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What is healthy eating?

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Low-carb, low-fat, Mediterranean, paleo — there’s no shortage of diet options. But what does healthy eating actually look like? Turns out, it’s not that complicated. Here’s what you need to know.

We know that a healthy diet has lots of benefits. It can make us feel better, lower our risk of chronic illnesses and help us live longer. But figuring out what “healthy” actually means isn’t always easy.

Every day there’s a new headline about what you should or shouldn’t eat. Studies often share new findings on how certain foods may help or hurt us. Fad diets come and go. New products pop up that promise speedy weight loss. Not to mention the advice you might get from friends, family and influencers. It can be overwhelming and confusing.

The truth is that healthy eating doesn’t have to be complicated. Many types of foods can be part of a wholesome diet. Here’s what you need to know about eating to support your health.

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What is a healthy diet?

First, let’s define “diet.” You might associate the word with a strict eating plan, one that limits calories or cuts out certain foods. It might be something you do for a short time to lose weight.

Here, “diet” simply means the foods a person eats every day. Another term for it might be “eating pattern.” A healthy diet includes a variety of foods from different food groups. It should meet your needs for essential vitamins and minerals. It should also provide enough calories to help you stay at a healthy weight.1

All foods can be part of a healthy diet. You don’t need to cut out foods or food groups. “People are different. The best way to eat healthy is the way that works for you and your lifestyle,” says Jacki Howard, RDN. She’s a health coach for Optum. Of course, it’s fine to stay away from certain foods for personal or religious reasons or if you have an allergy.

You can improve your energy and support your health by choosing nutritious foods most of the time. These include:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy
  • Lean meat, poultry or seafood
  • Beans, legumes and soy foods
  • Nuts and seeds

Healthy diets have room for treats and fun foods, too. You should limit foods with added sugars, salt and unhealthy fats. But you don’t have to cut them out completely. The key is having them once in a while, not every day.2

What are the benefits of healthy eating?

Studies show that people who follow a healthy eating pattern reap big benefits. These include:

  • Better heart health. The right foods can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. Fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, nuts, legumes and seeds give the most protection, according to the American Heart Association. Eating less red meat and limiting sugary drinks helps, too.3

  • Longer life. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables can help you live longer. Having five servings of produce daily is linked to a 13% lower risk of early death, compared to eating two servings per day. Whole fruits and vegetables are a better choice than fruit juice.4

  • Healthy weight. Certain foods make it easier to reach or stay at a healthy weight. One major study found that vegetables, whole grains, fruit, nuts and yogurt seem to be the most helpful for weight loss. Diets high in sweets, processed snacks and sugary drinks can cause weight gain.

  • Lower cancer risk. No one food can protect against cancer. But you can lower your risk for many types of cancer by choosing more plant foods.5 Red, yellow, orange and green fruits and vegetables may be especially powerful. They contain protective nutrients and tend to be low in calories.6

  • Better brain health. A healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables may help keep your brain sharp. Research shows that eating just 100 grams more of fresh produce per day may lower cognitive impairment and dementia risk by 13%. That’s about equal to an extra piece of fruit or half a cup of cooked vegetables.7

  • Healthier gut. Filling up on fiber can support the health of your gut. A healthy gut is linked to better heart health, a stronger immune system, better mood and many other health benefits. Find fiber in whole grains, fruits, vegetables and beans. For better digestion, follow these easy tips

What are macronutrients?

Macronutrients, or macros, are nutrients the body needs in large amounts. They include protein, fat and carbohydrates. (Carbohydrates are often called “carbs”). Most foods contain some of each macro. But certain foods are higher in certain macros. For example:

  • Carbohydrates are found in grains, bread, pasta, fruits and beans. Some vegetables, such as potatoes, corn and winter squash, are also high in carbs.
  • Protein is found in meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, eggs, nuts, beans and soy foods such as tofu and tempeh.
  • Fat is found in butter, oils, avocado and nuts. It’s also found in meat, dairy and seafood.

There are no specific recommendations for how much of each macro you should eat. Howard suggests a range of 45% to 65% of calories from carbs, 20% to 35% from fat and 10% to 35% from protein. But she says you don’t have to worry too much about the exact amounts. “If you’re eating a balanced diet and not restricting food groups, you’re likely getting the amounts you need,” she says. “I would focus more on the quality of the food you’re eating before stressing over the macros.”

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What are micronutrients?

Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals. They’re needed by every part of our body. They help with everything from fighting infections to building strong bones and regulating hormones.

There are at least 30 essential vitamins and minerals. “Essential” means that your body doesn’t make them — you have to get them from food. Different foods have different vitamins and minerals. Eating a variety of healthy foods is the best way to make sure you meet your micronutrient needs.

To make healthy choices, look for nutrient-dense foods. These are foods high in micronutrients but low in calories. Fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy are all nutrient-dense choices. For instance: A slice of whole-grain bread and white bread each have 80 calories. But whole-grain bread has more protein, fiber, magnesium and B vitamins. That makes it more nutrient-dense.8

What about supplements?

Most people don’t need to take vitamins or supplements, says Lauren Spradling, RD. She’s a wellness coach for Real Appeal with Rally, part of Optum. But older adults, pregnant women and those with food allergies or diet restrictions might need them. Check with your doctor to see if a supplement is right for you.9  

How can I plan healthy meals?

Healthy meals deliver the nutrients you need and make you feel satisfied. Try these tips to make your meals healthy and delicious.

  • Balance your plate. Aim to eat a mix of food groups at each meal. Fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables. Make the other side half protein and half grains. Add a serving of low-fat dairy, too, such as a glass of milk. Myplate.gov can help you plan balanced meals.

  • Look at your fats. Fat adds flavor and helps the body take up some nutrients. But pick heart-healthy options. For example, cook with olive or canola oil instead of butter or shortening.

  • Change it up. Have different foods from each food group. Try a side of sauteed spinach one night and roasted cauliflower the next. Both are vegetables, but each offers different micronutrients.

  • Use healthy cooking methods. Baking, broiling, grilling, roasting, steaming or sautéing are all good choices. Stay away from deep-frying as often as possible.

  • Plan ahead. Decide on menus in advance so that you’re not scrambling before mealtime. “Planning can set us up for success with healthy eating,” Spradling says. It also helps you make sure you get a variety of foods throughout the week.

  • Choose foods you enjoy. Spradling emphasizes that you should plan meals that you like cooking and eating. There’s no need to force yourself to eat foods you hate. Meals should be good for you — and enjoyable.

Which foods should be limited?

A healthy diet has room for everything. But certain foods should be limited. Added sugars, saturated fats, sodium and alcohol can cause health problems if we have too much of them. You don’t need to cut them out of your diet entirely. But these are “sometimes” foods, not “daily” foods. 

Added sugar

Added sugar is sugar that’s added to make foods or drinks sweeter. It serves up extra calories but no nutrients. Too much can raise the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

  • Find it in: sugary drinks, baked goods and candy. Packaged foods such as cereal, bread, yogurt or pasta sauce may also have added sugars.

  • Get less: Limit added sugars to less than 10% of your total calories. For an adult eating 2,000 calories a day, that’s 50 grams, or 200 calories.10 Reading food labels can help you spot sources of added sugar and decide how to cut back. For instance, you could switch from sugary soda to unsweetened iced tea. Or choose a breakfast cereal that’s lower in added sugar.

Saturated fat

This is a type of unhealthy fat. Eating too much of it can raise your cholesterol. This can raise the risk for heart attack and stroke.

  • Find it in: solid fats such as butter, lard, palm oil or coconut oil. Red meat and full-fat dairy (especially cheese) are also high in saturated fats.

  • Get less: Adults eating 2,000 calories should limit saturated fat to 16 to 22 grams per day.11 For reference, a typical quarter-pound burger patty has about 6 grams of saturated fat.12  Trade saturated fats for healthier fat sources. Swap butter for olive oil or have chicken instead of a burger. Choose low-fat or nonfat dairy foods.

Sodium

The body needs some sodium to work properly. But too much can raise blood pressure. This can make you more likely to have a heart attack or stroke.

  • Find it in: restaurant meals and processed foods are major sources of sodium. Cold cuts, pizza and canned soup are also some of the biggest offenders.

  • Get less: Keep your sodium under 2,300 milligrams (mg) daily.13 Cooking at home is one of the best ways to limit your sodium. Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. They’re naturally low in sodium. Look for low-sodium options when buying packaged foods.

Alcohol

High blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver problems and some cancers can result from drinking too much alcohol. So can memory problems, anxiety or depression.

  • Find it in: a standard drink, which counts as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits.

  • Get less: If you do drink, do so in moderation. Men should have no more than two drinks per day. Women should have no more than one drink a day.

There are lots of trendy diets. Which ones are actually healthy?

Fad diets come and go. Trends such as the cabbage soup diet, low-fat diets or keto diets promise fast weight loss. But they often involve extreme measures, such as cutting out whole food groups or eating very few calories. So they’re hard to keep up for long.

Healthy eating patterns are balanced and easy to follow. They don’t leave you feeling deprived. Some popular ones include:14

  • A Mediterranean-style diet
  • The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension)
  • Flexitarian diets (plant-based diets that make room for some animal foods)

All of these eating patterns can be customized to you. They focus on eating lots of fruits and veggies, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. They may not offer lightning-fast results. But they’re tied to better health in the long term.15,16,17 And you can stick with them for months, years or even for life.

Think about how a diet or eating pattern will affect your day-to-day life before trying it. Can you follow it on holidays or special occasions? Do you see yourself still eating this way in 10 or 15 years? If so, it’s likely a good choice, say Howard and Spradling. (Learn more about what it means to live a healthy life.)

How can I start eating healthier?

Trying to overhaul your diet all at once can be daunting. Start small instead, recommends Rachel Goldman, PhD. She’s a licensed psychologist and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine. “Big changes may sound good in the moment. But they’re usually not sustainable,” she says. These tips can help you make the most of your efforts.

  • Find your why. Think about the reasons that you want to eat healthier. Is it to have more energy? Lower your disease risk? Knowing your why can help you stay motivated, says Goldman.

  • Set specific, realistic and attainable goals. Set small goals that are specific and easy to track. “If we say, ‘I am going to eat more vegetables,’ that isn’t very specific,” says Goldman. “Instead, maybe it’s, ‘I will add a vegetable with my dinner every night.’”

  • Notice triggers. Pay attention to cues that lead to overeating and have a plan to help minimize them. If you always crave a snack when you watch TV at night, perhaps you can plan to take a walk or read a book instead.18

  • Don’t expect to be perfect. “There will be a time that you may overindulge or eat something not exactly as planned,” says Goldman. “And that’s OK. Be kind to yourself.”

  • Participate in mindful eating. Focus on your food while eating. Turn off the TV and put away devices at mealtime. Food is more satisfying when you pay attention while you eat. It’s easier to notice when you’re full, too. That can help you limit overeating.

  • Talk with a pro. Think about meeting with a dietitian or a therapist who focuses on behavior change, Goldman suggests. An expert can help you make a plan that sets you up for success.

Need extra support for creating and sticking with your goals? Get on-the-go help from Sanvello. Or work 1-on-1 with a virtual coach from AbleTo. Find support now. 

Sources

  1. U.S. Department of Agriculture. What is a healthy diet? Accessed June 1, 2022.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Healthy eating for a healthy weight. Last reviewed June 3, 2022. Accessed June 4, 2022.
  3. American Heart Association. How to help prevent heart disease at any age. Last reviewed April 2015. Accessed June 1, 2022.
  4. PubMed.gov. Fruit and vegetable intake and mortality: Results from 2 prospective cohort studies of US men and women and a meta-analysis of 26 cohort studies. Published March 1, 2021. Accessed July 6, 2022.
  5. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 7 cancer prevention tips for your diet. Published October 20, 2020. Accessed June 1, 2022.
  6. American Cancer Society. Tips for eating healthier. Last reviewed October 18, 2021. Accessed June 1, 2022.
  7. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. Increased consumption of fruit and vegetables is related to a reduced risk of cognitive impairment and dementia: eta-analysis. Published February 7, 2017. Accessed July 6, 2022.
  8. American Heart Association. How can I eat more nutrient-dense foods? Last reviewed November 2, 2021. Accessed June 3, 2022.
  9. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Vitamins, minerals and supplements: Do you need to take them? Last reviewed April 2021. Accessed June 3, 2022.
  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Know your limit for added sugars. Last reviewed January 13, 2022. Accessed June 3, 2022.
  11. Medline Plus. Facts about saturated fats. Last reviewed May 26, 2020. Accessed June 4, 2022.
  12. U.S. Department of Agriculture. FoodData Central: Beef, ground, 70% lean meat / 30% fat, patty cooked, pan-broiled. Published April 1, 2019. Accessed June 24, 2022.
  13. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sodium Q&A: How much sodium should I get per day? Last reviewed November 1, 2021. Accessed June 4, 2022.
  14. U.S. News & World Report. Best diets overall 2022. Accessed June 12, 2022.
  15. Journal of Internal Medicine. The Mediterranean diet and health: A comprehensive overview. Published September 2021. Accessed July 6, 2022.
  16. Frontiers in Nutrition. Flexitarian diets and health: A review of the evidence-based literature. Published January 6, 2017. Accessed July 6, 2022.
  17. National Center for Biotechnology Information. DASH diet to stop hypertension. Last reviewed May 19, 2021. Accessed June 12, 2022.
  18. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Improving your eating habits. Last reviewed June 3, 2022. Accessed June 20, 2022.

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