Diet plays an important role in the development of heart disease, as well as cancer, the number one and two leading causes of deaths in American men and women, respectively. Accordingly, people are often advised to follow a “healthy diet,” however this can be very vague. How do you really know if your diet is healthy?
A healthy diet is one that provides your body with the nutrients and energy it needs to function properly. A healthy diet also reduces your chances of developing diseases, such as heart disease and cancer.
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans emphasize the importance of creating a healthy eating pattern to maintain health and reduce the risk of disease.
According to the guidelines, a healthy eating pattern includes:
- A variety of vegetables and fruits from all subgroups, focusing on consuming whole foods rather than juices.
- Grains, at least half of which are whole grains.
- Fat-free or low-fat dairy, including fortified soy beverages.
- Protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), and nuts, seeds, and soy products.
- Healthy oils such as olive oil.
The guidelines also state that a healthy eating pattern is limited in unhealthy fats (saturated and trans fats), added sugars, and sodium.
How to ensure your diet is balanced
MyPlate, a visual guide published by the USDA gives the amounts of each food group we should be having in a healthy diet.
From it, we can see that we should aim to have roughly half of our plates as fruits and vegetables, which is a shift from outdated carb-heavy food pyramids. Additionally, we should vary the fruits and vegetables we eat, as each food has a different nutrient profile. For example, green leafy vegetables are high in folate, which is important for nerve function, while bell peppers are high in vitamin C, essential as an antioxidant to prevent cell damage. Including both kinds of vegetables in your diet will provide more nutrition than eating one kind alone.
Around one-quarter of the plate should be filled with starches, preferably wholegrain. Wholegrains (e.g. brown rice, quinoa, whole-wheat pasta) provide more fiber and B vitamins than the white varieties.
Just under one-quarter of the plate should contain protein foods. Varying the protein foods to include lean sources of meat, pulses (beans and peas), and other plant sources such as soy is helpful to ensure that all nutrient needs are met. You should aim to eat oily fish at least once per week to get some essential fatty acids.
There’s more than one way to eat healthy, however, it is important to be aware of the need for balance. Cutting out food groups increases the risk of developing nutritional deficiencies, so you should take steps to ensure you are getting the nutrients you need from other sources.
For example, a vegan will be low in vitamin B12, which is mainly found in animal foods, therefore someone choosing to eat a vegan diet should look at alternatives such as fortified foods and a B12 supplement to make sure their needs are being met.
How to start eating healthier
- Keep a food diary for one week. This will allow you to identify areas you would like to change.
- Make small changes one at a time. This helps to build new habits, which is the key to sustaining a lifestyle choice. For example, a realistic goal may be to aim for two additional portions of vegetables daily. When this has been achieved, you could then look at another area of the diet, such as cutting back on added sugars.
- Try different recipes to find your favorite method of preparation. For example, carrots can be glazed, pickled, or roasted, with each method changing the taste and texture. Experiment until you find what you like!
Adapting to a healthier diet takes time, but the benefits in terms of physical and mental well-being are numerous. Browse our recipes section for more delicious, healthy ideas and read more tips on incorporating healthier foods into your diet.