What is a “healthy diet?”
Is it vegan?
Is it paleo?
Is it eating lots of whole grains?
This question used to drive me insane. I’d stay up late reading diet books and scientific studies, trying to figure out whether a single ingredient was bad for me.
I’m not the only one who’s gone through this. Many people become obsessed with eating better. You want to live as long as possible, stay lean, and feel great, so you’re worried about what you eat.
You see images on the television and in the gym warning you of the dangers of things like high fructose corn syrup, sugar, saturated fat, and grains. You’re confused.
Eating a healthy diet is important. It’s the first element of flexible dieting. If you aren’t eating a healthy diet, you won’t feel as good on a daily basis, you’ll eat more total calories, you’ll probably gain weight, and you may die sooner.
But that doesn’t mean eating healthy is complicated or hard. This article will show you the three fundamental elements of eating a healthy diet.
1. Eat mostly whole, nutritious, filling foods.
When you can choose a food that’s more similar to how it’s found in nature, do it.
When you can choose a food that’s higher in nutrients for the same number of calories, do it.
When you can choose a food that’s more satisfying for the same number of calories, do it.
For example, if you have the choice between apple sauce and an apple, choose the latter. If you have the choice between steak and sausage, choose the former. If you have the choice between oatmeal and a granola bar, choose the former.
Remember, these are simple guidelines to make eating a healthy diet easier. Just because a food isn’t found in nature (e.g. yogurt) doesn’t mean it’s bad for you. You’re also not going to get fat if you have one cookie with a lot of calories and very few nutrients.
These simple, whole, nutritious foods should form the base of your diet — not necessarily every calorie.
As long as you’re eating at least 80% of your diet from whole fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, and some starches, you’ll be fine. You’re free to choose exactly which of these foods you eat.
Most people who are concerned about their health, like you, are already eating at least 80% of their calories from these foods. Generally they eat closer to 90-95%, so don’t worry too much about counting the exact amount of junk food you eat.
2. Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables.
If there’s one thing pretty much everyone can agree on, it’s that vegetables are good for you.
People who eat more fruits and vegetables tend to be healthier and have an easier time staying lean.(1-12)
As a general rule, try to eat at least 5-10 servings, or 400 grams, of fruits and vegetables per day. More is generally better.(13,14)
Whether you eat mostly fruit or vegetables doesn’t really matter, because many of the things we consider “vegetables” are actually fruit, like zucchini and tomatoes. It’s kind of a dumb distinction, so just eat lots of colorful plant matter that’s fairly low in calories and high in micronutrients and fiber.
Here are some of my favorite fruits and vegetables:
- Butternut squash.
- Summer squash.
- Bell peppers.
- Lettuce and spinach.
If you’re not sure where to start, pick five fruits and five vegetables and rotate through them.
3. Eat a variety of animal products.
Technically, you could get enough quality protein only from plants. But most plants don’t have all of the essential amino acids, which means you would have to be extremely careful to eat plants with the right amino acid levels.
Even if you were willing to go to this kind of trouble, there’s no scientific reason you should avoid animal products for your health. There are also some potential dangers of completely avoiding animal products or meat.
Animal products tend to be a much better source of branched chain amino acids and essential amino acids than plants. If you eat even a few servings of meat per day, you can be pretty sure you’re getting enough quality protein.
Animal products are also high in micronutrients and micro-minerals such as the more bioavailable form of heme-iron. Some nutrients are only available from animal products, like vitamin B12. Many animal products are also high in essential fatty acids, choline, retinol, antioxidants, and other nutrients. Animals also generally have higher levels of DHA and EPA, which are the fatty acids that seem to be the most important.
People who avoid animal products generally have a higher risk of becoming deficient in vitamin B12 and possibly several other nutrients.(15-20) Interestingly, vegans also tend to be at a higher risk of developing advanced glycation end products, possibly as the result of not consuming enough of the amino acid carnosine.(21,22)
Given there’s little evidence animal products cause cancer,(23) heart disease, or just about any other problem for most people, there’s really no reason not to eat them if you’re trying to stay healthy and lean.*
This doesn’t mean you should eat all of your calories from meat, but getting much of your protein and fat from a variety of animal products is a good way to ensure you’re getting adequate nutrition.
There are some vegetarians who are able to stay very healthy, but most still consume some animal products.
That’s it. Eat mostly whole plants and animals. Here’s how to get started.
Your Action Plan
Step 1: Take an inventory of your kitchen, create a grocery list, and go shopping.
Step 2: Eat one more serving of fruits or vegetables at one of your meals. It doesn’t matter which meal. Pick whatever is most convenient.
Step 3: Eat another serving of lean meat, dairy, or protein at one of your meals. If you’re vegan or vegetarian, you can eat something else high in protein.
Continue this pattern of adding a small amount of vegetables to your meals until you’re eating at least 10 servings per day of combined fruits and vegetables.
Eventually, you should also eat at least one serving of lean protein at all of your meals.
Eating a Healthy Diet is Not Hard or Complicated
Everywhere you look, you’re told to watch out for “bad” foods.
It’s easy to become a nervous wreck around when you see every food as a potential threat. Relax.
As long as you follow to the guidelines in this article 99% of the fear mongering you see in the media is irrelevant. It will be easier to lose fat, you’ll stay healthier, and you’ll live longer, without obsessing over every calorie that enters your mouth.
That’s the first step to becoming a flexible dieter.
* There are other reasons you may choose not to eat animal products. But if you’re doing it to be healthy, you may want to reconsider.
This is part 1 in a series on Flexible Dieting. Click here to read part 2:
[Flexible Dieting Week 2: Learn to Eat When You’re Hungry](http://evidencemag.com/flexible-dieting-week-2-learn-to-eat-when-youre-hungry/)
> Did you enjoy this article? [Click here to check out my book, *Flexible Dieting](http://evidencemag.com/flexible-dieting-book)*. Want an even more in-depth education on how to lose weight, build muscle, and get stronger and healthier? [Join Evidence Mag Elite](http://evidencemag.com/elite) and get member’s-only reports and interviews.
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