What’s A Healthy Diet? Our Essential Guide To Healthy Eating

Healthy eating guide

A Well Balanced Diet Is Vital For Lifetime Health and Fitness

Every day we are told to eat more healthily and take greater responsibility for our health. So what does this mean? What is a healthy diet? What should you buy and eat to ensure that you are following a healthy eating regime. The concept of healthy eating is not new, but what constitutes a healthy diet does change. 50 years ago a healthy diet would have looked rather different to that of one today.

However, what constitutes a healthy balanced diet is still being debated. There is growing evidence that much of what we have considered “healthy eating” in the past, including much of the information below, is not healthy for all people. Dr. Peter Attia has recently spoke on TED about his findings over the last few years, and he concludes that we should be eating much less sugar and refined carbohydrates and more saturated fat. You can basically cut out the left 1/3 of the nutrition plate above!

The New MotleyHealth Diet Plate

Based on recent research and the growing understanding of the relationship between diet and chronic disease, we have created a new diet plate. This goes some way to creating a healthy diet definition too – just take a look at the plate! If it is not on that plate (and you are buying it packaged in a supermarket) it is probably not healthy!

As you can see, we have eliminated all cereals, grains, breads and pasta. These foods should be consider optional extras to your diet, and treated in a similar way to chocolate and cakes – you can still have them, but they may not do you much good! It is worth noting that oats may be an exception to this rule.

New MotleyHealth Diet Plate

Of course, we do jest, a little. Some high GI carbs such as breads, rice and pasta are OK, just so long as it is in moderation.

Optimum Diet and Health

Much of the current research into nutrition is concerned with determining the optimum diet for health. It is known that many foods help to combat diseases, and likewise, others cause disease.

In an ideal world everyone will know what to eat to ensure that they achieve optimum health, even if the food is not always available. It is important to mention first that there are not really any “bad” foods. A bad diet is not one that includes a few “unhealthy” foods, but a diet that is unbalanced. Sugar, fat and salt are all essential in a healthy diet, but consuming too much is what causes problems. You may also be interested in our advice how to start losing weight.

How Many Calories Should You Eat?

Firstly, for a diet to be healthy it must provide you with enough energy to meet your daily needs without causing you to gain weight (the most common problem) or to lose weight. Understanding how many calories the human body needs is the first step to achieving a healthy diet, as obesity generally leads to more serious health problems than poor diet alone. Men generally require more calories than women, and as we age our needs reduce.

The Main Features of a Healthy Diet

So, what is a normal healthy diet? The simplest definition of a healthy diet is one that provides the daily energy requirements with foods that are nutritionally dense and varied. Diets that rely heavily on staple foods (bread, grains, rice, pasta, potatoes) are less healthy than diets with a great variation of fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy. This is why the “caveman diet” is so popular at the moment, as it does not allow grains which are energy dense and nutritionally poor. So, what are the nutrients that you should be packing into your diet?

There are 3 types of  macro-nutrients and then the micro-nutrients and water. Macro-nutrients are: Carbohydrates, Proteins and Fats. You can read more about those below. The micro-nutrients are the vitamins and minerals which are found in the macro-nutrients, plus water. An example of an energy dense food is white bread. It provides almost no micro-nutrients and is just energy (about 100 calories per slice). A nutrient rich food would be blueberries as they contain many anti-oxidants, vitamins and minerals as well as fiber and sugar (fructose). This leads on to the idea that we should always focus on specific foods that boost health.

Balance Your Macronutrients and Micronutrients

The problem with giving the advice to eat certain nutritious foods is that there is a risk that some people will simply eat only the most nutritious foods and this may have some undesired consequences. A diet must include a range of different foods to make it healthy. Although blueberries are considered a superfood, a diet of only blueberries will be lacking in other areas, namely proteins and fats. Note, not to be confused with the Cron Diet.

A real life example of this is when a person starts a very strict raw vegan diet in the belief that fat and protein is unhealthy (or it is just ethically wrong to eat animal produce), but then serious health problems result due to malnutrition as they do not consume alternative sources of protein and fat.

Should You Take Vitamin and Mineral Supplements?

This is another area of confusion. As there are now so many types of vitamin and mineral supplement on the shelves in supermarkets and health shops many people assume that they are an essential part of a healthy diet. However, often they are not required at all. A common problem is that the message seems to be that you only need to consume vitamins and minerals to be healthy. This results in people lacking macro-nutrients. For example people eat cereals, bread and rice and take vitamin pills, and lack proteins and healthy fats.

In some circumstances a doctor or nurse may recommend that you take a supplement, such as extra iron or folic acid (vitamin B9) for pregnant women, but really a healthy diet provides ample nutrition. For most people, supplements are not required so long as you eat a varied and balanced diet.

What Exactly Is Healthy Eating?

OK, so clearly defining a “healthy diet” is not possible, what about healthy eating? Healthy eating can mean many different things. As a guide, these are all considered to be examples of healthy eating:

  • Eating on a regular basis, generally 3-6 times a day
  • Starting your day with breakfast
  • Limit junk food
  • Limit processed food
  • Eating mostly a vegetarian diet
  • Eat a variety of different foods
  • Not eating sweets or other sugary foods
  • Ensuring a good balance of carbohydrates, proteins and fats
  • Controlling calories to avoid weight gain
  • Eating fresh fruits and raw or partly cooked vegetables
  • Limiting red meat
  • Avoid saturated fat
  • Not eating late at night
  • Eating a mostly low to medium GI diet
  • Eating at least 5 portions of fruits and vegetables each day
  • Limit salt
  • Limit alcohol
  • Preparing meals from fresh ingredients
  • Not relying on bread (or any other staple) for most energy

There are obviously many other rules that you could apply to a healthy diet. Once you factor in seasonal, regional and cultural variations this list will change. Some cultures do not consider pork to be healthy, others avoid foods out of season. Many Chinese people follow rules set out in Traditional Chinese Medicine, such as not eating cold foods during the winter.

The Traditional Balanced Diet

A Healthy and Balanced Diet
A Traditional Healthy and Balanced Diet – although it may not be an optimum diet for weight loss and fitness.

A balanced diet has actually become less important over the last 50 years, at least, following a balanced diet alone is no longer a route to good health. However, a balanced natural diet is healthy. Before the growth of processed and refined foods, most sources of carbohydrates did provide all the nutritional requirements a person needed. So, following a diet that was high in carbohydrates, with some proteins and fat added, was a good way to stay healthy, as this meant that you would be eating many different vegetables and fruits.

People used to shop locally and buy locally grown produce, so throughout the year they would eat a varied diet. Processed food, mass manufacturing and refining has changed this. Nowadays following a diet that is high in carbohydrate could result in malnutrition for some people, as many people will just eat the same basic food all year round – bread, rice, pasta and fried potato. It is thought that this is one of the main reasons why so many people have become obese and develop heart disease in the last half a century.

So a balanced diet today must focus on not only macro-nutrients, but also on the types of foods eaten within those groups. For example, instead of saying that 70% of your diet should be carbohydrate, the advice today is more like:

  • 70% carbohydrate
    • 35% staples: wholegrains, brown rice, potato, pasta, cereals
    • 35% fresh fruits and vegetables
  • 20% protein and fat
    • 10% dairy – milk, cheese, yogurt
    • 10% eggs, poultry, red meat, fish, white fish and pulses
  • 10% treats – cakes, cookies, soda, chocolate, high fat cheese, cooking oils

This approach is aimed at making it more obvious how you should balance your diet. This is how the UK Government’s “Eatwell Plate” came about.

The Eatwell Plate

The Eatwell Plate - UK Government Guide to a Balanced DietOf course, the Eatwell Plate may be a healthy diet, but if you are very overweight then it may not actually help you to lose weight if you continue to consume too many calories.

Many weight loss diets tackle obesity simply by eliminating everything in the yellow section of the plate, that is, all the bread, pasta, potatoes, rice and cereals. The idea is to reduce empty (nutritionally poor) carbohydrates and eat only the nutrient dense vegetables and fruits plus the healthy protein sources, which generally also provide the healthy fats. It is important to understand the Eatwell plate food groups and the importance of a balanced diet to manage your dietary health.

Which Nutrients Are Required In A Healthy Diet?

For optimum nutrition to occur you need to first know how much of each nutrient you require, then know how to measure the amount of the nutrients in the foods that you are eating. However, calculating the nutrients required for a balanced diet is really not practical for anyone other than professional dietitians and nutritionists. Most people who follow a balanced diet receive adequate nutrition anyway, so it is actually not all that important to look at the specifics in detail!

But to answer the question “what is a healthy diet?” we really need to provide some guidelines on nutrition. It is impossible to provide any rules on nutrition because each person has different requirements. Age, gender, genetics and levels of activity can all affect requirements.

Macronutrients RDA/AI is shown below for males and females aged 40–50 years

Here is an example of the recommended daily allowance for various macronutrients, for men and women between 40 and 50 years of age – this is basically what a balanced diet includes. As you can see, just by providing this information your diet can suddenly become very complicated.

  • How do you actually use this information?
  • What proportion of each of these nutrients and vitamins do you currently consume through your diet?
  • How much do you need to get from supplements?
  • Is your diet the same every day?
  • Did you meet or exceed your daily intake for anything?

Substance – Amount (males) – Amount (females) – Source

  • Water – 3.7 L/day – 2.7 L/day
  • Carbohydrates 130 g/day – 130 g/day – Bread, Beans, Potato, Rice
  • Protein 56 g/day – 46 g/day – Cheese, Milk, Fish, Potato, Soya bean
  • Fiber 38 g/day – 25 g/day – Peas, Soya bean, Wheat
  • Fat 20–35% of calories – Oily fish, Walnut
  • Linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid (polyunsaturated) 17 g/day – 12 g/day
  • Alpha-Linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid (polyunsaturated) 1.6 g/day – 1.1 g/day
  • Cholesterol – As low as possible
  • Trans fatty acids – As low as possible
  • Saturated fatty acids – As low as possible
  • Added sugar – No more than 25% of calories

This information was provided by Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine, National Academies in 2004. Even this can lead to some ill-informed choices. For example, the advice on cholesterol is to avoid it, but research has also suggested the dietary cholesterol is not directly linked to high cholesterol levels on the blood, and also that eggs contain healthy cholesterol which actually improve the health of the arteries. If we look at the RDAs for vitamins and mineral the list is far longer, and again, it is next to impossible to actually use this information.

Optimum nutrition it may be, but it is not practical nutrition. It was partly for this reason that it was decided that the best way to pass this information on to the public was to provide a visual guide to how much or what type of food should be eaten. This gave rise to the Food Pyramid and later the Eatwell Plate (UK) and ChooseMyPlate (USA).

Balancing Proteins, Carbohydrates and Fats

A typical healthy well-balanced diet includes foods from the following food groups. The size of the portions eaten and the balance between carbohydrates, proteins and fats really depend on the physical characteristics of the individual and on the fitness regime that they are following.


Proteins are divided into complete proteins and incomplete proteins. Complete proteins can be found in milk, cheese, eggs, soy beans, peanuts, fish and poultry. Wheat contains both complete and incomplete proteins. Incomplete proteins are found in beans, peas, corn, rye, lentils, and some nuts. It is worth mentioning that egg yolks contain complete proteins, and egg whites contain incomplete proteins. A good healthy breakfast can provide all of these protein requirements, whether it is a bowl of muesli with milk, or a sensible size cooked breakfast with eggs, beans, mushrooms and wholemeal toast.


Carbohydrates refer to foods that contain carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. They include starches and sugars, however as our body digests the starches and convert them to sugars, ultimately all carbohydrates are forms of sugar by the time our body absorbs them into the blood system. Sugar is vital for energy.

Starch rich foods include wheat, oats, rice, barley, rye and rice (which are the main ingredients of breakfast cereals), plus pasta, bread, cakes and biscuits. Potatoes and pulses are also good sources of starch. Sugar rich foods include honey, fresh and dried fruits, chocolate and white and brown sugar. Sugar rich foods can irritate the lining of the alimentary tract and have the tendency to ferment, which causes bloating, which in turn can lead to disruption with the digestive process resulting in a lack of energy. Starch rich foods do not cause bloating so long as they are eaten in moderate portions.

However, refined cereals, white bread, bleached rice and some pastas, cakes, biscuits and pastry made with refined sugars provide much less benefit as they have been depleted of their most important nutrients in the process of refining. Starch rich foods also provide us with fibre, which is also a vital part in our diets to maintain a healthy and regular digestive system.


Fats also provide us with energy. It is the most energy rich of all the food groups, however excess fat can lead to digestive problems, and longer term health problems such as increased blood pressure and heart disease. Not all fat is bad however, some fatty acids are essential for good health, such as the fats found in olive oil, corn and peanut oil, cod-liver oil, peanut butter and egg yolks.

Some fats contain vital minerals and food hormones, such as cheeses, eggs, nuts and salt water fish, such as mackerel, sardines, herring, tuna and salmon. A healthy well-balanced diet should contain all of the above food groups each day. Some diet fads such as the Atkins diet promote protein rich diets in an attempt to prompt rapid weight loss, however these types of diets are not healthy in the long-term and often cause digestive problems.

Superfoods To Boost Your Healthy Diet

Although we do not advocate any particular diet plan to increase health and reduce cancer risk, it is important to review your diet and consider increasing the following foods if they are currently absent from your diet. Before embarking on a new superfoods diet you should read our guide to superfoods which explains why superfoods are not actually as super as many make out.

Broccoli, which was once thought to be toxic for humans, is now known to be capable of breaking down cancer causing substances as well as strengthening the immune system. One of the glucosinolates, sulphoraphane, kills the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, thought to cause stomach cancer. Ideally you should consume broccoli about four times per week. It is better to steam it instead of boiling, as fewer of the nutrients are lost. Tenderstem broccoli is the best variety, as it has five times the glucosinolates of standard broccoli.

Tomatoes are a rich source of lycopene, an antioxidant that lowers the risk of breast, lung, bladder, colon and prostate cancers as it counters the effects of free radicals which can damage cells and DNA. Tomatoes are also very high in vitamin C, which not only makes them a healthier choice than oranges, but locally grown tomatoes are much better for the environment. Combining tomatoes and broccoli in the same meal can help fight prostate cancer, due to the way the compounds in each vegetable work together to attack cancer cells. Dutch researchers also found that lycopene slowed tumour growth by 50 per cent. Research has suggested that 22mg of lycopene should be consumed each day, which is approximately the amount present in two tablespoons of tomato purée. Lycopene is better absorbed when consumed in processed products, so canned is better than fresh. Tomato soups, bolognaise sauces and even baked beans in tomato sauce are all good sources of lycopene.

Chilies are another superfood that is often overlooked in the west. Capsaicin, which gives peppers their scorching taste, has been found to kill cancer cells by attacking their energy-producing centres (mitochondria) without harming any of the surrounding healthy tissue. Dr Timothy Bates, who carried out the research at Nottingham University, says: “This may explain why people living in countries such as Mexico and India, who traditionally eat a diet that is very spicy, tend to have lower incidences of many cancers prevalent in the West. We appear to have discovered a fundamental weakness with all cancer cells.

Foods from the cabbage family are believed to reduce the risk of bowel cancer and breast cancer as they are packed with B vitamin folate, which may prevent bowel cancer in some cases. Researchers at Lancaster University, UK, have found that a compound called 13C, which is found in cabbage, sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower, could reduce risk breast cancer occurring. When the compound was used in conjunction with chemotherapy, cancer cells died because it made them more vulnerable to the drugs. It is thought that at least two servings a day are beneficial to health.

Onions are packed with flavonoids, the antioxidants that break down damaging free radicals. Some varieties, such as the Western Yellow and pungent yellow onion, are the most effective in inhibiting the growth of liver and colon cancer cells. Scientists at Cornell University in New York concluded that no one knows yet how many daily servings of onions you’d have to eat to maximise protection against cancer, but our study suggests that people who are more health-conscious might want to go with the stronger onions rather than the mild ones. Also “Increasing the consumption of fruit and vegetables, whole grains, and soy is a practical strategy for consumers to optimize their health and to reduce the risk of chronic diseases.

Carrots are believed to help reduce the risk of developing cancer because they contain falcarinol, a naturally occurring pesticide that protects them from fungal diseases. Scientists from Newcastle University found that falcarinol supplements reduced the likelihood subjects developing full-scale tumours. Research is still being carried out to determine if certain types of carrots are better at fighting cancer than others. A word of warning though, in large doses falcarinol is toxic. Recommendations are to eat one small carrot a day.

Blueberries are a well known superfood, and they contain a compound called pterostilbene. Research has suggested that pterostilbene can fight colon cancer, which is the second most fatal cancer in Britain. It also contains salvestrols, compounds believed to destroy cancer cells before they turn into malignant tumours. Researchers at Rutgers University in New Jersey and the US Department of Agriculture found that subjects given pterostilbene had 57 per cent fewer pre-cancerous lesions in their colons than the control group. Pterostilbene also seemed to reduce the growth rate of cancerous cells, as well as inhibiting certain influential genes involved. They said that it would not cure the cancer, but help prevent it. A cup of blueberries a day is beneficial to health.

Apples contain anthocyanin, which is a chemical that inhibits the growth of cancer cells. A study at Cornell University in 2005 found that breast cancer tumours in subjects were reduced by 39 per cent when given the equivalent of three apples a day. It has been shown that the regular consumption of apples aids in the reduction the incidence of bowel cancer, while a super-apple has just been bred in New Zealand for its cancer-fighting properties. One apple contains as many antioxidants as three 500mg vitamin C tablets.

Watercress has been found in recent studies carried out by Reading University to boost levels of lutein and beta-carotene, which fight cancer-causing free radicals. It is supposed to be particularly beneficial to smokers. However, for it to be most beneficial a whole packet of raw watercress needs to be consumed raw every day.

Green tea is the only drink on this list. Green tea has been found to have many health qualities. It is packed with antioxidants and is believed to cut the risk of lung cancer. Researchers found that it works on a protein in cells called actin, which is involved in chemical changes in the early stages of lung cancer. Green tea encourages the reverse to happen to the actin. In Japan, where green tea consumption is high, the incidence of lung cancer is lower than in America, despite the fact that smoking rates are similar. It is recommended that five cups are drunk each day to gain the health benefits. Research from a Korean University also showed that people that drank at least two cups of green tea each day had increased bone density, and were less likely to suffer from brittle bones or other problems with weakened bones and joints in older age.

A Variety of Fruit and Vegetables for Better Health

Although superfoods contain a high concentration of nutrients, a healthy and balanced diet that provides a rich variety of different foods will provide all the essential vitamins and minerals that your body needs. Research from the National Institute of Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands (published in the Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Preventionin 2010) has shown that smokers who eat a wide range of fruits and vegetables have a lesser risk of developing lung cancer.

“Independent from quantity of consumption, variety in fruit and vegetable consumption may decrease lung cancer risk.”

This research proves that eating a well balanced diet rich in a variety of fruits and vegetables is healthier than a diet that concentrates on just a few different foods. Many people eat a very limited diet. It is common that once you find something you like you just keep eating the same thing over and over. Most people eat the same food each week with almost no variety at all in their diet.

However, this is certainly not optimal for good health. Whether you are considered to be at an increased risk of developing cancer or not, you really should strive to consume a greater range of healthy food. One thing that many amateur athletes often fail to realise is that a healthy and well balanced diet helps to improve performance. All too often people become obsessed with getting enough protein to grow and strengthen muscle tissue that other areas of the diet are neglected.

Combine These Foods For Good Health

Adding these different foods to your diet may appear a daunting task, but many of them can be prepared in the form of a smoothie and drunk. Replacing you usual tea/coffee beverage with green tea, drinking fruit smoothies for breakfast, and stir fries packed with onions, garlic, chilies, peppers, carrots and cabbage, will improve your diet dramatically, and could well reduce the risk of developing cancer later in life.

The real key is to consume a healthy and balanced diet with a variety of foods. Chasing after superfoods is not a solution to long term health and may harm your wallet as more companies jump on the superfood bandwagon and charge over the odds for fruits and vegetables.

Modern Western Diets

Modern western diets are often rich in processed meats and refined sugars, and lack in fresh fruits and vegetables. Government advice currently suggests that we should aim to eat at least five portions of fresh fruits and vegetables every day, although the latest advice now says to eat eight portions a day.

If all meals are prepared with fresh fruits and vegetables you should be able to attain this easily, and exceed. Muesli for breakfast, with fruit smoothies for snacks, salads or fresh vegetables at lunchtime with lean meat, with fruit snacks throughout the day will mean you will be consuming plenty of vitamins and fibre for good health.

Jamie Oliver’s TED Prize wish: Teach every child about food

Jamie Oliver, the controversial chef from England, talking about the importance of good diet for health and well-being. Jamie tells us that 2/3 of Americans are overweight or obese. “Diet related disease is the biggest killer in the United States, right now, today.”

Italian, Indian and Chinese Meals Provide a Good Balance

If you do not have the time to prepare many small snacks throughout the day, good balanced meals can be prepared in advance. Italian and Mediterranean meals such as lasagne and spaghetti, Indian and Chinese style meals, all provide a large percentage of starch in the form of pastas, rice, pulses and grains.

When combining diet with exercise it has been found to be beneficial to limit the amount of carbohydrates eaten in the evening. Some people live by the rule of “no carbs after 4pm”, which may seem a bit extreme if you usually eat your main meal in the evening.

Healthy Breakfast, Lighter Lunch, Snacks In Evening

However if you eat a healthy breakfast and a large lunch, then eating less in the evening, and concentrating on lean meats, cheeses, fish and poultry can help reduce fat. A simple but healthy diet can be tinned fish in the evening, or grilled chicken pieces, or scrambled eggs with cheese, and a small piece of toast, for example.

Remember the main rule, try out different approaches and find what suits you the best. Remember that there is no such thing as being on a diet. Your diet is defined as what you eat, so really we are all always on a diet. The trick is to make sure it is a healthy and nutritious diet.

Fad Diets

Fad diets are very rarely either healthy or nutritious, as their only goal is to encourage you to eat less to lose weight. If weight loss is your goal, simply exercise more and eat less. Some fad diets, such as the Zone Diet (mentioned below) and the Forking Diet, can be useful to help you to balance your meals and manage your appetite.

If you join a gym, aerobics club, running club or take up a martial art, do not fool yourself that you can start eating more as you are exercising. In reality the exercise you do does not make a huge difference to your daily energy requirements – unless you take up long distance running or start a serious body building programme. There are exceptions to every rule!

The Zone Diet

The Zone Diet is somewhere between a healthy diet plan and a fad diet. It advocates the benefits of carefully balancing fat, protein and carb intake throughout the day. It was developed by Dr. Barry Sears, who wanted to follow a diet that would help him to avoid dying of a heart attack, a fate that all other men in his family had been victims of.

In more recent years, Sears has popularized the use of fish oil and Omega-3 fatty acids to reduce system-wide inflammation in the body. In the Zone Diet Daily calorific consumption should be made up of 40% carbohydrate, 30% protein and 30% fat. Considering the popularity of both low-carb diets such as Atkins and South Beach, and the many low fat diets, it may seem surprising that a diet system with both more fat and more carbohydrates than the other diets can work.

“The Zone” actually refers to a proper hormone balance, and not specifically a balance of food types. When insulin levels are stable, and glucagon levels are not too high, then specific anti-inflammatory chemicals (types of eicosanoids) are released, which have similar effects to aspirin, but without downsides, such as gastric bleeding. Sears claims that a 30:40 ratio of protein to carbohydrates triggers this effect, and this is called ‘The Zone.’ Sears claims that these natural anti-inflammatories are heart and health friendly.

The Zone Diet is considered a low-carb diet although it is not as restrictive as the other low-carb diets, such as the Atkins diet. Sears claims that Dr. Atkins missed the point, in that they ignore the importance of hormonal balance, as well as the influence of dietary balance on digestion and hormone production. This is not entirely true though, as the role of hormones is mentioned throughout Dr. Atkins’ book.

The Zone Diet Plate

Zone diet plate

One of the main criticisms of the Zone Diet is that it does not encourage healthy eating, but just the correct balance of carbs-fat-proteins. Most people like to be told what they should eat in any particular diet plan, but with the Zone diet you are expected to work it out for yourself. There may be some merit in following a zone diet, so long as each of your food groups consists of healthy choices, such as low GI vegetables and fruits, pulses, fish, poultry and some lean meat.

However, for most people it is probably enough to just eat a healthy diet without obsessing over the exact proportions and getting plenty of exercise. The government guidelines in the Eatwell Plate are still the recommended ones to follow.

The Problem of Empty Calories

Bruce Lee advised that we should avoid eating empty calories to help lose fat and gain muscle. Foods that contain empty calories are simply those that contain a lot of energy but little nutrition. This generally includes foods containing processed carbohydrates and processed fats. Most empty calories are also high GI carbohydrates, so following a low to medium GI diet will help your to manage this aspect of your diet.

Bread, pasta and rice are all relatively empty calories, with white bread possibly being the worse. The term “empty calories” was first used in 1972 by Michael Jacobson, head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Avoiding empty calories is essential for athletes, as every calorie counts towards increasing an athletes competitive advantage.

Dietitians recommend in every case that nutrient-dense food such as fruit and vegetables be substituted for empty-calorie food. Bruce Lee’s diet always used to preach that empty calories were to be avoided at all costs. Typical foods containing empty calories are cakes, biscuits, white bread and other sugar / refined flour based products.

Good Food and Bad, How to Spot the Difference

There are no foods which are intrinsically linked on a singular-consumption basis to illness, disease or decline of body function. Yet, there are foods, such as fugu, which when improperly cut or prepared can result in death. In essence, “there are no bad foods”.

Here is one useful diet mantra to remember: “If your food can go bad, it is good for you. If it cannot go bad, it is bad for you“. So processed foods that are designed to last for years are best avoided while fresh food is best. There are of course foods which have low nutritional value, and if consumed on a regular basis will contribute to the decline of human health.

This has been demonstrated in the documentary film, Supersize Me, as well as by various epidemiological studies which have determined that foods such as processed and fast foods, are linked to diabetes and various heart problems.

The popular perception of achieving a healthy diet through the eating of “healthy” foods may be misunderstood. The consumption of nothing but substances which are deemed healthy, such as an “all-grain diet” or a diet consisting only of pasta or other health-foods, would most likely result in nutritional deficiencies, because important staples of the meal were missing, like protein-based foods. Not to mention that some people suffer from wheat intolerance.

Foods such as grains, fish, corn, etc. are healthy when consumed with a balanced diet, because they supply us with the correct balance of required nutrients. With any diet, the most important aspect is maintaining a healthy intake and balance of foods. Foods which are considered to be rich in one or more nutrients are seen to be healthy because they are nutrient rich, and if eaten sensibly, will easily regenerate nutrients used naturally throughout the day.

But, eating one or more foods which are considered healthy does not mean that a diet that was lacking will immediately be made healthy. The balance of micronutrients gained from both meat, vegetables, and other foods is the feature which makes diets healthy, not only “healthy” foods. From a psychological perspective, a new healthy diet may be difficult to achieve for a person used to eating “bad foods”.

This may be due to habits acquired in early adolescence and preferences for fatty foods. It may be easier for such a person to transition to a healthy diet if treats such as chocolate are allowed; sweets may act as mood stabilisers, which could help achieve reinforce correct nutrient intake.

Some foods within a diet provide a source of many nutrients in varying amounts, while others provide nutrients in large amounts as a singularity; still others have very low nutrient ratings, such as fried, deep-fried and fast foods which are high in calories, but low in nutrients. Generally speaking, fresh fruit and vegetables, fish and lean meats make up the bulk of “good” food.

Health Benefits of Eating a Healthy Diet

Fish and Seafood for Improved Brain Power

If you want to improve your brain power, your memory or any cognitive skills, then eat fish. Yes, the old wives ‘tales that eating fish makes you more intelligent is actually true. The omega 3 fatty acids improve brain performance. It is thought that omega 3 fatty acids may make it easier for signals to cross the gap between brain cells, making the brain more efficient, and therefore you more intelligent.

Putting It All Together

To summarize the key elements to a healthy diet are:

  • Consume more or less the right amount of calories each day for your functional needs
  • Eat a varied diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, as well as healthy lean protein sources and healthy fats.
  • Eat several meals a day with a few snacks, but always ensure you stay within your needs.

By doing this you should be getting a healthy diet. What often makes a diet bad is when you get too stuck into a routine that involves buying the same food each week. Make a rule to try something new every week, to have protein for breakfast (eggs, fish etc.). Always get your “5 a day” as this contributes to fiber, vitamins and self-esteem!

This is just the tip of the iceberg. We shall be concentrating on diet and nutrition for a while now and providing many more articles on how to eat healthily as well as how to improve fitness progress and sport performance.

If you have any questions on this please ask below. Good health and weight management is really just about making sensible eating choices and not giving yourself too many treats.

References and Healthy Eating Resources

References on Superfoods

  • “Cancer Prevention With Natural Compounds” by Norleena P. Gullett, A.R.M. Ruhul Amin, Soley Bayraktar, John M. Pezzuto, Dong M. Shin, Fadlo R. Khuri, Bharat B. Aggarwal, Young-Joon Surh, Omer Kucuk. Seminars in Oncology Volume 37, Issue 3, June 2010, Pages 258-281. Abstract.
  • Reference: Keenan, J. I., Salm, N., Hampton, M. B. and Wallace, A. J. (2010), “Individual and combined effects of foods on helicobacter pylori growth”. Phytotherapy Research, 24: 1229–1233. doi: 10.1002/ptr.3167
  • Reference: van het Hof KH, de Boer BC, Tijburg LB, Lucius BR, Zijp I, West CE, Hautvast JG, Weststrate JA “Carotenoid bioavailability in humans from tomatoes processed in different ways determined from the carotenoid response in the triglyceride-rich lipoprotein fraction of plasma after a single consumption and in plasma after four days of consumption” Journal of Nutrition. 2000 May; 130 (5): 1189-96.
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91 Comments on “What’s A Healthy Diet? Our Essential Guide To Healthy Eating”

  1. MotleyHealth says:

    Hi ishanya, all the diet information you need is in the article. However, you say “I usually do more of lower exercises” – what sort of exercises? To lose weight you need to be doing cardio and lots of it. Ideally go for 45 minutes of cardio on some days and then a combination of cardio and resistance training on others. Exercise every day and if that is not working then you are still eating too much food.

    Who told you that you do not need to change your eating habits? Did they examine your diet and calculate your daily energy and nutrition needs? Or was it a guess?

  2. It was just a guess because otherwise I am slim. It is just the excess fat that has got me worried !!

    I do cardio,abs exercises,alternate leg exercises..those bicycling movements of the legs in lying down position.

    I do upper body too !!

    the trainer told me that all i need to do is tone my body muscles.
    my weight is only 51kg ! I am quite tall too – 5 feet 4 inches !!

    I do not eat too much of food,i have reduced consuming rice. I eat mostly all the leafy vegetables and chapati with some curd. I take rice very rarely these days !! n now its been more than a month..

  3. MotleyHealth says:

    Sounds ok, you will probably benefit from some extra cardio though, everyone benefits from getting fitter.

  4. Is it okay if we do lower exercises upper exercises as well as cardio the same day ?
    I was told it is not effective!

  5. MotleyHealth says:

    Ishanya, it is OK. Many people talk about not mixing cardio and weight training, abs training and cardio etc. etc. There really is nothing wrong with doing that though. It may not be the optimum way to train, but we are not looking for optimum results (as in pro athletes) but just to develop a healthy and fit body. If you go to any martial arts, dance or sport class you will be doing a wide range of exercises and cardio work each session.

  6. Okay. Thank you very much.
    I’ll follow your advise.

    And will surely approach you again if needed.
    Thank you again :)

  7. doogles_22 says:

    hi, i find your recommendations very informative. What’s your view about Herbalife protein shakes. I’ve been using this for a month replacing lunch and dinner. Is it safe?

  8. MotleyHealth says:

    Safe? It probably is safe, but why? Why not just consume a healthy diet and exercise more? How long do you plan to live on protein shakes for?

  9. I am sagar from kolkata i am 30 yrs old, 5.5′ hight and 60 kg wait. my body is well as i know and as i think. but my waist is 33. and i want low this so plz help me? i take 3 parathas in breakfast and fish curry and rice in lunch and rice dal and some times chiken curry in dinner. so please mail me that what i do for stop my fat. and also tell me that what i take in breakfast, lunch and dinner. i will do any thing for my heath. so plz suggest me that what will be better for me…i am waiting ur suggestion.

  10. MotleyHealth says:

    Hi Sagar, do you exercise? The first thing to do is get more active. You diet does not appear to be unhealthy, although you may need to reduce the amount you are eating if you do not lose weight after you start exercising.

  11. Hi. I have recently joined the gym at the beginning of this year and last week changed my diet. I have been reading through various articles on this website and trying to learn how to eat and live healthier. I am 33 and 14 stone and have always regularly exercised playing football and squash but now looking to tone up all muscles and reduce my body fat. I think I am on the right lines but just thought I would ask your opinion to make sure. As of last week my diet changed to this. Mon – breakfast – 2 fried eggs on multiseed bread. Lunch – spinach and rocket with a small packet of chicken breast pieces with a small amount of piri piri sauce on top. Dinner – stir fry with egg noodles veg and prawns. Tue – breakfast – same. Lunch – same but with tuna and sweetcorn. Dinner – brown rice chicken mix veg garlic chilli and chives with low fat cream cheese. Wed – breakfast – sardines on wholemeal bread. Lunch – same. Dinner – same but with turkey. Thursday and Friday were similar as previous days alternating tuna and chicken for lunch and with dinners as turkey with veg and brown rice and lean minced beef with onion kidney beans and chives and tomatoes on a sweet potato. Saturday – breakfast – toast with peanut butter. Lunch – Bacon, eggs, mushrooms, baked beans and toast. Dinner – ate out and had spaghetti with prawns. Sunday – brunch – fried eggs mushrooms chorizo slices baked beans and toast. Dinner – low gi beef stew recipe I found online. This week I have varied a bit as today for breakfast was Quaker oats oat crisp with milk. Lunch – spinach and rocket with cheese and parma ham and small amount of rapeseed oil vinaigrette. Dinner – carrots with hummus followed by prunes with Greek yoghurt and cashews. I have only been drinking water and tea, other than the odd glass of wine and in between snacks have been apples bananas grapes and rollmops. I am going to the gym twice a week for 1hr 30 each time and play 5 a side football once a week. Squash will be either every week or can be a couple of weeks space in between times. Sorry for the long message but just want to see if you think this sounds like a healthy lifestyle to maintain. By the way I have found a new multiseed low gi loaf I will be buying from now on.

  12. MotleyHealth says:

    Hi Warren, it all sounds pretty good really. As your diet is carefully managed I would suggest that the first change would be to do more exercise. Sounds like you are really exercising 3 times a week plus squash some weeks. Add another exercise session, maybe use this as a pure cardio session to increase fat burning.

  13. Thanks. As the days are getting longer now I will be hoping to add an outdoor jog on top of this each week so hopefully will start seeing good results soon.

  14. Hi, my name is Kay. I’m 5’7, 142LBS, & 18 years old…. I decided to go on a diet so i can reach my desire goal which 123LBS or so. I exercise daily which is walking for an hour, 20 reps of sit ups, Russian twists, bicycle crunches, side crunches, and other abdominal workouts. I’ve been trying to eat healthy lately but I was wondering if I can still eat starch foods that are enriched only if I eat from the serving size? or should I just eat whole grain?

  15. MotleyHealth says:

    Hi Kay, wholegrain is better.

  16. Hi my name is Erica..I am 22 years old about 5’3 in a half and weigh 170lbs. I always workout and can for days and hours but my problem is my diet. I just recently decided to really change my lifestyle and try to cut out processed foods. So now I run/walk everyday for about 45min and I eat for breakfast: either a egg, turkey bacon or whole grain cereal for lunch: soup or a salad with lite dressing and dinner: either another salad or a sub something healthy. In between meals I might have a yogurt or a fruit. I also try to add a fruit or vegetable to my meals too. I am trying to lose 30-40 lbs to be 140 or 130. Love the article. I just need help or suggestions please!!!!!

  17. MotleyHealth says:

    Hi Erica, sounds like you will do well. The areas of your diet which may result in too much energy (and are not healthy either) are turkey bacon, which is still around 32% fat and will contain added salt too, the dressings on the salads (lite it good, olive oil better), if “sub something” means large bread roll sandwich then this will provide many calories too. So a few little changes are probably in order, but sounds like a great start.

  18. hi ,please let me know how to reduce my belly fat with in two months.
    am weighing around 69

  19. MotleyHealth says:

    Hi Kajol, exercise twice a day and eat a lean and healthy diet.

  20. Hi,

    I am 24,weighing 69kgs, n 5.6″ height.
    My confusion is about how to start a better diet and which is d best exercise.
    Although i make it sure that i walk for atleast 45 mins and even watch out my food intake.As I am an Indian my diet is lil different here it is,

    breakfast 9.00- tea, paratha (2) or any cereal
    lunch 2.00-roti(3) (Indian bread made of wheat) n sabji (cooked vegetables)
    evening supper 5.00- tea or coffee n puffed rice
    dinner 8.00- same as lunch

    so could you plz guide me further as to is dis diet proper or walking for 45 mins is too lower level of workout.
    And is it possible for to loose 5kgs in a month?

  21. MotleyHealth says:

    Hi Sneha, your diet seems to have a lot of bread and rice and not enough protein or fruits. 45 minutes of walking can be good, but you have to push yourself – speed walk. If you are not sweating heavily and feeling out of breath then you are not walking fast enough. Try to do a longer walk at the weekends, or any time you can, such as 2-3 hours.

  22. Hi thank you for the great information.am 23yrs old weighing 80kgs. i tend to have a bigger upper body (especially the bust)than the the lower body. i started jogging last week (coz am really tired of being big) and i have been following a healthy diet.i also do push ups and sit ups to reduce fat belly.this has been my diet.
    1.a banana and tea in the morning.
    2.fruit salad in mid morning.
    3.a take at least 2litres of water everyday.
    4.in the evening two slices of brown bread and an egg.

    however, a friend of mine told me that if i lose weight my upper body may not reduce and i might end up being unproportional and i really don’t want that to be the case. could u be having any tips on how i can reduce weight overall and what kind of exercises should i do so that ma upper body reduces especially the bust. and do u think my diet is on the right track. thanks in advance.

  23. MotleyHealth says:

    Hi Jane, really where your body puts fat is down to genetics. Focus on eating healthy and getting regular exercise. The type of exercise is not really important, what is important is that you work hard – you should sweat well and be out of breath. Aim for regular workouts – daily is better than 2 long sessions a week. The key is diet and avoiding the foods that lay the fat on quicker – namely high GI foods like white bread, sugary snacks, soda etc. and eat a few well balanced meals each day.

  24. thanks so much for your advice am really grateful.

  25. hi am shilpa i am 26 yrs old. my weight is 78kg .iam vegeterian i like to have lots of vegetables .i drink milk for 2 times .can u suggest me good diet tips as am vegeterian.also which exercise will help me to get rid of my fat.

  26. MotleyHealth says:

    Hi Shilpa, for vegetarians the best tips are to cut back on breads, cheeses and avoid cooking in fat. As for exercise, anything will help, the key is to do it every day, not just a couple of times a week. Take a look at Indian Vegetarian Diet for Healthy Weight Control for some ideas. Also, our article on vegan diet and fitness may give some inspiration also.

  27. asif ahmed says:

    hi, i’m Asif. age 30. height 6,fit. weight is 76kg. i use to workout daily past many years . and want to be a bodybuilder as soon as possible plz plz tell me what should i eat and give me my diet plan. thanks tc.

  28. MotleyHealth says:

    Hi Asif, take a look at the strength section. AS for eating – lots of vegetables, fruits and lots of proteins. Go easy on grains. Take protein after every weight training session. A good place to start: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Bodybuilding Workouts. Start with either the weekly routine or 3 day split. Also take a look at this ebook: Vince Gironda Legend & Myth

  29. Hi, good website and article.

    I’m 24(male), 5’9, and 12 stone. (the heaviest – and fattest I’ve ever been!) I’m also a type 1 Diabetic, who struggles with ‘excellent’ blood sugar control, but gets by ok. -What I mean is that I maintain at an acceptable level (to be honest: I ‘survive’ at a level which leaves room for serious improvement.)

    I gym 3-4 times a week and my exercise is fairly extensive (often 2-3 hours in gym, high intensity cardio and weights, and some time spent in saunas.)

    My diet is fairly irregular due to my working hours mean I don’t get to the shop untill late by which time I haven’t got the time/energy to prepare for the next day, however during the working week, I tend not to eat till lunch 12:00 at which I have a sandwich and potentially crisps, and then I tend to have diner around 19:30-21:00, which can be anything from spaghetti with a vast mix of vegetables, meats and sauces, to fish with vegetables, and more recently salads (with added meat). On occasion I do snack during the day a little, but this isn’t often and perhaps just a single biscuit or chocolate if they’re going round the office. I only have milk in a coffee maybe once a week, and don’t tend to have another source of calcium but this is the only dietary failing on my part I am aware off – until you will inevitably point out shortly.

    My weight (and my increasing stomach fat!!) seems not to want to drop despite what I consider a high energy gym regime and my diet seems ok.

    Ideally what I need is a meal that I can rely on, for lunch and diner on a regular basis that covers my different food groups, gives me enough energy for the next day and more importantly can help my waist line. The meal I am after ideally I could be the same meal Monday-Friday, as I struggle to be imaginative and don’t really have the time to do ‘proper’ shops, so to get home after work and know prior to cooking and shopping wh=ould really help me stay motivated in a routine.

    Many thanks, (sorry for the essay..)

  30. MotleyHealth says:

    Hi Tom, there is a good guide to eating for those with T1 diabetes starting here: Eating well with Type 1 diabetes (Diabetes UK). The advice there is pretty much to eat a balanced diet. You obviously need to monitor your glucose levels on a regular basis. I hope that helps. It does not provide a single “best” meal, but you should be able to come up with something. There is a good recipes section there too.

  31. Thanks for all of the good advice! I’m trying to live healthier and just need some tips to get myself motivated

  32. jes tired of weight ……..advice pls a nigerian , weigh 91kg 22 yrs help

  33. MotleyHealth says:

    Hi Enkay. First you need to change your diet. Eat less, eat healthier. Have 3 meals a day only, no snacks. Only one large meal, other two small.

    Also start exercising daily. Do anything, just get more active. Take a look at our fitness section for ideas.

  34. Hi, I’m 18 years old, I weigh 62,5 kg and I’m 161 cm tall. I’ve recently started to exercise to lose weight, and for some time now I’ve been doing the circadian rhythm diet, which means I eat a really big breakfast, medium lunch and nothing for dinner, and in the afternoon I mostly eat fruit. I’ve read in one of your articles that to burn fat faster you can do a sugar free diet for two weeks, and I was wondering which foods I should avoid aside from the obvious ones (cake, sweets, etc). Workout wise I’ve been alternating 45min cardio workouts with cardio and strength exercises. I workout every day. Is there anything else I can do to improve the weight loss?

  35. MotleyHealth says:

    Hi Emma, as well as cake, sweet etc. you should also cut down on bread, pastries, pasta and anything else made from flour really. It is more about easily digested carbs than sugar. Sounds like you have made the right start – daily workouts, cardio + strength, plus healthier diet. This should get you in shape.

    Just keep working on your fitness levels and if weight loss is not happening, think about reducing the size of breakfast a little. Get plenty of fresh veges too and lean proteins.

  36. Thanks! I’ll try that. Could you give me an example of a menu to make sure I get plenty of lean proteins and less flour?

  37. I am 23 years old and weigh almost 98 kgs and my height is 173 CM i.e. 5’7 feet and inches… I eat a lot like junk food I try to avoid these foods but I can’t resist without junk food…. Can I loose weight faster…can I have a healthy diet…..

  38. MotleyHealth says:

    Hi Anvay, you have to stop eating the junk good. Completely. No excuses. Cut out all the junk, and what’s left is probably healthy. Get more active too.

  39. Should I go to gym to get in proper shape…. Or if not what cardio exercises are best?? And in how many days will I reduce my weight??

  40. MotleyHealth says:

    That depends, what shape do you want to be? Lean and slim, or bulky and muscular? The answer to which cardio is best? is usually the one that you like doing the most! If you want muscles, you need to lift weight, and you need a gym for that, or at least access to weight training equipment.

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