“What is a Healthy Diet?’ is a question I get asked all the time. The truth is, there is no short answer.
The World Health Organization defines a healthy diet as an eating pattern which “helps to protect against malnutrition in all its forms, as well as [chronic] diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer.”
To me, that leaves a lot on the table. So often, the word diet alone makes us think about restriction and discipline. I prefer the greek term, Dieta, meaning ‘way of living.’ Our daily eating pattern is shaped by much more than just avoidance of disease or malnutrition— things like personal beliefs, preferences, socioeconomic status, and importantly, lifestyle.
There is no established optimal diet for humans; but eating choices can drive us closer or further from health.
Here are some things I consider when defining a ‘healthy diet’:
- Nutrient Density. Nutrient density is the amount of micronutrients relative to calories in a food. This is different than energy density (which refers to foods with high-calorie per gram ratios). Processed foods tend to be “empty” and low in nutrient density in that they offer a lot of calories and fewer micronutrients. The first step in establishing a healthy diet is replacing processed foods with nutrient-dense whole foods. This includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, and protein.
- Individuality. I agree with the WHO that a truly healthy diet should be protective against chronic, preventable disease. When your food choices are negatively impacting body systems; you are limiting general wellness. This includes cognitive function, growth and development, immune health, reproductive function, healthy skeletal and muscular systems, organ function, and energy production. However, these ‘protective’ food choices can look different based on your unique biochemistry. [For example, some individuals may consume legumes to prevent diabetes while others will need to avoid beans to prevent immune overstimulation.] There is no “good” or “bad” food.
- Sustainability. Beyond ecologic sustainability, a healthy diet is one that you can sustain over the long term. Restrictive diets (whether measured by calorie or food group) can lead to disordered eating patterns, weight cycling, and mood dysregulation. A healthy diet should be realistic and enjoyable, a true way of life.
Ultimately, a healthy diet is one which makes you feel GOOD over the long term. It will likely change based on health goals, activity level, age, food availability, and priorities. Lean into the seasons of life and thrive wherever you are by defining your personal eating strategy. Consider the nutrient density, individuality, and sustainability in short and long term increments and adjust as needed.
If you find yourself out-of-awareness with what foods are right for you, I recommend reaching out to a dietician or nutritionist for help. A functional medicine practitioner can look at your diet in the context of your overall health and help determine an optimal eating strategy that fits the “Healthy Diet” construct.
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