What Is a Healthy Diet?

In This Chapter

  • The right blend of nutrients for a healthy diet
  • How do your foods measure up to the standards?
  • Dishing out more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables to build a better plate
  • Favorite foods and your eating routines
  • Food ruts and what to do about them

A healthy diet has a different meaning to different people. Your view of what constitutes a healthy diet will change over time. When you make small changes that become new habits, you reset what your view of a healthy diet. A healthy diet is not about excluding foods. It’s about variety, moderation, portion control, and including new healthy foods.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends starting healthy eating habits early in life. By maintaining a healthy diet throughout each phase of your life, you’ll help prevent cancer, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and other health problems.

Meeting Your Body’s Needs

Getting the nutrients your body needs from foods varies from person to person and from day to day. Age, sex, fitness, activity level, and disease effect how many nutrients your body requires on a daily basis.

What you ate in your twenties without gaining a pound probably won’t work in your forties. Most people find they need fewer and fewer calories to maintain the same weight as in their early years.

Mixing up your diet and adjusting the amounts of carbohydrates, protein, and fats in the foods you eat is a good place to start. It’s also important to listen to internal cues from your body and its messages regarding hunger, fatigue, and mood. This, along with regular exercise, will help you achieve optimum health.

Nutrients for Health

Your diet should contain a blend of carbohydrate, protein, and fat. When these energy components are combined, these three groups will total 100 percent of your calories. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends certain percentage acceptable macronutrient distribution ranges (AMDR) that each component should contribute to your diet for optimal health.

Carbohydrates should comprise 45 to 65 percent of your calories daily. This equates to about 100 to 145 grams of carbohydrates daily, based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Carbohydrates generally come from starchy vegetables, fruits, and grains. Aim to make half of your grains whole grains.

Protein should comprise between 10 and 35 percent of your calories, or about 50 to 150 grams daily, based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Selecting a variety of lean protein sources is key. Choose from plant-based proteins (legumes, beans, nuts, and seeds) and animal protein (dairy, eggs, fish, lean chicken, and meat).


A recommended percentage acceptable macronutrient distribution range (AMDR) for carbohydrates, proteins, and fats helps ensure people take in enough healthy nutrients in their diets while limiting others (such as fat) to help ward off disease. These standards are part of the Dietary Reference Intake and are determined by the IOM.

The AMDR for fats is 20 to 35 percent of your calories, which works out to 45 to 78 grams daily for a 2,000-calorie diet. WHO recommends fat should not exceed 30 percent of the total calories consumed. In addition, they recommend replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats (poly- and monounsaturated). Following the WHO recommendations, your fat intake should not exceed 67g per day.

Added sugar is any sugar added during the processing or formulation of foods. It doesn’t include sugar that occurs naturally in foods, such as in fruits and vegetables. Sugar is added to soda, baked goods, protein bars, salad dressings, and ketchup just to name just a few. WHO recommends added sugar should not be more than 10 percent of the total calories consumed. For a 2,000-calorie diet, this equals no more than 50g per day (or less than 12 teaspoons per day). One teaspoon of sugar contains 4.2 grams of fat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that excessive added sugar intake can lead to increased triglyceride levels and weight gain, which are precursors to various other diseases.

Salt or sodium is another component of foods most Americans get too much of. The recommendation from the USDA is 2,300mg per day, and the average American consumes close to 5,000mg per day. Some foods are a natural source of sodium, such as celery and eggs. However, most of the sodium we consume comes from prepared and processed foods. Foods high in sodium are generally low in potassium, which has an opposite effect on blood pressure than sodium. WHO recommends increasing potassium intake from fresh fruits and vegetables and decreasing sodium-laden foods.

Determining how much of the three energy components are in your diet can be tricky. New technology, such as online, tablet, and smartphone apps, can come in handy. Many apps and web-based programs do the work for you by breaking down what you eat into graphic charts that display your overall calorie distribution. These apps can track the distribution daily and provide you weekly and monthly averages.

Food labels are a quick and easy way to estimate percentages by simply looking at the percent daily values (%DV), which are based on a 2,000-calorie diet. The downside is not every meal will have a food label attached to it. Determining the proportion of these three components on your plate by using labels can be time-consuming. A simpler approach to estimating your meal makeup is to simply look at your plate.

Here’s how to rate your plate.

1. Look at your plate and determine what portion are carbohydrates (grains, bread, fruit, yogurt, milk, starchy vegetables, and added sugar). It should be about 50 percent.

2. Estimate your serving of proteins (animal products, grains, beans/legumes, and dairy). It should be about 20 to 30 percent.

3. Identify sources of fat (oils you eat and cook with; salad dressings, dips, and condiments; fat in protein, cheese, eggs, dairy, nuts, and seeds). It should constitute less than 30 percent.

Some of the foods in these categories overlap. You may be able to count one food in two groups. For example, dairy is a good source of carbohydrate and protein. As you can see, this could get quite complicated. By utilizing online programs or apps to track your foods, you can get a clear picture of the breakdown of each energy nutrient. This will help you to decrease or increase quantities to create a more balanced diet.


Variety is important to keeping yourself on a healthy track. Eating the same things day after day becomes monotonous and lessens your joy in life.

Think of the nutrients as an all-you-can-eat buffet. If every time you only eat two things, you’ll miss out on everything else. Choosing different items of varying colors (red, orange, yellow/white, green, and blue/purple) will ensure you get a variety of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Look in your shopping cart and ask yourself, “Do my selections match the colors of the rainbow?”

It’s important to vary your protein selections, too. If you only eat chicken, you miss out on the omega-3 fatty acids in fish. If you skip eggs, you may be lacking in biotin. Grains contain different types of fiber, amino acids, and vitamins. Quinoa is considered a complete protein—it contains all essential amino acids in sufficient quantities. However, there’s even a difference between the red and white varieties. Oats are high in soluble fiber, and wheat is high is phosphorus.


Quinoa is an ancient grain originally harvested by the Incans in Peru. There are over 100 different varieties of quinoa, but we mostly see red and white in our grocery stores. Red quinoa has a slightly different nutrient profile than white, but both are good sources of protein, fiber, B vitamins, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and zinc. Try it as a substitute for rice in your next meal.

If you eat the same foods cooked the same way every day, can you taste them any longer? Eating a variety of foods helps to reinforce mindful eating. Trying new foods will lead to new taste adventures and help ensure you get all the nutrients you need.

Portion Control

The term “serving” is open to interpretation. Your idea of what a serving of pasta is will be completely different from everyone else’s version. Most serving sizes are much larger than what is actually considered a nutritional serving. Rethinking serving sizes is the first place to start when you’re working on portion control. Use measuring cups to measure out portions for a few weeks until you learn what a serving size looks like on your plate, in your bowl, or in your glass.

Have you ever considered how the size of your plate affects your portions? A dinner plate should be approximately 8 or 9 inches in diameter. If your plate is larger, consider using a salad plate for your meals or purchasing smaller plates. When serving your plate, fill half of it with vegetables and fruits, and divide the remaining half between whole grains and lean proteins with dairy on the side. This method can help keep you in check when you eat out.

Another good idea is to plate your food in the kitchen rather than serving family-style at the table. Be sure to put leftovers away so you aren’t tempted to get up from the table for seconds. Replace empty-calorie beverages with milk or milk alternatives and water at mealtimes.

Eating meals and snacks throughout the day will help you manage your portion sizes, and you’ll be less likely to overeat. If you notice your weight is creeping back up, it might be a good idea to recheck your portion sizes and bring out those measuring cups.

Serving Size Tips and Techniques

Here’s a quick guide to help you determine what an actual serving size is.

  • 1 cup vegetables (the size of a small fist)
  • 2 cups leafy vegetables
  • 1 cup fruit or a small piece (the size of a tennis ball)
  • ¼ cup dried fruit
  • ⅓ cup rice, pasta, barley, or quinoa
  • ½ cup cooked oatmeal
  • 1 cup milk
  • 8 ounces yogurt
  • 1 ounce cheese (1-inch cube)
  • ¼ cup nuts and seeds (fits into the palm of your hand)
  • 1 tablespoon oil, nut butter, hummus, or salad dressing (the size of the top half of your thumb)
  • 4 ounces fish, meat, or poultry (the size of a deck of cards)
  • 1 large egg

Practice these tips every day for a week and portion control will be a snap.


There are some essential tools for getting a handle on portion size. A good set of dry and liquid measuring cups to measure out servings will help you get the hang of what a cup of milk or ⅓ cup of rice looks like. Another good investment is a kitchen scale that weighs in both grams and ounces. It should also be able to be zeroed out when you put an empty bowl on it. Using a kitchen scale will help you learn exactly what 4 ounces of chicken or a 125-gram apple looks like. An inexpensive scale runs about $20.

If cooking meals quickly is imperative, consider microwave-cooking devices such as a microwave steamer. You can steam vegetables and fish and reheat whole grains in a snap. If you’re cooking for one, consider purchasing a toaster oven. You can broil or poach fish and chicken, roast vegetables, and toast nuts, all without turning on your main oven.

Your Food Nemesis

You’re not alone in your food cravings. A study from the Research Center on Aging at Tufts University showed over 90 percent of women experienced food cravings. Foods eliciting strong cravings tended to be high in fat and calories and low in fiber and protein. Research showed reducing portion size had the largest impact on their long-term body mass index (BMI). In addition, those successful with weight loss didn’t give in to their food cravings as frequently as those with less weight loss.

A study published in Appetite reports researchers have found a link between carbohydrate intake and serotonin release. During meals and snacks high in carbohydrate and low in protein, large amounts of insulin are released, which lowers your blood sugar. This allows an easier passage for the amino acid tryptophan to head to the brain and make serotonin. Protein blocks the effect and mediates the release.


Serotonin is a chemical in the body that acts as a neurotransmitter. It’s made from the amino acid tryptophan. Most of the serotonin is found in cells in the GI tract. Small amounts are made and used in the brain. When released, it produces feelings of happiness and a sense of well-being. Serotonin deficiencies may cause depression, mood and sleep disorders, and sexual dysfunctions. There are ways you may be able to boost your levels of serotonin. Exercise and alteration in thoughts and diet have shown positive results.

Researchers at the University of San Francisco report a relationship between stress and food cravings. Certain regions of the brain are activated during food cravings. Research shows the brain sends out signals correlating to craving fat and sugar. After ingesting fat and sugar, the brain has a reduction in stress hormones and is calmed. Carbohydrates get a bad rap for cravings because when they’re consumed they release serotonin and help calm us down. However, most of the high-carb foods we crave also contain high amounts of fat. Think potato chips, ice cream, and cookies, for example.

A study reported in the International Journal of Obesity showed a correlation between the reduction of high-fat foods and feelings of anxiety and withdrawal. It’s thought that completely eliminating high-fat foods may lead to an increase in food-motivated behavior.

Becoming self-actualized about your eating habits will help you overcome your food nemesis. Many times we have foods we simply can’t resist. We know they’re not the best choice to help us reach our health goals, and in fact they may actually be harming us. This nemesis is about more than just the food.

The first step in self-actualization about your eating habits is to identify your food nemesis. Is it the ice cream in the freezer calling to you at night? The pastry staring at you from the case as you wait in line for your morning cup of Joe? Often a food nemesis is habitual and we give in to it on a daily basis without really thinking about it. Before you can change the behavior, you need to stop and evaluate the emotional hold it has on you.

Food cravings can be triggered by emotional responses. Learning to deal with these responses in healthy ways will reduce these triggers. Tell yourself food will not help you feel less stressed or make you happier. Think of other ways you can feel better other than eating what you’re craving.

An important factor in weight loss is to reduce the portion size of your food nemesis. When you decide it’s time to give in, portion out the food. Use small bowls or bags to make your allotted portion seem bigger. Don’t sit down with the entire bag of chips or container of ice cream. When you portion out the food, stop and look at it. Smell it and savor each bite. Be present in the moment. If your willpower is lacking and you find it difficult to keep your portion sizes smaller, then purchase single-size servings to have on hand for snacking.

Reducing the frequency of giving in to cravings is another key component to successful weight loss. One approach is to gradually wean yourself from it. Try limiting the food to every other day, then down to once a week, and eventually once a month. It’s also a good idea to only purchase a single-size serving to help limit its impact on your diet. It also may be helpful to not purchase the item at all. If the food is not in the freezer or cupboard, you can’t use it as a “go to” after a bad day of work.

For some people, changing to a low-fat or low-calorie version helps with the craving. Eating a low-fat brownie or ice cream satisfies the craving without jeopardizing the diet. However, always use caution with this method. Don’t allow yourself to have larger portions to make up for the reduced calories.

How to Cultivate New Food Habits

Don’t expect your food habits to change overnight. Make small changes a few at a time, and when those become habits, make a few more. Don’t get discouraged. You’ll have cravings, get sidetracked, and get stuck in a food rut from time to time. Keeping track of your progress can help your motivation.

The Plan

Good health doesn’t just happen; you have to plan for it. Having healthy foods on hand will make the healthy choice the easiest choice. Pick a day to sit down and plan out meals for the week. Plan to have three meals a day with one or two snacks.

Understand your lifestyle and be realistic. If you work 12 hours a day, you know it’s unrealistic to cook an elaborate dinner when you get home. If you find the lack of time is your biggest constraint, shop and prep foods on your day off. You can then precook proteins and grains, wash and cut up vegetables, and assemble lunch containers for the week to grab on your way out the door. Make yogurt parfaits, veggie and hummus combos, salads (with dressings on the side), sandwich kits, and heat-and-serve dinners. Seriously, nothing is better than coming home starved and opening the fridge to find a delicious dinner already made.

Avoiding and Dealing with Cravings and Ruts

“Why am I craving potato chips right now?” Ask yourself these questions the next time a craving sets in. Are you tired, overly hungry, or had a rough day? Or do you eat potato chips every day at lunch? Being honest with yourself as to why you have a food craving can be the first step in overcoming it. If the craving is mood-related, do something about the mood. If you’re tired, take a nap, go to bed earlier, or sit quietly and relax for a few minutes. If you’re lonely, reach out to a friend, take your dog to the park, or go on a walk.

Did something happen today you just can’t shake? Try meditating quietly, writing in a journal, or making an action plan to resolve the problem. If your cravings are habitual, make a new habit. Have chips every day with lunch? Replace them with crunchy vegetables dipped in hummus and only have chips with your lunch on Fridays. Food will not resolve your problems.

We all get into food ruts. By being a creature of habit, you don’t have to think and make decisions. You may order the same entrée, pack the same lunch, or eat the same breakfast. Maybe you stop for a latte every day on the way to work or celebrate Friday nights with pizza and beer. You may buy bananas, apples, and lettuce every time you go to the grocery store because it’s easy.

Change won’t happen by itself. Incorporate a new plan by looking at sale ads and buying fresh fruits and vegetables you might not have tried otherwise. Set a goal to try a new recipe once a week. Getting out of a rut will lead to more mindful eating. You’ll actually start to think mindfully about what you’re eating and spend time tasting foods rather than just shoveling them down.

Getting Sidetracked

We all get sidetracked. Old habits can be hard to break, even when we think we’re past them. Vacations and holidays are often times we revert, make excuses, and give ourselves permission to eat unlimited amounts. It’s okay to eat your grandma’s stuffing at Thanksgiving, your mom’s holiday cookies, or pizza at a famous restaurant while on vacation. Enjoy the splurges and move on. Good nutrition is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.

The Least You Need to Know

  • A healthy diet doesn’t happen overnight. It requires a commitment and planning.
  • Identifying correct food portions is a quick and easy way to manage your weight.
  • Try new foods—you never know what you’ve been missing out on.
  • Changing a lifetime of food habits is hard work, so be gentle with yourself and allow for setbacks.
  • Practice mindful eating habits and don’t let your emotions rule your food choices.
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