The Common Denominators of a Healthy Diet

What’s the healthiest way to eat? Depends on whom you ask. Many people claim to know the “perfect” way to eat for weight loss or health, but odds are that these dietary advocates disagree with each other in some fundamental ways. So, who’s right? And who’s wrong?

The truth is that there is no one single way to eat for good health. As a species, humans are quite similar on a genetic level, yet as individual specimens we can be amazingly diverse. That’s why your cousin may feel great on a vegan diet while your coworker thrives on a paleo diet. Ironically, these two dietary patterns appear to be polar opposites: The paleo diet includes meat but excludes grains and legumes, while the vegan diet includes grains and legumes but excludes meat and other animal products.

How can both diets work? When planned well, each diet includes lots of vegetables and minimizes highly processed foods. Those are the common denominators of a healthy diet. From there, you can fill in the blanks to suit your taste buds and unique physiological needs by adding your choice of quality fats (nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil, fatty fish) carbohydrates (whole grains, fruit, starchy root vegetables) and plant- or animal-based protein (legumes, soy, fish, sustainably raised meat, poultry, eggs, dairy).

The Nutritional Big Picture

It takes a varied diet to get the vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients required for optimal health, but there are many combinations of foods that can get you to that goal. While everyone needs carbohydrates, fat and protein, there is no “magic” ratio that you should be striving for.

Beware the trap of focusing on what you DON’T eat (like meat or grains), instead of being thoughtful about what you DO eat. Failing to see the big nutritional picture can easily lead to a “healthy diet” that isn’t so healthy. For example, a paleo diet that includes lots of processed meats, paleo cookies and coconut milk ice cream with very few vegetables isn’t terribly healthy. Neither is a vegan diet that is low on veggies, high on white bread, pasta, vegan cookies and soy ice cream.

Taken to extremes, fixating on avoiding meat, sugar or gluten can make you dogmatic about your diet and turn your dietary choices into a core element of your identity. “You are what you eat” shouldn’t be taken literally.

An Intuitive Approach

It’s wonderful that there are many ways to eat healthfully and well, but it means that to find your optimal diet, you need to trust your body to tell you what optimal looks like. For many of us, it can be hard to relearn this intuitive approach, which we all had when we were small children!

To start, let yourself choose from quality, nutrient-rich foods, and pay attention to how you feel. Are you energized for hours when you eat oatmeal for breakfast, or do you need more protein from, say, eggs or Greek yogurt? Do you run best on three square meals a day, three meals plus snacks, or six mini-meals? Do you feel energized or tired after eating meat? Are there certain “healthy” foods that make you feel bloated? Then they probably aren’t healthy foods for you.

While it may feel easier to simply adopt a ready-made dietary plan, it’s rarely sustainable or satisfying. Investing in yourself by learning how to forge your own personal, intuitive path can help you enjoy the food you eat along with improved health and wellness for the rest of your life. It’s about finding that sweet spot between eating to live and living to eat!

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Carrie Dennett
Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, CD, is a Seattle-based dietitian and journalist. She is the nutrition columnist for The Seattle Times and blogs at Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.