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Healthy Eating — A Detailed Guide for Beginners

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The foods you eat have big effects on your health and quality of life.

Although eating healthy can be fairly simple, the rise in popular “diets” and dieting trends has caused confusion.

In fact, these trends often distract from the basic nutrition principles that are most important.

This is a detailed beginner’s guide to healthy eating, based on the latest in nutrition science.

Why Should You Eat Healthy?

Research continues to link serious diseases to a poor diet (1Trusted Source2Trusted Source).

For example, eating healthy can drastically reduce your chances of developing heart disease and cancer, the world’s leading killers (3Trusted Source4Trusted Source5Trusted Source).

A good diet can improve all aspects of life, from brain function to physical performance. In fact, food affects all your cells and organs (6Trusted Source7Trusted Source8Trusted Source9Trusted Source).

If you participate in exercise or sports, there is no doubt that a healthy diet will help you perform better (10Trusted Source).

BOTTOM LINE:From disease risk to brain function and physical performance, a healthy diet is vital for every aspect of life.

Calories and Energy Balance Explained

In recent years, the importance of calories has been pushed aside.

While calorie counting isn’t always necessary, total calorie intake still plays a key role in weight control and health (1112Trusted Source).

If you put in more calories than you burn, you will store them as new muscle or body fat. If you consume fewer calories than you burn every day, you will lose weight.

If you want to lose weight, you must create some form of calorie deficit (13Trusted Source).

In contrast, if you are trying to gain weight and increase muscle mass, then you need to eat more than your body burns.

BOTTOM LINE:Calories and energy balance are important, regardless of the composition of your diet.

Understanding Macronutrients

The three macronutrients are carbohydrates (carbs), fats and protein.

These nutrients are needed in relatively large amounts. They provide calories and have various functions in your body.

Here are some common foods within each macronutrient group:

  • Carbs: 4 calories per gram. All starchy foods like bread, pasta and potatoes. Also includes fruitlegumes, juice, sugar and some dairy products.
  • Protein: 4 calories per gram. Main sources include meat and fish, dairy, eggs, legumes and vegetarian alternatives like tofu.
  • Fats: 9 calories per gram. Main sources include nuts, seeds, oils, buttercheese, oily fish and fatty meat.

How much of each macronutrient you should consume depends on your lifestyle and goals, as well as your personal preferences.

BOTTOM LINE:Macronutrients are the three main nutrients needed in large amounts: carbs, fats and protein.

Understanding Micronutrients

Micronutrients are important vitamins and minerals that you require in smaller doses.

Some of the most common micronutrients you should know include:

  • Magnesium: Plays a role in over 600 cellular processes, including energy production, nervous system function and muscle contraction (14Trusted Source).
  • Potassium: This mineral is important for blood pressure control, fluid balance and the function of your muscles and nerves (15Trusted Source).
  • Iron: Primarily known for carrying oxygen in the blood, iron also has many other benefits, including improved immune and brain function (16Trusted Source).
  • Calcium: An important structural component of bones and teeth, and also a key mineral for your heart, muscles and nervous system (17Trusted Source18Trusted Source).
  • All vitamins: The vitamins, from vitamin A to K, play important roles in every organ and cell in your body.

All of the vitamins and minerals are “essential” nutrients, meaning that you must get them from the diet in order to survive.

The daily requirement of each micronutrient varies between individuals. If you eat a real food-based diet that includes plants and animals, then you should get all the micronutrients your body needs without taking a supplement.

BOTTOM LINE:Micronutrients are important vitamins and minerals that play key roles in your cells and organs.

Eating Whole Foods is Important

You should aim to consume whole foods at least 80-90% of the time.

The term “whole foods” generally describes natural, unprocessed foods containing only one ingredient.

If the product looks like it was made in a factory, then it’s probably not a whole food.

Whole foods tend to be nutrient-dense and have a lower energy density. This means that they have fewer calories and more nutrients per serving than processed foods.

In contrast, many processed foods have little nutritional value and are often referred to as “empty” calories. Eating them in large amounts is linked to obesity and other diseases.

BOTTOM LINE:Basing your diet on whole foods is an extremely effective but simple strategy to improve health and lose weight.

Foods to Eat

Try to base your diet around these healthy food groups:

  • Vegetables: These should play a fundamental role at most meals. They are low in calories yet full of important micronutrients and fiber.
  • Fruits: A natural sweet treat, fruit provides micronutrients and antioxidants that can help improve health (19Trusted Source).
  • Meat and fish: Meat and fish have been the major sources of protein throughout evolution. They are a staple in the human diet, although vegetarian and vegan diets have become popular as well.
  • Nuts and seeds: These are one of the best fat sources available and also contain important micronutrients.
  • Eggs: Considered one of the healthiest foods on the planet, whole eggs pack a powerful combination of protein, beneficial fats and micronutrients (20).
  • Dairy: Dairy products such as natural yogurt and milk are convenient, low-cost sources of protein and calcium.
  • Healthy starches: For those who aren’t on a low-carb diet, whole food starchy foods like potatoes, quinoa and Ezekiel bread are healthy and nutritious.
  • Beans and legumes: These are fantastic sources of fiber, protein and micronutrients.
  • Beverages: Water should make up the majority of your fluid intake, along with drinks like coffee and tea.
  • Herbs and spices: These are often very high in nutrients and beneficial plant compounds.

For a longer list, here is an article with 50 super healthy foods.

BOTTOM LINE:Base your diet on these healthy whole foods and ingredients. They will provide all the nutrients your body needs.

Foods to Avoid Most of the Time

By following the advice in this article, you will naturally reduce your intake of unhealthy foods.

No food needs to be eliminated forever, but some foods should be limited or saved for special occasions.

These include:

BOTTOM LINE:While no food is strictly off limits, overeating certain foods can increase disease risk and lead to weight gain.

Why Portion Control is Important

Your calorie intake is a key factor in weight control and health.

By controlling your portions, you are more likely to avoid consuming too many calories.

While whole foods are certainly a lot harder to overeat than processed foods, they can still be eaten in excess.

If you are overweight or trying to lose body fat, it’s particularly important to monitor your portion size.

There are many simple strategies to control portion size.

For example, you can use smaller plates and take a smaller-than-average first serving, then wait 20 minutes before you return for more.

Another popular approach is measuring portion size with your hand. An example meal would limit most people to 1 fist-sized portion of carbs, 1–2 palms of protein and 1–2 thumb-sized portions of healthy fats.

More calorie-dense foods such as cheese, nuts and fatty meats are healthy, but make sure you pay attention to portion sizes when you eat them.

BOTTOM LINE:Be aware of portion sizes and your total food or calorie intake, especially if you are overweight or trying to lose fat.

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