What makes for a healthy diet? Wow, that’s a big question.
And let’s just pause right there, because really, we should be talking about a ‘way of eating’ that is part of your overall healthy lifestyle, not ‘a diet’, because the connotation with the word diet is of a short term regimen of limitation or deprivation, not an ongoing, healthy way of life for optimizing your well-being over your lifetime. Which is what we want to be talking about, right?
So, better question: what makes for a healthy way of eating that minimizes health issues and boosts your energy and quality of life, now and for the long haul?
There is so much conflicting information out there, it can get really confusing. And, the answer does vary somewhat from person to person, and for the same person throughout their life depending on various factors such as age and amount of exercise, sleep, stress, etc. So that adds to the confusion.
But there are certain characteristics of a healthy way of eating that are consistent and that pretty much everyone (including tons of research) agree on, and the biggest ones are that we should eat:
- lots of fresh vegetables (or flash-frozen if fresh is not available),
- organic (especially when consuming any of the dirty dozen, to minimize your consumption of pesticides and herbicides), and
- locally grown and seasonal foods (farmers markets are a great source for these – click here to find one near you – or grow your own veggie garden!)
Another really important characteristic of a healthy way of eating is consuming plenty of healthy fats, and – finally, science has come back around to embrace this fact that our grandmothers and great-grandmothers knew – delicious butter from pasture-raised cows is really good for you. (I know, gamechanger, right?) As are eggs from pasture-raised chickens.
Other healthy fats are: extra virgin olive oil (as long as it’s actually olive oil, and you don’t cook at high heat with it), coconut oil, avocado oil, macadamia nut oil, and lard, tallow and schmaltz (chicken fat) from pastured, healthy animals. (Fish oil is also really good for you, but don’t cook with that – instead, eat a variety of wild-caught seafood, rotating types regularly. Check seafoodwatch.org for the cleanest, safest varieties of seafood.)
And no, you do not need to worry about the cholesterol in foods – in 2015, the USDA wisely determined that science does not support the notion that dietary cholesterol is bad for us, and changed their food guidelines, dropping the limits on fat consumption and stating that “cholesterol is no longer a nutrient of concern”.
For more on the science of how consuming healthy fats is not only good for us but essential for optimal health, read Nina Tiecholz’s blog and her well-researched book on the topic, The Big Fat Surprise.
On the flip side, we know without a doubt that trans-fats are really bad for you (ex. margarine), as is high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors and flavors, packaged and processed foods, and sweeteners of all kinds, natural or artificial, but especially artificial.
In summary – eat lots of veggies (especially non-starchy vegetables), with plenty of healthy fats on them. Add some protein – eaten to satiety (your body will tell you how much you need, so listen to it) – from happy animals who lived a good quality life out romping through the fields in the sunshine. Minimize sweet stuff and stuff in boxes, bottles, bags and cans, and you’re good to go.
There are lots of nuances, of course, and many things to add on for ‘extra credit’, like herbs and spices that are tasty and also really good for you, and cultured foods, and bone broth. And there are certainly many grey areas, too, such as how much salt is good for you, and how much and what kind of alcohol is healthful, and whether and how much to eat nuts, seeds, whole grains and legumes (all are problematic for many people, but are fine for some, especially if properly prepared) and dairy (problematic for most, fine for a small few, with organic and fermented versions being the best.)
This grey area is, I think, where we should focus most of our food-plan-refining efforts. Get the basics down, as above; get them set firmly into habit as your lifestyle (easier said than done, I know, but start there), and then live there for a while and let your body heal and get really healthy and happy.
Then tinker. Make some homemade yogurt, kefir or sour cream, try some kimchi, drink some bone broth, and see if they make you glow, or not. Do you feel better with more fat, or less? More carbs, or less? [Note: Most people feel best with more healthy fats and fewer carbs].
Once you are regularly eating good quality, fresh whole foods most of the time, with plenty of non-starchy veggies and healthy fats and moderate amounts of quality protein, your body will talk to you. It will tell you, reliably, what you really need. And it will reward you amply for taking such good care of it.