What’s a Healthy Diet?

Most of you reading this probably aren’t sick right now. But are you healthy?

Health is about more than just lack of disease. It’s about having a body strong enough to support an active and fulfilling life. And strong enough to grow old. Whether you’re healthy depends on many factors, from genetics to the environment you live in. Not all of them are under your control, but the one factor that is, is your diet. If you get your diet right, it goes a long way in keeping you healthy.

And here comes the million-dollar question: what constitutes a healthy diet? Is it enough to eat more veggies? What about avoiding fat, carbs, cholesterol? There’s no shortage of healthy eating advice out there and it can be difficult to know what to believe. The truth is, there are many ways to eat healthy. And all of them can be boiled down to a few basic principles.

Principle #1: A healthy diet includes everything you need

  • Essential nutrients

The food you eat contains a variety of nutrients, but some are more valuable to your body than others. They’re called essential nutrientsSource: Wikipedia because you cannot function properly without them and your body has no way of getting them other than from food. Carbs, fats, protein, vitamins and minerals are all essential nutrients. Getting a sufficient amount of all of them is the backbone of a healthy diet.

There’s no single food that contains all essential nutrients at once, but almost every food contains some. That’s why diversity is important if you want to eat healthy. And as long as you have diversity in your diet, there are countless food combinations that can deliver the full set of nutrients your body needs. This means that you don’t have to stick to the usual suspects all the time – like veggies, for example. Hands down, they’re good sources of essential vitamins and minerals. But you can get the same essential nutrients from fruits, grains, nuts, seeds, milk or fish, ending up with a low-veggie or no-veggie diet that still delivers everything your body needs. A healthy diet is about nutrients, not specific foods.

  • Non-essential nutrients

Essential nutrients are a prerequisite for a healthy diet. But there are also other nutrients that can help your body stay healthy, and they would be a useful addition to your routine. An example is lycopeneSource: Jake – it’s not involved in essential body functions and you don’t need it to survive. However, due to its strong antioxidative action, it can protect the cells in your body and your brain from damage caused by free radicalsFree radicals are atoms with at least one unpaired electron. Because of their unstable structure, they are highly reactive with other cells and can cause damage to them by stealing their electrons. This is known as oxidation.. You can do fine without that, but why not give your body some extra help?

Principle #2: A healthy diet is balanced

It might sound obvious, but even if your diet contains the full spectrum of essential nutrients, it still won’t be healthy unless it provides the right balance between energy you get and energy you burn. When you consume much more or much less energy than you burn, the obvious result is either weight loss or weight gain. While neither of these outcomes is unhealthy per se, they can become unhealthy if taken to the extreme.

Making sure you’re getting the right amount of energy from your diet is just one side of the balance story. You also need to keep an eye on where your energy comes from – in other words, the balance between your carbs, fats and protein intake.

CarbsSource: Jake are your body’s preferred source of energy, but fats or protein can serve as alternative sources as well. So, if your carb intake is low, you can compensate that to a large extent by increasing your protein or fat intake. However, the same process doesn’t work the other way around. Fats and protein have many more essential functions in your body than providing energy. As a result, a low intake of either nutrient can have negative consequences for your healthA shortage in dietary fats can negatively affect the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, eventually leading to vitamin deficiencies. Next to that, an insufficient fat intake can increase the risk of cognitive decline, disrupt your hormone production, wound healing and growth processes. Protein is involved in numerous essential functions of the body, from cell growth to hormone synthesis and your immune function. A diet poor in protein can be detrimental. Some of the consequences are poor growth, cardiovascular dysfunction and, in extreme cases, diseases like kwashiorkor and marasmus., even if your overall energy intake is right. To make sure you’re on the safe side, keep in mind the recommended dietary allowances (RDA) for fatsSource: Jake and proteinSource: Jake.

Principle #3: A healthy diet excludes everything you don’t need

Having a healthy diet doesn’t only mean including everything your body needs. It also means excluding or minimising your consumption of anything else – especially nutrients that are known to be harmful. Some of these are:

  • Saturated fats: Although some saturated fatThe EFSA recommends that a maximum of 10% of your overall daily energy intake comes from saturated fat.belongs in a healthy diet, higher intakes are associated with increased levels of LDL cholesterolLDL, or low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, is a type of cholesterol often referred to as ‘bad’ cholesterol. High levels of LDL in the blood can cause build-ups in the walls of your blood vessels and increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke., which is a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases.
  • Trans fats: Trans fats are naturally found in meat and dairy products, as well as added to many foods by manufacturers. Trans fats have no known beneficial effect for the functioning of your body, but they do contribute to higher blood levels of LDL cholesterol and, consequently, to cardiovascular diseases.
  • Added sugars: Sugars aren’t unhealthy per se, because they provide a quick source of energy and they have their place in a healthy diet. However, a diet that features high intakes of simple carbs and added sugarsThe EFSA recommends keeping your intake of added sugars to under 10% of total energy intake. can contribute to chronically high blood sugar levels and their associated diseases, including metabolic syndrome, diabetes, obesity, coronary heart disease and stroke.
  • Sodium: Sodium is one of the two components of table salt, the other being chloride. Sodium plays an important role in keeping your cells, muscles and heart healthy. However, too much sodiumMost health authorities, such as the FDA, recommend keeping your sodium consumption under 2.3 g per day. can have the opposite effect, damaging the function of your kidneys and heart.

As nutrition science advances, our understanding of the nutrients on this list could change, just like the composition of the list itself. Remember cholesterol? A decade ago, everyone believed we should be avoiding foods that contain it – a quite unfortunate blow to the reputation of all-time favourite foods such as eggs. Now we know that cholesterol in food has very little effect on LDL cholesterol levels in the blood, whereas saturated and trans fats have a considerable effect.

Unfortunately, not only advancements in our scientific knowledge affect what is perceived as unhealthy. Marketing also plays a role, and not always in a good way. Yes, gluten, I’m thinking of you. Under 1% of Europe’s population suffers from celiac disease or wheat allergy . Without a doubt, the healthy choice for them would be to stay away from gluten. But for anyone else, recommending a gluten-free diet would be like recommending a peanut-free diet to someone who isn’t allergic to peanuts.

To avoid falling in more of these marketing traps, make sure you always double-check any claims with reliable sources such as the European Food and Safety Authority (EFSA)Source: EFSA or Cochrane’s library of systematic reviewsSource: Cochrane Nutrition.

The bottom line

A healthy diet isn’t easy to achieve, especially because there are many ways to do it. But a healthy diet always follows these golden rules:

  • It delivers a sufficient amount of all essential nutrients for your body.
  • It’s balanced. That means you get the right amount of energy to match your needs, and you get it from the right sources.
  • A healthy diet is as much about inclusion as it is about exclusion. Stay away from nutrients known to be harmful. And, of marketing claims known to be useless.