Healthy and unhealthy foods - everyone wants to be healthy, but eating healthy can feel like a challenge, and it's hard to wade through all of the conflicting information on what we should eat for a balanced, healthy diet. Ditch the fad diet rules and read our guide on eating healthy vs. unhealthy to build yourself a balanced healthy diet without feeling too restricted.
A new diet expert is spouting conflicting advice about their latest and greatest secret to weight loss and a healthy diet every week. One tells you to eat more fat, another tells you to eat less fat, and a third says stop eating altogether and drink meal replacements 3x a day. If you listened to every so-called expert, you'd have a mile-long unhealthy food list with very few real options left.
We reject all of it - it's not only completely restrictive, which can wreak havoc on your mind and willpower, but some of them are downright dangerous and unhealthy food choices.
The good news is that humans can survive and maintain a healthy weight by choosing a diet of moderation that won't break your brain.
We'll explain precisely the difference between healthy vs. unhealthy food and how to make better choices for your body.
What makes food healthy?
Healthy food can be hard to define - a diet one person deems healthy, another may think is an entirely unhealthy diet.
Take a look at nutrition first before we make things a little more complicated. Nutritionally healthy foods are things like fresh fruits, colorful vegetables, and whole grains.
A healthy food choice tends to be:
- Rich in nutrients like vitamins and minerals, and full of fiber
- Unprocessed and as "whole" as possible
- Low in added sugar and added salt
- Good for your energy levels
Effects of Eating Healthy Food
The most important reason to eat a healthy diet is to feel better in your day-to-day and improve your overall quality of life.
At its core, a healthy diet should help you to:
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Build strong muscles, bones, and cells
- Function optimally and feel better physically
- Maintain balanced energy levels throughout the day
- Feel mentally clear and happy
- Prevent chronic illness and heart disease
What makes food unhealthy?
Unhealthy foods are often delicious but usually deliver very low on nutrition. Examples of unhealthy food are sugary candies, extra salty chips, and anything breaded and deep-fried.
An unhealthy food choice tends to be:
- Minimal in nutritional value
- Highly processed
- High in added sugars and salt
- High in saturated fats
- Added artificial flavors and chemical compounds
Effects of Eating Unhealthy Food
Eating too many types of unhealthy food too often can lead to some adverse health effects.
Too much unhealthy eating can lead to:
- Sugar sensitivity and abnormal peaks and valleys in blood sugar levels
- Moodiness and irritability
- Low energy levels and quick energy drops
- Weight gain and dangerous fat accumulation around the organs
- Increased risk of disease
Building a Healthy Diet
Most diets fail because they're too restrictive to stick to long-term. The best way to build a nutritious diet is to create a balanced diet that allows you to have fun and enjoy all food in moderation.
It might seem strange, but calorie counting is counterproductive to weight loss because it focuses too strongly on quantity over quality. You'll be more successful by making better quality (aka healthier) food choices more often.
The 80/20 Split
An easy and popular method of eating healthy is an 80/20 split between healthy and unhealthy food. 80% of the day should be filled with healthy food choices, and 20% can be whatever you'd like. By keeping your diet balanced, you will be able to have the treats you'd like without overindulging.
Keep in mind that the 80/20 split only applies to each day. If you slipped up and ate more than 20% unhealthy food, you shouldn't try to "make up" for it the next day.
Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start again tomorrow following the 80/20 split. This is about being a better version of yourself, not striving for perfection.
Cost of Eating Healthy
The unfortunate reality in America is that healthy foods tend to cost more, making a healthy diet out of reach for many people. There are ways to save money and make it a little more accessible, but it requires some planning. And with a little planning, healthy eating doesn't need to break the bank.
How to: Eat Healthy Cheaply
- Plan your meals. Pick out the meals you want to make for the week ahead of time. Check your local grocery flyers, and center them around whatever is on sale. Then, make a list, head to the store, and get everything you need for the week.
- Buy on sale and freeze. Take advantage of the best sales if the food is freezable, like meat. Buy in bulk, separate into smaller packages, and freeze for a later meal.
- Make restaurants a treat. Cook at home as often as you can; restaurant meals are usually 3-4x the price of their ingredients. If you normally get drive-thru coffee each morning, buy a travel mug and start bringing it with you instead. This is a way to eat healthier and actually save money.
- Eat more plant-based meals. Tofu, beans, and other vegan proteins tend to be far less expensive than meat, and they're a fun way to experiment with different foods you may not have tried. This sweet and spicy tofu salad is one of our favorites.
- Buy generic brands. Most of the time, the less expensive store brands are very comparable to name brand products.
Final notes: Junk Food vs. Healthy Food Diets
Having unhealthy snacks doesn't mean you've ruined your diet or need to feel guilty for not eating perfectly all the time.
A healthy food is one that is good for both your physical and mental health. That's why we recommend you practice healthy moderation when choosing food.
Remember to stick to the 80/20 rule each day. If you know that you'll be eating party snacks later in the evening, build that into your day and keep the rest of the day a little healthier than usual.
Having an unhealthy snack when you want to will keep you from feeling so deprived you give up. This is about building a sustainable lifestyle, not a crash diet.
We hope you enjoy finding a healthy balance in your diet that works for you!