When it comes to choosing a healthy diet, there are a number of traits you should look for, says Amy Kimberlain, a Miami-based registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator who is also a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
There is no single factor that determines whether a diet is healthy or right for you. Instead, you should keep in mind that there are several healthy eating plans — the key is figuring out which one works for you not just for a week or two, but for the long term, she says.
“It’s important to start thinking about nutrient-dense foods – no food is ‘good’ or ‘bad,’” she says. “Our goal is to include as many food options as possible that are packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber and/or other nutrients.”
What is a healthy diet?
While there is no single definition of a healthy diet, an eating plan that optimizes your health must cover certain nutritional foundations, says Lisa Jones, a registered dietitian in Philadelphia.
“When choosing a healthy diet, it’s important to work with your doctor and a registered dietitian to find one that’s right for you,” says Jones. “Every person’s needs are different, so what works for someone else may not work for you. The key is finding a diet you can stick to for the long term.”
What to Consider When Choosing a Diet
While there’s no single way to determine what a healthy diet is for you, registered dietitians say you should weigh these factors:
When deciding whether a healthy diet plan is right for you, it’s important to consider some basics about its practicality, says Lisa D. Ellis, a registered dietitian in private practice in Manhattan and White Plains, New York. She is also a certified nutritionist in eating disorders and a licensed clinical social worker.
Here are the questions you should ask about the practicality of a healthy diet:
- Can you follow it anywhere?
- Can you go out to eat at a restaurant or a friend’s house and still stick to your eating strategy?
- Do you need to buy specialty foods, and if so, are they affordable for your food budget?
- Are there packaged foods that you need to keep buying to stay on the diet, and if so, is this restriction too heavy?
Keep in mind that diets that prohibit certain foods or food groups can be at risk for nutrient deficiencies. For example, for people who are prone to iron deficiency and who do not consume other sources of iron, a healthy diet plan that excludes red meat can result in iron deficiency. She notes that red meat is just one source of iron and many people exclude meat from their healthy eating plan without it being an issue. Beans, fortified cereals and spinach are also sources of iron.
“A long-term diet plan that is so restrictive that it leaves the dieter resentful and uncomfortable with that diet can also be problematic,” adds Ellis.
The science of nutrition is constantly evolving, and new research continues to shed light on the healthiest eating plans for optimal health, says Jones.
Currently, research suggests that a healthy diet should be rich in:
Studies also suggest that a healthy diet should be low in:
- Added sugar.
- Saturated fat.
For example, in 2021, the journal Nutrients published a large study of more than 16,000 middle-aged and elderly participants that researchers followed for more than 20 years. Adherence to the Mediterranean diet was associated with a 20% lower risk of dementia overall, the researchers concluded.
A sustainable diet is well-balanced with a robust variety of food options, says Ellis. “A sustainable diet does not eliminate any of the major food groups, as each food group provides nutritional value,” she says. “Instead of making big changes in diet, I recommend small changes achieved over time; sudden big changes in diet can be difficult to maintain in the long term.”
A non-sustainable diet would present inflexible rules of any kind of major dietary restriction. A diet that bans entire food groups – or limits food combinations – tends to be unsustainable.
“Diets that are only intended for a specific period of time are not, by definition, sustainable beyond the specified duration,” says Ellis.
Carbohydrates are an essential part of a healthy diet, providing the body with energy to fuel physical activity and support brain function, says Jones. “However, not all carbohydrates are created equal. Simple carbs, such as those found in candy and white bread, are quickly absorbed by the body and can cause blood sugar levels to spike,” she says. “Complex carbs, on the other hand, are slowly digested and broken down into glucose, providing a more stable source of energy.”
The best sources of complex carbohydrates include:
These heart-healthy foods also contain fiber, which helps regulate blood sugar levels and promote gut health. “Incorporating complex carbohydrates into a healthy diet can help keep heart and liver disease at bay while promoting healthy kidney function,” says Jones.
A healthy diet includes a variety of different types of food, including fats. Fat is an important part of a healthy diet because it provides essential nutrients, helps the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins, and protects organs.
“However, not all fats are created equal,” says Jones. “Although all fats have the same basic structure, they can be classified into two main groups: saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fats are found in animal products such as meat, poultry and dairy. They are also found in coconut and palm oil. Unsaturated fats are found in vegetable oils such as olive oil and canola oil. They are also found in nuts, seeds and avocados. Most experts agree that a healthy diet should include a balance of saturated and unsaturated fats. When it comes to saturated fats, moderation is key. And when it comes to unsaturated fats, it’s best to choose those that are rich in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids.
Saturated fats, found in animal products and processed foods, can increase your risk of heart disease. On the other hand, unsaturated fats, found in nuts, seeds and plants, can help lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease. “When choosing foods that contain fat, it’s important to opt for those that are high in unsaturated fats,” says Jones. “In addition, healthy fats can also help promote satiety and improve the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Including a variety of healthy fats in your diet is an important part of maintaining a balanced and nutritious diet.”
A healthy diet contains a variety of protein-rich foods that provide the body with the amino acids needed to build and repair tissue, says Jones. Protein is essential for growth and development, immune function and cell repair.
Animal sources of protein are complete proteins and include:
- Dairy products.
Plant-based protein sources are incomplete proteins, but they can be combined to provide all the essential amino acids.
“The best way to ensure you’re getting enough protein is to eat a variety of protein-rich foods, including lean meats, fish, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds,” she says. “Eggs and dairy are also excellent.”
The biggest challenge for choosing a healthy diet
The biggest challenge for consumers is deciphering the recommendations and choosing the recommendations that apply to their personal lifestyle. “There is no one-size-fits-all diet,” says Jones.
If you are trying to find the best and healthiest diet for you, consulting a registered dietitian is a good idea. “A registered dietitian can help break down nutritional information into small pieces so consumers can digest them properly,” she says. “Consumers often say that diets are hard to follow. This can be resolved by customizing a meal plan according to your nutritional needs and food preferences. If your favorite food is pizza and you embark on a diet that completely eliminates it, it will be difficult to maintain.”
Jones agrees with Kimberlain that consumers should avoid referring to specific foods as “good” or “bad.” “Instead, eat mostly nutrient-dense food choices most of the time and plan on some fun treats for a healthy balance,” she says. “As a result, it’s easy to follow for a lifetime as it becomes a lifestyle versus a diet.”