How to eat healthy – 5 things you need to know

Jessica Penner, RDNutritionLeave a Comment

Bun Thit Nuong - Vietnamese Vermicelli with Pork

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
H. Conclusion

Once upon a time if you walked into a Starbucks, your decision about what to buy would be simple. Coffee or latte? If you chose latte, it would be made with… milk! Just plain old dairy milk… not lactose-free, ultra-filtered, soy, hemp, rice, coconut, almond, cashew, pea, oat, goat, or CAMEL milk.
 
I didn’t even know you could milk a camel!
 
Order a sandwich at Subway and you have the same confusing array of options for your bread type. And don’t even think about choosing some fruit to go with that! Which fruit is a super fruit? Which one is low in sugar? Organic or not?
 
Choosing what to eat is tough with all these options!
And these days you have to hear everyone’s OPINIONS, recommendations, and rules about food, especially on social media!
 
“Eat a balanced diet!”
 
“Eat a variety of foods!”
 
“Never eat these 5 foods!”

Healthy Eating is MORE Than Just The Food

Before I studied nutrition in university I thought healthy eating was all about what food you ate!
 
University did teach me important things about WHAT foods are more nourishing than others. But the most valuable knowledge I gained was about HOW we eat, WHY we choose the food we eat, and HOW much space in our lives is taken up by thinking about food.
 
Healthy eating is about so much more than the food!
 
Like the old me, when you think about eating healthy, you might immediately think about different types of food: salad, fruit, less meat, etc.
 
I know I’m not alone. The top Google search results for “how to eat healthy” are exclusively about which foods to eat and which to avoid. These are from reputable sources like The Heart and Stroke Foundation, Healthline, & Forbes.
 
I also recently asked my followers on Facebook what a balanced diet means to them. Here are some of the answers I got:
  • “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.”
These are all excellent responses, but they are all focused on one thing. what foods are healthy? Have you ever stopped to consider how and why you eat? Do those questions even seem important?
 
What you eat is only one small part of what I like to call The Healthy Eating Puzzle!
 
Don’t worry, it’s not a complicated puzzle. I’ve studied the different elements of healthy eating, and defined these five pieces to complete the puzzle:
  1. Eating instincts: trusting your body to know when it’s hungry, when it’s full, and what type of food it needs
  2. Healthy mindsets: keeping your thoughts about food from interfering in your life, and feeling free to enjoy all foods
  3. Intentional choices: choosing food based on the benefits they provide
  4. Creating space: creating an eating environment that allows you to pay attention to your eating instincts
  5. Eating rhythms and routines: creating daily and weekly habits that will set you up for success
If one of these pieces are missing, your food life can suffer. There’s more to healthy eating than just the sum total of calories and nutrients in a food. Your health has a physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual element, and your food influences all of them! Don’t fall into the trap of focussing only on the physical!
 
It’s my mission with Smart Nutrition to help you solve the healthy eating puzzle so that you can approach food joyfully and confidently.
 
Take this quiz to help you see which piece you need to work on most.
 Keep reading to find out more about each piece.

Healthy Eating Puzzle Piece #1: Eating Instincts

Your body has amazing instincts to know when it’s hungry, when it’s full, and what type of food it needs to thrive! We’re all born with these instincts, but there are many factors that cause us to stop following them. Think about your parents encouraging you to finish your plate. This lesson taught you to stop listening to your fullness instincts, and instead eat until your plate is empty.
 
Or think about watching a movie and eating popcorn. If you combine the two often enough your brain starts to associate a watching with popcorn. So you’re likely to always want popcorn when you watch a movie, regardless of whether you’re hungry or not.
 
The good news is that we can learn how to re-connect with these instincts! It starts with accepting that your body knows what it needs. Trust your body again!

WATCH TO LEARN MORE ABOUT YOUR EATING INSTINCTS:

Healthy Eating Puzzle Piece #2: Healthy Mindsets

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 #1: Good vs Bad Foods

Do you categorize foods as “good” or “bad?”
 
You’ve probably heard this narrative your whole life. Some foods are “good” while others are “bad.”
 
I’m not saying there’s no difference between, let’s say… veggies and pop. Yes, the veggies are full of nutrients that your body needs to function well, such as vitamins, minerals, and fibre. Yes, the pop is void of those important nutrients, and it only provides your body with calories.
 
But those differences don’t make one food “good” or the other “bad.” Food is just food!
 
The problem is that when you think a food is bad or good, it gives it a moral power over you. You’re familiar with forbidden fruit, right? Known for being hard to resist? If you think a food is “bad” you will actually have a harder time saying no to it.
 
Things get particularly destructive then, because once you accept that a food is “bad,” you can easily start thinking that our value as people depends on what we eat.
 
I hear people say things like…
 
“oh I was bad today and ate a donut”
 
No, you aren’t bad because you ate a donut? Did you steal the donut? Then yes, that was bad! Eating a donut is not a moral decision! There is nothing inherently wrong with eating a donut.
 
On the flip side you might hear someone say…
 
“I’m being so good; I ate a kale salad for lunch today!”
 
No, you’re not a better person because you ate kale!
 
Your worth and value has nothing to do with the food you swallow.

Healthy Mindset #2: Freedom from Fear

If you have an allergy to a food, it is legit to be fearful of contact with it.
 
But there are a lot of completely unfounded fears surrounding food. So again, ask yourself where this fear came from? Who or what convinced you that this food shouldn’t be eaten?
 
For many people, it’s a documentary. Or, as I like to call them, a shockumentary.
 
These things are amazingly convincing! They start out with a grain of truth, and then use that little truth to justify a whole lot of fear mongering. These shockumentaries often have their own agenda to push. They come across as educational but, unfortunately, are a big load of BS.
 
It’s important to be careful where your information comes from. It’s okay to watch documentaries, have questions, and think about where your food comes from. But be wary of any documentary that makes you afraid to put food in your mouth.
 
The truth is that we have an incredibly safe food supply here in North America (particularly in Canada). Aside from food allergies or sensitivities, no single food is going to wreak havoc in your life.

Healthy Mindset #3: Chore vs Gift

One of the most life-giving mindset shifts is to view healthy eating as a gift instead of a chore. Once you start to view healthy eating as a simple act of kindness to show your body each day, then you start to find joy in the process of planning, preparing, and eating food that makes your body feel good!

 

WATCH TO LEARN MORE ABOUT HEALTHY EATING MINDSETS:

Healthy Eating Puzzle Piece #3: Intentional Choices

There are many reasons why we choose to eat any food in particular, such as:

  • convenience
  • taste
  • price
  • familiarity
  • availability
  • 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!

  1. Does it help me eat a balanced diet?
  2. Is it going to do a good job of keeping me full?
  3. Does it connect me to something bigger than myself?
  4. Is eating it going to fill me with joy?

Question #1) Does it help me eat a balanced diet?

A balanced diet is one that includes a variety of foods to get your body the essential nutrients it needs. There’s a lot to unpack here though, so I’m going to really over-explain this one so you’re 100% confident you know what it means to eat a balanced diet.
 
“Essential nutrients” is a term for nutrients that our bodies cannot make from other materials. For example, vitamin C is essential for humans, but not for dogs, because dogs are able to make it from glucose.
 
On a very basic level, our bodies need essential nutrients to survive.
 
These essential nutrients are divided into macronutrients and micronutrients. Those are big words but it’s not that complicated!

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!

Bonus Nutrients

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.
We just went over this, so I’m sure you get it. Eat a balanced diet.
2) The diet must be one you enjoy.
If the diet is torture for you, then it’s not the right diet for you! This is a major mindset shift for people, because we’re conditioned to believe that “if it tastes good, it can’t be good for you.” This is only true IF you believe it! If you have made up your mind that you don’t like things that are good for you (like vegetables), then you will never enjoy them. But if you decide to open your mind and accept the possibility that one day you might enjoy veggies, the possibility CAN come true!
 
Ellyn Satter, a renowned Dietitian, said, “When the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers.”  If you force yourself to eat a certain way, you’ll be naturally inclined to reward yourself for completing a chore. That reward is most often a “forbidden food” that breaks your rules. To avoid rewarding yourself with an excess amount of “treats,” focus on making ALL your eating enjoyable, not only your “treats” or “cheat meals!”
 
You might be wondering, So what happens if I don’t like those nourishing foods? What if the only thing I like eating are chicken fingers and bagels?
 
Yes, taste drives our eating decisions. It’s not very helpful for me to say “eat your broccoli.”  You know that broccoli is good for you, but you’re not going to eat much of it if you don’t like it. The good news is that you CAN learn to like the taste of different foods
 
Do you like drinking coffee? If so, did you like it when you were five?
 
No? Of course not. It’s something people call an “acquired taste.”  That’s a fancy term for the fact that you have learned to like it.
 
There are two important things that will help you learn to like new foods:
 
a) Practice. You need to keep trying new foods. Studies show that it can take 15-20 times before you will learn to like a new food. One thing I despised as a kid was cantaloupe. It always bothered me when people would put cantaloupe in a fruit salad. In my mind they ruined a perfectly good fruit salad! But I made a decision. I decided that each time I saw cantaloupe on a fruit tray or in a fruit salad, I would take a bite. I would try it. And it worked! I’m not the biggest fan of cantaloupe yet, but I’m very happy to eat a fruit salad with it! I am learning to enjoy it!
 
b) Open mind. This second piece is equally important. I was forced to eat eggs over and over again as a kid. I definitely tried them more than 20 times. More like hundreds of times. Yet I never learned to like them! So why didn’t it work? Because I was forced to eat them. My mind was not open to learning to enjoy it. I wanted nothing to do with eggs!
 
Then something interesting happened. I went to Germany on a high school exchange program. I always loved the idea of traveling so I was super pumped for this opportunity to experience Europe! While I was across the pond staying with my host family, I tried many new foods, and to my surprise I enjoyed a lot of them! One day I came to lunch to find my host family had made eggs!
 
I really really didn’t want to eat the eggs at first, but I reminded myself that I didn’t want to offend my host family, and it was my choice to come to Germany. No one was forcing me to be there. So I put on a brave face and an open mind and…. I took a bite. Again, to my tremendous surprise I really really liked the eggs! At the time I thought it was because they used a new herb and spice blend, but I now realize there was more to it than that. I had an open mind. I was willing to learn to like new foods.
3) The diet must be sustainable. 
This is the final factor to finding a diet that’s healthy for you. Another way of saying sustainable is that it’s one you can continue eating for the foreseeable future.  If you can’t envision yourself eating that diet for the rest of your life, it’s not the right diet for you! Carefully-planned vegan diets are incredibly healthy, but if you can’t imagine giving up your family’s chicken roti, then it’s not for you. Some silicon valley executives thrive on soylent (a meal replacement shake), but many people would miss eating actual meals
 
The Mediterranean Diet
 
One pattern of eating I recommend is the Mediterranean Diet. There’s a ton of research to show that this style of eating increases quality of life and longevity. The traditional Mediterranean Diet is based on the food habits of people in the Mediterranean region, up until the middle of the 20th century. It’s a predominantly plant-based diet that includes moderate amounts of fish, eggs, poultry, and dairy,  with olive oil as its main source of added fat.
 
To learn more, I’ve boiled the Mediterranean Diet down to 12 main principles that can be applied to eating food from any region of the world.

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.

Foodandfearless Instagram post of the best way to eat

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:

 

Healthy Eating Puzzle Piece #4: Eating Rhythms and Routines

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:

 

Healthy Eating Puzzle Piece #5: Creating Space

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.

How the Puzzle Pieces Fit Together

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!

 

Conclusion

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!

Subscribe for exclusive access to my meal planning hacks ebook!
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