What Does It Eating Healthy Actually Mean?
“I just want to focus on eating healthy…”
This is something we hear a lot, but what exactly does that mean? Well… the answer here is actually pretty contextual and depends a lot on who you are and where you are.
Let’s dissect this a bit and talk about what we know “eating healthy” means.
I think the best place to start is to try and figure out how we would decide what “eating healthy” means.
Defining Eating Healthy
To me I think it means that you consume foods that lower risk of disease and actively promote health… I think that is a reasonable definition so let’s start there.
Ok… so with that definition, let’s see what “eating healthy” means in real life
Eating Healthy in Real Life
1) Manage calories. This is by far the number one step in “eating healthy”. Being in a state of calorie surplus adds extra metabolic risk and increases most of the risk factors for heart disease (some nuances here for lean people trying to “bulk” so let’s leave that as a separate case).
If you are eating 500-1000 calories a day more than you need and in a state of calorie balance, the minute effects of eating perfect foods really gets negated.
Start with understanding and managing energy needs.
2) Prioritize unprocessed foods. Processed foods aren’t horrible and you don’t have to eliminate them, but there are certain things about them that make minimizing them as part of the primary dietary pattern a smart idea.
Here are those things:
They generally tend to have higher energy density.
They tend to be more palatable, leading to greater calorie intake.
They tend to be lower in nutrient density.
They tend to be way more convenient.
They are often consumed in more of a “snacking” setting than a true eating setting.
They often have very few health promoting nutrients.
3) Make plant foods a part of your diet. Look… you don’t have to become a vegetarian but probably eat a few plants a day if you can. They have fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. You should probably eat some fruit and veggies and some starch.
4) Keep the alcohol intake as moderate as possible. Sorry… that’s just what the data tells us. The more you reduce alcohol intake the better your health outcomes are… in general.
Lowering alcohol intake generally lowers calories, improves blood lipids, and lowers risk of most diseases. Going from 5 drinks a week to 1 makes WAY more difference than going from 1 to 0.
You don’t have to eliminate it… just keep it to a minimal level of “health” is your goal.
5) Processed meats probably are a good idea to skip more often than not. Of all the observational research in nutrition science, this finding is pretty consistent. Processed meats generally tend to increase risk of disease and lowering their intake lowers risk of disease.
Whether this is directly due to their intake or if its a proxy for other habits is a good question… but… pepperoni probably doesn’t need to be a staple.