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All the conflicting information regarding nutrition can become overwhelming! Nowadays there are so many different places to turn to when you’re looking for nutrition advice.
It can be quite the struggle to simply learn basic nutrition principles and get some simple, actionable tips. This is distressing as the food you eat and your relationship around it can have such a huge impact on your general health and happiness.
With this article, my goal is to give you the key principles of healthy eating for beginners so you can have a trustworthy reference on how to nourish your body properly.
I will also be linking to other resources and past articles if you wish to go more in-depth on certain points. I hope this helps kickstart your healthy eating journey!
HEALTHY EATING FOR BEGINNERS: A SIMPLE GUIDE TO NOURISH YOUR BODY.
WHAT IS HEALTHY EATING AND WHY IS IT IMPORTANT
Healthy eating means eating a wide variety of foods that give you all the nutrients you need to thrive. Eating a healthy diet doesn’t mean setting a ton of restrictions, having salads all day, banning all the foods you love, and being thin at all costs.
It’s about eating balanced and varied meals that you enjoy, fueling your body the right way, feeling happy and energized, and having a healthy relationship with food.
Here are healthy foods that most people can’t go wrong with (most people meaning those who aren’t allergic/intolerant to these foods)
- All the fruit and vegetables
- Whole grains such as brown rice, whole wheat pasta, oats…
- Healthy protein such as legumes and quinoa
- Healthy fats like nuts and seeds
In general, eating mainly whole foods and limiting processed foods is the goal for healthy eating. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can never eat junk food or sweets, but it should be the exception rather than the norm. I always say that it’s all about balance!
Having a healthy diet is the basis for living a full and happy life. Your cells are literally made up of what you eat, so make sure that it’s the right things!
What are macronutrients and micronutrients
Now let’s get into the basics of food composition. There are three macronutrients that make up our food: carbohydrates, proteins, and fat. Most foods are a mix of different macros but here are some common foods within each group:
- Carbohydrates: bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, legumes, fruit, foods with refined sugar…They give you 4 calories per gram.
- Proteins: meat, fish, dairy, eggs, legumes, tofu…They give you 4 calories per gram.
- Fats: Nuts, nut butter, seeds, oils, fatty animal products…They give you 9 calories per gram.
You should be getting in these macronutrients through a variety of different foods. While the proportions vary according to each individual, here are some general guidelines.
Around 50% of your calories should come from carbs, 30% from protein and 20% from fat. So, if you are eating 2000 calories, this means 1000 from carbs (250 grams), 600 from protein (150 grams), and 400 from fat (45 grams).
Here are a few articles I wrote which cover the different macronutrients:
- Why carbs are good for you and natural vs refined sugar
- How much protein do you need and information on plant protein
- Is vegetable oil healthy and different types of fat
Micronutrients are also very important. They are vitamins and minerals that you must get in small doses from your diet in order to survive.
Vitamins (ABCDEK) are crucial for energy production, organ function, immune function, healthy skin and hair…
Minerals include macro minerals (calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, phosphorus…) which are necessary for our growth, bone health, metabolism, fluid balance…
They also include trace minerals (iron, zinc, iodine, fluoride, manganese, copper, selenium…) that are needed in smaller amounts but are still very important for all of these things.
If you eat a variety of fruit and vegetables, whole grains, healthy protein, and healthy fats, you should have no problem getting in all of these micronutrients. However, if you have particular requirements or if you’re interested in learning in which foods to find them, you can do so here.
Calories and portion sizes
A calorie is a unit of measurement that measures the amount of energy a food can give you. What we eat gets turned into fuel to make our bodies function, so calories are very important.
Although things aren’t as simple as calories in and calories out, the amount of calories you consume obviously plays a role in weight gain/weight loss.
If you eat more calories than you burn, you will store them as fat, and if you don’t eat enough calories for your needs, you’ll most likely lose weight.
Although I don’t recommend strict calorie counting for most people, it’s still important to have some general knowledge about the calories you consume and the number of calories in each food.
On average, women should consume around 2000 daily calories for weight maintenance, and men around 2500 .
However, this depends on factors like your age, your height, your weight, and your level of physical activity. If you’d like an estimation of your daily calorie needs, you can use the Mifflin-St Jeor Equation, which has been shown to be the most accurate basal metabolic rate calculator .
(If you know your body fat percentage, however, there are even more accurate formulas to use!)
For men: BMR = 10* weight in kg + 6.25*height in cm – 5*age + 5
For women: BMR = 10* weight in kg + 6.25*height in cm – 5*age – 161
This will give you the minimum number of calories needed in order for your body to function, but you must also account for your physical activity.
You can do this by plugging your numbers into an online calculator, such as this one, in order to calculate your needs depending on your level of physical activity.
Regarding portion sizes, most people eat much bigger portions than their actual needs. We’ve been so accustomed to seeing huge portions that the regular-sized ones leave us unsatisfied. This is especially true for Americans, as I discuss in my article on how French women don’t get fat.
If you’ve always eaten huge portions, I don’t recommend cutting them down drastically overnight.
Start by familiarizing yourself with the calories in different foods and how much of them you should really be eating by looking at the serving size for each food.
Replace some of your high-calories processed foods with whole, healthier options. Little by little, you can start reducing your portion sizes, all while making sure you are eating enough.
You should never starve yourself by going from a 5000 calorie diet to a 2000 one. It all needs to be done slowly and correctly, or else you’re likely to yo-yo diet forever.
An easy way to control your portions is to use the plate method.
Grab a 9-inch plate and fill half of it with vegetables and fruit, one-fourth of it with healthy protein such as lentils, beans, chickpeas, quinoa…and one-fourth of it with healthy carbohydrates, such as brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, potatoes/sweet potatoes…
This is a very easy way to balance out your meals and to get adequate portion sizes. Check out my article on how to create a healthy plate if you’re interested in learning more!
I’d like to reiterate that I don’t typically recommend calorie counting or measuring your portions. If you have general notions of the calories you need and the ones found in food, you do not need to be tracking your calories.
This can be triggering and totally counter-productive for some people. I’m giving this information for beginners who don’t have these notions and who are looking for simple ways to start, or for people who feel like they need these guidelines in order to eat healthily.
What kind of foods to eat and avoid
It’s really important not to classify foods as “good foods that you should ALWAYS be eating” and “bad foods that you should NEVER have”. There’s room for any kind of food in your diet, it’s just all about balance.
With that being said, some foods are undeniably healthier or more nutrient-dense than other foods. These are the foods that you should be having most of the time. They mainly include whole, minimally processed foods such as:
- Vegetables (read this article on how to eat healthy when you hate vegetables!)
- Fruit (the fruit in sugar IS NOT BAD!)
- Whole grains such as brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, oatmeal, buckwheat, bulgur, quinoa…
- Beans and legumes
- Nuts and seeds
Now here are the foods that you shouldn’t be eating on a regular basis, but that can have a spot on your plate once in a while. They mainly include super processed foods that have few nutrients and tons of calories.
- Refined carbohydrates, such as cake, cookies, candy, and—to a lesser extent— products made with white flour.
- Trans fats (artificial trans fat have been banned) but still found in fast food (read about the effect of fast food here!), snack foods, ready-to-eat meals…
- Processed meat, such as salami, bacon, sausages, ham…
In addition, some foods have always been marketed as healthy when they actually aren’t !
Here are a few more articles I wrote on the benefits of certain foods:
- Benefits of nutritional yeast
- Benefits of kale
- Benefits of apple cider vinegar
- Pros and cons of coffee
- High-fiber foods
- Iron-rich foods
- Gut-healthy foods
- Antioxidant-rich foods
As I often say, different foods are good in different situations. Having a salad won’t always be the best answer. But if you stick mainly to the “healthy” foods I listed and save the other ones for special occasions, you’re off to a great start!
Planning your meals
Learning all of this information about food is all very motivating until it’s time to actually cook your meals. After a long hard day, you may not be dreaming about cooking steamed veggies.
A great way to deal with this is to plan— or even better, prep— your meals in advance. Meal planning has actually been associated with a healthier diet and less obesity.
Take some time during your week-end or on a calmer day to plan out your meals for the week, do your grocery shopping, and prep some (or all!) of them. You can batch cook some grains and legumes, cut and freeze some veggies, make some homemade granola, or even pre-cook every single meal and put them in ready-to-go containers—it’s up to you!
Don’t hesitate to go for pre-cut frozen or even canned veggies and pre-cooked beans if they make your life a little easier as well.
A big reason why people eat junk food is because of its convenience, so do everything you can to make the healthier options convenient too.
It’s much easier to heat up a healthy and balanced meal than to cook everything from scratch, so you’re much more likely to actually stick to it.
Should I go on a diet?
For a lot of people, healthier eating means going on a diet, but I really disagree. 45 million Americans go on a diet each year, yet nearly two-thirds of them are overweight or obese .
Once you start losing weight, your metabolism will go down and your appetite will go up, so if you stop your diet after reaching your goal weight, it will creep back up very easily.
Here are a few posts I wrote on the subject of diets or crazy weight loss tips:
- Why the keto diet is bad
- Why you shouldn’t go on a detox diet
- Why weight loss teas don’t work
- When healthy eating goes too far
- Why you don’t really need to lose weight
- Top weight loss myths debunked
So does this mean that you should just give up on eating healthy and losing weight altogether? No.
The thing is, you need to go for a complete lifestyle change instead of a diet plan. You need to start eating and exercising in a way that can be maintained for the rest of your life.
This is why anything extreme won’t work— you’ll just end up yo-yo dieting for the rest of your life. Healthy eating can and should be enjoyable, it just takes a while if you’ve never been used to it (but it’s so worth it!)
Once you’ve mastered the basics of nutrition, know how to make a healthy and balanced meal, and have developed awareness of what an appropriate portion size looks like, you can move on to a more intuitive approach to eating.
I personally practice intuitive eating and encourage people to do the same, but I recognize that it isn’t necessarily right for everyone. If you feel like you need diet rules and strict guidelines to eat healthily or if you haven’t gone through the previous steps in this article, intuitive eating may not be the best idea.
For others, however, here’s what you need to know.
Intuitive eating is an evidence-based way of eating that promotes a healthy relationship with food. It focuses on your body’s internal hunger and fullness cues instead of outside rules and restrictions.
It was created by two dieticians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. Intuitive eating is a personal process of honoring your health by listening to your body’s signals in order to meet your needs. It is NOT a diet or food plan but rather a way of life that aims to free you from diet culture.
It involves many principles, such as honoring your hunger and fullness cues, making peace with food, respecting your body, and putting your health first. If you’re interested in learning more, here are 3 articles I wrote on:
- intuitive eating and its principles
- how to practice intuitive eating during the holidays
- how to use the intuitive eating hunger scale.
One important aspect of intuitive eating is to eat mindfully. Mindful eating is a technique used to regain control over your eating habits. It means being aware of what you eat, and eating consciously in a healthy and balanced way in order to rediscover taste, flavor, and pleasure.
The goal is to listen to what your body needs and to know when you are hungry and when you are full. Mindful eating involves listening to your hunger cues. It means eating slowly, taking the time to chew, and noticing the different textures and flavors of your food. Eating should be done without any distractions, focused on appreciating your food.
Here’s more information on how to practice mindful eating if you’re interested.
As I mentioned previously, developing a healthy relationship with food is of utmost importance. Society tends to push us towards diet culture and losing weight at all costs instead of creating healthy and sustainable food habits.
Here are a few articles I wrote that can help you with these issues:
- How to ditch diet culture
- Dangers of the all-or-nothing mentality
- How to deal with food guilt
- How to end food obsession
- How to stop binge-eating
- How to stop extreme hunger
Health beyond healthy eating
Hopefully, you now have a better idea of what and how to eat as a beginner to healthy eating. Before I end this article, there are a few other things I’d like to touch on that go beyond healthy eating but are still very important.
First of all, you can follow all the tips in the world, but if you’re not in the correct mindset for healthy eating, nothing will stick. When you are expected to make a radical change in your eating habits without changing the way you think, it’s almost bound to fail.
Indeed, there’s a mindset to have for optimal nutrition and weight loss. It’s the one that some people are born and raised with naturally— you know— those people who never seem to have any food or weight problems.
But thankfully, it’s actually achievable for everyone, even if it may take some work and some time. Here’s an article I wrote on the healthy eating meating mindset.
In addition, although what you eat accounts for the most important part of your physique, exercise should not be left behind. Even if the effect of exercise on nutrition, food intake, or weight-loss is quite low and varies greatly among different people, exercise does have many amazing health benefits.
It can make you lose fat, but can also lower your risk of diseases such as diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, cancer…It’s also great for your mental health, your stress levels, and your sleep quality.
So if you love the gym, don’t hesitate to step up your workouts for added benefits.
If you don’t, there’s bound to be some physical activity you enjoy. Swimming? Yoga? Rock-climbing? Roller-blading? Walking? Dancing? Riding a bike? You can also follow fitness videos on the internet in the comfort of your own home. Anything that gets your body moving!
Finally, your mental health and general well-being is of utmost importance to be healthy. If you’re losing weight but you’re miserable with your food choices and don’t feel like getting out of bed, it’s completely counter-productive.
Make sure to check in with yourself often to make sure that you are doing the things that make you happy. Be gentle with yourself and be proud of your progress, even if it seems slower than you would like.
Healthy eating for beginners in conclusion:
It’s very important to learn how to nourish your body properly for optimal health. Healthy eating means eating a variety of whole, healthy foods and having delicious yet balanced meals.
Being aware of your macros and calories can help you get your portion sizes right in the beginning. Some foods are healthier than others and should make up most of your meals, but there’s room for ANY food you like and you shouldn’t restrict.
Planning your meals can help you stick to healthier eating habits but any restrictive dieting should be avoided. You must be in it for the long haul! This is why I recommend intuitive eating, which is very sustainable.
Beyond healthy eating, it’s crucial to maintain a healthy relationship with food, to get into the correct mindset for healthy eating, to be physically active, and to take care of your mental health.
Don’t forget to check out all of my articles and video resources to guide you along the way!