The Elements of a Healthy Diet, & How to Change
By Leo Babauta
One of the best things I ever did to change my life (along with exercise, mindfulness, simplicity and focus) is to teach myself to eat a healthy diet.
But one of the things that confused me early on was: what is a healthy diet? There are so many definitions of what’s healthy — low-fat, low-carb, Paleo, vegan, Mediterranean, raw, and so on. It can be pretty confusing.
While I risk making a lot of people angry with this article, I’m going to attempt to synthesize my personal research on healthy eating. This isn’t definitive, and I’m not a nutritionist, but I’ve been exploring a healthy diet and have read hundreds of articles on this, sorting the good from the bad.
Here’s what I believe is healthy.
A diet is healthy if it:
- gives your body nutrients it needs,
- without giving you too many calories (too many calories leads to obesity over time),
- or unhealthy things (like too much saturated or trans fat, nitrates, excess sodium, unhealthy chemicals).
This definition is for the long term, not day to day. On any given day, you could have less nutrients than you need, and too many calories and sodium, but if the diet balances out over time, then it can be healthy.
So healthy food contributes to that: a good nutrient-to-calorie ratio without a lot of the bad stuff.
What kind of nutrients does your body need? It needs essential amino acids (protein), healthy fats, some carbs for energy, and a bunch of vitamins and minerals like iron, calcium, Vitamin D, sodium, potassium, and so forth. Fiber is good too, and of course you need water. This obviously isn’t a complete list.
If a food gives you some of those nutrients, without a lot of empty calories, it’s probably healthy. For example, spinach gives you Fiber, Protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E (Alpha Tocopherol), Vitamin K, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Copper and Manganese and more. Without giving you a lot of calories or unhealthy things.
But half a loaf of white bread might give you a bunch of calories without too many nutrients (maybe a bit of protein and a few other vitamins). These are empty calories, and we want less of those.
Everything, though, is fine in moderation. You can eat bread without guilt if it’s just a smaller part of your diet, and the rest of your diet is full of nutrient-dense stuff. If your diet is mostly empty calories, that’s not healthy.
With that in mind, here’s an incomplete list of foods I think are amazingly healthy:
- Greens. Green leafy vegetables are the nutrient kings. They contain a ton of great vitamins and minerals, lots of fiber, not a lot of calories or other unhealthy things. Good examples: kale, spinach, broccoli, bok choy, mustard greens, green bell peppers, romaine lettuce.
- Red, yellow & orange fruits & veggies. These colorful veggies add nutrients you won’t get as much elsewhere, like lycopene, potassium, vitamin C and beta-carotene (vitamin A). Good examples: carrots, squash, tomatoes, red and yellow bell peppers, sweet potatoes, squash, pumpkin, corn. Plus fruits: mangos, oranges, apricots, bananas, papaya.
- Onions & garlic. I put these in all kinds of meals, and they have been shown to have cancer-protection properties.
- Beans and such. Lentils, black beans, red beans, white beans, peas, mung beans — lots of fiber and minerals and protein. I absolutely love a good lentil soup or black bean burger or chili with various kinds of beans.
- Nuts & seeds. Healthy fats and proteins — walnuts, almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, quinoa.
- Proteins. As a vegan, I get my protein from plants — vegetables and whole grains have protein, but you can get lots of it in tofu, tempeh, seitan, soymilk. If you’re not vegan, I recommend fish and poultry, with red meat in moderation (it’s been shown to increase risks of cancer, for example, especially processed red meats like sausage, bacon and corned beef).
- Fruits. Some people are afraid of fruits because they have sugar, but I’ve found them to be extremely healthy, and they satisfy my sweet cravings. My favorites: berries, apples, stone fruit (like peaches, apricots, plums), tropical fruits (mangos, papayas, starfruit, bananas, coconut).
- Healthy fats. Our bodies need healthy fats, and polyunsaturated fats are especially healthy and seem to lower risks of heart attacks and certain cancers. Good sources: walnuts, canola oil, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, chia seeds, olive oil, fish, avocados, whole grain wheat, flaxseed oil, soybeans.
- Whole grains. Some people shy away from grains, but I’ve found them super healthy when they aren’t ground into flour. So I’ll eat Ezekiel flourless breads and cereals, but also brown rice, steel-cut oats, amaranth, and quinoa (which isn’t technically a grain). There are lots of other traditional grains to try. And whole-grain flour isn’t bad in moderation.
- Dairy and/or soy. As a vegan, I tend not to advocate dairy, but there’s no doubt we need calcium and vitamin D, and dairy provides those as well as protein. I drink soymilk, which gives me the same things (along with Vitamin B12, which vegans need).
- Drinks. Avoid sugary drinks and too much alcohol. Black coffee (or with a splash of cream), tea, green juice, and a glass of red wine are all great. And water is best!
Oh, and mushrooms are super healthy! I’ve probably forgotten 10 other healthy foods.
Moderation: You should base your diet on the list above, but you can always have other foods in moderation. White rice, white breads, white potatoes, sugars, fried foods, fatty foods, red meats … these can all be a part of a healthy diet. I’ll have pancakes now and then, but it’s not my main breakfast. And a good muffin is wonderful!
There aren’t any “bad” foods … it’s all about including whatever treats you want into an overall picture of a healthy diet.
A Healthy Diet
Taking the big picture into account, here’s what I would gradually progress towards:
Eat mostly whole foods, mostly healthy foods from the list above.
For breakfast, I love Ezekiel flourless whole grain cereal with soymilk and berries and nuts, or steel-cut oats with berries and nuts, or yogurt (soy or milk) with berries and nuts. Or some fruit with whole-grain toast and almond butter. Or a tofu scramble with lots of veggies.
For lunch and dinner, the possibilities are endless, but I tend to aim for something with protein, lots of veggies, and healthy fats, with a touch of whole grains. Some examples:
- Veggie chili with three kinds of beans and lots of veggies cooked in.
- Lentil soup with coconut milk, greens and carrots.
- Tofu, tempeh or seitan stir-fry (or some kind of meat if you’re not vegan) with olive oil, onions, garlic, mushrooms, green veggies.
- Beans and brown rice and a side of steamed green veggies.
The stir-fry is my go to meal, and has been for awhile.
I (sometimes) have coffee in the morning, maybe some tea in the afternoon, and red wine at night. But mostly I drink water all day.
With that healthy base in mind, you should feel free to indulge in pizza, croissants, muffins, a veggie burger (or the regular kind) with fries without guilt, as long as the lion’s share of your diet is healthy.
How to Change
How do you progress from a diet that has lots of processed foods, to one that is nutrient dense, with lots of vitamins, minerals and fiber?
One thing at a time, identify a replacement for processed foods: whole-wheat instead of white bread, beans instead of processed red meat, brown rice instead of white rice. Fruit instead of baked desserts.
One meal at a time, add some vegetables to your meals. Have a side of steamed broccoli, add some spinach or kale to your recipes (in spaghetti sauce, for example), eat some carrots for snacks.
Slowly try some new recipes that have veggies in them. Try a big, hearty salad.
This doesn’t have to be done overnight, just one small change at a time.
And here’s the key: start to change how you see yourself. Start to say, “I’m someone who eats healthier.” And one bite at a time, start to believe it.
Eat Healthier Joyfully Course
If you’re interested in changing your life, and want to learn to eat healthier … I invite you to participate in a new course I’m offering, called Eat Healthier Joyfully.
The course is starting now, and you can take it if you join my Sea Change Program.
It’s a 6-week course, with two lessons a week (mostly video lessons) and I ask you to make one healthy diet change a week. In addition, you can ask questions, do daily challenges, join a practice team, and get email reminders.
Join Sea Change today and start learning the amazing benefits of eating healthier joyfully!