What It Means to "Eat Healthy"
Most of my life, I never really gave a thought as to what “eating healthy” or “eating clean” meant. My mom has always been very health conscious and she would prepare very healthy meals for me (with the occasional chicken pot pie from Costco thrown in there on Thursday nights when Survivor was on). Seeing chicken, wild rice, and asparagus on my plate didn’t register as a particularly healthy dinner, it was just a normal dinner to me. Since she wanted me to focus on school and studying, she would cook for me and keep the house stocked with food. Other than the 5 lb bag of Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate chips that we kept in the cabinet that I would routinely dip my hands into after school and about every hour of studying, I was surrounded by healthy foods.
So when I went to college, I was suddenly confronted with having to make my own food choices from a much wider array of foods. I could have had grilled cheese and french fries for dinner every night if I wanted to. I realized that even though I knew that eating that every night would not be healthy, I didn’t really understand why. And you can’t make educated decisions when you don’t understand why you’re making them.
But I did my best to eat as healthy as I could! My first year of school I ended up eating a giant salad (I’m talking like the size of my head) topped with grilled chicken and then either a grilled cheese or fries if I was still hungry. My breakfasts usually consisted of something like an apple and a kind bar—which didn’t make me full and usually ended up actually making me more hungry. I just thought I was one of those people who would have to always be hungry to maintain a healthy weight. I thought it was normal to not feel satisfied when eating “healthy.”
The summer before my junior year of college, I stumbled across the Buzzfeed Clean Eating Challenge which normally would not have interested me, but then I saw two little words that have always captivated my attention ever since I was was diagnosed with Celiac Disease in 4th grade: “gluten free.” I got excited and for some unfathomable reason, decided to take the challenge.
I vlogged the whole thing on my old channel if you want a detailed account of my experience but the TLDR is that I ate nothing but whole, unprocessed food for two weeks. I started with zero cooking experience (I had never even boiled an egg before) and an overwhelming disgust for kale. And while I still am not super proficient in the kitchen, the challenge completely shifted my perspective on what it meant to eat healthy and what it could make my body feel like and it made me realize that kale wasn’t the most evil vegetable on the planet.
It was those two weeks that really kicked off my health and fitness journey. It flipped a switch in my brain—eating healthy was no longer just something that I felt like I should do. It was something that I wanted to do.
I had experienced how amazing my body felt eating only whole, unprocessed foods and I was motivated to find a sustainable way of maintaining that feeling. I started seeking out more whole-food based meals. I started looking deeper into nutrition. I started watching more health/fitness YouTubers. And slowly, I started learning.
Since then, my diet and my focus for eating healthy has changed a lot. I like to divide the next stage of my life into three “healthy eating” phases.
Phase 1: When I started this process, I focused more on the macronutrients of the foods I was eating. I followed more of an IIFYM style eating plan, trying to eat healthy foods, but also gravitating towards packaged foods that were “high protein.” Sometimes my breakfast would be eggs and veggies and sometimes it would be Flapjacked pancakes. I was doing the best I could do with the knowledge I had while being able to sustain my new changes. During this phase, I was obsessed with protein powders and anything that had extra protein added to it.
Phase 2: I continued educating myself and over months and months transitioned to focusing more on the micronutrient content of food. I now pick food based on the ratio of nutrients to calories. So if a food has a ton of calories but is packed with nutrients, then I’ll eat it. If it is high in calories and devoid of nutrients, I’ll usually pass on it. I now choose foods with with least number of ingredients possible, preferably food that can be grown by itself and doesn’t need to go through a factory before being consumed. I try to avoid foods with any added gums, lecithins, colors, etc. I don’t avoid them like the plague and won’t worry if I end up eating them, but if there is an option without them, I try to take that one.
Phase 3: I am now entering into a new phase of my health journey. I’m trying to tailor my diet to my specific body and lifestyle. There are so many factors that go into what an individual body will thrive on best: genetics, past history with food, environment, stress, air, water, etc. There is no one ideal diet for all people, but each person has a diet that is ideal for them (though it does shift and change through time). I’m at a point now where I want to feed my body in a way that is optimal for my body rather than just what appears to be a good idea for the general population. I imagine this journey will be a long one. So far I have only managed to cut a few foods out but I also want to explore how different combinations of foods interact in my body. I want to explore seasonal dieting. I want to test how different foods affect my exercise so that I can optimize that as well.
You might think that I am eating the healthiest I ever have right now. And objectively, I think that is true. But I also don’t think you have to be eating the way I do right now to be “eating healthy.” What it means to eat healthy is different from person to person, not only because each person needs a diet that fits their body and all the stuff I harp on about, but also because whatever your “healthy diet” might be, it needs to be sustainable for your lifestyle and for your mindset. If you try to eat 100% only whole, unprocessed foods but you work two jobs and have a kid and don’t have time to cook all your own meals, then this is not sustainable and will result in it not being the healthiest option because you will end up having to cut corners. Or it could cause you to give up and revert back to just eating unhealthy fast food because you tried your best and couldn’t eat “healthy.” Or maybe you have a bad relationship with food or even are recovering from an eating disorder and decide that you’re only going to eat whole foods that agree with your body specifically but you use that as an excuse to restrict or you fall back into the mindset where you have to be in absolute control of everything that goes into your mouth. Even though you’re objectively eating healthy, you aren’t healthy.
So what do I think “eating healthy” means? I believe a healthy diet is one that:
Makes your body and your mind feel good
Maximizes micronutrient to calorie ratio whenever possible
Focuses on whole, unprocessed foods as much as possible
Works well with your current relationship with food and health
Is sustainable for your lifestyle
Has enough calories that you are able to get all of the micronutrients your body needs to function properly
Notice how this list does not include or exclude specific foods. It does not have a specific macro ratio. It is not a list of hard and fast rules. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is selling you something.