A healthy diet is a healthy diet, whether you’re trying to gain weight, maintain your weight, lose a little or lose a lot. The only difference between these is the number of calories you take in. For that reason, we won’t discuss calorie requirements, but the way you should be spending or distributing those calories. We also won’t take into account any special diets for managing Type 2 diabetes or any other conditions or allergies.
A healthy diet is a balanced diet that includes all of the macronutrients (protein, carbs and healthy fats), allows for a good dose of vitamins and minerals and other micronutrients, keeps your blood sugar steady and leaves you feeling energetic, sated and happy.
The Macronutrients: How Much of Each Do You Need?
A lot of diet books and websites will prescribe a definite amount (in grams) of each of these nutrients. This can be complicated or confusing for those who don’t have time to count every gram of every food. It’s also a little misleading.
How many grams of protein, carbs or fat you need depends on your gender, age, activity level, whether you’re a bodybuilder or on a heavy weight training program, etcetera. There are places on the internet where you can find out how many grams of each are recommended for given groups. For the purposes of planning a healthy diet, though, it’s perfectly fine to go by this guideline: you should get about 40% of your calories from protein, 40% from carbs and 20% from healthy fats.
So, if you’ve determined that you need to take in 1800 calories to maintain your weight, you’ll want to spend 720 on protein, 720 on carbs and 360 on healthy fats. This ratio won’t change if your calorie needs are higher or lower, only the exact numbers will.
The Macronutrients: Where Should you get Them?
All proteins are not created equal; neither are all fats or carbs. The types of protein, carbs and fats you choose will have a huge impact on how nutritious your daily diet really is, and on whether you lose weight. You can take in 1200 calories of unhealthy foods and gain weight or take in 1600 calories of healthy foods and still lose weight.
What is a healthy diet of lean protein? When choosing your protein sources, you should choose those that are low in saturated fat and have as few additives as possible. Cold-water fish and shellfish are not only great sources of protein; they are also low in saturated fat and have healthy doses of Omega-3 fatty acids. 300 calories worth of these is far healthier than 300 calories worth of ground beef, which is loaded with saturated fat and contains no healthy fats at all.
Legumes and some dairy products are the next best sources of protein. Black beans, split peas and soy beans are excellent examples of protein-rich legumes. Greek yogurt has twice the protein content of regular yogurt and often has far less sugar. Low-fat milk and low-fat cheeses are another good choice.
Eggs are a terrific source of protein. Egg whites are best if you have cholesterol issues. If you do want some yolk, try scrambling on yolk with three egg whites to get tons of protein without extra fat.
Meats should be the protein you choose last, as all of them contain saturated fat and some of them contain way too much of it. Lean cuts of beef, such as filet or London broil, should be chosen over a T-bone or rib eye or chuck roast. You should opt for chicken or turkey breast over a drumstick and all skin should be removed and fat drained on a paper towel before eating. You can cut the fat by as much as 40% just by draining the meat before putting it onto your plate.
Lunch meats should be avoided; they’re packed with additives, preservatives, sugar and sodium.
Protein powders are certainly acceptable, especially those made of soy or whey protein. They’re a great way to get a protein-rich meal when you’re in a hurry, or if you aren’t much of a breakfast eater. However, it’s important to read the labels before you buy. Many of these have just as much fat and sugar as a regular milkshake! Buy the purest formula you can, and whip up your own healthy shake with skim milk, fresh fruit, yogurt or many other healthy and tasty ingredients.
What is a healthy diet when it comes to carbs? Carbohydrates are found in almost everything except meat. The chief sources for them though are grains and plant foods. The important thing when choosing carbs for a healthy diet is to choose fresh produce and whole grains for at least 80% of your carb intake. The rest of your carbs will likely come from sugar.
All grains are not created equal. Don’t be misled by product labels. You need whole grains in your diet, as they provide both soluble and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber expands in your stomach, creating a feeling of fullness, slowing the rate that sugar is absorbed into your bloodstream and making you feel full faster and longer. Insoluble fiber is essential for speedy digestion and regularity.
Choose whole grain breads-the more dense they are, the better. Also opt for steel cut or whole grain hot and cold cereals without added sugar. It’s fine to add your own sugar, honey or other natural sweetener, but pre-sweetened foods usually have far too much.
Brown rice, quinoa and barley are other good grain choices. Avoid pasta; even whole grain pasta is very easy to overeat. White breads, white rice and white pasta should be avoided.
When choosing fruits and vegetables, variety is the key to covering all of your bases. Choose dark, vibrant colors, such as red peppers, orange sweet potatoes, dark green spinach and vibrant purple blackberries. You’ll get a wealth of antioxidants, phyto-nutrients and vitamins if you have a rainbow of produce in your fridge. Eat plenty of leafy greens, berries, citrus and fibrous fruits and veggies such as broccoli, apples and carrots.
What is a healthy diet without fat? An extremely unhealthy diet. You absolutely must have fat in your diet. You need them to process and transport vitamins, nourish your skin and hair and even for proper brain function. For dieters, fats are also integral to feeling satisfied rather than hungry.
There is no place in your diet for trans-fats. These are hydrogenated oils such as lard, shortening or margarine. If it’s solid at room temperature, it is a trans-fat. Trans-fats are in most processed foods, fried foods and prepared bakery items.
Instead, choose butter spreads that contain no trans-fats. There are many good ones available if you must have that buttery taste on toast or veggies.
Do your cooking and make your dressings with canola oil or olive oil.
Excellent food sources of healthy fats are cold-water fish and shellfish, avocadoes, walnuts and raw almonds. These all contain unsaturated fat as well as health powerhouses Omega-3 and Omega-6.
What is a healthy diet? It’s a wide variety of colorful, flavorful, fresh foods. It’s easier and far more delicious than you may have thought.