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.
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.”
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.