Healthy eating simplified! A Registered Dietitian tells you everything you need to know about the five parts of healthy eating and how they all fit together.
As a Registered Dietitian I get a lot of questions about how to eat healthier. In this article I’m going to share all of my healthy eating philosophies based on scientific research from the fields of human nutrition, psychology, physiology, and sociology.
In this article you’ll learn:
- why you overeat (it’s actually because you’ve lost touch with your eating instincts)
- why most people fail at dieting (it’s typically because of faulty mindsets)
- the four questions to ask yourself when choosing food
- why you get “hangry” (it’s probably because you don’t have an eating rhythm and routine)
- why you blow past your fullness signals (it’s likely because you weren’t paying attention)
- and how all these things work together to complete what I call ‘The Healthy Eating Puzzle!’
Table of Contents
A. Healthy Eating is MORE Than Just The Food
B. Healthy Eating Puzzle Piece #1: Eating Instincts
C. Healthy Eating Puzzle Piece #2: Healthy Mindsets
Healthy Mindset #1: Good vs Bad Foods
Healthy Mindset #2: Fear of Foods
Healthy Mindset #3: Chore vs Gift
D. Healthy Eating Puzzle Piece #3: Intentional Choices
Choice #1: Eating a Balanced Diet
Choice #2: The Fullness Factor
Choice #3: Finding Connection
Choice #4: The Joy of Eating
E. Healthy Eating Puzzle Piece #4: Eating Rhythms and Routines
F. Healthy Eating Puzzle Piece #5: Creating Space
G. How the Puzzle Pieces Fit Together
Healthy Eating is MORE Than Just The Food
“Eating wholesome and nutritious food as much as possible, but not depriving yourself of snacks and treats once in a while.”
“A balanced diet is a cookie in each hand!”
“Eating from all the foods groups each day. Protein, fruit, veggies, grain, etc. The more fruit and veggies the better. An occasional treat is ok and more justifiable if you’re generally eating well and being physically active.”
Eating instincts: trusting your body to know when it’s hungry, when it’s full, and what type of food it needs
Healthy mindsets: keeping your thoughts about food from interfering in your life, and feeling free to enjoy all foods
Intentional choices: choosing food based on the benefits they provide
- Creating space: creating an eating environment that allows you to pay attention to your eating instincts
Eating rhythms and routines: creating daily and weekly habits that will set you up for success
WATCH TO LEARN MORE ABOUT YOUR EATING INSTINCTS:
With the right mindsets, you can approach food confidently and joyfully! Harmful mindsets will make you fearful of food, and you’ll agonize over eating decisions. Mindsets usually don’t change overnight, but the good news is that they CAN be changed! You can switch from obsessing about food to giving food the proper amount of attention. And just so we’re clear, the proper amount is probably a LOT less than what you’re doing right now!
Here are some examples of life-giving, healthy mindsets about food and their harmful counterparts:
Healthy Mindset #3: Chore vs Gift
WATCH TO LEARN MORE ABOUT HEALTHY EATING MINDSETS:
There are many reasons why we choose to eat any food in particular, such as:
- cooking skill level
That list could go on and on. We make so many of these food choices all the time. But how often are you making those choices consciously?
If you make intentional food choices, you will be able to get everything you need out of your food. This will help you achieve optimal nutrition and help you eat the right amount for your body.
When making an intentional food choice, you are looking to identify a good reason to eat a food. These four questions can help you identify a good reason to eat a food. You do not need to answer yes to all of them in order to eat a food! But the more yesses you get, the better!
- Does it help me eat a balanced diet?
- Is it going to do a good job of keeping me full?
- Does it connect me to something bigger than myself?
- Is eating it going to fill me with joy?
Question #1) Does it help me eat a balanced diet?
Macro vs micro nutrients
Macro means big. Macronutrients are the nutrients we need in large quantities. These include:
- carbohydrates – needed for optimal gut and heart health, provides the body’s preferred source of energy and dietary fibre
- fat – needed to build hormones, cell walls, neural tissue, protect vital organs, help regulate our body temperature, absorb some vitamins, and provide a source of energy
- protein – needed to build muscle, tissue, blood, enzymes, hair, skin, nails, hormones, and other messenger chemicals, and to provide a source of energy
- water, needed for all cells of the body to flush out waste, cushion joints, transport nutrients throughout the body, and regulate body temperature
With the exception of water, these are also the nutrients that provide a source of fuel for our bodies.
Micro means small. Micronutrients are the nutrients we need in smaller quantities. These include vitamins and minerals.
Together, vitamins and minerals are needed for hundreds of bodily functions!
In addition to the essential nutrients that keep us alive, there are other nutrients that can contribute to optimal health. Other nutrients such as phytonutrients (nutrients found in plants), antioxidants, anti-inflammatory nutrients, prebiotics, and probiotics can help to prevent chronic disease and increase longevity. In other words, these bonus nutrients can help you live your best and longest life.
A wide variety of diets from vegetarian to gluten free to low carb will provide all the essential nutrients your body needs. There is no one-size-fits-all diet that is perfect for all humans. However, there are three non-negotiables for a healthy diet.
The Three Non-Negotiables of a Healthy Diet
1) The diet must meet your daily requirement of essential nutrients.
2) The diet must be one you enjoy.
3) The diet must be sustainable.
Question #2) Will it do a good job of keeping me full?
Satiety is the scientific term for fullness.
Have you found that some foods you can eat forever and never feel full? Some foods lack short term satiety. They don’t have the ability to register a sense of fullness in your body.
Or have you found a food that you can fill up on, but then feel hungry again less than an hour later? Such foods lack long term satiety. You may feel full immediately, but your body will burn through those calories (or store them away) rather quickly, and your hunger will return shortly afterwards.
One benefit of food you may want to focus on is the fullness factor. When you focus on the fullness factor, you’re choosing foods that will give you an immediate sense of fullness, digest slowly, and give your body a steady stream of energy for hours.
Here are 9 filling foods that will help to keep your hunger away.
Question #3) Does it connect me to something bigger than myself?
Food is more than just food. Food connects us to one another. Whether you’re connecting with family, friends, your culture, or your faith, food is a medium that brings about a sense of belonging.
In talking about how food can bring value to our total well being, including our mental, spiritual, and emotional selves, Kaylee Michnuk, RD says “if eating a piece of cake connects us to our friends, family and culture through its acquisition, preparation, sharing and celebration, then it is adding great value to our lives, and should be appreciated as more than simply consuming calories and sugar.”
- Think about that time your grandma taught you how to make her incredible homemade buns. Now that she’s gone, whenever you make and eat them, you feel connected to her memory.
- Think about the Jewish tradition of sharing a loaf of challah on shabbat and how the rich symbolism connects you to your faith.
- Think about enjoying a Thanksgiving dinner with your family and how everyone comes together to make the big meal possible.
- Think about the father who has a monthly tradition of taking his son out to a donut shop for a chance to chat about life.
Food is fuel, but it’s also the vehicle to pass on values, love, and a sense of belonging.
Question #4) Will it bring me joy?
As I mentioned earlier, it’s important to open your mind up to the possibility of learning to truly enjoy healthy foods. This begins with that mindset shift where you switch your view of healthy eating from a chore to a gift you can give yourself.
But it’s also fine to simply enjoy ALL foods, regardless of their nutritional value.
Eat that piece of cake because it tastes GOOD!
Enjoy some chips and greasy appetizers while watching the big game because it’s FUN to do so!
Walk around the park on a hot day with an ice cream cone simply because it’s so TASTY!
WATCH TO LEARN MORE ABOUT INTENTIONAL EATING:
Without a plan for eating rhythms and routines, you run the risk of becoming overly hungry and not making the best decisions for your body’s needs. Establishing routines such as meal planning and eating at semi-regular intervals throughout the day can allow your body and mind to relax, knowing there’s a plan in place.
If you have kids, you know that they thrive on routine! You can avoid major meltdowns by creating and basic daily routines that your child can expect to follow throughout the day. Daily rhythms create a sense of peace, because you know what’s coming ahead.
As it turns out, we never grow out of thriving on routine! I like to think of my body as a little child and my mind as the adult that provides it the security of daily rhythms.
If you eat at semi-regular times and intervals throughout the day, your body will thank you, as it can relax knowing that food is coming at a predictable time. Our bodies have an intricate and complicated cascade of hormones that regulate our energy levels. These hormones ebb and flow, like the tide on the sea, in response to eating meals and snacks throughout the day. The hormones flow better if there’s a predictability to your eating pattern.
Additionally, insulin (the hormone that’s secreted to store away energy when you eat food) is highest in the morning and lowest in the evening. This tells us that our bodies have built-in rhythms for best eating times!
WATCH TO LEARN MORE ABOUT EATING RHYTHM AND ROUTINES:
In order to actually respond to your eating instincts, knowing when you’re hungry and when you’re full, you have to be able to recognize them! For busy people, eating often takes a backseat and has to share space with all our other activities.
Imagine you have a friend who needs someone to listen to their problems. They call you and ask if they can come over and chat. You love this person and want to help them out so you say “yes, of course!”
When they come over, you lead this person to sit down in the living room, but you jump up right away and start dusting the room. They keep asking if you’re listening and you keep nodding your head. But you never actually look at them while they’re talking.
That’s what’s happening between your mind and your body. Your body wants to communicate with you, but there’s a break in the communication. You need to create the space to pay attention to your body. Communication is a two-way street!
Another way to think of it: add more mindfulness to your eating. The definition of mindfulness is to stay present IN the present, acknowledging your feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations without adding any judgment.
Here’s an example to illustrate how the healthy eating puzzle pieces all fit together.
Let’s say you start with the desire to eat healthier. Perhaps, for you this means eating more vegetables, snacking less in the evening, and not eating to the point of being overly full. You want to eat more veggies because you know they’re good for you and they’ll help you meet your daily nutritional needs. This is the intentional eating piece of the puzzle.
You’ve tried calorie counting and other diets based on restriction. Since those haven’t worked for you, you decide to try a new approach where you simply respond to your body’s messages for hunger and fullness. This is the eating instincts piece of the puzzle.
As you try to tap into your hunger and fullness signals, you find that you keep blowing past your fullness signals, and end up feeling overly full. What you need is to bring in the creating space piece of the puzzle. Creating space will put you in the right frame of mind and eating environment to actually be able to pay attention.
However, even while focusing on your eating instincts through the space you’ve carved out for yourself, you still find yourself fighting cravings! No matter how many times you tell yourself you’re going to mindfully eat a small serving of chips, your willpower breaks down and you keep going back for more. What you’re missing is the healthy mindsets piece of the puzzle, where you shift your mindset away from restrictive attitudes towards foods.
You’ve now adopted a healthy mindset and feel confident in your ability to enjoy an evening snack without eating to the point of feeling bloated. But you still haven’t upped your veggie intake. By the time dinnertime comes around you’re so hungry that you reach for whatever is quick, easy, and convenient… which is usually a frozen pizza. What you need now is to bring in the rhythms and routines piece of the puzzle. Start adopting the habits of meal planning and food prepping, so that you always have veggies available and prepped to eat!
If you’ve made it this far I hope you have learned about your eating instincts, why most people fail when they start a diet, what kind of mindset you should be working towards, how to choose foods based on how they benefit you, why it’s important to create a good eating environment, and how routines like meal planning can help you eat healthier.
When all these pieces come together, they form one complete picture of healthy eating!
If you’re confused about any of those, please feel free to ask in the comments!
Remember how I polled some people and asked them to tell me what they feel a balanced diet is? I absolutely love this person’s answer:
“This might be too flaky, but for me, balanced eating has always boiled down to me really sitting with my own body, and carefully evaluating how it feels after eating something. Things that make me feel great: kale, fatty unsweetened yogurt, unprocessed meat, and celery! Things that make my body say “oooouugh”: large quantities of processed or nutritionally bereft foods (doughnuts, pizza, most cereals, etc)”
If this sounds like the type of balanced eating you want to achieve but you just don’t know how to get started, I’d love to help you!
It’s my passion to help people feel carefree, confident, and comfortable around food!
To start, take this quiz to find out which piece of your healthy eating puzzle needs the most work. Then I’ll give you a free resource to set you on the right path!