Healthy eating isn't rocket science — just remind yourself of the obsolete food pyramid or the wholesome plate that's been stuck in your head since elementary school.
All you have to do is fill your meal plan with fruits, veggies, legumes, lean meats and seafood, low-fat dairy and unsaturated fats. Tweak your diet to focus on these healthy foods and you'll reap the results.
Here are all the benefits of eating healthy and why you should ditch the processed stuff for whole foods.
Is Your Diet Missing Certain Nutrients?
1. Your Heart Health Improves
The World Health Organization estimates over one-third of the deaths worldwide are caused by cardiovascular disease (CVD) — and most of those deaths are preventable with lifestyle modifications, highlighting the importance of a balanced diet.
You see, an unhealthy diet leads to the factors that put you at risk for CVD, such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes and obesity. CVD is not a disease that sneaks up on your body — it takes years to develop, and you just have to pay attention to signs.
One of the first signs is blood pressure that slowly creeps up. The American Heart Association (AHA) defines a healthy blood pressure as one that's under 120/80. While genetics and age definitely play a role in your blood pressure, you aren't destined to have high levels.
A well-balanced diet is naturally low in salt. (Most of the sodium in an unhealthy diet comes from highly processed foods, like hot dogs, deli meat, chicken nuggets and french fries.) In fact, over a period of five years, researchers found that people with a higher intake of ultra-processed foods had a higher risk of developing heart disease, according to a May 2019 study in The BMJ.
When you eat healthier foods, those risk factors naturally decrease. For example, adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet naturally gives you more potassium. Potassium pulls sodium out of your body, which helps lower your blood pressure.
There are other ways healthy eating benefits your heart. You've probably heard that science can't make up its mind on the danger of saturated fats — for example, a 10-year study showed that saturated fat from meats is linked to a higher risk for heart disease, but multiple 20-year studies did not find a link between dairy fat and an increased chance of getting CVD, per a November 2017 article in Therapeutic Advances in Cardiovascular Disease. But we know that too much is not a good thing.
Saturated fats should still be viewed with caution — which means to limit it to 10 percent or less of your total daily calories (this amounts to about 22 grams per 2,000 calories),
As far as fat is concerned, one thing's for sure: Avoid trans fats. They are officially banned in the U.S., but that doesn't mean to you still won't find them in your foods. Anything that says "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" in the ingredient list means it contains a very small amount of trans fat — and as long as it's under 0.5 grams per serving, the food label can list it as zero.
Even if 2 percent of your diet is made up from trans fat, your risk for heart disease can jump 23 percent, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Lower your sodium, limit saturated fats, and steer clear of trans fats, and you'll be on your way to a healthier heart.
Cutting down your salt intake can help reduce your BP. Keeping your sodium below 2,300 milligrams per day, even if you don't yet have high blood pressure, is a good practice. If you have elevated blood pressure, the AHA recommends reducing it to 1,500 milligrams per day.
2. Your Gut Flourishes
If thinking about the bacteria in your gut creeps you out, just imagine them as little helpers working to keep you healthy.
The health of your gut has been implicated in everything from obesity, type 2 diabetes and immune health.
What you're looking for in keeping those microorganisms healthy is diversity. You want lots of different types, because the more diversity, the better. And you can achieve that by eating specific types of foods and avoiding others.
There are many factors that influence diversity in your gut (such as antibiotics, smoking and laxative use), but the ones you can control come from your diet.
Some foods that decrease the diversity in your gut include sugar-sweetened beverages, bread and savory snacks, according to July 2019 research in Nutrients. However, foods that increase beneficial bacteria in your gut include prebiotics and dietary fiber.
Prebiotics are fermented by the bacteria in the gut, which helps them grow and diversify. Examples of prebiotic foods are green bananas, onions, garlic and apples. These are all sources of fiber as well, and increasing the fiber in your diet is good for your gut.
One noticeable change to your gut health after you add healthy foods is a decrease in bloating. If your current diet is filled with salty, processed foods, you may be carrying around a little extra water, which can cause your belly to distend.
Replacing those salty foods with fresh, whole foods may help flush that salt out of your body and banish the bloat.
3. Your Skin May Improve
The link between diet and skin health is still not completely understood. But what we do know is that changes in nutrition can affect the structure and function of skin, according to the Linus Pauling Institute.
The collagen in the skin is what gives it elasticity, and collagen formation decreases as you age, according to August 2017 research in Nutrients. Vitamin C helps with collagen formation, and some studies have shown that increasing vitamin C in the diet boosts skin elasticity, so that's good news.
Sun damage is also bad for the skin and vitamin C helps protect the skin against UV exposure. Another clearly established role of vitamin C in skin health is that it aids with wound healing.
All of these benefits make a good case for eating more vitamin C. So, how do you get extra C in your diet? Fruits and vegetables, of course. Getting the recommended daily amount of five servings a day will do it.
Just one-half cup of red bell pepper will give you over 100 percent of the daily value of vitamin C, per the USDA. More vitamin C powerhouses are kiwi, strawberries, oranges and broccoli.
4. You Might Lose Weight
If you're struggling with your weight, your diet is most likely public enemy number one.
Reducing calories may not be the best way to lose weight, but changing the nature of the food with the right distribution of macronutrients (carbs, fat and protein) may be more beneficial for weight loss and maintenance, according to June 2017 research in Perspectives on Psychological Science.
In fact, eating more fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy is linked to weight loss as well as weight maintenance, per a December 2011 review in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
When you make healthier choices in your diet, your weight will most likely be the first thing you notice dropping. There are many types of diets you could follow, but one of the best ones is the Mediterranean diet — it has been ranked number one by the U.S. News and World Report for four years in a row.
The Mediterranean diet focuses on plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and nuts — all key components of weight loss and maintenance.
Those who follow this diet pattern eat more lean poultry and fish than red meat and also use olive oil at their fat of choice. Making these changes may help you lose weight by focusing on healthier food choices.
Want to Try the Med Diet?
5. Your Mood May Lift
The benefits of a balanced diet not only encompass your wellbeing but your mental health, too.
In fact, low levels of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, folate (vitamnn B9) and vitamin D were all linked with higher levels of depression, per a September 2019 review in Antioxidants. (That's why nutrition therapy is used in combination with many other modalities to help combat depression.)
Here's how to get more of these four nutrients:
- Omega-3s: Salmon, tuna, walnuts, flaxseed
- Vitamin B12: Beef, dairy foods, chicken, pork
- Folate: Spinach, avocado, oranges, beans
- Vitamin D: Salmon, fortified foods, eggs, salmon
Try eating plant polyphenols — like those found in berries, cherries, plums, and dark chocolate — and tea polyphenols, which have been linked to a reduced risk of depressive symptoms.
In one February 2017 study in Nutrients, people who drank a blueberry drink reported more positive feeling after sipping it.
If you have questions about your eating habits, speak to a registered dietitian who can help you plan out a healthy, well-balanced diet that works with your schedule, family and any current medical conditions. Learning how to balance your diet with the help of an RD can help you maintain a healthy diet for life.
6. Brain Fog Banishes
The way you eat has a huge influence on your ability to think clearly and remember things (and not just where you put your car keys).
The Mediterranean diet and the DASH (dietary approaches to stop hypertension) diet, two widely studied for their effects on brain health, are both packed with healthy plant-based foods and low in animal products.
And diets high in fruits and vegetables and low in saturated fat and salt, specifically, are linked to improved cognitive function, according to May 2019 research in Nutrients.
If brain fog has you walking around in the clouds and unable to focus, you might be missing vitamin B12. This nutrient is important for nerve function, which could affect the connections made between nerves and the brain, per Harvard Health Publishing. You get B12 from meat, eggs, fish and dairy products.
As you age, your body doesn't absorb as much B12 from foods, so it's important to get your levels checked. Plus, people on a vegan diet are at greater risk for B12 deficiency.
If your brain fog is caused by a nutrient deficiency, you could see improvements as soon as your body has a healthy amount available. For memory and cognition, the changes may come slower, but the effects of healthy eating on brain health will last much longer.
7. You'll Have Balanced Blood Sugar Levels
Reducing simple sugars, increasing fiber and adding protein at every meal are just a few of the many ways to help keep your blood sugar under control via your diet.
Eating healthier helps with weight control, and that's key to preventing or controlling type 2 diabetes. If you're overweight, losing only 5 to 10 percent of your body weight can help control your blood sugar if you already have type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes.
If you have pre-diabetes, losing that small percentage of weight is linked to cutting your risk of getting type 2 diabetes by 58 percent, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. That's a huge incentive to start improving your diet to prevent a chronic illness.
You might start seeing the improvements in your blood sugar within 30 days simply by eating healthier, exercising and losing weight.
- World Health Organization: "Cardiovascular Diseases"
- American Heart Association:"High Blood Pressure"
- American Heart Association: "Shaking the Salt Habit to Lower High Blood Pressure"
- The BMJ: "Ultra-processed Food Intake and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease: Prospective Cohort Study"
- Therapeutic Advances in Cardiovascular Disease: "The Relationship of Saturated Fats and Coronary Heart Disease: Fa(c)t or Fiction? A Commentary"
- Harvard Medical School: "The Truth About Fats, The Good-Bad, and the In-Between"
- Nutrients: "Gut Microbiome: Profound Implications for Diet and Disease"
- Nutrients: "The Roles of Vitamin C in Skin Health"
- Perspectives on Psychological Science: "Reducing Calorie Intake May Not Help You Lose Body Weight"
- U.S. News and World Report: "Mediterranean Diet"
- Antioxidants: "Linking What We Eat to Our Mood: A Review of Diet, Dietary Antioxidants, and Depression"
- Linus Pauling Institute: "Vitamin C and Skin Health"
- USDA: "Sweet Red Bell Peppers"
- Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Dietary intakes associated with successful weight loss and maintenance during the Weight Loss Maintenance Trial"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Is an Underlying Condition Causing Your Fuzzy Thinking?"
- Nutrients:" Dietary Patterns Are Related to Clinical Characteristics in Memory Clinic Patients with Subjective Cognitive Decline: The SCIENCe Project"
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Diabetes"