There are hundreds of them, and more seem to pop up every month. Nowadays, the word is mostly used to describe a nutritional strategy for weight loss.
But this post isn’t about weight loss. Here, I’ll be using the original meaning of the word; your diet means the foods that you habitually eat. A healthy diet, therefore, is one in which you get all the nutrients you need and avoid harmful foods.
This applies whether you’re trying to build muscle, maintain your current weight, or burn fat. No matter how amazing your workout routine may be, your progress and health will largely depend on how you fuel your body.
If you aim is to be strong and healthy, your diet is of paramount importance.
What Should You Eat On A Healthy Diet?
Most of the harmful stuff in the typical western diet can be found in processed foods.
Let’s take trans fats and refined carbs, for example.
Trans fats raise your LDL(bad) cholesterol, lower your HDL(good) cholesterol and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease (1, 2). And refined carbohydrates have been associated with obesity and type-2 diabetes (3, 4).
If you could only make one change to improve your diet, that would be to eat natural, unprocessed foods. Frankly, that would instantly make it better than that of 95% of the population.
If something wasn’t food 200 years ago, it probably isn’t good for you.
Here’s what you should structure your diet around:
- Leafy greens
Grains And Dairy
Whole grains and dairy can also be considered healthy under the right circumstances.
Whole grain foods are a supposedly healthier alternative to white flour products. However, that doesn’t mean that they’re unprocessed, or even healthy for that matter.
In a post on grains, Kris Gunnars writes:
Keep in mind that the whole grain label on food packaging can be highly misleading. These grains have often been pulverized into very fine flour and should have similar metabolic effects as their refined counterparts.
Choose grains that are eaten whole like oats in order to get the nutritional benefits without any of the negative effects.
When it comes to dairy, over half of the earth’s population is lactose intolerant, at least to some degree.
Lactose is a carbohydrate found in milk. The good news is that, even if you’re lactose intolerant, you may be able to consume fermented dairy products such as yogurt and cheese.
Keep in mind that some cheeses have a high fat content. If you’re interested in limiting your caloric intake, you may want to eat them in moderation.
Foods You Should Avoid
The following foods are detrimental to your health and you should limit their consumption when possible:
- Refined carbohydrates (pasta, white bread, cakes, pizza etc.)
- Simple sugars (except those found in fruit, honey, and dairy)
- Liquid calories (sugar-sweetened beverages, alcohol etc.)
These foods are empty calories at best and harmful at worst. They’re also not very filling, which makes them easy to overconsume.
How Much Should You Eat?
To find out how many calories you need to consume you can use a calorie calculator. If you want to be more thorough, you can use 3-4 different calculators and compare the results.
Since these generalized calculators don’t take into account your personal needs, the numbers you get are rough estimates. Try consuming the suggested calories and track your weight. If it stays roughly the same, you’re golden. If not, increase or decrease your caloric intake accordingly.
The three macronutrients are vital for your health and a healthy diet should provide all of them in the necessary amounts.
Protein: 10-35% of total calories. Get high-quality protein from lean meats, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts, and dairy (I recommend at least 15% protein).
Carbohydrates: 45-65% of total calories. Get nutritious carbohydrates from leafy greens, fruit, tubers, dairy, nuts and some whole grain foods.
Fats: 20-35% of total calories. Get your fats from meats, poultry, eggs, dairy, nuts, fatty fish(salmon is a personal favorite) and oils(e.g. olive oil).
For more details on how to calculate your macronutrient needs, see my posts on protein, carbs, and fats. And remember that these are also estimates, you’ll eventually want to try different macro ratios to see what works best for you.
Micronutrients And Nutrient-dense Foods
Getting the macronutrients your body needs is important, but it’s not enough. Apart from macronutrients, you also need micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals.
This is where nutrient density comes into play. Foods that are nutrient-dense, such as unprocessed animal and plant foods, contain many necessary micronutrients.
We have been eating these foods for thousands of years, so the human body has evolved to thrive on the nutrients they provide. Which is why they are essential in a healthy diet.
Refined carbs and most simple sugars, on the other hand, are ’empty calories’ because they have little to no nutrient density. Overconsuming such foods can lead to nutrient deficiencies, weight gain, and other health problems.
As long as they eat a variety of plant and animal foods, getting enough micronutrients will rarely be a concern for the average person.
According to bodybuilders, you should eat 5-6 meals that contain all three macronutrients every day.
I respectfully disagree. Not because I believe that eating 5-6 meals is bad, but because I have also seen equally good results with 2-3 meals.
Honestly, I have found that meal timing is not nearly as important as it’s made out to be. You should focus on what you eat rather than when you eat it. When it comes to meal frequency, I believe that you should do what’s best for your schedule.
I usually have lunch and dinner as my ‘main’ meals. However, I may snack in the morning and/or in the afternoon depending on how I feel.
Some healthy snack choices include yogurt, nuts, and dried fruit. For an instant treat, I usually eat yogurt with a few almonds and a teaspoon or two of honey.
Is A Healthy Diet Too Restrictive?
At first glance, it might seem that way.
But there’s no need to be hardcore about it. You don’t have to eat healthy foods 100% of the time. Get 80-90% of your calories from healthy foods and sneak in a treat here and there.
An imperfect diet that you can stick to is infinitely better than the perfect diet that you’ll stop following after a few days.
From personal experience, you are more likely to stay on a healthy diet if you make gradual changes instead of trying to do everything at once. Start by limiting liquid calories and then gradually replace the refined carbs and processed foods in your diet with healthy, unprocessed alternatives.
Take it one step at a time, we’re talking about a permanent lifestyle change, not a month-long fad. Don’t mess it up by being impatient.
It Can Be Complicated
Constantly having to count calories, protein, carbs, and fats can get overwhelming. Again, my advice is to do things at your own pace. You can begin simply by counting calories and proceed to counting macros when you’ve gotten used to the whole process.
And even if you decide not to count macronutrients at all, replacing empty calories with nutrient-dense foods will make your diet healthier than most. Personally, I only keep track of my calories and protein intake.
You’ll hammer out the details down the line, just get started. I promise you’ll find yourself feeling like a new person a few weeks down the road.
Stay on the grind.