There are endless sources of information available online about what constitutes a healthy diet, claiming different theories about nutrition and what to eat or not eat on a daily basis. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the definition of a healthy diet is a variety of fruits, vegetables, proteins, dairy, and whole grains, all within a daily calorie allowance per individual.
People who do not get enough nutrition from their diet will have symptoms that indicate malnutrition and related health issues. For example, signs of alcohol abuse include nutritional deficiencies that affect a person’s physical appearance and mental function. This can cause unnaturally low weight, poor circulation, chronic skin conditions, irregular sleep patterns, and volatile mood swings.
A healthy diet is all about having a consistent nutritional balance to sustain all the body’s essential functions with energy. While there are many variables involved, including lifestyle and health, there are 7 basic factors to remember when considering the essentials of a healthy diet.
Hydration is integral to a healthy diet, and adequate water levels in the body are necessary for all physical and cognitive functions. Optimal water balance is when water intake matches water loss. We lose water daily through sweating, breathing, and bodily fluids, and need to replenish it regularly through fluid and food sources.
In general, 20% to 30% of water intake should come from food, and 70% to 80% should come from fluids, including water and other water-based beverages. Fruits and vegetables contain more than 85% of water, which makes them an excellent means of hydration and a good source of nutrition.
Water benefits overall health in the following ways:
- transports nutrients and oxygen to cells
- protects organs and tissues from damage
- lubricates joints
- optimizes kidney and liver function by flushing out waste
- maintains optimal moisture in the eyes, mouth, and nose
- facilitates absorption of essential nutrients and minerals
Although carbohydrates are often associated with weight gain, they are an essential factor in a healthy diet. They provide the body with glucose, or sugar, which gets converted into energy the body needs to maintain crucial physical and mental functions. The quality of carbohydrates is also an important factor in dietary health.
The healthiest carbohydrates to include in a diet are sourced from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. The unprocessed kinds provide the most nutrition, including phytonutrients, minerals, vitamins, and fiber.
As a macronutrient, protein is essential to build, repair, and strengthen all the tissues and cells in the body. Protein is made from amino acids, many of which the body produces organically, but nine of which must be outsourced from external nutrition.
Complete proteins such as animal products and soy contain all essential amino acids. Plant-based proteins such as beans and legumes are incomplete proteins, but they can be mixed and combined to fulfill the body’s need for all the essential amino acids.
Protein is essential in a daily diet for the following functions:
- hormone production
- healthy vision
- immune system responses
- enzyme production
- balance of fluids
- blood clotting and wound healing
Daily dietary protein needs vary per person, but more is needed especially during childhood, adolescence, and pregnancy to support increased growth. Foods considered good sources of protein have 20% or more of the daily value.
Vitamins play a key role in every healthy diet and are essential to sustain normal and healthy bodily functions. Vitamin deficiencies can cause a variety of health issues and conditions, many of which can be avoided if nutritional needs are met with a healthy and diversified diet.
Fruits and vegetables can provide the majority of essential vitamins when included in a daily diet. For pregnant women and elderly people, vitamin supplements may be recommended to keep nutritional levels optimal. The primary vitamins are A, C, D, E, K, and B vitamins, which include thiamin, riboflavin, biotin, and folate.
Minerals are also essential for sustaining adequate energy levels and supporting thyroid function. The most crucial minerals to include in a healthy diet are calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, and potassium.
Healthy fats are vital to good nutrition, and they can help the body absorb essential vitamins. They also benefit health by increasing satiety and balancing blood sugar levels.
The healthiest fats come from unprocessed animal products including meat and dairy, legumes, nuts, seeds, and oils. It is recommended that fats compromise about 30% of total dietary value, and be included in every meal.
Fiber is a major factor of gut health, which is crucial to the body’s ability to efficiently process foods. Fiber also facilitates the removal of waste from the body and prevents waste build-up, which can cause constipation and many health issues.
Getting adequate dietary fiber can also help with improving gastrointestinal disorders, such as hernias, stomach ulcers, hemorrhoids, acid reflux, and diverticulitis, or inflammation of the digestive tract. It may also decrease the risks and symptoms of diabetes, and help with weight management.
There are two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble, both of which are important factors of a healthy and balanced diet. Both soluble and insoluble fiber can be sourced from nuts, beans, fruits, vegetables, and whole grain foods.
Factors of a healthy diet largely depend on the individual, their health, and their lifestyle. Some people need more calories per day if they are more physically active and athletic. Certain health conditions may require a person to eat more protein or certain nutrients than others.
It is essential to assess your own nutritional needs and customize a healthy diet based on your age, health history, daily energy expenditure, and other important health criteria.