What is a healthy diet?

Did the experts really get the dietary guidelines wrong? Here's what we do know about which diet is best for health.

Angela Berrill

Angela Berrill

National Nutrition Advisor

As a registered dietitian, I am passionate about educating people about the importance of health and nutrition. I believe in finding ways for people to enjoy food while also nurturing their bodies.

There has been a lot of debate in the media recently about what a healthy diet is. Appearing alongside images of butter or lard, headlines have stated current dietary guidelines are ‘flawed’ and ‘need an overhaul’ and that we should ‘eat more fat’.  Apparently ‘we’ - the experts - got it all wrong. But, did we really? So, what exactly is a healthy diet?

It’s a challenging time for nutrition, where single one-off studies or opinion pieces seem to make headlines whereas what we do know, and where the bulk of the evidence lies is rarely reported on with such gusto. The media loves sexy messages such as: ‘The experts got it wrong’, ‘Butter is back’ and ‘Sugar is toxic’. Unfortunately ‘Eat more plant foods’ and ‘Moderation’ don’t seem to have quite the same appeal. Yet, rather than getting into a debate about which diet or nutrient, for that matter, is best for health, let’s focus on the bigger picture – the whole diet.

Around the world, we see various dietary patterns that support a long and healthy life (www.bluezones.com). Well-known examples include: the traditional Mediterranean diet, the vegetarian diet of the Seventh-Day Adventists, and the largely plant-based diet of the Okinawans in Japan. These dietary patterns all reflect a range of fat, carbohydrate and protein intakes but share some common themes.

 

What are the common themes of a healthy diet?

Firstly, we need to remember that foods and nutrients are not eaten in isolation. Therefore, it’s important to focus on the overall dietary pattern, rather than just zeroing in on individual nutrients. There are many ways we can eat to support our health and all of them are simple variations on a common dietary theme. This includes: eating a dietary pattern based largely on minimally-processed foods with plenty of vegetables and fruit. Including some whole grains, in place of refined grains; legumes; nuts; seeds; and other sources of healthy fats such as oily fish. It may also contain non-processed lean meats or poultry and/or dairy.

 

But what does a heart-healthy diet look like?

To visually represent the foods which support a heart-healthy eating pattern which follows these dietary themes, we have developed a ‘Healthy Heart Visual Food Guide’. It shows the balance of foods to eat, ones that can be substituted for others within groups, and the types of foods to eat for good health. It is a simple tool that shows heart-healthy proportions of foods to eat over a day and week.

Finally, it’s important to remember a balanced diet is a nutritious diet. All foods can be a part of a healthy diet; it’s simply that some of us need to eat more of some and less of others. However, if we focus on the consistent themes of healthy eating, we can each apply them in the way that suits us best, without going to extremes. If we follow a heart-healthy way of eating and in the right amounts, then the nutrients will ultimately take care of themselves.

So how much is enough? 

Learn about portion sizes