Mixed healthy diet messages overcomplicate healthy eating.
Healthy eating. A balanced diet. We grasp the concept. And we understand the wide-ranging benefits – lower risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer, improved immunity, healthier ageing, less weight gain…
But then it gets messy. A constant stream of conflicting nutrition and diet advice blurs our perspective.
Healthy eating shouldn’t be so confusing!
Food adverts offer health benefits “backed by science”. Junk food packaging brags about healthier ingredients. Evangelists preach their fad diet commandments across social networks. And media headlines portray nutrition science as capricious – yesterday’s must-have nutrient is today’s toxic ingredient. Healthy eating sells – and everybody wants your attention.
It’s overwhelming. Healthy eating shouldn’t be so confusing!
And ultimately it isn’t. I’m a chef and a nutritionist and here’s what I know. The simplest approach to healthy eating is a plant based omnivore diet. Let me explain…
Healthy eating is a broad church
A healthy diet has the energy and all the raw materials the body needs to thrive. Yes – age, gender, body size, health history and physical activity all impact our nutritional needs. But we all need roughly the same thing. The same nutrients.
But food is more than nutrition. Your history, your family and friends and your cultural background all shape your food preferences. What you choose to eat, the foods you like and the foods you dislike are a big part of who you are. They’re central to your identity.
you need to get your diet right 90% of the time
How much I eat and the foods I choose won’t be the same as you. Yet, if we both make the right food choices, our diets will be just as wholesome.
Because there is no single healthy way to eat. Healthy diets share common features. But there are countless ways to eat healthily. And a healthy diet can include a wide spectrum of food choices.
Because humans are incredibly adaptable omnivores. We’re nutritional generalists.
You can eat, digest and absorb what you need from a huge variety of plant and animal foods. Yet no single food or food group has the complete set of essential nutrients. Unlike a panda with its perpetual bamboo diet, you have to think about what you eat. And for the sake of your health, you need to get your diet right 90% of the time.
…humans are incredibly adaptable omnivores. We’re nutritional generalists
Healthy eating may be a broad church, but all healthy diets have a few things in common.
- lots of plant food
- a relatively low energy density
- full of variety
- foods processed with sensitivity to their nutritional content
- simple ingredients
- 90% cooked from scratch
- enjoyable – or it won’t last
- sustainable – it fits into your life, it doesn’t take it over
Let’s take a look at each in turn.
Lots of plant food
Plants are the foundation and superstructure of a healthy diet. Meat, seafood and dairy are important – although not essential.
Still, there’s a growing misconception is that animal products are unhealthy. In reality meat, fish and seafood, eggs and dairy all have a place in a healthy diet. And they’re better sources of some important nutrients.
But there are two overarching health issues related to animal produce
- Quality – A lot of the animal products we eat have been nutritionally compromised. We’ll come to the concept of “processing foods with sensitivity to their nutrients” later. It’s the key to making healthy food choices – especially when it comes to animal products.
- Quantity – We’re a rich society. And wealth makes animal products easily affordable. We take them for granted and we eat too much. And the science tells us a diet heavy with animal produce isn’t a good idea.
Your diet should be plant based. Plants are a great source of carbohydrates, fats and protein. And vegetables, pulses, whole grains, fruit, nuts and seeds are all rich in rich in fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Vegetables and Pulses
To keep the energy density of your diet low (see below) you need to eat vegetables and pulses in greatest quantity. Unfortunately, both have an unjustly poor culinary reputation. But the blame lies with maladroit cooks, not vegetables and pulses. Cook them with care and imagination and give them the attention they deserve. Just show them some love and they’re delicious.
Whole grains and Fruits
Whole grains and fruit are the next biggest components of a healthy diet. And variety is key. Fruits of every colour. Whole fruits, not juices. And as many different whole grains as you can.
Still, don’t overdo whole grain products like bread, cereals and pasta. They’re nutritionally superior to their refined counterparts. But still not a patch on the whole grains themselves. Grains like oatmeal, pearl barley and pealed wheat or pseudo-grains like quinoa and buckwheat.
But what about gluten?
Despite the marketing hype and social media endorsement, excluding gluten from your diet doesn’t make it healthier. Instead, it makes it harder to eat a healthy diet by unnecessarily restricting your choices of nutritious grains. Because most gluten-free grains are contaminated with gluten on their journey from field to plate. And cereal products that guarantee they’re 100% gluten-free aren’t always available and have a steeper price tag.
Yes, a small number of people should avoid gluten – coeliacs and those diagnosed with a non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. For everyone else, avoiding gluten just makes healthy eating harder.
Nuts, Seeds and Oils
Nuts and seeds pack a serious nutrition and calorie punch. So you need to be more careful and not to overdo it. And plant-based fats and oils are just as high energy as animal fats – you can have too much of a good thing.
Plant based Omnivore
Lots of plant food – probably more than you’re used to – is fundamental to a healthy diet. Still, there’s no need to go vegetarian or vegan for your health. Humans are omnivores. Absolutely, a vegan diet can provide what your body needs. But it’s harder work. And I’m all for simple.
And when it comes to healthy eating, simple is being a plant based omnivore. Simple healthy eating includes foods of both plant and animal origin.
But a plant based omnivore diet isn’t a licence to eat meat, fish and dairy with just a small side of plant food.
Animal products provide many essential nutrients. And they enrich the culinary landscape – and so our enjoyment of food. But overdoing it cheapens their nutritional and gastronomic value. And it’s bad for your health.
Make plants the overwhelming majority of what you eat.
Low energy density
If you’ve ever looked in the mirror and wondered where that lean (or at least leaner) body you had 10 (or even 20) years ago went, your not alone. Most people don’t notice the insidious creep of abdominal fat. Granted, having the tight abs of a teenager in middle age isn’t a realistic or desirable goal. But a soft middle and love handles aren’t an inevitable consequence of age. They’re an inevitable consequence of diet.
Some foods like fats, oils, sugars and refined flours stuff huge amounts of calories into every mouthful. They are energy-dense foods. What’s more, your body can rapidly extract and absorb their calories. To make matters worse, they’re what food manufactures and processors call “highly palatable” – they’re very moreish. And before you know it, you’ve eaten far more than you should have.
Your foraging ancestors evolved their nutritional adaptability to take advantage of scarce resources. But in today’s environment, abundance has replaced scarcity. We’re besieged by a bewildering choice of foods. Foods frequently packed with calories and devoid of other nutrients.
And that’s a problem.
Because energy is the primal driver for appetite and other nutrients are an afterthought. High energy foods trigger the reward system in your brain in a way vitamins and minerals can’t. When you’re surrounded by energy-dense foods you have to consciously and proactively select what you eat. If you don’t convenience, clever marketing and shrewd product development will beguile you into a diet of cheap calories deficient in other essential nutrients.
As a savvy plant based omnivore, you can negotiate the healthy shopping obstacle course and avoid the energy-dense pitfalls. Because most of what you eat – vegetables, pulses, whole grains and fruit – are relatively light on calories.
Animal products are an important part of the plant based omnivore diet. They’re concentrated sources of important nutrients. But they’re energy-dense. A little goes a long way.
Making your gut work harder
Your gut works harder and takes longer – as it’s designed to do – to extract energy from whole plant foods. And that’s a good thing. Slowing digestion keeps you feeling full for longer decreasing hunger and cravings.
And foods that take longer to digest give up their calories more slowly. They provide a steady flow of energy over hours and maintain your energy levels throughout the day.
Making your body’s digestive systems work harder and slower is especially important when it comes to carbohydrates. A poorly thought out plant based diet has the potential to be very high carb. I’m not anti-carbohydrates. They’re an important part of a healthy diet. But choose your carbs carefully.
Carbohydrates and energy levels
Your gut must break down carbohydrates into glucose – the body’s preferred energy source. The glucose is absorbed and your blood glucose levels (sometimes called blood sugar levels) rise. Then your body either uses the glucose for energy or stores it.
The vast majority of manufactured foods and snacks are full of refined carbohydrates. Things like sugar, white flour and corn starch. These ingredients have been stripped from their natural plant foodstuff. And what’s left is energy-dense and nutrient light. Essentially, the refining process has pre-digested the carbohydrates for you. Your body rapidly finishes the job and quickly absorbs the glucose and your blood sugar level spikes.
it’s time to step off the energy roller-coaster for good.
That mid-morning muffin or afternoon chocolate bar almost instantly has you buzzing with energy. But high blood glucose is dangerous so your body acts quickly to lower it. It stores as much glucose as it can as fast as it can. And when blood glucose falls too fast or too far, your energy levels crash. Time for another sweet pick me up to take the edge off. If you’re frequently reaching for something sweet to keep you going until your next meal, it’s time to step off the energy roller-coaster for good.
Refined carbohydrates aren’t bad for you. But a diet full of them is. It will have you struggling to control your energy levels and hunger. And it will increase your chances of diabetes, obesity and some cancers.
Still, sugar, flours and other refined starches are an important addition to any cooks pantry. Their intelligent use enhances homemade cooking. And an occasional muffin, chocolate bar or ice cream? Why not? Remember the 90% rule!
Still, whole vegetables, pulses, grains and fruit are energy lightweights and should be the mainstay of your diet. And their glucose is slowly released helping your body control blood levels. And that gives you a constant flow of energy all day. Even better, they’re packed with other essential nutrients.
And before moving on, it’s worth thinking about where your body stores excess glucose.
Your body’s first choice is to store extra glucose as glycogen. A sort of everyday, handy glucose storage cupboard. Easily accessible, but space is limited.
When the glycogen cupboard’s full the body stores glucose in its long-term warehouse – fat cells. And like everything we consign to longterm storage, it’s a pain to get when we need it. So we go to the handy cupboard and forget what we put in longterm storage. And over the years the storage unit slowly fills up with stuff we don’t need. Your body’s no different.
Hello, love handles!
Variety is a cornerstone of a healthy diet. And it’s central to the plant based omnivore diet. It’s the key to getting the balance of macronutrients and all the minerals, vitamins and antioxidants you need. No one food group can supply you with everything your body requires.
Any diet that cuts out a food group or groups makes it more difficult. If you exclude animal products you can get all the nutrients you need. Just as you can if you limit (but not exclude) plant foods. But it takes more effort. And the more you exclude from your diet the harder it gets. Because you still need that food variety to get the full spectrum of nutrients.
A big problem with exclusion diets is achieving the essential nutritional variety.
The gurus, influencers and disciples of every exclusion diet have plenty of opinions, presumptions, anecdotal evidence and loose scientific inference. But most lack any scientific understanding of nutrition. As a rule, the more extreme the diet the more certain they are of the benefits and the louder they shout.
You can’t rely on advocates of an exclusion diet without carefully examining their credentials. You have to look into the science for yourself.
Instead of trying to exclude foods, change your mindset. What can you add into your diet to make it healthier? Even if your ultimate goal is weight loss, focus on the variety you can include in your diet to make it healthier. You’ve got to mix it up!
And that’s exactly what a plant based omnivore does. All foods groups are encouraged. As is variety within food groups. Instead, it’s all about relative quantities of the different foods.
Lots of diverse plant foods – vegetables, pulses, whole grains, fruit, nuts and seeds – combined with smaller amounts of seafood, meat and dairy. And even a bit of junk food from time to time or the occasional tipple. Life’s for living and a plant based omnivore diet covers all the nutrients you need…
Almost. I’m writing this in Scotland. Scots and others living at similar or higher latitudes need to supplement with vitamin D to make up for lack of year-round sunshine. Because food can’t provide an adequate supply.
Foods processed with sensitivity to their nutrients
I can’t deny that “Foods processed with sensitivity to their nutrients” is a bit wordy and not very catchy. But it’s an important concept. I just can’t find a way to make it sound more fun!
Here’s the problem. We’re told processed food is bad for us. But in the UK there’s no clear definition of what processed food is. We all have an idea – but without a clear definition, it’s confusing. And marketing and product packaging claims only make it more so!
The NHS makes the best attempt to define processed foods that I’ve found. It’s an empathetic approach and lists everyday examples. But ultimately it’s just a list of common junk foods with advice to read the labels.
I think the U.S. Department of Agriculture does a much better job.
“any raw agricultural commodity subjected to washing, cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, blanching, cooking, canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating, mixing, packaging, or other procedures that alter the food from its natural state. The food may include the addition of other ingredients such as preservatives, flavours, nutrients and other food additives or substances approved for use in food products, such as salt, sugars, and fats.”
In other words – all food is processed.
And after you buy it chances are you’ll take it home and process it some more.
I like the clarity of the USDA definition. It sweeps away the imprecise yet persuasive drivel used to promote fad diets and “health” foods. “Minimally processed,” “natural nutrition” and “clean eating” are three of the more obnoxious.
all food is processed
In the 21st century, all food is processed. All the way from field to fork. Our food supply chains couldn’t function otherwise. Lose the mindset of shopping for minimally processed and unprocessed foods. Instead, think about how the food you buy has been processed and why. And if the resulting food is something you want to eat.
Because there are good reasons to process food. Food processing can
- lengthen the shelf life
- preserve nutrients
- improve food safety
- enhance the flavour and texture
- increase convenience
- make transportation possible
- allow vitamin and mineral fortification
Granted there is a lot of junk. Many food manufacturing techniques have hideous effects on foods’ nutritional value. And it’s not always obvious. The easiest way to sidestep the junk is to keep it simple and cook as much as you can from scratch.
But that doesn’t mean you always have to choose fresh produce. Fresh isn’t always best or most nutritious.
For example, many “fresh” fruits and veg can spend a long time in the equivalent of suspended animation before landing on the store shelves. And all that time they’re leaching nutrients. Frozen fruits and vegetables often have a higher nutritional value than their fresh cousins.
Fresh isn’t always best or most nutritious
Tinned pulses are another instance of beneficial processing. Dried pulses often need overnight soaking before lengthy cooking. You can reheat tinned pulses straight from the can and they’re ready. Convenience is greatly improved without significant nutritional deterioration.
And condiments and seasonings should be part of your larder. They’re a quick and convenient way to add flare to your scratch cooking. Yet they’re inherently processed. Read the ingredient labels carefully. You’ll find sugar and additive free gems to add excitement to your food.
To be a successful plant based omnivore, with all the nutritional benefits, you need to get comfortable in the kitchen. You must be familiar with the different methods manufactures use to process foods. And the advantages or drawbacks.
It’s not realistic or affordable to eat everything fresh. To eat a truly varied and interesting diet you have to embrace frozen, canned, dried, chilled and bottled produce. Just not blindly.
The secret is to choose foods that are processed without destroying the majority of their nutrients. And you should consider the ingredients added to preserve the foods. That doesn’t mean you should avoid all preservatives. But instead don’t overdo foods that contain them.
How do you decide if a food has been processed with sensitivity to its nutritional content?
- Read the label to see what preservatives have been used – including sugar and salt.
- Try to understand how the processing or lack of it may have affected the nutrient content.
- ask yourself if there is a better, less processed but still realistic alternative available
- If there isn’t an alternative decide if you still want to include the food in your shopping basket
But remember the 90% rule. A bit of junk occasionally is ok.
The ultimate responsibility for what you eat is yours. All food have their ingredients on the packaging. Granted sometimes the writing is so small it’s a struggle to read. But that shouldn’t stop you. Because if you’re a plant based omnivore you need to be a detective.
It’s worth knowing the ingredients are listed on the label in order of quantity. The biggest ingredient by weight comes first. So for example, if sugar or a sugar alias is one of the first ingredients, you may want to leave the pack on the shelf.
A long list of ingredients isn’t always a bad thing. Although it should make you wary. But an unnaturally long list of ingredients for a “simple” food is definitely a red flag.
E-numbers shouldn’t automatically fill you with trepidation. E-numbers are designated codes for recognised and regulated, safe food additives.
The question to ask is, why is that e-number in that food? That doesn’t mean you need to know the list of 300+ e-numbers by heart. The label should tell you its purpose and you can decide if it’s appropriate. If its function isn’t clear I’d put it back on the shelf.
why is that e-number in that food?
In reality, many e-numbers are familiar components of fresh foods, for example, citric acid. The weak acid that gives citrus fruits their tartness. Add citric acid to food and it becomes E300.
Still, it’s an almost universal truth that foods with multiple e-numbers are unhealthy. Not because of the e-numbers. Their job is to make the food palatable. But because of the fats, sugars and/or salt they contain in the absence of other nutrients.
And it’s worth being cautious if you don’t recognise the ingredients listed. Again, not always a bad thing. But my advice would be, find out what they are before you eat the food. As examples, sugars and refined starches have many pseudonyms.
When you start reading ingredient labels a curious thing happens. You begin to question and reject foods with cryptic ingredients. And the foods you choose become less complex.
Take bread. It’s a ubiquitous and seemingly benign staple food. My rustic loaf has 4 ingredients. Flour, water, salt and yeast. Yet most of the bread on the UK high street has a freakish ingredient list.
The standard British loaf has somewhere between 12-15 ingredients including multiple e-numbers. Why? Because 95% of UK bread is made using the Chorleywood process. An industrial, mechanised process to make bread cheaply in an impossibly short time. The effects on the nutritional value are secondary.
Do I eat commercial bread? Yes, just not a lot. Because a bit of junk food occasionally is ok – the 90% rule. But mass produced bread isn’t a healthy staple food.
Use simple ingredients and don’t overcomplicate how you prepare them.
If you want to eat a healthy diet – scratch cook
Simple doesn’t mean boring. You can throw a few carefully chosen ingredients together and make a great meal in minutes.
And scratch cooking is essential to a healthy diet. To flourish as a plant based omnivore you must cook most of your meals yourself – from raw or nearly raw ingredients. You need to be a scratch cook. And I recommend you aim to cook 90% of what you eat.
Scratch cooking is a non-negotiable part of a healthy diet.
It’s no coincidence that the global rise in convenience food has been shadowed by the exponential growth of preventable lifestyle diseases. Diabetes, cardiovascular disease and many cancers are all linked to diet.
“Healthy” substitutes don’t make a healthy diet
Most nutritionists will suggest improving your diet by substitution. Having your low fat, no added sugar cake and eating it.
Wholemeal bread instead of white bread. Skimmed milk, not full fat. “No added sugar” baked beans. Low sodium salt. You get the idea. A timid approach to a healthy diet. And in some circumstances and for some people that’s the only option. Not everyone can or is ready to take such a radical step away from the habitual British diet.
But if you’re reading this you’re more ambitious. You want the best for your body now and in the future.
If you don’t cook – start small
When I bring up scratch cooking with clients, it meets with a whole sliding gamut of reactions. Enthusiasm, excitement, interest, acceptance, concern, dread, panic, refusal.
I don’t know where you fall on this spectrum. If it’s somewhere between concern and refusal, you probably
- don’t have the time
- can’t cook
- don’t like to cook.
To all three I say, start small, start simple, get organised and persist. Your skills and culinary repertoire will rapidly accrue. And you’ll cook delicious meals much more quickly. You may never fall in love with cooking. But with time, you will appreciate the real value cooking adds to your life.
When you don’t cook you’re outsourcing your nutrition and therefore your health to others.
Cooking gives you back control
Because cooking gives you unrestricted control over your diet. And that is incredibly powerful. Suddenly you can
- adjust calories easily
- control macronutrients effortlessly
- guarantee micronutrients
- eat better quality food for less money
- adjust all your meals to suit your preferences and goals
- eliminate unwanted ingredients, additives and preservatives
Keep it simple and cooking from scratch isn’t a burden. And practice brings confidence and confidence in the kitchen is empowering. Become a scratch cook and you have control over your diet. And control over your diet is control over your health.
Scratch cooking is a non-negotiable part of a healthy diet. Not every meal, but most. As I said, you should shoot for 90%.
Ready meals, takeaways and even restaurant meals must be a minority in your diet. Your nutritional health isn’t the manufacturer’s or chef’s priority – despite what it might say on the packaging or menu.
control over your diet is control over your health
When you don’t cook you’re outsourcing your nutrition and therefore your health to others. And they have a lot less invested in your health than you do.
Of course, it’s ok to share the cooking with members of your family or household if they’re on the same page as you. But beyond that, pre-prepared meals must be the occasional, not the everyday.
Healthy eating must be enjoyable
A diet you don’t enjoy isn’t healthy. Let’s set aside the nutritional benefits of a good diet for a moment. Because food plays a greater role in our lives than physical nourishment.
Eating is one of the great pleasures in life. It’s hardwired into your DNA. Absolutely, you must eat to survive. And you need to consume enough of all the necessary nutrients to thrive. But second only to hunger, pleasure is the main driver for eating. Many of the negative reasons people turn to eating – boredom, stress, fatigue – are rooted in the primal pleasure derived from eating.
second only to hunger, pleasure is the main driver for eating
The joy of eating isn’t just stitched into your body’s DNA but it’s woven into the society of every culture on earth. Humans have always used food to celebrate important occasions. But even more fundamental to the human social fabric is the joy of sharing good food with your family and close friends every day. Good food shared is one of the greatest joys of life.
And I’d argue the satisfaction of sitting down to a good meal you’ve made yourself is hard to beat. Cooking can be as simple as throwing a quick salad together or preparing a veritable banquet for your family and friends. But eating a meal you’ve created is difficult to beat – except by sharing it with loved ones.
A diet you don’t enjoy may help you achieve a short-term goal. But healthy eating is for life – you have to enjoy what you eat! And if you can’t share and appreciate food with those you love, your excluding yourself from a rich vein of human experience.
Good food shared is one of the greatest joys of life
Good food makes us happy. And happiness is important to health. Don’t make yourself miserable forcing unpalatable food over your throat in the name of health. You’re setting yourself up for failure. When it comes to food, health and enjoyment aren’t mutually exclusive, they’re synergistic.
A healthy diet is sustainable
Healthy eating is a life long pursuit. And that’s why most health or weight loss diets fail. They’re not sustainable over the long term. And by longterm I mean years and decades. Not just a few weeks or months until you reach your health goal.
Throughout this article, I’ve recommended a plant based omnivore diet. And it’s a fair question to ask why that diet isn’t equally doomed to failure.
Because diet is a noun with two meanings.
The food and drink you usually consume day to day – in other words, your eating pattern
A restrictive eating regime – frequently with the goal of weight loss
A healthy diet is life long eating pattern, not a restrictive eating regime. Because the more a diet excludes or asks you to measure the less likely it is to last. And the more likely it is detrimental to your health. To be clear, the plant based omnivore diet is an adaptable healthy eating pattern, not a restrictive diet.
Healthy eating is a life long pursuit
And that’s the beauty of a plant based omnivore diet. Nothing is excluded. Instead, you stick to adaptable broad-brush principles that guarantee you’re eating a healthy diet.
- Lots of plant food
- A relatively low energy density
- Lots of variety
- Foods processed with sensitivity to their nutritional content
- Simple ingredients
- Majority cooked from scratch
- Get it right 90% of the time
Your needs, preferences and goals will change. Our progress through life isn’t a linear. As a plant based omnivore, you can adapt. And that makes it genuinely sustainable over time.
Healthy diets come in all shapes and sizes – and that can make healthy eating baffling. Keep it simple.
Humans are omnivores.
The simplest approach to healthy eating is a plant based omnivore diet.
Eat a plant based diet. Whole plant foods supply all-day energy, tons of essential nutrients and you’ll not overdo the calories.
But plants aren’t the best source of all nutrients. Eating some meat, fish and dairy prevents you from missing out.
Variety is essential. Eat diverse foods from every food group.
Scratch cook and take control of your diet and health. And use simple ingredients. All food is processed – you just need to choose wisely.
Eating is one of the pleasures of life. Don’t miss out. Eat for enjoyment as well as health. Because healthy eating is a life long quest, not a short-term fix. You’ll only stick with it if you enjoy what you eat.
Healthy eating perfection isn’t realistic. Getting it right most of the time is what counts a.k.a the 90% rule.
The simplest approach to healthy eating is a plant based omnivore diet.
Hi, I’m Ralph
I’m an Associate Registered Nutritionist with over 25 years’ experience as a professional chef.
My passion is helping individuals gain control of their diet to achieve food freedom and health in today’s broken nutrition environment.
I’m based in Edinburgh and provide 1-2-1 online nutrition coaching and support across the U.K.