The Ultimate Guide To Healthy Eating

There’s no one-size-fits-all. Find out what “healthy eating” means to you.

By: Bianca Peyvan, MS, RDN

Healthy eating is the cornerstone of wellness, yet for many, it has turned into a mystery. Everywhere you look there is a new fad diet or detox endorsed by celebrities and experts. Unfortunately, these food trends can leave us disconnected from our intuition and wisdom around what feels good for our bodies. With a little reconnection and attunement to ourselves, we can demystify what it means to eat healthy and make it part of a simple everyday routine. Ahead, a comprehensive guide to healthy eating. 

What is “Healthy Eating”? 

While there are some general rules of thumb, there is no one right way to eat healthy. What’s healthy for your friend, for example, may not work for you. Factors such as metabolism, activity level, cultural foods, and digestion all create variability in what constitutes healthy. 

Instead of focusing on consuming or eliminating specific foods, focus on tuning into your body to see which foods you crave and make you feel your best throughout the day. Consider what foods give you energy and sustain you throughout the day and take note of what foods make you feel full but not sluggish. This can take time and practice and a food journal could be a great aid in helping you record which foods make you feel nourished and energized.

If you have a hard time eating intuitively, you could try eating your indigenous cultural foods. You can also think about what your great-grandparents ate. Did they eat out of a box or package? Did their ingredient list consist of chemicals you can’t even pronounce? Probably not — that’s why a whole foods approach is typically a safe bet. 

Experimenting with different diets can also be a good approach if you don’t have one. For example, the Mediterranean diet has been researched extensively and recognized by the World Health Organization as the healthiest diet. This and other whole food diets can be a great place to start finding the eating approach that helps you feel your best. 

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The Ultimate Guide to Healthy Eating 

Regardless of your approach, whole foods should be the foundation of any healthy diet. Studies show that these types of foods can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular and other diseases. Whole foods refer to foods in their natural state versus their broken down or processed forms (e.g., baked potato vs. instant mashed potatoes). Below are some general guidelines when planning your healthy eating approach.

Eat the Rainbow    

Filling your plate with a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables is a great way to support health, and the World Health Organization suggests five portions of fruits and vegetables per day. While that may sound like a lot, there are plenty of delicious ways to fit more colorful foods into your diet! 

Here are some great options, plus hacks on getting more of them into your healthy eating plan. 

Red Foods

Apples, berries, tomatoes, and red onions are all delicious options. Try sliced apple and almond butter as a delicious snack, adding sliced tomatoes on top of a salad, and adding chopped onions to veggie tacos! 

Orange and Yellow Foods

Consider mangos, lemons, cantaloupe, carrots, butternut squash, and sweet potatoes. Try cubed sweet potatoes tossed in coconut oil with a sprinkle of ground cinnamon as a tasty side dish, cantaloupe paired with nuts and seeds for a healthy snack, and butternut squash soup. 

Green Foods

Brussels sprouts, asparagus, cucumbers, limes, and avocados are all great options. Try adding cubed avocado to smoothies, enjoying cucumbers with hummus, and pairing roasted brussels sprouts and asparagus with a main meal. 

Blue and Purple Foods

Eggplant, cabbage, figs, grapes, and berries are all excellent options. Try making a smoothie with mixed berries and grapes paired with nuts and seeds as a healthy snack. 

White and Brown Foods

Mushrooms, garlic, and bananas can all easily be added to a healthy diet. Consider adding bananas to smoothies and enjoying garlic with homemade tomato sauce. 

Here’s another tip — fill half your plate with a variety of fresh, seasonal, local, and organic fruits and vegetables when available. Be mindful of your portions of starchy vegetables (potatoes, peas, carrots, etc.,) and dried fruits as these typically contain more sugar and carbohydrates.

Choose Healthy Fats 

Not all fats are created equal. The term “bad fats” refers to inflammatory fats such as trans or hydrogenated fats. These are typically found in processed, fried, and fast foods as trans fats extend shelf life. Keep an eye out for these baked and fried foods and pre-packaged snacks and foods (e.g., doughnuts, cakes, pies, cookies, biscuits, and wafers) that contain industrially-produced trans-fats.

The most antiinflammatory fats include Omega 3’s from wild or sustainably raised cold-water fish such as salmon, sardines, herring, etc. These should be included weekly in the diet or supplemented from a reliable source if lacking. When cooking with oils, look for monounsaturated fats such as olive oil and avocado oil over polyunsaturated fats. Coconut oil and ghee (clarified butter) can also be great for cooking.

One way to make your plate healthier is to include healthy fats in moderation, such as olives, nuts, avocados, coconut, nut butters, grass-fed dairy such as butter, or a nice drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

Get Your Grains

When it comes to carbohydrates, whole grains with the bran and germ intact are best. This whole form offers more nutrition and fiber than processed grains, with less of a blood sugar spike and more satiety compared to processed grains. Whole grains include whole wheat, barley, steel cut oatmeal, brown and black rice, quinoa, amaranth, millet, teff, and buckwheat. 

Try using some of these variations in your recipes, as it’s a great way to get prebiotic fiber that feeds your gut microbiome, which is important for digestion. Purchasing sprouted grains or soaking them yourself enhances their absorptions and makes them easier to digest.

Pick Quality Proteins

Whether you prefer to get your protein from plant or animal sources, it’s still a great idea to have a variety. For animal sources, wild fish and seafood, pastured eggs, poultry, beef, pork, and dairy have the highest amounts of protein. 

A variety of plant-based sources of protein can ensure your body gets all the essential protein it needs, especially soy-based products such as tofu, tempeh, and seitan. Beans, nuts, lentils, peas, whole grains, and seeds are also great options.

When purchasing animal sources, do pay close attention to labels and opt for organic, non-GMO, wild-caught, grass-fed, and hormone-, antibiotic-, and pesticide-free whenever possible.

Skim on Sodium & Sugar

Most of us don’t actually get the majority of our sodium and sugar from a few salt shakes or sugar pours. In fact, packaged foods and fast foods are loaded with them. The next time you are shopping for marinara sauce, frozen food, cereals, or soup, have a close look at the nutrition label. 

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg per day, about 1 teaspoon of salt. Eating such packaged and convenience foods will easily have you consuming much more. And just remember, every four grams of sugar is equal to a teaspoon of sugar. So, choosing a cereal that has 20 grams of sugar (per serving) will have you consuming 5 teaspoons of sugar. 

The best way to control your sodium and sugar intake is to check nutrition labels to see how much sodium and sugar is in a product before purchasing or consuming it. Pay close attention to snacks, flavored drinks, and even nut milk and creamers. But the absolute best way to control intake is to prepare your own meals as much as possible.

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Making Healthy Eating a Lifestyle Not a Diet

Eating healthy doesn’t have to be a burden. You can always do your best and follow an 80/20 rule or eat what you like in reasonable portions. This is easier said than done, so set yourself up for success. When dining out, order an appetizer portion or ask the server to only bring you a half portion (with the other half in a to-go container). You can also start by simply loading your plate with a variety of veggies and greens to ensure you are getting plenty of fiber and antioxidants.

One thing you will notice for sure is when you add in healthier options, the not-so-healthy foods seem to drop off. You will start feeling more satisfied and have less cravings as your body is getting more nourishment from whole foods.

Final Thoughts

Variety is the spice of life so aim to consume a wide variety of foods including fruit and vegetables, lean protein such as tofu or salmon, whole grains (brown rice or quinoa), and healthy fats such as avocado and extra virgin olive oil. 

When shopping, select whole unprocessed foods at least 80-90% of the time, paying close attention to sodium, sugar, and trans fats. Try different foods known for being healthy such Mediterranean cuisine, while honoring your heritage and cultural food preferences.

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