You've probably been told about the importance of healthy eating since you were young. From expressions like "an apple a day keeps the doctor away" to commercials on TV about the benefits of fiber, you're constantly reminded about the importance of healthy food choices. Our food choices define our nutrient intake, which in turn influences our health as well as our risk for certain illnesses.
Healthy Diets and Good Nutrition
Everyone knows it's important to consume healthy foods. The foods you choose define both the micronutrients and macronutrients in your diet. Macronutrients are the major components of the human diet: fat, carbohydrates and protein. Micronutrients are the smaller nutrients, like vitamins and minerals, that you can obtain from the foods you eat.
A balanced diet typically contains 50 to 60 percent carbohydrates, 12 to 20 percent protein and 30 percent fat. According to the Food and Drug Administration, this works out to be about 300 grams of carbohydrates, 50 grams of protein and 65 grams of fat each day. The FDA bases the amounts of these macronutrients on the standard 2,000-calorie diet.
Consuming a balanced diet of carbohydrates, protein and fat allows you to eat a wide range of different meats, fish, fruits, vegetables and other foods. Diversifying your food choices in this way also helps you to obtain a variety of important vitamins and minerals on a daily basis. Of course, it's possible to adjust the amounts of macronutrients consumed, but everyone needs at least a little of each type to stay in good health.
Altering Your Diet’s Macronutrients
Most people should consume the type of balanced diet the FDA recommends. However, many healthy alternative diets feature different amounts of the macronutrients. Changing your diet's macronutrient ratios can actually improve your health.
One good example is the ketogenic diet: Renowned for facilitating weight loss, this diet was designed to reduce the seizures of people with epilepsy, even when medications don't work. Ketogenic diets typically feature the same amount of protein as a regular diet, but no more than 20 grams of carbohydrates per day — a fraction of the amount a typical, balanced diet would supply. To make this diet sustainable, people following ketogenic diets primarily consume fat (70 to 80 percent), rather than carbohydrates.
In stark contrast, people who follow the Okinawan diet, a low-fat, high-carbohydrate, low-protein diet, consume almost the opposite amounts of macronutrients compared to people on ketogenic diets. The Okinawan diet features macronutrient ratios of 85 percent carbohydrates, 9 percent protein and 6 percent fats. It has become famous, as the people of Okinawa have some of the longest life spans in the world.
Micronutrient Consumption in Your Diet
Whether you're eating according to the FDA guidelines or following a specific, more restrictive diet, you need to consume a variety of essential vitamins and minerals to stay healthy. Different foods are rich in different types of micronutrients. Certain protein-rich foods may have more vitamin B12, for instance, while citrus fruits are well-known for being rich in vitamin C.
A truly healthy diet contains vitamins such as:
- Vitamin A
- Thiamin (vitamin B1)
- Riboflavin (vitamin B2)
- Niacin (vitamin B3)
- Pantothenic acid (vitamin B5)
- Vitamin B6
- Biotin (vitamin B7)
- Folate (vitamin B9)
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin K
A healthy diet should also contain minerals such as:
The amount of vitamins and minerals you need each day varies according to factors such as age, gender or pregnancy. To make sure you're following a healthy diet, look at the FDA's daily values or the USDA's recommended dietary allowances. Both of these can tell you the amounts of macronutrients and micronutrients you should try to consume each day.
According to the FDA, you should be particularly conscious of getting enough calcium, iron, potassium and vitamin D. These micronutrients are the ones most people don't get enough of. If you don't get enough micronutrients in your diet, you can end up with nutrient-deficiency-related diseases, like scurvy or anemia.
Healthy Dietary Choices
Regardless of the type of diet you're following, try to stay away from processed or refined foods. For someone following a ketogenic diet, this may be easy — processed or refined foods are often carbohydrate-rich products. However, if you're following a high-carbohydrate diet or even just a normal Western diet, this can be a challenge.
It's all too easy to think of high-carbohydrate foods and processed or refined foods as the same. Healthy, high-carbohydrate foods are usually complex carbohydrates, like oats or sweet potatoes. In contrast, processed and refined foods are fried foods, sugary products and "white foods"— like pasta, rice and bread that aren't made from whole grains.
It's important to eat processed and refined foods sparingly, since they're associated with an increased likelihood of health problems such as heart disease and diabetes. While it may be tempting to grab a slice of pizza or fried chicken every day, it's important to choose foods that are good for your body, especially your gut.
Gut Microbiomes and Healthy Diets
Your gut's microbiome is filled with bacteria. According to a 2014 study in the journal Nature, the microbes living in your digestive system are influenced by your dietary choices.
You may think a bunch of bacteria in your gut are not important, but they are. These bacteria have been shown to affect many parts of your body outside the digestive system — from your immune system to your nervous system. In fact, because your gut and brain are directly linked, what you eat can even affect your mental health.
A 2018 study in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity showed that your personality may be tied to your gut's bacteria. This isn't new information, either — a 2015 study in the journal Psychiatry Research linked consumption of fermented foods, which are rich in probiotics, to changes in behavior, like reduced social anxiety.
Studies like these bring a whole new meaning to "you are what you eat" and a new level of importance to eating healthy foods.
- Psychiatry Research: Fermented Foods, Neuroticism, and Social Anxiety: An Interaction Model
- Brain, Behavior, and Immunity: Correlation Between Gut Microbiota and Personality in Adults: A Cross-Sectional Study
- Frontiers in Neuroscience: The Vagus Nerve at the Interface of the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis
- Nature Microbiology: GABA-Modulating Bacteria of the Human Gut Microbiota
- Nature: Diet Rapidly and Reproducibly Alters the Human Gut Microbiome
- Indian Journal of Medical Research: Are Excess Carbohydrates the Main Link to Diabetes & Its Complications in Asians?
- FDA: Vitamins and Minerals Chart
- Age and Ageing: New Horizons: Dietary Protein, Ageing and the Okinawan Ratio
- Journal of Clinical Neurology: Efficacy of and Patient Compliance With a Ketogenic Diet in Adults With Intractable Epilepsy: A Meta-Analysis
- FDA: Total Fat
- FDA: Protein
- FDA: Total Carbohydrates
- Kaiser Permanente: Balancing Carbs, Protein, and Fat
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: Nutrition and Brain Function: Food for the Aging Mind