Great you’ve done it! You have officially completed the first step towards developing a healthier diet routine, and how to start eating healthy for beginners.
He applauds you ⇑
You are here reading this so I know you are interested in eating healthier, or at least curious as to how to do so.
That is a good thing. Give yourself a pat on the back.
Eating healthy can be tricky for people who have never done so before..trust me
I’ve been there.
But with a little education, implementation, and patience you can get there too. So, give me a couple minutes of your time, sit back, and relax. This is how to start eating healthier for beginners.
Eating should be a time of bliss. Food should be a good thing! Not something to stress over. Although, often times it is.
In today’s world, we live in food abundance heaven. Fast food on every corner, candy at every checkout counter, and cheap sugary snacks calling your name in every gas station. There is no shortage of delicious processed junk food at our disposal. (Yes I said delicious).
Often times these unhealthy foods are super affordable. They taste great. And they are conveniently located in places that you or your child can grab effortlessly (What? you don’t think they put these things in certain places for a reason?). When combining the taste, affordability, and ease of buying these unhealthy foods it’s no wonder so many people fall victim to consuming them.
I am not a robot, and neither are you (I’m assuming). I admit that even I occasionally fall victim to the sugary processed candy bar or the double bacon cheeseburger. But I am not a robot. I believe food should be celebrated and that nobody should live and die by a super restrictive diet. Unless their health requires them to do so of course.
All people should be able to enjoy absurdly delicious food creations. But in moderation, and before doing so the person should have a good foundation of food habits.
In other words, before you indulge in not so healthy food choices you should have a foundation of healthy, smart, and nutritious dietary habits. Your primary eating tendencies should be directed towards wholesome nutritious food, not sugary processed garbage.
In this article, I will cover
– What healthy food is
– The 3 macronutrients in every food you eat
– and how to correctly read a food label.
Are you ready to start eating healthy?
What IS healthy food?
If you want to find something, you first must know what you are looking for. If you want to start eating healthy we need to learn what healthy food is first.
Healthy is defined as:
“indicative of, conducive of, or promoting good health.”
So, any food that promotes good health can be defined as healthy food, right?
It all depends on the individual.
For example, peanuts.
Peanuts are a good source of plant protein (healthy), high in vitamins (healthy), high in minerals (healthy), and have been shown to reduce the risk of some diseases (healthy!).
Peanuts can also cause anaphylaxis. A severe allergic reaction that can cause throat swelling, trouble breathing, fainting, and a drop in blood pressure (not healthy).
People with peanut allergies should stay far away from peanuts.
My point is, there are foods that are labeled “healthy” but may not be healthy to you. Make sure you know any food allergies or food sensitivities you may have, before trying new foods.
Although, the vast majority of people (99.4% of Americans) DO NOT have a peanut allergy. So peanuts are labeled as a health food.
There are many foods that we as humans have labeled and thrown into the health food category. Often times these foods present the consumer with myriads of health benefits. Some lower your risk to disease, some lower blood sugar, and some are high in vitamins and minerals. The list goes on.
Typically, food that gives the consumer more benefits than harm can be called healthy.
Benefits include good carbs, good fats, complete proteins, vitamins, minerals, and water.
You may be asking what is a “good” carb or fat, or what a “complete” protein is. We’ll cover all that in the following paragraphs.
Unhealthy foods would be anything containing a lot of calories from sugar or fat, and not having many vitamins, minerals, good carbs, good fats, or much protein.
Essentially, anything that provides you with more damaging nutrients than beneficial nutrients.
An example of an unhealthy food would be diet coke. From the outside diet coke doesn’t look too bad.
It contains 0 calories, 0 fat, and 0 sugars!
Yet, unfortunately, it has about 0 of anything else in.
0 protein, 0 carbs, 0 vitamins, and 0 minerals.
Although, what it DOES have is a sneaky little chemical named aspartame.
Aspartame is an artificial sweetener with a shady past. Aspartame has been claimed to cause brain and nervous system problems. But, the jury is still out on aspartame, and many people claim it isn’t as bad as you think. Still, I won’t go near it. Diet coke doesn’t offer any health benefits anyway.
Why take the risk?
(Even the empress says “no thanks”)
Before we start talking about specific foods, why they are healthy, and why you should be eating them, we must first discover what food actually is.
In the following paragraphs, we will learn about the 3 macro-nutrients all food contains.
Carbs, proteins, and fats – Gotta catch em’ all
Let’s start with carbohydrates. Something a lot of people are familiar with, You always hear some person saying,
“Oh no… more carbs. There goes my diet.”
Now, you may be thinking to yourself,
“But, carbs aren’t fat. Are they?”
No. They are not. But, they can lead to fat gains.
Carbohydrates are compounds made up of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. Hence, the name Carb-Oh-Hydrate.
Structurally they look like rings. Carbohydrates are essentially rings of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.
These rings are sugars. Carbohydrates are sugars.
Carbohydrates come in 4 different forms
– Monosaccharides : Simple sugar. Simple ring structure.
– Disaccharides : 2 monosaccharide rings linked together.
– Oligosaccharides : 3 to 10 monosaccharides linked together.
– Polysaccharides : 10 or more monosaccharides linked together.
An example of a monosaccharide would be glucose. Glucose is what our body primarily uses for energy. Your body converts almost all carbohydrates consumed into glucose. More on glucose later..
An example of a disaccharide is table sugar.
An example of an oligosaccharide is an onion.
An example of a polysaccharide is any starchy food. Starchy foods include rice, potatoes, beans, and whole grains.
Okay, so what do we do with all this information?
How do we know which carbs to eat and which to not?
And how can carbs lead to fat gain?
When you consume any carbohydrate your body starts the process of breaking it down to glucose (simple sugar. Quick energy).
The more sugar rings of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen linked in the carbohydrate (mono- di- oligo- or polysaccharide), the slower the breakdown process.
The slower the breakdown process the slower and more staggered the influx of sugar (energy) into your bloodstream.
When you eat simpler carbohydrates your body breaks them down fast and a large amount of sugar (glucose) is dumped into your bloodstream very quickly. When your body has too much sugar and no use for it, it saves the energy (sugar) supply for use on another occasion. We call this saved energy supply..fat.
When a large amount of sugar is dumped into your bloodstream very fast the body releases a large amount of the hormone insulin. Insulin helps keep your blood sugar at a balanced amount.
Sugar has a hard time getting into cells in your body, insulin acts as a helper to allow your cells to take in the sugar. All cells need energy, and energy is found in sugar.
When you eat a diet high in simple sugar your body may become insulin resistant (type 2 diabetes). High amounts of insulin in your blood can have negative effects on your health, as well as lead to other negative health complications.
This is not to say that all simple carbohydrates are bad and all complex (polysaccharides and starches) carbohydrates are good.
If you just finished an intense workout and your bodies glucose (what your body uses as energy) is depleted, a simple carbohydrate is something you may want to eat. It would provide your body with instant energy in the form of an easily broken down simple sugar ring (glucose).
Now on the other hand, if you eat a complex carbohydrate you will give your body a long, sustainable energy source. Remember, complex carbohydrates (polysaccharides) are big long rings of linked monosaccharides. These are broken down slowly by the body, delivering glucose (energy) to the body in slow consistent increments.
All carbohydrates have a number on what is called the “glycemic index”.
The glycemic index is a ranking from 0 to 100. (No, not Drakes’ song) The closer a carbohydrates number is to 0 The smaller the insulin response it generates. Likewise, the closer a carbohydrates number is to 100 the higher the insulin response it will elicit. Pure glucose is given the value 100. Glucose is a simple sugar, pure quick energy. It generates the greatest insulin response.
Typically, any food under 55 on the glycemic index is considered a low glycemic food.
Any food between 55-70 is considered a medium glycemic food.
And any food 70 and above is considered a high glycemic food.
A trick you can use to keep insulin levels at bay when eating high glycemic foods is to pair them with low glycemic foods.
For example, if you are eating a doughnut (GI of 76) drink some unsweetened almond milk (GI of 25) with it. The pairing of a high glycemic food with a low glycemic food will effectively keep your insulin levels at an ideal range.
What kind of carbs should I eat?
Opt for more complex carbohydrates when you don’t need quick energy.
Examples of good complex carbs include:
- Steel cut oats (preferably) or oatmeal
- Brown rice
- Sweet potato
- Fruits and vegetables
- Leafy greens (Spinach, kale, chard, arugula)
Vegetables and fruits are always good carbs to include in your diet. They contain simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates, as well as a plethora of vitamins and minerals (more on those later). They are always a good dietary choice.
Leafy greens such as kale, spinach, chard, and cabbage are excellent choices. They are high in vitamins and minerals and low in calories.
- Skip the candy, doughnuts, and processed foods. These foods elicit a big insulin response and can proliferate fat storage. They can also contain added sugars, chemicals, and preservatives that don’t do your body any good.
Fat – The necessary evil
The truth is, you need fat. Fat performs many critical roles inside the body. As an energy reserve, the insulator of vital internal organs, synthesizer of hormones, and for the absorption of certain nutrients.
There are 4 types of fat :
- Saturated fat
- Mono-unsaturated fat
- Poly-unsaturated fat
- And trans fat
Typically, you want to avoid saturated fats and trans fats and opt to eat more mono and polyunsaturated fats.
Trans fat increases your bad cholesterol (LDL) and lowers your good cholesterol (HDL), and increases inflammation.
Saturated fat raises your bad cholesterol and has been shown to block your arteries. Consequently, leading to heart disease.
Unsaturated fats are a better alternative than saturated fats. They lend a hand in healthy bodily functions reducing bad cholesterol and lowering your risk of heart disease.
There are also things called essential fatty acids that your body vitally needs. Examples such as omega 3’s and omega 6’s are common.
What fat should I eat?
Try to eat a diet more plentiful in unsaturated fats and essential fatty acids. Try to keep your saturated fat to a minimum, and never eat trans fat if you can help it.
Examples of good fats include:
- Avocados (monounsaturated fat), olive oil (monounsaturated fat),
- Flax seed and flax seed oil (polyunsaturated fat),
- Sunflower seed and sunflower seed oil (polyunsaturated fat).
Examples of foods with good amounts of omega 3”s are:
- Fish oil
- Hemp oil
- Soybeans and edamame
- Fatty fish
Examples of foods with good amounts of omega 6”s are:
- Red meat (saturated fat)
- Wild game
- Sesame oil
- Grapeseed oil
Omega 3”s and 6”s both contribute unique functions to the body. It is imperative to eat them at an equal rate. Meaning, keep the intake of your omega 3’s and 6’ as equal as you can. Eating too many of one and not enough of the other can result in negative health consequences.
Protein: The Beloved Child
How many times have you heard a big muscle man or woman say:
“You need to eat protein to get big and strong!”
Well, they aren’t wrong. Proteins are composed of amino acids. There are 20 amino acids, 10 of which are essential to humans. Meaning, we must attain these through our diet. The other 10 amino acids can be produced by our body. Although, our bodies need all 20 amino acids to function properly.
Proteins help assist the body in growth (like muscle guy/girl said), repair, transport, and in the form of enzymes which catalyze chemical reactions in the body. As well as other important vital functions.
When it comes to protein in your diet, the options are vast. The amount of protein you consume needs to be dependent on your needs. Furthermore, eating too much protein can be devastating to your health.
When addressing your protein intake remember you want to aim to consume all 20 essential amino acids. Animal meat contains all 20 essential amino acids in its protein make-up. This is to say that animal meat is defined as a “complete protein”. This includes red meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy. Although, just because animal meat contains all 20 essential amino acids does not mean you can’t get them elsewhere.
Fruits, vegetables and grains contain proteins and amino acids as well. BUT they are not “complete proteins”. Fruits, veggies, and grains contain amino acids but they don’t contain all 20. This is to say they have some pieces to the puzzle but not all the pieces. Potentially, you could eat a wide range of fruits, veggies, and grains to acquire all 20 essential amino acids. Although, this may take a lot of work and eating.
There are a lot of people who may argue that obtaining all 20 essential amino acids in your diet can be achieved without the consumption of meat. They may very well be correct.
What protein should I eat?
To reach levels of adequate protein intake and essential amino acid intake I would recommend eating a variety of animal meat, fruit, veggies, and grains.
Personally, I like to eat more fruits and veggies than animal meat. I believe there are more health benefits from doing so, and my body reacts better to that type of diet. But I do occasionally eat meat.
Examples of good lean proteins:
I occasionally splurge and eat red meat or pork. Remember, I am not a robot.
Fish is a good choice that is low in saturated fat, and high in healthy fat. Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, trout, etc. are high in omega 3’s. But, eating big predatory fish such as swordfish, shark, or tuna can have high levels of mercury. So be aware of that when choosing to eat fish such as those.
The reason I prefer poultry and seafood to red meat is because of the saturated fat content. Red meat (beef and pork) tend to have fat marbled in with their meat. Meaning, the fat and meat are mixed in together. This leads to higher amounts of fat in the meat itself. The same is not true with poultry (seafood is a little tricky). Their fat is exterior to the meat. Meaning, the meat can be cut precisely to not include much fat in with it. if you do decide to eat red meat choose a leaner cut meaning, less fat percentage. Although less fat can mean less flavor.
MICRO NUTRIENTS – VITAMINS MINERALS AND FIBER
Ever since you were a child I’m sure you’ve heard the repeating importance of Micronutrients. Although, your mom did not call them “micronutrients”.
“Drink your milk you need the calcium!’’
‘‘Eat your broccoli it has fiber!”
“Your carrots are high in vitamin A!”
Micronutrients are essential for the health of your body. Not getting enough of them could be very dangerous to your health. Luckily, much of our food today is fortified with micronutrients. Salt is fortified with iodine. Milk is fortified with vitamin A and D. Bread is fortified with folic acid, a B vitamin. The list goes on.
Thankfully, we do not need to eat as many micronutrients as we do macronutrients, and eating a well-balanced diet can pretty much cover the amount you need.
Vitamins are essential because they help your body with normal development. Different vitamins help out different parts of your body. Some target specific organs, some help with your immune system, and others may play a role in enzymatic processes. Ultimately, they are critical for your health and well-being.
Next, we’ll look at the different kinds and in what foods you can find them.
Vitamin A – sweet potato, carrots, kale, spinach, and broccoli
Vitamin C – citrus fruits
Vitamin D – fatty fish (salmon, tuna), egg yolks, and mushrooms
Vitamin E – sunflower seeds, almonds, avocados, and peanuts
Vitamin K – leafy greens (kale, chard, spinach etc.)
Vitamin B complex includes thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, biotin, B6, B12, and folate. B complex vitamins can be found in many foods,
Foods high in B vitamins include : Beef, poultry, dairy, salmon, leafy greens, and legumes (beans, soybeans).
Like vitamins, minerals assist your body with normal functions, and like vitamins, you need them in your diet. According to Harvard Health, there are 16 essential minerals the body needs. These 16 essential minerals are separated into 2 groups.
Major minerals and trace minerals.
Major minerals include: Calcium, chloride, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, and sulfur.
Trace minerals include: Chromium, copper, fluoride, iodine, iron, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, and zinc.
You need major minerals in higher amounts than trace minerals, but all 16 are still needed.
Eating a well-rounded diet high in fruits and vegetables is usually good enough to meet your bodies needs. Although, depending on your lifestyle you may need supplements to ensure your mineral needs are met.
Remember your grandpas’ raisin bran cereal that didn’t taste too great? Well, he was actually on to something. A big reason he was eating it was probably for the fiber.
Fiber helps with your digestive health (gastrointestinal), blood sugar, and cholesterol. It helps with bowel movements and the digestion of food through your intestinal tract. Another reason why your grandpa was eating it in the morning.
In essence fiber helps clean your intestinal tract, keeping it flowing and in good health. Consequently, helping your body remove toxins much quicker. All of these reasons are why fiber helps prevent intestinal tract diseases such as colon cancer.
High fiber foods include: Most fruits, most vegetables (the darker and greener the better), legumes (beans and peas), nuts, and grains.
There are many supplements you can take the cover your fiber needs, such as Metamucil, Benefiber, and Yerba mate.
You can also find fiber in cereals and granola bars. Just watch out for added sugars and questionable ingredients.
Okay, now you have a general understanding of food and the different benefits obtained from each. Now let’s go over reading a nutrition label.
NUTRITION LABEL – YOUR FRAMEWORK TO EATING HEALTHY
Everyone’s seen one. All of us know what they look like. Yet, some of us may not know how to read one. A nutrition label gives you a breakdown of what is in the food you are about to consume.
Looks familiar right?
So there are a couple of things you want to look for when reading a nutrition label. They are as follows.
SERVING SIZE AND SERVINGS PER CONTAINER
Do not get these confused. I repeat, do not get these confused.
The serving size is the amount of food that the values on the nutrition label apply to.
For example, our nutrition label above indicates a 2/3 cup serving size.
This means that this specific food has 8g of fat per 2/3 cup, 37g carbs per 2/3 cup, 3g of protein per 2/3 cup, and so on and so forth.
There are 8 servings per container. Meaning, there are 8 portions of 2/3 cup of food in this container, or 5.28 cups of food in the whole container. So, if you take the 8g of fat that are in 1 serving and multiply that by 8 servings (64g), you get the total amount of fat found in the whole container of food.
You can do this with the other values on the nutrition label to come up with the other total amounts of a specific nutrient as well.
Calories get a bad rap. They aren’t as evil as you think. A calorie is just a unit of measurement. A calorie is a measurement of the amount of energy found in the food.
More calories = more energy.
Eat more calories than your body needs and they will be stored for use at another time. This is when they can be bad because they turn to fat.
On a nutrition label, the calories are big, bold, and clear. Remember, the number of calories shown is for the serving size, not servings per container.
The number of calories per serving can be misleading. For instance, a food may only show 100 calories per serving. Not bad right? Hold on just a second.
Calories are composed of the number of carbs, fats, and proteins within the food itself.
1 gram of carbohydrate = 4 calories
1 gram of protein = 4 calories
1 gram of fat = 9 calories
Remember that awesome food with only 100 calories per serving from above?
That food could potentially have 10 grams of fat per serving, 1 gram of carbohydrate, and 1 gram of protein.
10g fat X 9 calories per g = 90 calories from fat
Be careful of where the calories are coming from.
1 gram of fat has more than twice the amount of calories found in 1 gram of carb or protein.
But remember, not all fats are bad. Try to avoid the bad ones.
Which leads me to the next important part to read on a nutrition label
TOTAL FAT, SATURATED FAT, AND TRANS FAT
As I stated above calories from fat outweigh and more than double those of carbs and proteins. Be aware of how many calories from fat the food you are eating has, but just because a label says “Total fat : 20g” doesn’t mean all 20g of that fat is bad.
Like I said earlier there are good fats and bad fats. Remember, our good fats are mono- and poly-unsaturated, and our bad ones are saturated and trans (the worst!).
So, when a nutrition label reads “Total fat: 20g” don’t assume all 20g of that are saturated or trans.
From the label above you can notice there are 8g of total fat per serving. If you look below the total fat you will see saturated fat and trans fat.
According to our label, this food only has 1g of saturated fat per serving, and 0g of trans fat.
This is encouraging.
We can assume the missing 7g of fat fall into either the mono- or polyunsaturated variety. This food has more good fat than bad. Only 9 calories per serving come via saturated fats.
BONUS: NO TRANS FAT (always a good thing)
NATURAL SUGARS AND ADDED SUGARS
When looking at a nutrition label be aware of the sugar content.
Sugar is naturally occurring in foods such as fruits, vegetables, dairy, and most plant-based foods.
Added sugars are put into foods by the manufacturer.
Unnaturally high amounts of sugar in any food should be avoided, but plant based foods with naturally occurring sugars are welcomed more than added sugars.
Be careful of so called “low fat” foods. These foods often sacrifice their amount of fat in favor of high sugar content.
Except, as we know excess sugar ultimately becomes stored as fat. This is a cheap trick that can work on the uneducated consumer.
Don’t let them fool you.
Typically, you can find the ingredients of the food item below the nutrition label. Watch out for chemicals such as : aspartame, hydrogenated oils, artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and monosodium glutamate (MSG). If you happen to notice any of these on your food label tread lightly.
As a rule of thumb, if the list of ingredients mirrors that of a Leo Tolstoy novel, you have no need eating it.
Long ingredient lists are indicators that the food inside is highly processed and stuffed full of questionable things.
Do you know what foods don’t have long ingredient lists? Fruits and vegetables. Eat more of those.
Save the butylated hydroxyanisole for your science experiment.
YOU ARE NOW KNOWLEDGABLE IN GENERAL NUTRITION – PUT IT TO WORK
You learned a lot.
That was a long lesson in the biochemistry of food.
But, now you have an advantage.
You are no longer clueless to the science behind what you put into your body. No more will you be oblivious to what you consume.
Gaining an understanding of food is something EVERYONE should seek to learn. It is an imperative habit to learn if you wish to start eating healthier.
As a beginner, developing a foundation such as this is crucial for the upcoming months of food discipline you will be going through.
We learned about what healthy food is, the 3 types of food, micronutrients, and how to read a food label.
Each of these sections has countless subsections. The understanding behind the food we eat is still being studied today. There are thousands of book and articles covering food and diet. Developing a passion for your nutrition isn’t somehinf you should dismiss hastly.
Go explore, go learn, and take control of what you put into your body.
Your body will thank you.