When it comes to choosing a healthy diet, there are an array of characteristics you should look for, says Amy Kimberlain, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator based in Miami who’s also a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
There’s no single factor that determines if a diet is healthy, or if it’s right for you. Rather, you should keep in mind that there are a number of healthy eating plans – the key is to find which one works for you not just for a week or two, but over the long run, she says.
“It’s important to start thinking of foods that are nutrient-rich – no food is ‘good’ or ‘bad,’” she says. “Our aim is to include as many food choices as we can that are packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber and/or other nutrients.”
What Is a Healthy Diet?
While there’s no single definition of a healthy diet, an eating plan that optimizes your health should cover certain nutritional bases, says Lisa Jones, a registered dietitian in Philadelphia.
“When choosing a healthy diet, it’s important to work with your health care provider and a registered dietitian to find one that’s right for you,” Jones says. “Every person’s needs are different, so what works for someone else may not work for you. The key is to find a diet that you can stick with over the long term.”
What to Consider When Choosing a Diet
Although there’s no single way to determine what is a healthy diet for you, registered dietitians say you should weigh these factors:
In deciding whether a healthy diet plan is right for you, it’s important to consider a few basic principles regarding its practicality, says Lisa D. Ellis, a registered dietitian in private practice in Manhattan and White Plains, New York. She’s also a certified eating disorder registered dietitian and a licensed clinical social worker.
Here are questions you should ask about a healthy diet’s practicality:
- Can you follow it anywhere?
- Can you go out to eat in a restaurant or a friend’s house and still maintain your eating strategy?
- Do you need to buy special foods, and if so are they affordable on your food budget?
- Are there packaged foods that you need to keep buying to stay on the diet, and if so, is that restriction too burdensome?
Keep in mind, diets that prohibit certain foods or food groups may run risks of nutrient deficiencies. For example, for people who are prone to iron deficiency and don’t consume other sources of iron, a healthy diet plan that excludes red meat may result in iron deficiency. She notes that red meat is just one source of iron and many people exclude meat from their healthy eating diet plan without it being a problem. 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 could likewise be problematic,” Ellis adds.
The science of nutrition is constantly evolving, and new research continues to shed light on the healthiest diet eating plans for optimal health, Jones says.
Currently, research suggests that a healthy diet should be high 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 older participants whom researchers followed up with for more than 20 years. Adherence to the Mediterranean diet was associated with a 20% lower risk of dementia overall, researchers concluded.
A sustainable diet is well-balanced with a robust variety of food choices, Ellis says. “A sustainable diet does not eliminate any of the major food groups, because each food group supplies nutritional value,” she says. “Rather than promote major changes in one’s diet, I recommend small changes achieved over time; sudden major changes in one’s diet can be challenging to maintain in the long run.”
A non-sustainable diet would feature inflexible rules of any type of major food restriction. A diet that prohibits entire food groups – or limits combinations of foods – tends to be unsustainable.
“Diets that are meant for just a specific time period are by design not sustainable beyond their specified duration,” Ellis says.
Carbs are an essential part of a healthy diet, providing the body with energy to fuel physical activity and support brain function, Jones says. “However, not all carbs are created equal. Simple carbohydrates, such as those found in candy and white bread, are rapidly absorbed by the body, and can cause spikes in blood sugar levels,” she says. “Complex carbs, on the other hand, are slowly digested and broken down into glucose, providing a steadier source of energy.”
The best sources of complex carbs include:
These heart-healthy foods also contain fiber, which helps to regulate blood sugar levels and promote gut health. “Incorporating complex carbs into a healthy diet can help to keep heart and liver diseases at bay while promoting healthy kidney function,” Jones says.
A healthy diet includes a variety of different types of foods, 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,” Jones says. “While 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 products. They are also found in coconut and palm oil. Unsaturated fats are found in plant-based 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 both saturated and unsaturated fats. When it comes to saturated fats, moderation is key. And when it comes to unsaturated fats, it is best to choose those that are high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids.
Saturated fats, which are found in animal products and processed foods, can increase the risk for heart disease. On the other hand, unsaturated fats, which are found in nuts, seeds and plants, can help to lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk for heart disease. “When choosing foods that contain fat, it is important to opt for those that are rich in unsaturated fats,” Jones says. “In addition, healthy fats can also help to 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 it needs to build and repair tissues, Jones says. 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 sources of protein are incomplete proteins, but can be combined to provide all the essential amino acids.
“The best way to ensure that 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 products are also excellent.”
The Biggest Challenge to Choosing a Healthy Diet
The biggest challenge for consumers is deciphering the recommendations and choosing the applicable recommendations for their own personal lifestyle. “There is no one-size-fits-all diet,” Jones says.
If you’re trying to find the best, healthiest diet for you, consulting with a registered dietitian is a good idea. “A registered dietitian can assist in breaking down nutrition information into bite-sized pieces so consumers can adequately digest it,” she says. “Consumers often say that diets are hard to follow. This can be resolved by personalizing a meal plan to their nutritional needs and food preferences. If your favorite food is pizza and you embark on a diet that eliminates it completely, it will be hard to maintain.”
Jones agrees with Kimberlain that consumers should avoid referring to specific foods as “good” or “bad.” “Instead, consume mostly nutrient-dense food choices most of the time and plan in some fun treats for a healthy balance,” she says. “As a result, it is easy to follow for life since it becomes a lifestyle versus a diet.”