Simple Steps to Healthy Eating
Healthy Eating Plan Basics

A practical, evidence-based guide to help you cut through the fog and make a simple healthy eating plan for yourself

Simple Steps to Healthy Eating

By wlr contributor, Stefan de Kort NSCA

It can seem tough to eat healthily. With such a wide variety of foods available, it’s hard to decide what’s “good” to eat. And the fact that contradictory nutrition information hits us from all angles doesn’t help much, either.

The good news? If you know the five pillars of healthy eating, planning proper meals is actually a breeze.

In this article, you’ll discover these five pillars so you can boost your energy levels, reduce your risk of disease, support your health, and obtain and maintain a healthy weight.

Plus there's an easy to follow ten-step action plan you can use to start eating healthier today. Let’s dive in!

The Five Pillars of a Healthy Diet

When it comes to eating healthily, there are five pillars you should use as the foundation of your nutrition plan:

  • Fruit and vegetables
  • Starchy carbs
  • Dairy and dairy alternatives
  • Protein sources
  • Oils and spreads

All five have their own unique benefits. By consuming the right amount of each category, you’ll supply your body with the nutrients it needs. What follows is an in-depth overview of each category.

Healthy Eating Plan: Fruit and Veg

Fruit and Vegetables      

Fruit and vegetables share many similarities nutrition-wise. Both score high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fibre while being low in sodium and fat. That’s why we group them together.

Consuming enough of both is one of the best things you can do for your health. For example:

  • Eating more fruit and vegetables decreases your risk of heart disease.(1) (2) (3) One study found that consuming four or more servings of fruit and vegetables a day lowered the risk of coronary heart disease by 70%.(4)
  • Both fruits and vegetables are high on the list of foods we should eat more of from the latest Global Burden of Disease study which finds that 7-8 portions a day is optimal.
  • A diet enriched with fruit and vegetables reduces your risk of various cancers, including colorectal cancer.(5) (6)
  • Research links fruit and leafy green vegetables to a lower risk of diabetes.(7) One reason for this is that fruit and veggies contain a significant amount of fibre, a nutrient that improves insulin sensitivity and aids blood sugar management.
  • Fruit and veggies help you obtain (and maintain!) a healthy body weight.(8) This is primarily because both are low in calories and effectively satiate hunger. As a result, eating more fruit and vegetables tends to reduce your intake of more calorie-dense foods.

Which sources should you eat?

Because every fruit and vegetable contains different nutrients, they all have their own unique benefits. That’s why it’s best to enhance your diet with a wide variety of them. One of the best ways to do so is by enriching your diet with fruit and veggies from each of the following colour groups:

  • Red: tomatoes, strawberries, cherries, raspberries, watermelon, red apples, radishes
  • Purple/blue: beetroot, eggplant, red cabbage, blackberries, blueberries, plums
  • Orange/yellow: carrots, pumpkin, oranges, peaches, nectarines, apricots, grapefruit, mango
  • Green: spinach, avocado, broccoli, asparagus, limes, kiwi, cabbage, celery, cucumber
  • Brown/white: cauliflower, mushrooms, bananas, onions, ginger, garlic

How much to consume?

Aim for at least five portions of various fruit and veggies a day. The best options are portions that are tinned, dried, frozen, or fresh. However, juiced fruit and vegetables are also okay if you limit your intake to 150 ml per day. Juicing strips away beneficial fibres, that’s why it’s best to moderate your consumption of such drinks.

Healthy Eating Plan - Complex Carbs

Starchy Carbs – Potatoes, Bread, Rice, Pasta, etc.

With the low-carb craze trending right now, many people believe it’s best to cut carbs from their diet. And while reducing carb intake can be helpful in some scenarios, healthy carb sources such as potatoes and whole grains benefit the vast majority of people.

For example, whole grains and their alternatives improve various health markers, including:

  • Blood pressure(9) (10)
  • Endothelial functioning(11)
  • Antioxidant status(12)
  • Inflammation levels(13)
  • Blood sugar control(14)

Besides, eating whole grains also reduces your likelihood of developing various diseases like type two diabetes and cardiovascular disease.(15) (16)

Whole grains and their alternatives give great health benefits because they have many beneficial nutrients. These include protein, fibre, vitamin B, magnesium, selenium, copper, and more.

Which sources should you eat?

Try to get most of your starch intake from unprocessed, fibre-laden, long-chain complex carbs. Examples are whole-grain bread, whole-grain pasta, brown rice, quinoa, oats, and potatoes (white or sweet works). These sources contain beneficial nutrients like fibre, which supports health and helps manage blood sugar levels.

On the other hand, try to reduce your intake of simple and refined carb sources such as table sugar and white flour because they contain less fibre and lack other beneficial nutrients.

How much to consume?

Aim to get around 40% of your daily food intake from starches. To make this easier, try to have a starch source with every meal you consume. Here’s an example of what your starch intake throughout the day should look like:

  • Breakfast: whole grain cereal
  • Lunch: a baked potato
  • Dinner: brown rice
  • Snack: a muesli bar (opt for one without added sugar)

Healthy Eating Plan - Dairy Products

Dairy – Milk, Yogurt, Cheese, Etc.

Dairy is jam-packed with beneficial nutrients like protein, healthy fats, vitamin A, vitamin D vitamin B1, B6, and B12, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, magnesium, and calcium.

Just one glass of milk gives you almost one-third of the recommended daily calcium intake. That makes dairy one of the best sources of calcium.

Because dairy contains so many nutrients, it offers you many benefits. One of them is stronger bones. Consuming dairy reduces your risk of breaking a bone and developing osteoporosis.(17) (18) (19)

Plus, a review of sixteen studies found that eating dairy may reduce body weight and the risk of obesity. This is most likely because dairy is rich in protein and highly satiating, which means consuming it can lower your appetite and help reduce your total calorie intake.(20)

Additionally, enriching your diet with dairy products may reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by improving insulin sensitivity.(21) (22)

Which sources should you eat?

There's a wide range of dairy products available, and each variation offers unique benefits. That’s why it’s good to have variety in your dairy products, so you reap all the rewards this food group has to offer.

If you're trying to lose weight, you’ll probably want to eat lower-fat dairy products. Examples of this are semi-skimmed milk, plain low-fat yoghurt, and reduced-fat cheese. These provide the fewest calories, which helps with controlling your calorie intake and body weight.

When you choose lower-fat dairy products, double check for added sugar.These are often added to improve taste. If you see that a dairy product does contains added sugars, try to find alternatives.

It’s also okay to consume higher-fat dairy products like hard cheese and butter, but be careful to use moderation because the number of calories in these items are very high.usually saturated.

How much to consume?

Aim for two servings of dairy a day, with at least one coming from a lower-fat, low-sugar product, such as semi-skimmed milk or reduced-fat yoghurt. If you struggle to consume enough dairy, try to drink a glass of milk with breakfast or have a yoghurt as a snack or dessert.

Protein Sources – Beans, Pulses, Fish, Eggs, Meat, etc.

Proteins are crucial for your health and well-being because they function as building blocks for the body. Your body uses protein to make different tissues and molecules, including muscles, tendons, organs, enzymes, neurotransmitters, hormones, and skin.

Because protein influences so many processes, making sure to get enough of it benefits you in various ways. One of these is that an adequate protein can help you lose weight and keep it off.(23) (24)

What’s more, consuming enough protein reduces your risk of osteoporosis and fractures, supports heart health, and benefits muscle mass and strength.(25) (26)

If you're getting up in the years, it's particularly important that you get enough protein. Ageing causes muscle loss, which increases the risk of bone fractures, frailty, and reduced life quality overall.(27) (28) Something as simple as consuming enough protein can significantly reduce age-related muscle loss, which benefits quality of life.(29)

Which sources should you eat?

Some recommended protein sources are meat, fish, eggs, beans, peas, lentils, and pulses.

If you’re vegan, tofu is an excellent choice because it has a lot of high-quality proteins. More specifically, tofu contains all nine essential amino acids (most plan-based sources don’t).

When you choose meat, go for low-fat cuts such as lean beef and skinless, white-meat poultry. Minimise how much red and processed meats you eat. Yes, unfortunately, we do mean bacon, sausage, and ham.

Beans, peas, lentils, and pulses are also excellent protein sources. They score low in fat, provide a wide range of vitamins and minerals, and are loaded with fibre.

Also, aim for at least two portions of fish every week to ensure you get enough omega-3 fatty acids. Make sure that at least one of these portions comes from oily fish, like salmon or mackerel.

How much to consume?

Protein sources should make up around 15-20% of the food you eat. For people losing weight it's best to aim at the higher end of this range as protein is great for keeping you fuller for longer.

To make sure you get the right amount, eat one small to moderate size portion of a protein source with each meal. For example, consume one or two boiled eggs with breakfast, a can of tuna with lunch, and a serving of lentils with dinner.

Healthy Eating Plan: Healthy fats

Dietary Fats – Oils, Spreads, Nuts, Etc.

Dietary fat has gotten a bad rap for years. And while this reputation still holds true among many today, that’s unfair.

Fatty acids are essential for your health and well-being. For instance, they support brain functioning, are an excellent source of energy, and are crucial for hormone production.(30) (31)

Besides, various natural foods rich in dietary fat like avocado and almonds are jam-packed with beneficial nutrients. And certain vitamins (like vitamin A, D, E, and K) must be consumed with fat to be absorbed properly.

The problem, however, is that the wrong dietary fats can wreak havoc on your body. Trans fats and saturated fats are the ones you only want to eat in limited amounts because they can cause various diseases.(32) These fats are mainly found in processed foods, red meat, and some plant-based fats like palm oil and coconut oil.

The fats you do want to eat go by the names“monounsaturated” and “polyunsaturated.” These are the “good” fats, and you can find them hiding in foods like olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds, and fish.

Research links monounsaturated fats to various health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes.(33) (34) (35) And there’s an association between polyunsaturated fats (especially omega-3's) and a reduced risk of heart disease, depression, and other health conditions.(36) (37) (38) (39)

Which sources should you eat?

Try to consume primarily oils and spreads that are high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats but low in saturated ones. Good options are olive and avocado oil (both are excellent for cooking), nuts, seeds, and fish.

Avoid foods that contain transfat. These fats are primarily found in hydrogenated oils, such as soybean oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, and canola oil. Red meat also contains trans fat, which is only another compelling reason to minimise your intake.

Try also to reduce how much saturated fat you get. While  this fat isn’t as terrible as widely believed, consuming it can increase levels of the “bad” LDL cholesterol in some people. Foods particularly rich in saturated fat are red meat, butter, high-fat cheese, and coconut oil.

How much to consume?

While the right oils and spreads benefit health, you only need a little bit of them.

If you get more than seven per cent of your calories from oils and spreads, it’s best to reduce your intake. You can do so by using less of it when preparing meals, or by grilling, steaming or baking foods rather than frying them.

Eat the Following Foods Only in Limited Amounts

Thus far, we’ve looked at the foods that should make up the foundation of your diet. And while it’s important to consider which foods you eat, it’s equally important to give thought to the foods with which you should be careful.

Certain foods can have adverse effects on your health when eaten too freely, like the following three:

  • High-fat foods: While dietary fats are essential for your health, it’s easy to overeat. And because dietary fat delivers the most calories per gram, getting too much can mean excess weight. That’s why you should control your intake of dietary fat. Following the guidelines above will help you with that.
  • High-salt foods: Excessive salt intake can elevate blood pressure and stiffen blood vessels, two factors that increase your risk of heart disease.(40) That’s why it’s good to moderate your sodium intake. Two ways by which you can do so is by not adding salt to your foodand minimising your consumption of foods that come with added sodium like pizza and processed meats.
  • High-sugar foods: While natural sugars like the ones in fruit and vegetables are healthy, try to reduce your intake of added sugars like the ones found in soda, ice cream and many other processed foods. Such sugars can have many adverse effects, like an increased risk of heart disease and obesity.(41)

Healthy Eating Made Easy

Ten Steps to Start Eating Healthier Today

So far, we’ve looked at the five fundamental food groups and what they have to offer. And while all these theories are great, they might leave you wondering where to get started. If that’s the case, then good news! Below we’ve outlined ten steps you can use to start eating healthier today.

Step 1:

Add at least one fruit or vegetable – or both – to every meal. This will help you reach the recommended fruit and vegetable intake of five portions a day. Here’s how you can approach it:

  • Breakfast: eat a fruit like an apple, pear, or a handful of berries. A glass of fruit juice such as orange juice is also fine.
  • Lunch: have a salad. For example, make one with mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, sliced radishes, sweet peppers, red onion fresh lemon juice, extra-virgin olive oil, and black pepper. Since so many veggies go into a regular-sized salad, you can count a meal like this as two portions of vegetables.
  • Dinner: aim to cover half your plate with vegetables. Get creative by roasting, stir-frying and steaming with different herbs and spices for extra flavour.
  • Snack: have a piece of fruit. Avocado is a fantastic choice because it’s great at satiating hunger and contains beneficial fats.  Handheld fruits like apples and pears are also excellent.

Step 2:

Swap refined grain products with whole grain ones. So, eat whole wheat bread instead of white bread. Eat brown rice instead of white rice. And eat a whole-grain, low-sugar breakfast cereal instead of a sugary one.

Step 3:

Cook your dinner in olive oil or avocado oil. Both contain heart-healthy fats and other beneficial nutrients such as vitamin E.

Step 4:

Replace high-fat junk snacks like hamburgers or doughnuts with nuts.

Nuts contain healthy fats, are great at satiating hunger, and are jam-packed with beneficial nutrients such as magnesium.

Step 5:

Replace sugar-sweetened drinks with sugar-free alternatives. For example, drink water, tea, or coffee instead of Coca-Cola. And choose a diet soda over a regular one. Sure, diet soda isn’t ideal either, but at least it’s a step closer to the right direction.

Step 6:

Shop with a grocery list filled with healthy foods. Having a list meansyou’re less likely to bring junk food into the house, an activity that supports healthy eating. After all, the odds you’ll have“a bit” of chocolate – or devour the entire bar and then some – are much higher once it has wormed its way into your house.

Step 7:

If you decide to eat junk food (which is okay when done sparingly), don't order it but prepare the meal yourself. For example, make your own pizza with whole-wheat crust, tomatoes, mushrooms, olives, spinach and fresh mozarella. Not only is home-cooking more fun, but it's also healthier because your pizza will have less sodium and won't contain trans fats.

Step 8:

Replace sweets and chocolate with fruit. While both satisfy your sweet tooth, fruit supports your health and figure.

Step 9: 

When you eat out, order fish instead of steak. Not only does this reduce your saturated fat intake, but it also enriches your diet by giving you a boost of heart-healthy omega-3s.

Step 10: 

Making a sandwich? Use low fat soft cheese, mustard or nut butter instead of mayo. Mayo is one of the worst condiments you can use. It’s high in omega-6 fatty acids, contains trans-fat, and lacks beneficial nutrients. Mustard and nut butter, however, score much better in those areas.

Are you ready to start your journey toward a healthier you? These ten tips will steer you in the right direction. Try to implement them in your life to boost your health and well-being. Good luck!

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