Healthy Food: Your Ultimate Guide to Healthy Eating
Healthy food, regardless of food category, has a large breadth and high density of essential nutrients, a high fiber-to-sugar ratio, a low sodium-to-potassium ratio, and low saturated fat content. This ultimate guide and resource page will help teach you how to identify healthy food, as well as provide you with lists of the healthiest foods from various food categories rigorously analyzed by nutrient content.
A Healthy Diet vs. Healthy Food
To have a healthy diet, you must eat healthy food. But just how much healthy food do you need? Does your entire diet need to consist of healthy foods? If not, how low can the percentage be? 80%? 50%?
Most of the world is waking up. We’re starting to realize just how important a healthy diet is for a healthy life. In fact, large studies published in journals like Lancet show your diet is the leading behavioral disease risk factor in the world, leading to roughly 1 out of every 5 deaths globally.
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Most of the illness derived from unhealthy diets relate to chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some cancers.
And just as the name implies, these conditions arise after years, sometimes decades, of poor, chronic lifestyle behaviors.
This is important to understand.
Poor health won’t develop overnight after eating an entire pizza and drinking a soda to wash it down.
So we can safely say that 100% of your diet does not need to come from healthy foods. Yes, enjoy your birthday cake.
But it also probably isn’t a stretch to convince you that 0% of your diet coming from healthy foods cannot lead to good health.
Chronic diseases arise when these behaviors are repeated on a regular basis, often over the course of a lifetime.
Our bodies are quite resilient in the short term, capable of adapting to varying needs. You could imagine early hunter-gatherers might have had variable food supplies from time to time. We can adapt over short periods of time to maintain health and cognition.
But the foods those hunter-gatherers did eat were quite different than many of the processed foods we eat today.
What is NOT Considered Healthy Food
Sometimes, when trying to understand what something _IS_, it’s useful to learn what it ISN’T. Healthy foods contain an abundance and breadth of essential nutrients required for good health. They also lack large quantities of nutrients that promote poor health outcomes. Therefore, unhealthy food, by definition, is the opposite.
Food becomes less healthy in three ways.
The calories in the food are empty. In other words, your food contains calories but very few essential nutrients to come along for the ride.
There is a high concentration of compounds that directly exert a negative effect on health and disease risk.
Any diet, including any food, that is overconsumed on a chronic basis.
Let’s take a look at the first one.
Foods with low concentrations of essential nutrients
As the concentration of essential nutrients goes down, the food item in question becomes less healthy.
One reason we need to eat food is to obtain calories. We use these calories for energy that in turn powers metabolism, respiration, the circulatory system, protein production, and everything else that keeps our bodies alive.
But another reason we eat food is to obtain nutrients essential for various metabolic processes. These essential nutrients, including most vitamins and minerals, are required for life but they are only found in our diets.
We only consume so many calories each day.
Therefore, we need these essential nutrients to come along for the ride.
If the foods we are eating do not have sufficient concentrations of these essential nutrients, our bodies will be operating in a sub-optimal condition.
If your consumption of these nutrients drops too low, you may develop a severe deficiency that leads to very poor health conditions. Although this level of nutrient deficiency is rare in the developed world, these deficiencies are still very prevalent in poorer nations.
Learn more about 3 global micronutrient deficiencies
But even chronic, low levels on essential micronutrients may still be leading to poorer health outcomes.
For example, studies suggest that subclinical vitamin D intake can lead to declines in musculoskeletal health1 and that adding vitamin D and calcium supplementation to the diets of the elderly can help prevent osteoporotic bone fractures.2
And the average intake of fiber in the U.S. is very low. A low intake of fiber will not immediately cause sickness, but studies show that chronic underconsumption of fiber may lead to greater risk of all-cause mortality.3
One prime culprit for turning healthy food into unhealthy food is sugar.
Sugar is one nutrient that unabashedly finds its place into all three categories we’ve outlined as constituting what makes food unhealthy.
Sugar is a carbohydrate, and thus caries with it roughly 4 calories for every gram.
But along with those 4 calories, no essential nutrients come too.
While adding sugar to food may make it taste better, it can either displace calories you would need to get elsewhere that _do_ carry useful nutrients, or it can add to your daily calorie intake and therefore lead to weight gain.
Speaking of sugar…
Foods with high concentrations of compounds linked to poor health
The best diets are well-balanced with healthy food in modest portions.
When diets get out of balance for too long, problems can develop.
One way your diet can get out of balance is by choosing foods with high concentrations of compounds known to increase your risks of developing chronic diseases.
Picking up where we left off, sugar is one of these compounds.
Healthy food is low in sugar. The World Health Organization recommends that fewer than 10% of your daily calories should come from sugar. Ideally, they suggest reducing that further to less than 5%. One reason that sugar may need to be kept to a minimum is due to its glycemic load.
The glycemic index (GI) is used to represent the body’s response to digesting carbohydrates.
Specifically, the impact this has on blood glucose levels after eating.
Glucose is set as the standard with a GI of 100.
Table sugar (sucrose) has a GI of around 63.
Diabetes is associated with the development of insulin resistance, where the body is less capable of using insulin to help control blood glucose levels after meals.
A low-GI diet is often recommended for those with diabetes.4
Thus, removing sugar from your diet would naturally help lower your diet’s GI-score.
Note: This is not medical advice. Please consult your doctor before making any dietary changes.
Nevertheless, the direct link between sugar and disease is not so clear, as stated by the American Diabetes Association who identifies a link between sugar-sweetened beverages and diabetes but stops short of saying sugar directly causes diabetes.
Other, general population studies, however, point to a possible link with heart disease.5 This study published by Harvard researchers in JAMA suggests added sugar, in light of an otherwise healthy diet and healthy weight, may still increase risk of heart disease. While the science continues to get sorted out, what’s clear is that all major health organizations suggest we should eat less sugar. Needless to say, healthy foods contain no added sugars.
Sugar-sweetened beverages are one of the biggest culprits. It is fairly easy to say, unequivocally, that sugar-sweetened beverages are not healthy foods.
Fiber helps attenuate the insulin response to eating foods like sugar.6
This is one reason why fruits are still incredibly healthy to eat despite their high sugar content.
Therefore, healthy food has a high fiber to sugar ratio.
Harvard Health recommends a ratio of 10 to 1, fiber to carbs ratio, because this is close to the ratio in unrefined whole grains. This ratio includes all sources of carbohydrates, including sugar.
Healthy diets are moderate in sodium. Another nutrient linked to poor health when consumed in large amounts is sodium. Sodium is primarily found in salt.
In the general population, increased sodium intake raises both systolic and diastolic blood pressure; and with it an increased risk of stroke and coronary heart disease.7
Rest easy knowing salt added to healthy food cooked at home does not cause the level of concern noted by health organizations. In fact, roughly 80% of the overconsumption of sodium comes from restaurants and processed, packaged foods.
Salt is generally added to give flavor, but also to help preserve packaged foods.
Unfortunately, sodium can lead to hypertension (high blood pressure), a major risk factor for things like stroke, heart failure, and kidney disease, to name a few.
But in addition to sodium’s hypertensive effects, minerals such as potassium8 and calcium9 have hypotensive affects. In other words, these nutrients can help neutralize some of the blood-pressure-raising effects of sodium.
This is where the concept of the sodium-to-potassium ratio comes from.
Having a lower sodium-to-potassium ratio has been shown to be associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality.10 In fact, Paleolithic hunter-gatherers are suspected of having a sodium-to-potassium ratio of 1 to 16. Our modern, Western diets, on the other hand, are closer to 1.36 to 1 – they’re so different the ratio actually inverted!
Therefore, healthy food generally has a lower sodium-to-potassium ratio.
The final nutrients to address are also one of the most controversial as of late.
Not all fats. Specifically, saturated fats.
First, we’ll discuss trans-saturated fats. These are not controversial. Nearly all researchers agree that trans fats are not beneficial for health, and major health organizations are trying to ban industrial production of trans fats from the global food supply chain.11
But saturated fats have caused a bigger stir (see article about the controversy of saturate fat intake and health).
Despite some uncertainly in the science and a passionate community of resisters, the scientific consensus still agrees that replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats (not with carbohydrates), produces a modest reduction in cardiovascular disease risk.12
The issues surrounding dietary fats and cardiovascular health primarily relate to their effect on cholesterol levels. Specifically, how much they raise or lower both HDL and LDL.
While different fatty acids (for example, palmitic acid vs. myristic acid) result in different changes to HDL and LDL levels, saturated fats generally cause a modest increase in the LDL/HDL ratio while unsaturated fats cause a slight decrease in this ratio.13
This understanding, along with epidemiological studies, has been the mechanistic driving force behind specific fatty acids and healthy food.
Therefore, healthy food has zero trans fats and low saturated fats.
To recap, our understanding of healthy food through the lens of unhealthy food, healthy foods have:
High fiber-to-sugar ratio
Low sodium-to-potassium ratio
Zero trans fats