The basics of healthy eating

Healthy eating can be simple. To eat healthy, all that we need to do is to follow a few key strategies that are designed to simplify your choices when you are planning, preparing and/or choosing meals.

In this post I am going to cover three strategies that should underpin every choice you make when planning your diet.

What is the purpose of healthy eating?

Before we dive into these strategies, it is useful to first consider why it is that you are eating healthfully. What is the purpose of healthy eating? 

Healthy eating is eating in a way that achieves two things: 

  1. Support of body cells and tissues, both to meet their standard functions as well as any extra performance goals that you have, and 

  2. Prevention of diet-related chronic disease. 

Let’s explore these briefly. 

Support of body cells and tissues

As the saying goes, we are what we eat, quite literally. Many of the atoms in your body have come from what you have consumed. Every time you eat something made from a grain, you are consuming glucose, a sugar molecule. This glucose enters your body, travels through your blood and gets taken into your cells to produce energy. And what does this energy do? It helps these cells divide, it lets nerve signals travel throughout your body, and it helps your muscles move (among many other functions!). Every time you go for a walk, or pick up a book, one way or another, your body is drawing down on some of those glucose molecules you have recently eaten. Another example? Protein. Protein is made up of 20 amino acids. Once consumed, these amino acids travel through your blood, get taken into cells, and are made into a massive variety of different proteins and enzymes; this could be an enzyme that digests your food; a hormone, like insulin; connective tissue, such as collagen; a neurotransmitter, such as serotonin; or a protein that helps your muscles contract. And it is not just macronutrients, micronutrients also support your body. Selenium is a good example. Once consumed, selenium gets taken into almost every cell of your body, and protects their cellular membranes, DNA and other important cellular components from what is termed oxidative damage. Without selenium, your cells would die from this damage.  

When it comes to sports and performance nutrition, the roles that these macronutrients and micronutrients play increase. Running a marathon requires extra energy from fat and glucose, and building muscle mass requires extra energy and protein. 

With all of these nutrients playing such important and diverse roles in your body, you can see how one of the purposes of healthy eating is to support your body’s cells and tissues. 

Prevention of chronic disease

Scientists, however, do not only look to the tiny world of cells and tissues to explore the impact of what we eat on the body. They also look at the clinical effects of consuming foods. In fact, quite a number of diet-related chronic diseases have been discovered, and are currently the focus of state, national and even international programs. We have found that when people regularly consume more energy than they are expending, they become overweight or obese. And once a person is overweight or obese, cardiometabolic disorders such as high blood pressure, or type 2 diabetes mellitus may not be far behind. We have found that certain patterns of eating are associated with the development of certain cancers, and we have found that exposing your teeth to simple sugars too often can result in the development of dental caries, or cavities. So, when we are aiming to eat healthfully, we need to be considering more than just supporting our body’s cells and tissues; we also need to be keeping an eye on the outcomes of poor eating. 

What is food?

Ok, so we have established the two goals of healthy eating. But now, lets turn to what it is that we will be eating to achieve these goals – food. The best way to look at food is as a conglomerate of things: 

  1. Things that we know our body needs, and which have a recommended daily requirement. These include nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and amino acids. 

  2. Things that we know our body doesn’t need, or doesn’t need too much of. These include added sugars, trans fats, saturated fats, sodium and the so called ‘anti-nutrients’, substances that interfere with the absorption and use of nutrients in food. 

  3. Things which we believe are good for you, but which do not have recommended daily requirements. Some minerals fall into this category, as do many plant-based chemicals, called phytochemicals. 

It is important to note here that every food is going to be its own unique mix of these things. 

Simple strategies to eat healthy

Now we can combine the two: We know that we need to eat in a way that supports our millions of body cells and tissues; and that we need to eat in a way that prevents the development of diet-related chronic disease; and we need to do this by eating foods, which contain a mix of things we know we need, things we know we don’t need too much of, and things we believe we need. 

It sounds a bit complicated! But it really is not. Let’s unpack the solution in three stages. 

Maximising the things we know we need – the food groups

First, we’ll look at how to consume enough of the things we know we need. 

It is a peculiar but awesome fact that nature has concentrated the nutrients we know we need into the same sorts of foods. 

  • Grain/cereal foods are high in fibre, protein, B vitamins and iodine, among others. 

  • Vegetables/legumes are high in vitamin A, vitamin C and fibre, among others. 

  • Fruits are high in fibre and vitamin C, among others 

  • Dairy/Calcium-rich foods are high in calcium, protein and B vitamins, among others. 

  • Meats and nuts are high in protein, iron, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids, among others. 

  • Oils are high in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, among others. 

  • Water. This is high in water (and is a source of minerals). 

We can use this knowledge to simplify dietary planning. Indeed, the Australian Dietary Guidelines provides very clear guidance on exactly how many serves of each of these food groups we need to consume based on our gender, age, height and activity levels. There is even a calculator available to help you determine this if you wish; however, without getting too complicated, I recommend designing a type of eating pattern that fits well with the way you like to eat. Of course, this eating pattern shouldn’t be set in stone, we need room for change, however it is a good starting point to designing and choosing your meals. 

  • At every main meal, I try to have some dairy/calcium-rich foods, grain, meat/nuts and vegetables 

  • At snack times I try to have some dairy, fruit or nuts.

  • I drink the recommended amount of water throughout the day.

So far so good. 

Minimising the nutrients we know we don’t need much of – the 5-20 rule

To avoid consuming excessive amounts of added sugars, trans fats, saturated fats and sodium, we need to look at labels. The FDA in America advertise a very useful little rule to remember. This is called the 5-20 rule, and it works like this: 

  • Look at the nutritional panel on your foods (some foods like fruit and vegetables won’t have these, but you don’t need to worry too much about these). 

  • Look for a column called ‘Daily Percent Value’ (this is usually next to the ‘Qty per serve’ column). 

  • Look for the nutrients ‘sodium’, ‘sugars’, ‘trans fats’ and ‘saturated fats’. 

  • If the panel states that the food contains 5% or less of these nutrients, then the food can be considered a ‘low source’ of the nutrient, and is probably ok to eat. If the food contains more than 5% you would want to be cautious, and if it contains 20% or more of these nutrients, then it is a high source, and probably should be avoided. Ideally, only eat foods with 5% or less of these nutrients. 

Now, not every food will have a nutritional panel, nor will every nutritional panel have the percent daily value, or a value for trans fats, but many processed foods will contain a nutritional panel with a percent daily value column, so do have a look for it. 

The anti-nutrients and the nutrients we believe we need - Variety

It is widely recognised that many nutrients outside of those with a recommended dietary intake or adequate intake probably contribute to your health. How do you ensure that you are maximising your chances of getting these nutrients? 

Variety. 

Variety of colours, variety of food sources. 

In fact, variety is not only good for ensuring we get these kinds of nutrients. It is also good for ensuring we don’t consume too much of the nutrients and anti-nutrients we don’t want too much of, as well as good for ensuring we do consume enough of the nutrients we know we need. 

Given that every food has a slightly different nutrient composition, it makes sense that if we consume a greater diversity of foods, then we will consume a greater diversity of nutrients. This will in turn maximise our chances of getting the nutrients we need and believe we need, while reducing our consumption of those that we shouldn’t consume too much of. 

A good way of knowing whether you are eating a variety of foods is to aim to consume 20-30 different foods each day.

Summary

Of course, we can be increasingly specific about your dietary requirements, and we can plan a very individualised diet for you based on your specific requirements, goals, health history and dietary preferences; this is important for people with specific health issues, and for those with specific fitness and sporting goals. However, for many people, it might be enough just to know how to navigate the food environment. So, to sum up the main points: 

  1. Eat foods from each of the food groups in the recommended quantities. Or, more simply, try to pick a dietary pattern that suits you and which covers all of the food groups. For example, I try to eat grain, meat/nuts, vegetables and dairy/calcium-rich foods at every main meal; some fruit, nuts and more vegetables at snack times; and drink water throughout the day. 

  2. Read food labels, and choose options that state they have less than 5% of the daily value of sugars, saturated fats, trans fats and sodium. 

  3. Aim to consume 20-30 different foods each day.

By following these three simple strategies, you should be well on your way to supporting your cells and tissues, meeting your health and fitness goals, and preventing diet-related chronic disease.