I think the first place to start with the question ‘what is a healthy diet?’ is to define the word ‘diet’.
‘Diet’ is most commonly used as a verb, defined in the Oxford Dictionary as, “to restrict oneself to small amounts or special kinds of food in order to lose weight“. If this is how we are defining diet, the advice over many decades has been at best confusing, often conflicting, and leaves most of us not really knowing what a healthy diet should look like.
‘Diet’ as a noun is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as, “the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats“. In terms of nutrition advise this definition is much more useful as it focuses on the food rather than weight loss. For me, ‘diet’ is the food required to provide sufficient nutrients to meet the nutritional needs of an individual.
It might therefore be less confusing if we reword the original question … How can I eat healthily?
Food is our source of energy. It promotes our well-being, the balance of our mind and our general health. It makes sense then that an inappropriate diet will not only disrupt the digestive system, but also affect many other aspects of our physical and mental health.
Hippocrates, often referred to as the Father of Modern Medicine, said “Let food be your medicine and let medicine be your food.”
So if food is our source of nutrients which will provide energy and sustain our bodies, what nutrients do we require? The main nutrients known to be essential for humans are:
- Proteins (amino acids)
- Essential Fatty Acids (healthy fats)
That looks like a long and complicated list to incorporate into our meals, but by following the basic principles of a balanced plate, we will in fact consume the nutrients we need. A balanced plate will also help to control blood sugar, which is key to maintaining energy levels and good health, but more about that in another blog.
So what does a balanced plate look like?
In simple terms it’s about splitting your plate into 4 quarters and filling each quarter with a specific food type that will give your body the nutrients it needs in the correct quantities. You can see from the diagram below how that works and we’ll briefly look now at what types of food are included in each section.
NON-STARCHY CARBOHYDRATES are your vegetables and you should aim for about half of your plate to be filled with a variety of vegetables in a variety of colours. This is not so that your plate looks pretty but because the different colours give you different vitamins and minerals, so by “eating a rainbow” you will get a range of nutrients. Ensure there is a good quantity of dark green veg included (such as kale or spinach) as these will give you essential fibre, vitamins and minerals.
PROTEIN AND GOOD FATS can include meat, fish, diary or plant sources. If you are a meat eater it is advisable to only eat it a couple of times a week and if you eat fish try to stick to smaller, oily varieties and have 2-3 portions a week. Plant sources of protein include tofu, quinoa, chickpeas and beans. Good fats include avocado, nuts and seeds.
STARCHY CARBOHYDRATES AND GRAINS are the potato / rice / pasta section of your plate. We often overload this section making it the main portion of our meal, so be sure to restrict the portion sizes here to 25% of the plate and where possible eat wholegrain versions of pasta and rice.
This is only a very quick over-view of what makes a healthy diet but I hope what is clear from this is that “diets” that restrict whole food groups (such as low fat or low carb diets) are not a healthy way to eat in the long-term as you are depriving your body of essential nutrients it needs to function.
TAKE ACTION … Download my free 3-day meal planner which will help you to start eating a balanced plate. Click here to download.
If you have any questions please comment below and look out for the new nutrition services that I will be offering soon.