossible, of course), there are no real “unhealthy” effects to eating a handful of sugary sweets.
What is a healthy food?
If healthy foods are only healthy in the context of a diet, what makes a food healthy? The simple answer is that a healthy food is a food that is high in positive nutrients, and low in less-effective or beneficial nutrients. When we talk about healthy foods, the best approach is to use opportunity cost: what could you have eaten instead of that pizza, that might have improved your health? We have to consider foods healthier or less healthy in relation to one another, by reference to a few simple nutrient contents like protein, fibre and sugar.
- More protein = healthier
Generally, protein is the best macronutrient to consume. Not only does it have a higher thermic effect than any other macronutrient, but it promotes muscle growth, fat loss and tissue health. If you’re looking to be healthy, you need to have a good amount of protein in your diet and focus on getting it from good sources like salmon, eggs, high-quality whey or plant protein isolates, or even cultured dairy (like greek yoghurt or cottage cheese).
- Better carbohydrate profile
Carbohydrates are not bad for you, but the carbohydrate profile of a food is important in figuring out how healthy it is. High-sugar foods, especially those that have been processed or contain refined sugars, are a big concern. The less sugar a food contains in relation to its complex starch and fibre content, the healthier it is likely to be. Sugars are not inherently unhealthy – high-sugar foods are great before or during intense exercise – but eating them outside of these time periods is likely to negatively affect the health of your diet.
Dietary fibre is technically a form of carbohydrate (primarily cellulose), and is non-digestible. This means that it improves digestive and metabolic health, whilst also binding to water and short-chain sugars in the gut. This improves many health markers and even improves weight loss. Fruit and veg are high in dietary fibre, contributing to their reputation as the most important health foods.
Starches are the mid-ground between sugars and fibre: they are digestible, but do not absorb as rapidly as sugars, and should make up the majority of most people’s carbohydrate intake. The best sources of starch are generally mixed with fibre, such as wholegrains, legumes and tubers (like sweet potato).
- Healthy Fats
Fats aren’t going to make you fat: dietary fats are some of the most important parts of a healthy diet and the type of fats in your diet – and in each food – will determine how healthy they are. For example, the fats in wild salmon are among the best for your body: Omega-3 fats are an essential part of the diet and increase the health of the heart, brain, joints, muscles and countless other tissues in the body. Conversely, the low-quality saturated fats found in hot dogs and other processed red meats are among the worst you can eat – these foods are correlated with serious problems like heart risk and colo-rectal cancer.
The best kinds of fats are unsaturated – and polyunsaturated in particular – but there are healthy fats in each category: it is not as simple as saturated fats being bad and unsaturated fats being good. Simply that the unsaturated fats found in olive oil, argan oil and nuts and seeds are generally better than those found in processed red meats, butter or similar low-quality sources. The best-saturated fats tend to come from high-quality animal meats, coconut oil and MCT oil.
- Nutrients: vitamins and minerals
You can’t be healthy without vitamins and minerals: when comparing any two foods with similar macronutrient profiles, it is essential to concern yourself with the balance of essential vitamins and minerals in the foods. This will, more often than not, tell you which one is better for your diet and, thus, your health.
Nutrients break down into vitamins and minerals, but they are both essential for good health. Plant foods are high in both fibre and nutrients, making them a great choice in your diet. Eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables is the easiest way to get more of these wonderful nutrients into your diet, boosting biological factors like heart health, weight loss, muscle gain, energy balance, sleep quality, hydration, and countless others.
Use these principles to structure your diet to ensure that you have the right balance of protein, carbs, fats and micronutrients to determine the kinds of food that you need to eat more of, and those you need to reduce!
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