Eating healthy is easier than people think, and there are a lot of ways to do it. I understand sometimes it might not seem like that. There are so many contradictory messages, so many lists of foods you must eat and must avoid, of when you should and shouldn’t eat, of what’s good and what’s bad… They’re all different, they change on a daily basis, and they claim that, unless you follow them to the letter, you won’t be a healthy person.
That’s why I want to offer in this post 10 clear and simple guidelines, that you can apply starting today to your lifestyle to lead a healthy diet without having to spend too much money, time and energy in search of the “formula” gurus promise. You can eat healthy, enjoying it and feeling better than ever. Here are the keys:
1. Eat real food
Prioritize real over ultra-processed foods, that is, those which long lists of ingredients, controversial additives and lots of added sugars. Basically, most —although not all— breakfast cereals, pre-cooked or ready-to-eat meals, cold meats, sliced breads, pastries and sweets.
Don’t trust whatever it says on the front of the package! The fact that it says in big letters that a product it’s healthy, good for you or whatever means nothing. Even less if it says it’s light or if it’s promoted as a diet product.
The only way to check whether some food is real food is by reading the labels that tell you the ingredients and the nutritional information. How much added sugar does it have? Does it have added vegetable oils such as sunflower or palm? Is the first ingredient of the list (if you’re buying cereal) whole-grain flour, or refined? Do additives include nitrites and nitrates? If you want, you may use food scanning apps to help you become familiar with the labels of different processed and ultra-processed foods. But please, use them for informational and educational purposes only, not as a tool for making actual decisions about your diet.
If real food becomes the basis of your diet, you’ll have taken a huge step towards a healthy diet, since the greatest problem of most people who suffer nutritional deficiencies or imbalances, type 2 diabetes, are overweight, etc., is the massive consumption of ultra-processed food.
This point might seem complicated, but once you’ve doing it for a while it becomes natural, and in the end you’ll appreciate much more the flavors of food 🙂
2. Eat your veggies
Veggies and fruits are sources of vitamins and minerals that will grant that your organism works properly and therefore, also that you feel better and have a better quality of life. They should make up approximately half of your diet; a simple guideline is that half of your plate in your main meals is made up of veggies*, and that you include fruits as snacks.
Don’t self-sabotage by making sad salads and boring plates of veggies. Experiment with combinations, cooking methods, spices… You’ll find out that veggies aren’t an obligation, but an enjoyment.
*This isn’t something you always have to reach, then you can play with the amounts between meals, it’s for you to learn.
3. Eat enough fiber
We should eat about 25-30 g of fiber daily, but at least in Spain we only consume 15’8 g. Fiber is essential to assist a good digestion and bowel movements, have a healthy gut bacteria, avoid sugar spikes and prevent illnesses such as colon cancer.
Fiber can be found in veggies, fruits, legumes and whole grains, so if you’re following the two first tips, you just have to swap as often as possible rice, pasta, bread… for their whole grain versions or choose other cereals such as quinoa or oats.
4. Eat enough protein, and pay attention to the source
It’s recommended to eat between 1 and 2 grams of proteins per kg of bodyweight per day. The needs can be greater if you exercise a lot, if you’re losing weight (to preserve muscle mass) and if most of your protein comes from vegetable sources.
Probably, unless you’re a vegetarian/vegan or eat many meals only made of pasta, pizza and so, you have no problem meeting your protein needs. But pay attention to the quality of the sources as well: I encourage you to invest a little bit more and buy from brands that are more sustainable and care about animal wellbeing.
And don’t forget about vegetable protein, which has its own health benefits. Products derived from soy and quinoa are sources of complete protein, that is, with all the essential amino acids. By combining legumes and grains —which are incomplete sources— you can also get all those amino acids.
5. Introduce a lot of variation
If you always eat the same things, you can get a nice balance of macronutrients: carbs, protein and fats. But, what about micronutrients? Even inside each food category (legumes, grains, nuts, fish…), each specific food has a different nutritional profile. The more variation there’s in your diet, the richer in micronutrients it will be. Above all, change often the veggies you eat so you reap all their benefits.
6. Don't exclude food groups without a reason
Nowadays the trend is to pick a certain food or component and demonize it, as a scapegoat for all health problems. Don’t fall into that trap. Don’t avoid gluten or lactose if you aren’t truly allergic or intolerant. Don’t remove carbs or fats from your diet as if that macronutrient was guilty of weight gain. Don’t remove animal products believing that’s healthier. Don’t create problems where there aren’t, don’t decrease the richness of your diet.
7. Don't obsess
What determines a healthy diet is what you do consistently, not exceptionally. Moreover, leading the healthiest diet in the world is worth nothing if your relationship with food isn’t healthy. You can eat the sweets your colleague has brought to the office. You can eat the side fries.
The key to not be always craving those foods and feeling repressed is to enjoy healthy cooking. And this will happen, once you start to eat well you don’t want to ever go back. So exceptions will be exceptions because you’ll want them to be. You don’t have to remove those occasions for it to be “perfect”, since they just won’t have any importance in your diet as a whole.
8. Practice critical thinking
Take all the nutritional messages you hear with a pinch of salt. Diet culture tries to sell us the idea that the healthiest option is always the one with less calories, that we have to restrict food and that it’s essential to buy expensive superfoods and supplements. The food industry shamelessly promotes ultra-processed products as healthy.
The diet gurus and many influencers swear by unfounded and sometimes even dangerous diets as if they were the only valid way for everyone: Whole30, keto, vegan, intermittent fasting… The media sends scaremongering messages and exaggerates the informations, generating confusion by saying each day that a food or a diet is either the panacea or the worst thing in the world. An example of this is the case of soy, which after being harshly criticized, has been shown to be perfectly safe and healthy.
Only trust reliable professionals who work following an evidence-based approach. This is the premise of the Nutrition program I studied, Mac Nutrition Uni, founded by Martin MacDonald.
9. Learn to know your body
There are very few nutritional recommendations that can be made to everyone, in fact I can’t come up with more than the ones I’ve explained. Everybody is different, every body is different, because of genetics, lifestyle, age, sex, possible illnesses, gut bacteria… Be wary of those who try to sell only one diet as something universal.
In the end, your body knows best what’s healthy for it. So, first, you have to learn to listen to its cues, which most people have turned off by systematically ignoring them. When we’re little, we’re taught to finish everything that’s on the plate, and to eat whatever we’re served. When we’re adults, we’re taught to restrict and repress. We need to reconnect with our body.
But not only that, we also need to know it, how it reacts, because indeed what it asks for isn’t always the best —especially after a long history of dieting or disordered eating—. How does it react to the amounts? Does it gain weight, lose weight (knowing that a lower weight isn’t always the best)…? And to specific foods? Do you feel more energized, satiated, agile… or heavy, with cravings, uncomfortable…? And to eating schedules? Do you feel better when you have breakfast, when you don’t, when you eat many small meals, when you eat fewer but bigger meals…? Just look at it, without judging it, without thinking it should be otherwise to fit what people say it’s good. And honor it.
10. Work out
The other indispensable component of physical health. Move, lead and active life, find a way of exercising that motivates and challenges you at the same time. Working out will also help you to lead a good diet, since it will give you a new perspective of your body, in that process of getting to know it better and be more connected with. And you’ll want to feed it right in order to perform optimally.
You’ll see that your way of eating has immediate effects on your abilities, and that will serve you for awareness. You’ll value your body not only for its appearance but for all the amazing things it’s able to do. And you’ll start to think about food as an ally to reach your goals, not as an enemy opposed to them.