If you ask a group of people what eating healthy means to them, you’ll probably get a different answer every time.
For some, healthy eating means reining in a fast food habit or consuming more fruits and vegetables, while for others it may mean occasionally enjoying a piece of cake without feeling guilty.
Still yet, those who have certain medical conditions and even food allergies may conceptualize the concept of healthy eating in their own unique way.
In short, there’s no single right answer to what healthy eating means.
Healthy eating is human, and as humans, we all have different wants and needs, which inevitably affect our food choices.
What’s more, what healthy eating means to you may even change throughout the different stages of your life as you grow and adapt to your ever-changing needs.
This article explores the human side of healthy eating, and I provide my own go-to tips to make it easier.
What healthy eating means for me
The definition of healthy eating has changed for me a couple of times in the past few years.
By the time I was in college, healthy eating was about following nutritional guidelines and doing everything by the book. However, it meant that my view of the food on my plate had changed. I went from seeing meals I enjoyed to only seeing nutrients.
Suddenly, I went from seeing traditional Costa Rican gallo pinto — or rice and beans — to seeing complex carbs and plant-based proteins.
Then, when I started practicing as a nutritionist, the notion that a dietitian should look a certain way or fit into a specific body type led me to believe that healthy eating meant measuring my food to know exactly what I was consuming. I would eat whatever I wanted, as long as the nutrients I needed were accounted for.
I gave my body everything it needed to be healthy, but healthy eating goes beyond the nutrients. It’s also about how it makes you feel, and with food being an essential part of culture and social events, eating should be something we enjoy.
Today I have a different approach to healthy eating. I’m far more flexible with my meals, and I understand that balance is key to being nourished and happy with food.
Healthy eating now means that, most of the time, I make sure to have food from all food groups on my plate without measuring anything or thinking about plant-based vs. animal-based protein or simple vs. complex carbs.
It also means that I get to enjoy a bit of everything — including sweets, fast food, and desserts — with moderation and without the need to measure or account for it.
As you can see, finding the balance that worked for me didn’t happen overnight. On the contrary, my definition of healthy eating has been changing as I’ve gone through the different stages of my life.
As long as you aim to nourish your body and listen to what it needs, you can also give healthy eating your own meaning, because healthy eating is for everyone.
SUMMARYFor me, healthy eating is about nourishing your body and being at peace with food at the same time. Your definition of healthy eating may change over time as you mature and your priorities change.
Seeing the bigger picture
As with many things in life, eating healthy doesn’t always end up as you planned.
You may find yourself stuck at work late at night or too tired to prepare a home-cooked dinner, and that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t order take-out and actually enjoy it.
If healthy eating means being flexible with what you eat, you’ll need to learn to adapt to the circumstances, which may happen more often than not.
In cases when I’m choosing food on the spur of the moment, I try to opt for the best choice out of what I’m given. Whenever I can, I try to order the closest thing to a home-cooked meal or go for a sandwich, salad, or bowl.
Yet, sometimes I do crave some pizza — so I eat and enjoy that, too!
At times like this, I remember to see the bigger picture. That is, that healthy eating is not defined by single meals but by the choices we make day after day.
A close friend once told me a saying that goes, “One bad meal will not make you sick, just as one good meal will not make you healthy.”
SUMMARYWhen it comes to eating healthy, one meal doesn’t define your habits — your overall food choices do.
It may be challenging sometimes
When you’re a dietitian, many people think that eating healthy comes naturally to you. Yet, we’re human beings, too, and we love dessert and crave foods like anybody else.
In my case, one of the biggest challenges I’ve had to face was when I had to give up most carb-containing foods to manage recurring infections.
Carbs are present in many food groups, including grains, starchy vegetables, legumes, fruit, and dairy. They’re also present in processed foods and sweets.
Experts often categorize them into two groups according to their fiber content (1Trusted Source):
- Whole grains: retain their naturally occurring fiber
- Refined carbs: are processed to remove their fiber and contain added sugar
In theory, I was supposed to eliminate refined carbs, which some people would argue is the healthiest thing to do.
However, in practice, I ended up giving up all kinds of processed carbs, including whole wheat bread and pasta, alongside starchy vegetables, grains, and dairy.
Thus, the list of carb-rich foods I could eat was limited to fruits, oats, quinoa, and legumes — lentils, beans, chickpeas, and edamame.
Some people told me that this transition wouldn’t be so hard for me as a dietitian. However, it took me a while to adjust to my new eating pattern, especially when planning on-the-go snacks or eating out.
I learned that organization and creativity are key to managing my nutritional needs.
SUMMARYRegardless of the reason, changing eating habits is challenging for everybody.
3 things I do that you could also do
As I mentioned above, organization and creativity help me make the best food choices every day. This is because, the way I see it, healthy eating is a choice we make every time we eat.
For this reason, I try to make the decision-making process as easy as possible when I’m choosing a meal or snack. That way, I can continue to choose what is best for me.
Here are three things I do on a daily or weekly basis that make it easier for me to eat healthily.
While this may sound cliché, preparing my food beforehand for the week really does the trick.
Cooking can take up a lot of time, but having food that just needs to be heated and served allows me to have a nutritious meal ready in minutes.
One of my go-to meal-prepping tips is to cook a batch of proteins — usually chicken or another lean meat — that I can portion and freeze for over a week and just defrost as I need them.
I also make sure to prep vegetables for the week. This way, I don’t think twice before having some salad or cooking a side of veggies with each meal.
I try to prepare them in different ways to avoid getting bored and choosing not to eat them.
For example, when it comes to carrots or zucchinis, I’ll either slice, dice, grate, or spiralize them, all of which help me incorporate them into my meals easily.
Keep fruit within arm’s reach
Keeping my fruit visible reminds me to eat fruit during the day.
Research shows that you’re most likely to eat more of whatever foods you place near you, regardless of whether they are fruits or sweets (2, 3Trusted Source, 4Trusted Source).
I implement this principle daily and choose to have my fruit on display on a table and my snacks and sweets stored away.
Follow a routine
While I don’t officially plan a weekly menu, I do have a specific set of dishes that I stick to at every meal.
For example, my breakfast choices usually include:
- a Costa Rican classic of gallo pinto and eggs
- toast with peanut butter and a side of eggs
- oatmeal with fruit
- oatmeal pancakes
The same goes for the rest of my meals and snacks, where I have at least three different options to choose from without giving it much thought.
Having a predetermined set of dishes that I know I like saves me time having to decide what to eat, and it allows me to vary my meals depending on whether I crave something sweet or savory.
It’s also very convenient for grocery shopping, as you already know what you’ll most likely be having at every meal.
SUMMARYMeal prepping, keeping my fruit within arm’s reach, and following a routine are three things I do to eat healthy that you could do, too.
The bottom line
We’re all humans who are constantly growing and adapting to change, and so does our concept of healthy eating.
Here I shared with you how the definition of healthy eating has changed for me through the years, the biggest challenge in my healthy eating journey, and my tips and tricks to make healthy eating easier.
However, my way definitely isn’t the “right way” — or the only way — to eat healthy. It’s only what works for me, and it may or may not work for you.
Healthy eating is human, and it looks different for each and every one of us. Consider what you could do in your own routine to set yourself up for success with healthy eating.
If you’re unsure about where to start, consider working with a registered dietitian, as they can help you conceptualize a sustainable, nutritious eating plan that works for your specific needs and lifestyle.