When we talk about getting healthy, our diet is one aspect that affects all the others. Your physical, mental and social health are connected to your diet, and to one another. Improving one part of the equation can positively affect the others.
In fact, just the act of choosing to eat well can help you feel more alert and energized, according to The Cleveland Clinic.
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We want to share all the benefits of eating a healthy, balanced diet, and why you should ditch the processed stuff for whole foods. But first, let's define it.
What is 'Healthy' Eating?
With such an abundance of nutrition advice out there, maybe you're wondering what it even means to eat healthily.
One thing is for sure: There's no single diet plan or food that will magically make you healthy. Instead, a "healthy" diet can be defined as one that is well-balanced, giving you all the nutrients your body needs to function from a variety of different foods — preferably in their unprocessed, whole-food form.
And unless your doctor says otherwise, there's no need to completely ban certain foods that you love on a healthy eating plan. Moderation is key and practicing it can help you develop an eating style that supports your health and makes you happy.
Here, we share some of the ways eating a nutritious diet supports all apects of your health.
1. Your Heart Health Improves
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates over one-third of deaths worldwide are caused by heart disease — and most of those deaths are preventable with lifestyle modifications, especially a well-balanced diet.
You see, a diet high in saturated fats, refined carbs and added sugar lead to the factors that put you at risk for CVD, such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes and obesity. Heart disease 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. A healthy blood pressure reading is defined as one that's under 120/80, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). 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. Taking in less saturated fat, for example, can significantly lower your risk of heart disease, according to the American Heart Association.
Limit saturated fat to 10 percent or less of your total daily calories (this amounts to about 22 grams per 2,000 calories), per the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
As far as fat is concerned, you'll want to steer clear of 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 trans fat.
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. Gut health has been implicated in conditions like obesity and type 2 diabetes, as well as your immune health.
When it comes to the gut, a diverse array of bacteria, as these bacteria play different roles in supporting your health. There are many factors that can reduce diversity in your gut (such as use of antibiotics and laxatives, or smoking), but one way you can support it is through 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. 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.
Collagen is a protein that gives skin 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 wound healing.
All of these benefits make a good case for eating more foods high in vitamin C. Getting the recommended daily amount of five servings of fruits and vegetables per 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
One of the most (if not the most) important factors in weight management is diet. If you have overweight or obesity, adopting a nutritious eating pattern can help.
But it's not all about reducing calories: Changing your diet so that you're prioritizing foods that provide adequate macronutrients (carbs, fat and protein) may be more beneficial for weight loss and maintenance, according to June 2017 research in Perspectives on Psychological Science.
Eating more fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy has been 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.
Mediterranean diet recipes focus 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 as their fat of choice. Making these changes may help you lose weight by focusing on healthier food choices.
5. You Could Get Stronger
After a certain age, your body doesn't repair and build muscle mass the same way that it used to. This can make your muscles weaker, which puts you at a higher risk of injury, and can also zap your energy levels.
Eating enough protein, especially if you're over 30, can help you prevent the muscle loss that naturally occurs with aging, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Including lean proteins at every meal supports your body in repairing and growing muscle tissue, which in time, may help you feel stronger and more energized.
Both animal sources — poultry, beef, fish, dairy and eggs — as well as plant sources, such as beans, nuts, lentils and soy, are great ways to incorporate more protein into your diet.
6. Your Mental Health May Improve
It may come as no surprise, but your food affects your mood in a pretty significant way. These days, nutrition therapy is often used in combination with other modalities to help with depression.
In fact, low levels of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, folate (vitamnn B9) and vitamin D were all linked with higher incidences of depression, per a September 2019 review in Antioxidants.
These nutrients, and others such as iron, vitamin A, vitamin C and zinc, were found to have antidepressant properties, per a September 2018 study in the World Journal of Psychiatry.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, making the following diet changes can stabilize your energy levels, support your brain health and help regulate your mood.
- Eating regularly to prevent blood sugar drops
- Staying hydrated
- Focusing on whole grains, fruits and vegetables
- Eating protein at every meal
- Minding your gut health
- Reducing caffeine
Nutrients That May Affect Your Mood (and Where to Get Them)
- Vitamin A: Green leafy vegetables, broccoli, pumpkin, carrots
- Vitamin C: Red bell peppers, orange, strawberries, cauliflower
- Vitamin B12: Beef, dairy foods, chicken, pork
- Vitamin D: Salmon, fortified foods, eggs, salmon
- Zinc: Oysters, lobster, crab, almonds
- Folate: Spinach, avocado, oranges, beans
- Iron: Oysters, lentils, spinach, dark chocolate
- Omega-3s: Salmon, tuna, walnuts, flaxseed
7. Your Brain Fog May Subside
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 diets for their positive effects on brain health, are both full of healthy plant-based foods and low in animal fats.
And diets high in fruits and vegetables and low in saturated fat and salt, specifically, have been 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 deficient in 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 foods like 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 long-term effects of healthy eating on your brain are worth it.
8. You'll Have Balanced Blood Sugar Levels
Reducing added sugars, increasing fiber and eating protein at every meal are just a few of the many ways to help keep your blood sugar under control.
Eating nutritious foods helps with weight control, and that's key to preventing or controlling type 2 diabetes. If you have 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.
Think about it: When you feel better physically, you're more likely to seek out and enjoy social activities. When you're lacking energy or feeling unwell, the opposite may be true, making it harder to develop social relationships in your community.
There's some interesting research on the relationship between healthy eating and social health. For example, eating a nutritious diet was associated with better social behavior and development in children in an April 2017 study in Maternal and Child Nutrition. Kids who ate healthier diets showed more friendliness and social play than kids who didn't.
Our relationships, with others and with ourselves, are both affected by the foods we eat. Eating a nutritious diet can lead to weight loss, increased energy and improved mental health.
Feeling good on the inside can give you more self-confidence or a more positive self-image. Higher self-esteem can make you more confident socially, strengthening your desire to forge new friendships and romantic connections.
Eating well can be a social activity. Creating recipes in the kitchen with your family or sitting down for nutritious, home-cooked meals can serve as bonding rituals that connect you with those you love.
- "O" magazine: "Feeling Stressed Out? You Could Be Hungry, Tired or Sick"; Dr. Erin Olivo; Jan. 1 2006
- Womenshealth.gov: Women's Mental Health
- University of Minnesota: How Does Food Impact Health?
- Columbia Montour Snyder Union: Nutrition and Your Mental Health; Kathleen Dunkelberger RNC, CLNC
- American Heart Association: Saturated Fats
- Mental Health Foundation: Diet and Mental Health
- American Heart Association: high Blood Pressure
- The Cleveland Clinic: The Psychology of Eating
- World Health Organization: Cardiovascular Disease
- The BMJ: Ultra-processed food intake and risk of cardiovascular disease: prospective cohort study
- American Heart Association: "Shaking the Salt Habit to Lower High Blood Pressure"
- 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"