Healthy Eating — A Detailed Guide for Beginners

When I chose to eat better, I had been overweight for years. I wasn’t clinically obese or anything, but as a natural bodybuilder, I convinced myself that I needed to “eat big to get big”.

But, eating big doesn’t mean you can eat anything you want. I learned that you have to eat smart and eat healthy. So I cleaned things up and started making healthy changes in my diet.

Now, I feel better and look better. The good news is, you can too.

Let’s find out how!

What Is Healthy Eating?

Healthy eating can be defined as an eating plan that consists of foods that promote good health, give you energy, and help you function at your best. 

Eating healthy should include whole grains, fresh vegetables, fresh fruits, lean meats, nuts, seeds, and low-fat dairy products. 

You should avoid highly processed foods, high sugar, high sodium foods, and high-fat foods. 

You should also avoid sugary drinks. Stick with water, tea, or coffee, no sugar added. You can also drink low-fat milk or milk alternatives, such as almond milk, coconut milk, or oat milk. (1)

Why Should You Eat Healthy?

Eating healthy is a smart step towards a higher quality lifestyle. 

The hazards of eating a poor diet should not be ignored. An unhealthy diet is a major contributing factor to heart disease, stroke, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. That’s just the beginning. 

Typically, unhealthy eating leads to obesity and reduced quality of life. Eating healthy, on the other hand, promotes overall good health. 

A healthy diet promotes heart health, low cholesterol, low blood pressure, reduced chance of a stroke as well as other serious diseases. Your body weight is in a normal, healthy range. You not only look healthy, you feel healthy. (2)

Calories & Energy

A calorie can be defined as a measure of the energy value of food. (3) 

Meals should be planned to provide the most energy and nutritional value possible while at the same time providing good flavor. 

After all, eating healthy doesn’t mean the food can’t taste good. The amount of energy a calorie provides depends on its source. This is where macronutrients come in. 

Macronutrients

There’s more to calories than just being a measurement of energy. The type of calorie plays a specific role in how the body functions. 

Macronutrients are the nutrients we need in large amounts so the body can function normally. They are protein, carbohydrates, and fats. 

Each macronutrient has a precise caloric value and serves a specific purpose in the body. We will look at each macronutrient in more detail in the next section.

The Fundamentals Of Healthy Eating – The Role Of Macronutrients

macronutrients

The fundamentals of healthy eating include understanding what each macronutrient does. We will start with protein, the most important macronutrient. 

Protein: 1 gram = 4 calories – After water, your body is primarily made of protein.

Hundreds of necessary daily functions take place in the body every day and are dependent on adequate daily protein intake.

Protein is made up of amino acids. There are 20 of them and they are known as “the building blocks” of protein. The daily functions that take place in the body are the result of various sequences, or chains, of these amino acids.

Of the 20, only 11 can be made in the body while the remaining 9 cannot. These 9 are termed “essential” and you must get them from your diet. Therefore, your diet must include high-quality sources of complete protein. (4, 5)

Protein & Energy

Let me clear up what is becoming a common misconception. Protein is not a primary energy source for the body. It’s not going to give you a burst of energy, unlike some ads or informational sites may suggest.

Protein is “anabolic” in nature, it supports the constructive phase of metabolism in the body. It allows the body to function normally. If you work out, it helps repair and rebuild muscle, supporting recovery, and new muscle growth.

Additionally, adequate-protein intake helps preserve existing muscle tissue.

As noted above, this is because enough protein must be provided in the diet daily so it can perform its role in the body’s daily processes. If you short-change your protein intake consistently, your body will turn to its muscle tissue to get the protein it needs. 

All of this is critical, but it has nothing to do with giving you energy – that’s the job of carbohydrates.

Also, understand that it’s not the same kind of energy as you’ll get from a stimulant such as caffeine. It’s the fuel your body needs to move, like gas in a car. No gas and the car goes nowhere.

Still, protein does have an indirect effect on energy. It slows down the absorption of the body’s real primary energy source, carbohydrates. This means you’ll get an extended-energy effect from slower digesting carbs.

What about low carb diets?

In this case, the body will again sidestep protein and this time turn to stored fat for energy. (6)

Carbohydrates: 1 gram = 4 calories – There are different types of carbohydrates, and each affects the body differently. As emphasized above, the main function of carbohydrates is to supply cellular energy to the body.

This sounds great but can lead to a couple of potential problems. These problems are tied to insulin and how different types of carbs affect them.

To keep it simple, insulin is a major anabolic hormone produced by the body but it’s like a double-edged sword.

First, carbs the body does not use for energy needs will be stored as fat.

Second, sugary carbs burn faster than “complex carbs” such as, for example, brown rice. These sugary carbs lead to more excess carbs being stored as fat. This is because sugary carbs cause insulin spikes.

Once insulin is secreted into the body, it has the anabolic effect of shutting nutrients into the muscles. Sounds great, especially if you exercise. The downside is that this is how excess carbs end up as stored fat. 

Here’s how it works. When the bulk of a person’s diet consists of carbs in general and sugary carbs in particular and includes high amounts of fats, the result is fat gain. This is compounded by the fact that many people are not very active.

Instead of making healthy choices and eating to the needs of the body, many people just eat, period. The bottom line here is, you’ll want to eat slower digesting carbs and more fibrous carbs.

The slow-digesting carbs won’t cause blood sugar spikes as indicated above, and fibrous carbs are low in calories and digest slowly. You’ll also want to be more active so your body uses those carbs for what they are intended for: energy. (7)

Fats – 1 gram = 9 calories – Like carbohydrates, there are several types of fats.

Some are healthy, others not so much. It’s important to choose only healthy types of fat, such as olive, canola, or sunflower oil. If you are eating healthy and choosing healthy fats, intake will take care of itself.

Still, a rule of thumb when it comes to fatty foods such as nuts is to only have a handful. This portion approach will help keep your fat intake in check. (8)

What Are Micronutrients

Micronutrients are nutrients we need in small amounts, such as vitamins and minerals. Many doctors recommend a daily multivitamin for good reason, they are critical to maintaining good health. (9)

Foods You Should Eat

Here’s a list of good food choices for every food category.

healthy food

Meats – Choose lean meats, including poultry, seafood, and limited qualities of red meats. 

Dairy – Choose eggs, low-fat milk, low sugar yogurt (preferably Greek for its protein content), and low-fat cheeses. 

Nuts & Seeds – These are a source of protein and healthy fat. As suggested above, eat these in moderation.

Vegetables – This type of carbohydrate is fibrous and low calorie, which means you can eat a reasonable amount of veggies with every meal without having to worry about negative consequences. 

Fruit – A naturally sweet treat, fruit contains nutrients and antioxidants. Eat in moderation because fruit contains fructose, a form of sugar that digests slower than regular dextrose. Still, it is sugar and should be treated accordingly.

Complex Carbohydrates – This means slower digesting carbs, such as sweet potatoes, quinoa, and brown rice. As suggested above, eat carbs like this based on how active you are.

Beans – A good course of protein and fiber. 

Liquids – As suggested earlier, your top choices here would be water, teas, or coffee with no sugar added. Also for your protein shakes or smoothies, low-fat milk, or a milk alternative. 

Use herb seasonings to add flavor. The main rule here is to watch the sodium content. 

Foods To Avoid

processed food

Avoid processed foods. Processed means artificial and insanely high amounts of fat and sodium. 

Limit your sugar intake. The recommended amount is 50g a day. However, many low carbs diets suggest less. When it comes to sugar, read the labels, you’ll be surprised how much sugar hides in many foods. (10, 11)

Sodium is another culprit, with massive amounts in many common processed foods. The suggested safe upper limit is 2300mgs per day, with 1500mg a more reasonable amount. (12)

Avoid trans fats. There are several different types of fats, some are healthy and others, like trans fats, are not. (13)

It’s important to learn to read nutrition labels. Look at calories, sugar, total carbs, total fats, fat breakdown, and sodium content. Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you see double-digit sugar and triple-digit sodium per serving, put it down and choose something else. 

Setting Up Your Plate

First Things First – Your Grocery List

When you go to the grocery store, shopping the perimeter is where you will find the healthiest foods. If you look at the “Foods You Should Eat” section, you can use that as a guideline for what to buy at the grocery store. If you need to, search online and find some healthy recipes. 

Now that you’ve been to the store, this is what your plate should look like:

  • Half the plate can be veggies and fruits – veggies should make up twice as much of the area as fruit. 
  • One-quarter of the plate should be lean proteins – this includes nuts and beans. 
  • The remaining quarter should be complex carbohydrates – whole grains, sweet potatoes, or yams.
  • Use plant oils in moderation. (13)

healthy plate

How To Make Healthy Eating Sustainable

The key to eating healthy is to look at it as a lifestyle choice. This is especially true if you are losing body fat. Don’t think in terms of diet, think in terms of eating choices you can live with. This means that taste is a major factor in the foods you choose and this is a result of your food preparation.

After all, people eat unhealthy because all that sugar, sodium, and fat taste good. Not only are their healthy recipes that taste good, there are healthy dessert-type treats you can make or buy that also taste good.

All it takes is a google search for recipe ideas and a careful look at food labels in the grocery store.

If you follow a recipe, just make sure it stays within your guidelines.

If you buy a product, there are newer choices in keto or low-carb options, all you have to do is make sure your product of interest holds up nutritionally. 

Supplements You Can Use

Supplements are goal-based. Anyone can benefit from such products as multiple vitamins or fish oil.

Additional products are based on what you want to accomplish. Many people use protein powder regardless of their goals. If you’re a bodybuilder or athlete, for starters you’ll want to consider things like a pre-workout, creatine, and maybe a post-workout/recovery product.

If you’re following a fat loss program, you may want to consider a thermogenic to give you that extra fat loss edge. There’s no limit to what you can use, it’s all based on what you want to accomplish.

Tips And Common Mistakes

Don’t make healthy eating complicated. It’s not hard, there’s no need to overthink it. Your reasons should be to achieve better health and a better quality of life.

If you’re new to bodybuilding, you’ll find there are specific eating guidelines involved. This will be true of any athletic endeavor.

If fat loss is your goal, there’s a lot to wade through, but a good place to start is with a low carb, low sugar, low sodium approach. Eat lean proteins and healthy fats. Learn how to read nutrition labels, and make it a habit!

Common mistakes include:

  • Not tracking your calories and macronutrients – Regardless of your goals, it’s smart to be at least semi-conscious of how much you eat every day. Many people eat healthy to lose body fat. In this case, it makes sense to track your calories, protein, carbs, and fats. If you’re exercising and trying to build muscle, there are dietary guidelines that go with that. You’ll want to track your calories and macros to make sure you’re hitting those guidelines.
  • Going too long between meals – As with anything, there’s a ton of theories about how often you should eat. The best answer is, eat when you are hungry. It does not have to be a big meal. It can just be a snack. As long as it’s a healthy choice and won’t push you over your daily calorie goals, you’re fine.
  • Not reading nutrition labels – This has been mentioned above, but it cannot be over-emphasized. Read the label, and make sure you understand it. 
  • Expecting too much too soon – especially if you are following a fat loss diet – It’s common for people losing fat or gaining muscle to want to get to their goal yesterday. You can’t be that impatient. Goals take time to achieve. Set smaller goals that can be achieved in a few days or weeks. This will lead you to your long-term goal, and you will have the reward of achieving short-term goals along the way.
  • Not including enough variety – Don’t try and revolve your healthy eating plan around the same 4-5 foods day after week after month. Look for variety. 
  • Thinking you can out-exercise poor diet choices – Don’t let your eating plan falter because you think you can undo the damage in the gym. Healthy eating can’t be compensated for by exercising. You have to stick to the plan. 
  • Getting caught up in all the fad diets – The worst mistake you can make is to change your healthy eating approach every time you read about the latest fad diet. Again, stick to the plan – your plan. It will work, just give it enough time.
  • Be Active – If fat loss is your goal you should be as active as possible. Following an exercise program  makes a lot of sense. If you’re a bodybuilder, athlete, or fitness enthusiast, that’s great. But this can be as simple as taking daily walks. If you are not used to being active, walking is a great place to start. 

Conclusion 

As you can see, healthy eating is a choice worth making.

Best of all, it doesn’t have to be hard. Despite thoughts to the contrary, healthy eating can taste good.

The key is to make it a lifestyle change you can live with. You’ll feel better, look better and your quality of life will be better.

Why wait – make today the day to start eating healthy!

References:

  1. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-eating-plate/
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24183706/
  3. https://www.livescience.com/52802-what-is-a-calorie.html
  4. Nutrition and Diet Therapy, Cataldo, DeBruyne and Whitney, “The Chemists View of Protein” p.80-81
  5. Nutrition and Diet Therapy, Cataldo, DeBruyne and Whitney, “The Chemists View of Protein” p.90
  6. https://www.wellandgood.com/does-protein-give-you-energy/
  7. https://healthyeating.sfgate.com/body-store-excess-calories-9627.html#:~:text=Once%20your%20glycogen%20stores%20are%20full%2C%20your%20body,form%20of%20triglycerides%2C%20a%20type%20of%20fatty%20acid.
  8. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/fat/art-20045550
  9. https://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/micronutrients
  10. SL;, L. (n.d.). Relation between consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks and childhood obesity: A prospective, observational analysis. Retrieved July 30, 2020, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11229668/
  11. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sugar/how-much-sugar-is-too-much#:~:text=AHA%20Sugar%20Recommendation&text=Men%20should%20consume%20no%20more,or%20100%20calories)%20per%20day.
  12. https://healthyeating.sfgate.com/much-sodium-supposed-per-day-5703.html#:~:text=The%202015%20Dietary%20Guidelines%20for%20Americans%20recommend%20an,2%2C300%20milligrams%20of%20sodium%20per%20day%20for%20adults.
  13. https://www.livestrong.com/article/13722661-trans-fat-foods/?c_crid=cta1
  14. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-eating-plate/
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