What is Healthy Eating

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Last time we talked about eating, I focused on the idea of eating well. This is how I briefly described healthy eating.

When I talk about eating well, I do mean including fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean meat, and good fat. But it goes beyond the food. I also mean:

  • flavoring your meals with herbs and spices so that it’s tasty to you,
  • cooking at home,
  • sharing your meals with others,
  • listening to your hunger, fullness and cravings, and
  • enjoying your food.

Let’s define healthy.

There is no food that is so healthy that it automatically makes you healthy. And there is no food that is so unhealthy that it automatically makes you unhealthy. It comes down to the overall pattern. No single meal or snack is going to make a pattern. It is the pattern over weeks and months and years that matter to your health.

The thing is, it is our habits that help us reach our goals, or not. And yet, when we are trying to improve our health and habits, we make our decisions one meal and one snack at a time. I find this point to be really interesting. And its something that I think is important to keep in mind as you are making changes. If you forget or can’t follow your plan, it’s not going to break your plan. But if you continue to not follow your plan, then your plan may need to be adjusted. Go back and check out last week’s article on making change happen for more on this.

Later this month I’ll be covering:

  • Emotional Eating – why we do it and how to use it
  • The 80/20 Rule
  • Mindful Eating

But today I’d like to review what a healthy dietary pattern looks like. Hold onto your hats. 🙂

How do we know what is “healthy eating”?

There are two main kinds of research studies that we can figure out what is healthy.

One way is to do observational studies. Some compare groups of people with different health status. In this case, they’ll ask questions to find out how they live their life. Others follow people over time and see how their health and habits change over time. In either case, they then take this information and see what patterns they can find.

The second way we can figure out what the healthiest habits are is to do randomized trials. In these studies, researchers take a group of people and randomly break them into different groups. The researches might give them different diet instructions to follow. Or they might give them different food to eat that looks the same but has different ingredients. Then they follow up in a few weeks or months and ask questions and take blood tests. And again they look for patterns.

Common recommendations for healthy eating

Both of these methods have strengths and drawbacks, but overall, they paint a picture. The studies generally agree on some common foods as being linked to good health. Organizations and health professions then then take this information and give advice to eat:

  • Vegetables and fruit
  • Whole grains (oats, quinoa, barley, etc.
  • Beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds
  • A limited amount of red meat (beef, pork, lamb, etc)
  • Fish
  • Water
  • Less processed

Less Processed

That last point deserves to be pulled out and discussed separately. What do we mean when we call a food processed?

There are 4 levels of processed food 1

  • Unprocessed or minimally processed foods
    • Unprocessed food is food that can be eaten straight from the garden
    • Minimally processed food has just been cut, ground, cooked, refrigerated, or frozen.
    • This also includes mixing together different unprocessed or minimally processed food – like trail mix with dehydrated fruit and roasted nuts
  • Processed culinary ingredients
    • This would be stuff that has been processed more than group 1 and are rarely, if ever, eaten on their own. For example flour, oil, salt, sugar, honey, and butter
  • Processed food
    • These are processed but still relatively simple foods that combine group 1 and 2. For example canned fruits and vegetables, smoked meat, cheese, bread.
  • Ultra-processed foods
    • Ultra-processed foods include ingredients that are not found in your typical home kitchen. Some examples: casein, invert sugar, or carrageenan.
    • Some examples of ultra-processed food would be ice-cream, chocolate, candy, chips, breakfast cereal, pop, fish sticks, hot dogs, instant pasta packages… Basically, the stuff that usually springs to mind when I say “processed food”.

Like I’ve been saying, there are no foods that you absolutely must avoid for your health unless you have a severe allergy. In every other situation, there are many reasons why you might choose to include ultra-processed food or any other food that you think is “bad” for you. We’ll come back to this idea a couple times later this month.

Let’s get to some examples of patterns of eating that seem to be good for us.

Vegetarian or Flexitarian Diet

A vegetarian diet meets most of those, depending on the specific kind of vegetarianism. For people who are vegan or strict vegetarian it can sometimes be hard to get all the nutrition you need. That’s why it’s important to do your research and work with a professional who is familiar with vegetarian or vegan diets.

The flexitarian diet makes it easier to get some nutrients, like iron, by including some meat. Typically, people will have meat only once or twice a week, or even less. It can be a great compromise if you are interested in a vegetarian diet for health benefits but don’t want to completely cut out meat. It can also save you money if you’re replacing meat with dried beans and lentils.

Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet is the one specific pattern of eating that has the most research. One umbrella study 2 showed that the closer a person follows the Mediterranean diet the less their risk of heart disease, heart attack, overall cancer risk, and diabetes, and the better their brain health.

So what is the Mediterranean diet?

It is a plant-based diet: whole grains, vegetables and fruit, nuts, beans and seeds are eaten every day. Olive oil is the main source of oil or fats added to food. And of course, there are lots of delicious spices and herbs added to every dish. Fish and seafood are on the menu at least 2 times a week, and dairy products (milk, yogurt and cheese) are included in moderate amounts. Eggs and poultry (chicken and turkey) are common, but red meat is only had as a rare treat or flavour. 3

Plate Method

I tried briefly to find out where the plate method came from, but that information was not easy to find. I’ll have to do a deep dive into that one of these days. 🙂 When I work with clients, I often use the resource at Diabetes Canada. The plate method is:

  • ½ plate vegetables
  • ¼ plate protein (red meat, poultry, fish, beans, lentils, tofu, etc)
  • ¼ plate starch (potatoes, rice, pasta, bread, etc)
  • An optional serving of milk, yogurt, cheese, or alternative
  • An optional serving of fruit
plate method posted at the diabetes canada website

The Diabetes Canada plate method

My favourite thing about the plate method is that it is talking about one meal. Other resources (such as the Mediterranean or Flexitarian diet) are more helpful to think about if you are planning a whole week’s worth of meals and what to prepare. The plate method talks about the moment when you’re dishing yourself up and how much of each to take.

I’d like to make a brief comment about the starches here. I know of people who are perfectly happy eating a salad with chicken and leaving out the starches. I haven’t met anyone who can do this all the time though. I find I am much more satisfied with my meal when it is close to the plate method.

Meal timing

Meal timing is something that is very individual. On average, we need to eat within an hour or two of waking and then every 4-6 hours after that. But that’s an average. There are people who feel better if they eat small snacks every 3-4 hours. There are people who feel better if all their food is eaten over 8-10 hours in the day (compared to the more common 12-14 hours).

There is no one right answer. There isn’t even one right answer for your entire life. I always encourage experimentation to figure it out. Of course, you should take into consideration your specific health needs. If you’re not sure how your health conditions might affect your experiments, make sure you talk with your health care providers.

(Note to readers: At some point, I’ll be putting out a bonus article on how to run experiments in your life. If you are interested in this, make sure you put a comment down below or send me an email so that I know people are looking for this!)


  1. There are as many ways of eating as there are people who talk about ways of eating, but there are some things in common.
  2. There is no one right diet or way of eating or meal timing. There is only the right way for you at this point in your life.

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  1. This comes from a paper released in 2010  and updated in 2016. (PDF link)
  2. An umbrella study combines the results of many meta-analyses. A meta-analysis, in turn, combines the results of many individual studies.
  3. source Oldways 

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