We need to understand what are the building blocks of a healthy diet to have a successful diet.
What are we actually allowed to eat these days? Every day, a new report appears somewhere in the media that makes us doubt our choices.
As a general rule, the building blocks of a healthy diet are simple: Focus on vegetables and nuts, eat less trans fats and saturated animal fats, keep an eye on the type and quality of carbohydrates consumed, increase fiber, and avoid added sugar.
There are plenty of examples of foods that we have always considered good but upon closer examination may not be healthy after all, and vice versa.
It is not easy for experts to see the forest for the trees, let alone for the ordinary consumer.
Meanwhile, on the primary databases of medical research (such as PubMed), there are hundreds of thousands of articles on healthy eating, and just under a thousand are added every day.
In short, there is no one left who can keep track. Below, we try to give you a hand by providing an overview of the most important basic building blocks of healthy eating.
Table of Contents
- 1 Building blocks of a healthy diet: Introduction
- 2 Lobbying by the food industry: Problematic
- 3 Basic building blocks of healthy eating: Insights
- 4 Proteins: Focus on vegetables and nuts (Building Block 1)
- 5 Fats: Rightly a bad reputation or not? (Building Block 2)
- 6 Carbohydrates: A lot or a little? (Building Block 3)
- 7 Building blocks of a healthy diet: Conclusion
Building blocks of a healthy diet: Introduction
Scientific research around nutrition is challenging and not evident.
For example, a common mistake is automatically interpreting the link (associations or correlations) between eating patterns and health as causal relationships.
This assumes that one is a consequence of the other. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it is not.
To demonstrate a causal relationship, you basically have to use an experiment where you vary one aspect and see what the effect is.
However, for ethical reasons, you can’t just experiment with people’s eating habits. Building blocks of a healthy diet need to be studied.
Meat deficiencies and heart attacks: Example
Food scientists often use natural experiments to discover building blocks of a healthy diet.
For example, during World War II, meat or dairy products were barely available in several countries.
Several scientists simultaneously saw a decrease in heart attacks during that period.
After that, when plenty of meat did become available, the rate of heart attacks rose again to pre-war levels.
Does this mean that meat is responsible for heart attacks? Specific figures (such as these from a Norwegian study) suggest that they are, but even then, caution is advised!
Because maybe other things played a part. Factors that, along with the meat, were temporarily unavailable. Or perhaps stress played a role too?
For all of these possible influences and effects (called confounders in the jargon), it is necessary to statistically verify whether they have an impact.
In practice, this is really a difficult thing to do. And that’s also why there is so much debate about the role of different nutrients.
It is also not easy to establish a direct link between causes and effects.
An apple a day keeps the doctor away: Example
People who eat an apple every day are generally healthier.
But is that because of the apple or because people who eat an apple every day just pay more attention to their health and live healthier lives in all areas?
Many health scientists wrestle with these questions, though the answer doesn’t always matter.
Indeed, regardless of the underlying explanation, the conclusion remains the same: An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
Whether it is because of the apple or the related behavior, the advice to eat an apple every day is valuable anyway. Perhaps by eating an apple every day, people will also eat healthier in other areas, for example.
Lobbying by the food industry: Problematic
Another more critical problem is that much scientific research is sponsored by the food industry.
Unfortunately, it has been shown more than once that dietary guidelines were thus manipulated by the food industry, sometimes even by scientists themselves who want to boost their careers (or put extra money in their pockets via bribes and kickbacks).
Not to mention the translation of scientific research into practical guidelines and standards.
Powerful sugar and meat companies, for example, have an army of lobbyists ready to bend legislation to their best advantage.
Unfortunately, such lobbyists are not infrequently armed with one or more rather dubious studies that support their views.
Being critical is important
As a consumer, you want to ensure that you are not being tricked by some marketer.
Of course, the lack of certainty does not mean that you should blindly accept or believe everything.
Be wary when someone comes to you confidently telling you that their approach is undoubtedly the best, even if they wave one or more scientific studies in your face.
Indeed, with separate studies, you can prove just about anything. Sometimes wrong conclusions are unintentionally drawn, and occasionally wrong conclusions are intentionally drawn too! For example, to serve a powerful lobby.
The deception can also be more sophisticated! Indeed, scientists do not necessarily have to falsify research results in black and white.
A more sophisticated method of manipulation is cherry-picking.
In practice, one then selectively searches publications to prove a theorem. And at the same time, other studies that contradict that are simply going to be hushed up or overlooked. Unfortunately, this is commonplace in nutrition research.
So what does reliable research look like?
How to discover building blocks of a healthy diet? Good and reliable research on nutrition, on the other hand, works with:
- systematic reviews (studies of existing studies), or
- meta-analyses (studies where all available research is brought together and analyzed).
So one study is not the other. However, for laymen, it is often a hopeless task to assess which studies are valuable and which are not.
Therefore, below we try to give an overview of the main components of our food with a focus on healthy living and good health.
Basic building blocks of healthy eating: Insights
Our diet, in reality, contains 3 essential nutrients. Every food (fresh from the kitchen garden or from a factory in processed form) consists of these 3 building blocks:
A lot of diets aim to limit one or two of these macronutrients.
In specific cases, this may be useful. Still, there is no reason to diabolize or ban any of these three building blocks.
However, you should know that there are both healthy and unhealthy nutrients within each group.
Each basic building block contains good and bad elements
Healthy food and building blocks of a healthy diet is not a black-and-white story, and almost all nutrients range from very good to very bad.
So you can already achieve a lot by eliminating the most harmful substances from your menu.
Or otherwise, by eating a little more of the substances on the good side of the spectrum which will almost automatically make you eat less of the products on the other bad side of the spectrum.
It is rarely necessary to follow rigorous diets unless you face severe illnesses due to years of poor eating habits.
After all, such a strict diet is rarely sustained. Most people who start a conventional diet have given up after a year.
Often, these often ill-considered diets lead to a nasty yo-yo effect. You know the drill: regaining weight after a (failed) diet. Which might make you decide to make another dietary attempt. After which everything repeats itself again…
This happens especially in people who want to slim as an end in itself.
However, it is often better to use nutrition to become healthy, strong, and happy without an extreme focus on losing weight. And then you automatically start to lose weight sustainably.
Balanced eating is the key
The trick is to choose a balanced diet that consists of the good forms of these 3 macronutrients.
But what exactly does balanced nutrition mean? When is a lot actually too much of a particular basic building block?
Of course, you can try counting precisely how many grams you consume of each ingredient. But in practice, this is not only very cumbersome or even unfeasible, but it is also usually simply not necessary.
It is better to respect some rules of thumb around healthy eating and observe them as much as possible. That way, over time, you will automatically respect the proper proportions.
We also want to give some basic info for people with chronic conditions like diabetes because they want or need to change their diet quite drastically. Their building blocks of a healthy diet will vary.
In such a case, some math and counting during the first few days, weeks, and months can be quite helpful as a handhold.
But once you know what is and what is not within the permissible bounds, you can leave the counting out of the equation in practice.
Proteins: Focus on vegetables and nuts (Building Block 1)
Proteins are made up of amino acids, the building blocks of all living things. So we definitely need enough protein.
For the average Westerner, consuming enough protein is no problem. Quite the opposite, in fact. Most of the time, we take too much of it.
It is mainly meat-eaters who often have to deal with high (animal) protein concentrations.
On the other hand, vegetarians and vegans are sometimes warned about deficiencies. Still, research has shown that they usually have adequate protein as well.
Only people who eat very unilaterally or extremely little (such as those with anorexia) should be concerned about a protein deficiency.
Far more important than whether one is getting enough protein is the question of what proteins we eat and of what origin they are.
As with fats (see below), it is crucial to focus on the essential proteins. These are necessary proteins that our bodies cannot produce independently, so we must take them through our diet.
You can find such essential proteins in vegetables and nuts, for example. And animal protein, especially from red or processed meats, is best limited.
Fats: Rightly a bad reputation or not? (Building Block 2)
Over the past few decades, fats were often labeled as the big culprit, but that image has since been corrected.
Fats are, without dispute, a major supplier of energy and promote the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E, and K.
Fats also provide essential fatty acids that the body cannot make themselves but are necessary for vital functions.
Opinions differ on how much fat it is best to ingest.
You need to remember above all that we don’t need to worry so much about the amount of fat but rather the type of fat we ingest.
In fact, fats can be divided into two major groups:
- Saturated fats
- Unsaturated fats
Unsaturated fats are generally considered the healthiest.
A distinction is made here between monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats:
- Monounsaturated fats (cis-mono unsaturated fatty acids or MUFAs) can be found in olive oil, for example.
- Polyunsaturated fats (cis-poly unsaturated fatty acids or PUFAs, essential fats such as omega 3 and omega 6) are found in walnuts, oily fish, meat from animals that eat mostly grass, flaxseed (omega 3), margarines, corn oil, and soybean oil (omega 6).
Unsaturated fats are also called essential fats because they contain substances our bodies need but cannot produce themselves.
It has not been entirely conclusively proven, but there is evidence that replacing saturated fats (see below) with polyunsaturated ones has a beneficial effect on health.
Saturated fats, also known as saturated fatty acids or SFAs, are found in dairy, meat, palm oil, and eggs.
There is much more disagreement within science about these saturated fats.
Saturated fats are not essential, and we can basically do without them.
However, in practice, we tend to reach for sugars and other, less healthy carbohydrates when we can’t get our energy from fats.
And it is precisely for this reason that some researchers radically reject all so-called light products. According to these scientists, the negative image that saturated fats carry is mainly the result of misleading and manipulated studies.
However, other researchers continue to advocate not eating too much fat. So what should you do in the end? Should you eat more or less saturated fat?
Based on what we know now, anyone at risk for cardiovascular disease (and that’s just about everyone who eats standard Western diets) should eat less saturated fat and replace it (in part) with unsaturated fat.
Special category: Trans fats
A special category of fats consists of the so-called trans fats.
They are found in animal fat but also (and especially) in foods made industrially, such as cookies, fried foods, powdered soups, salty snacks, etc.
Although trans fats are avoidable, they are still eagerly used by the food industry (partly because they extend the shelf life of the food product).
There is evidence that trans fats can lead to cardiovascular disease (such as heart attack). In addition, some studies indicate an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and other conditions.
According to the World Health Organization, industrial trans fats are responsible for more than half a million deaths worldwide each year. For precisely this reason, several countries (such as the U.S.) have completely banned artificial trans fats.
The best thing is not eating any industrial trans fats at all. You don’t need trans fats at all, and you can simply avoid them by not eating ultra-processed foods.
Try to eat more polyunsaturated fats and healthy fats derived from nuts. And eat less trans fats and saturated animal fats.
Brown fat to lose weight: Good to know
Did you know that fat, weird but true, can also cause weight loss?
Newborn babies have a lot of so-called brown fat (brown adipose tissue). And recently, scientists have learned that this type of brown fat is also found in adults.
This brown fat appears to have interesting properties. For example, it absorbs the calories from ordinary fat to burn them.
This offers exciting perspectives for losing weight and therefore treating obesity.
Although more research is still needed on the long-term effects of brown fat, some studies show brown fat has a beneficial impact on blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity, reducing the risk of diabetes.
Related: Have you heard of insulin but not actually sure what it is? Check our other post to learn all about insulin: What Is Insulin Hormone and Its Functions? Key Hormone in the Spotlight
High levels of brown fat would also reduce the risk of arteriosclerosis and osteoporosis.
But how can you get more brown fat? Simple, through exposure to cold.
In practice, this can easily be done by taking a cold shower or going for ice baths.
Carbohydrates: A lot or a little? (Building Block 3)
The third building block group that makes up our diet is the carbohydrates group.
These play an essential role in supplying our energy and producing substances our body needs (biosynthesis).
Three types of carbohydrates
Carbohydrates can be divided into three groups:
Also, nutrition experts are anything but unanimous when it comes to carbohydrates.
Some believe we eat too much of it. On the other hand, others think we’d better consume enough of it and argue that so-called low-carb diets are harmful.
Low-carb versus-high carb diets: Eternal discussion
There is a veritable low-carb versus high-carb war going on in the niche of nutrition science.
It is not easy for a layman (and even for experts) to make sense of this.
However, if you read all the (good) studies on it, you cannot ignore that carbohydrates are crucial for the human body.
After years of diabolizing fat, we must be careful that we do not suddenly lapse into an equally unsubtle condemnation of all things carbohydrate.
Nuance is important
Because again, the problem is not so much the quantity but the type and quality of carbohydrates consumed.
In general, without a doubt, we eat far too many sugars and starches in refined and ultra-processed forms and not enough fiber.
If you limit your sugar intake, eat lots of whole-grain products, and consume few ultra-processed foods, you are usually already doing very well.
Remark: Diabetics and people with certain conditions may still need to follow a stricter diet.
Two types of sugar
There are 2 types of sugars that we ingest through our diet:
- Intrinsic sugars
- Added sugars
We generally do not need to avoid the intrinsic sugars (found in unprocessed fruit, for example). But they do contribute to the total amount of sugars our bodies need and can process each day.
Added sugars, on the other hand, are a much bigger problem.
Every one of us needs sugar. However, all scientists quietly agree that the amount of sugar we take in today is downright dangerous.
Related: Learn exactly why sugar is dangerous in our other article: Why Is Sugar Dangerous? Harmful and Hidden Side Effects Explained
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends limiting sugar consumption to no more than 10% of total energy intake.
That may seem like a lot at first glance, but the big problem is that these days we take in a lot of hidden sugars through processed foods without being aware of it.
In addition, glucose molecules can be linked together to form long chains that form starch.
Because this starch cannot be immediately absorbed into the blood but must first be broken down, it is also referred to as slow sugars. This means that you should also be careful with starchy foods such as pasta, potatoes, and rice.
Especially the refined forms are best avoided and replaced with whole grain varieties, such as whole-grain cereals and whole-grain rice.
Glucose peaks and valleys: How can you avoid them?
One of the problems with sugar is that it is absorbed into the blood so quickly.
And this causes a glucose spike each time, to which your body responds by releasing insulin to maintain balance.
As a result, you end up in a glucose cycle with glucose spikes that give you an energy boost, followed by a rapid drop that soon leaves you feeling knocked out and yearning for another shot of sugar.
Tip: You can choose another energy source, such as healthy carbohydrates (found in vegetables, fruits, and whole-grain products). That way, the energy is not released as quickly, you feel fit for longer, and you are less likely to be hungry.
The third source of carbohydrates is fiber.
Specifically, there are 2 types of fibers:
- Soluble fibers
- Non-soluble fibers
Good to know: Many food products (especially whole grains) contain both types.
Soluble fiber is helpful because it slows down the absorption of carbohydrates, thereby mitigating pesky glucose spikes.
Insoluble fiber simply passes through the intestinal tract and is excreted through the stool. In this way, they promote good digestion and reduce the risk of colon cancer.
Unfortunately, most people don’t eat enough fiber. Therefore, we highlight some high-fiber alternatives below:
High-fiber alternatives in the spotlight
Much of what we eat can be perfectly replaced with a high-fiber version.
In doing so, you don’t sacrifice anything in terms of taste. At the same time, you benefit from fiber’s enormously beneficial effects.
The following high-fiber products are already recommended to integrate into your diet:
- All vegetables, raw and cooked
- Whole wheat pasta
- Nuts, peanuts, sesame seeds, and linseeds
- Whole-wheat cookies (possibly with raisins)
- All kinds of fresh fruit, preferably with peel
- Whole wheat flour
- Legumes such as brown beans, white beans, capuchins, and lentils
- Dried fruits such as prunes, raisins, currants, and figs
- Rye bread
- Whole wheat bread
- Unpolished rice
Building blocks of a healthy diet: Conclusion
Eat more carbohydrates derived from vegetables and whole-grain products and limit your sugar intake and refined products.
It may be a bit of a challenge, but baby steps will get you there every time!