Eating healthy is incredibly tricky because we often don’t fully understand what makes food good or bad for our body. As a result, we follow what everyone else is doing, or what our parents taught us. However, while making positive changes to your dietary habits might be challenging at first, it’s doable if you have the right information.
In this ultimate guide to a healthy diet, I’ll break down everything I have learned over the past few years, including the latest scientific research, in easy-to-understand language and easy-to-follow steps.
After reading this article, you’ll be able to differentiate healthy and unhealthy food, and you’ll know how to use that information to improve your diet and your overall well-being.
If you don’t have time to read the full article (which I strongly recommend), here are my healthy eating tips in a nutshell:
- Organically-grown whole foods
- Healthy fats
- Select naturally-raised animals
- Eat nose-to-tail
- Fermented foods
- Fast intermittently
- Processed foods
- Grains and legumes
- Vegetable oils
- Healthy fats include olive oil, coconut oil, animal fats, eggs, avocados and more.
- Naturally-raised animals means pastured meat and poultry, and wild-caught, sustainable seafood.
- Eating nose-to-tail means including bone broth, organs, and all the “odd parts” of the animal in your diet.
- Fermented foods include sauerkraut, miso, kimchi and more.
- Processed foods include (but are not limited to) anything with artificial preservatives, colors, sweeteners, fillers and stabilizers.
- If you must consume dairy products, choose full-fat and organic.
- Vegetable oils to stay away from include canola oil, safflower oil and others.
Why Care About A Healthy Diet?
If you’re lucky enough in your life to avoid a fatal accident, the flu and pneumonia, there’s a good chance you’ll die of a chronic disease that you likely could have prevented.
Have you noticed that few people die of old age? When was the last time you heard in the news that the heart of a famous person just stopped after having beaten for 89 years? I’m sure it still happens, but nowhere near as often as it should. Instead, most people die of heart disease, cancer, stroke, mental diseases (such as Alzheimer’s) or complications from diabetes.
Seven out of 10 of the leading causes of death in the United States — which account for 75% of all deaths — are chronic diseases. And they usually have a common root: Inflammation! The good news is that you can directly influence inflammatory pathways with the food you eat. That’s why I care, and I hope you will too.
Why I Wrote This Guide
Many friends, family members, and even casual acquaintances or strangers have noticed that we eat and live differently than others. Quite a few of those observers have followed in our footsteps to varying degrees, and I enjoy it helping people make changes that positively impact their lives.
People always ask us about our dietary lifestyle and why we eat or stay away from a specific food. Others sometimes ask us if eating rice is better than eating wheat, or if drinking wine is better than drinking beer.
As a result, I decided to write the ultimate guide to healthy eating and explain all the factors that I take into account when deciding what to put on my plate, what foods to omit, and why.
Before we dig into the nitty-gritty of food science, let’s get the basics out of the way.
Diet vs. Lifestyle
Throughout this article, when I use the term “diet,” I usually mean dietary lifestyle.
With some exceptions, a diet is only effective if you make it your lifestyle. Cutting out sugar for a few weeks as a New Year’s resolution won’t make a difference. You need to cut it out permanently if you aim for long-lasting results.
That’s why it’s crucial to find a diet that you can grow into and sustain until you die — hopefully of old age and not a chronic disease.
Peer-reviewed, double-blind scientific studies are the best tool we have to figure out whether something constitutes a scientific truth. That’s one of the reasons why I refer to such studies, if possible, when making an important decision.
The issue is that conducting scientific studies related to diet with humans is difficult. For example, nobody would agree to eat only red meat for 10 years in order to confirm, beyond reasonable doubt, that it causes cancer.
Instead, we often have to rely on observation or animal studies. As a result, we often find correlations that might not translate to causation.
For example, owning a TV is correlated with an increased risk of developing heart disease. Obviously, owning a TV doesn’t cause heart attacks, but people who have one are more likely to sit more and move less. Thus, those people have a higher risk of suffering from a heart attack.
What you’d read in the news is a headline such as: “TVs can increase the risk of having a heart attack!” That’s one of the reasons why we seem to be getting so much conflicting news regarding studies.
Additionally, it’s vital to understand the context of a scientific study in order to correctly interpret its results. People like to cherrypick parts of studies to suit their desires, positions and preconceptions.
For example, I have seen studies demonstrating the health benefits of whole grains and legumes. It’s factual that those foods have health benefits, because they are good sources of fiber and micronutrients.
However, they also contain anti-nutrients and inflammatory proteins, such as gluten. As a result, I pick other types of food that provide the same benefits without those risk factors.
Evolution As Our Dietary Framework
To stay sane given the incredible amount of conflicting information, I use evolution as my nutritional framework when deciding if something is healthy or not. Let me explain!
Most of us accept evolution as a scientific fact, and recognize that throughout human development only the strongest survived. As a result, the food our ancestors ate for the past 2.6 million years is, with high probability, what our bodies need to thrive.
Everything else — and in particular, the type of foods humans started consuming around 10,000 years ago thanks to the advent of agriculture — may or may not be compatible with our genetic makeup.
The fact that our ancestors began farming and domesticating animals around that time led to the increased consumption of grains and dairy, but that increased consumption was based on technological advancement rather than evolutionary motivation.
Of course, evolution hasn’t stopped since then. Instead, it’s an ongoing process, and our dietary needs might change over time. Who knows? Maybe in a million years humans will thrive on added sugar as their primary source of fuel.
But frankly, I don’t want to be the tip of that spear and gamble with my health. Instead, I’d rather stick to the diet my body is genetically compatible with right now.
Eating Healthy Was Straightforward For Our Ancestors
Our ancestors had limited food choices. They ate what they could kill or find, which is the reason why we call them “hunter-gatherers.”
Despite the simplicity of food choices back then, our Paleolithic ancestors didn’t have it easy. Hunting for food meant always being on the move, so finding time to exercise wasn’t an issue.
If they didn’t catch an animal or find other sources of food, they often went days without a meal. So intermittent fasting wasn’t something they had to worry about either.
Besides those issues, it’s also important to understand that early human beings didn’t all have the same diet. They had different sources of protein, fats and carbs depending on the resources available where they lived.
For example, people who lived near the water likely consumed higher amounts of fish or other seafood. There were also seasonal changes to take into account. During the summer months, our ancestors probably ate more fruits and vegetables. In the colder months, they probably relied more on animal fats.
So keep that in mind when someone tries to convince you that a particular diet or food is better for you than something else. Most of the extreme views I have seen out there do not hold up in the context of this evolutionary framework. For example, I don’t think eating only fat, only plants, or only meats are healthy lifestyle choices.
How I Decide What Food Is Good For Me
When presented with new food choices, I usually follow a decision tree to figure out whether it fits my definition of healthy food.
- Evolutionary compatibility: Could our ancestors have eaten that food?
- Macronutrients: I look for high protein/fat content and low net carbs with little sugar.
- Inflammatory potential: Does the food have the potential to cause inflammation in my body, or negatively influence my gut bacteria?
- Quality of ingredients: Grass-fed vs. corn-fed beef, traditional vs. pastured eggs, or organic vs. conventionally-grown produce.
- Nutritional value: How were the ingredients processed?
- Antinutrients: Certain antinutrients can damage the mucus lining in your gut and prevent your body from absorbing other nutrients.
The first thing I do is determine whether our ancestors could have had access to a version of the food I’m considering eating.
That decision point immediately rules out dairy and grains, because humans didn’t become farmers until about 10,000 years ago.
Next, I determine whether I can eat the food raw, without cooking, boiling, soaking or fermenting it. If the answer is “no,” I often don’t eat it.
That rules out most legumes (such as soy or beans), which are toxic if you eat them raw.
In a nutshell, here’s what I eat and don’t eat as far as fresh food is concerned. The principal rationale behind this “eat and don’t-eat” list is the evolutionary framework, as I explained before. But don’t fret; we’ll go into more details and scientific research further down.
- Seasonal fruits
- Vegetables (mostly non-starchy)
- Meat (red and white)
Macronutrients refer to protein, fat and carbohydrates. Your body cannot synthesize certain essential amino acids and specific fat molecules, which is why you need dietary sources to supply them.
On the other hand, your body doesn’t need carbs to function because it can make glucose from other sources. Despite the fact that our bodies don’t need carbs to thrive, we consume them in astounding quantities — especially sugars and other refined carbs.
Protein consists of peptides, which are compounds made up of amino acids, the building blocks of life. You might have also heard the term “essential amino acids,” which refers to those amino acids that your body cannot produce on its own. As a result, you have to get them from food. In other words, you need to eat protein for your body to function.
The two primary sources of protein we have available are animals and plants. The former is often easier to digest and more bioavailable. However, don’t take this as an indication that you don’t need plants in your diet! While we don’t need them for their protein, non-starchy vegetables are irreplaceable because of their micronutrients and fiber.
Fat consists of fatty acids, many of which are essential. Again, that means that your body cannot make them. As such, you need to eat fat for your body to function. Similar to protein, fat can come from both animal and plant-based sources.
Did you know that 60% to 70% of your brain is made up of fat? Additionally, every cell in your body is wrapped in fat so that the cell membranes can function properly. That’s why it’s crucial that you have sufficient amounts of healthy fats in your diet.
While many types of fat are beneficial for your health, there are numerous fatty-acids which promote inflammation and, ultimately, increase your risk of developing a chronic disease. For example, most vegetable oils contain an unhealthy amount of damaged omega-6 fatty acids. Those molecules have the potential to cause inflammation by damaging other cells. That’s why you should stay away from canola, soybean, and similar oils.
Instead, stick with oils that have a more favorable omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, or ones that don’t oxidize as quickly. Examples include coconut oil, avocado oil, or olive oil. To learn more about the vital role of fat in your diet and why eating fat doesn’t make you fat, check out this related article.
Carbohydrates are the only macronutrients that are not essential. While it’s true that your body can convert carbohydrates into glucose and use it for fuel, it doesn’t have to. You heard me correctly. Your body does not need carbs to function. Instead, it can convert non-carbs, such as fat, into glucose and use it as energy. We call that process gluconeogenesis, and it’s the principal idea behind the ketogenic diet.
Knowing that carbs are not essential for the body to thrive, and understanding that too much glucose (sugar) can wreak havoc on your body’s metabolism, I’d encourage you to pay close attention to the so-called glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load (GL) of the foods you eat.
The GI and GL combined tell you what impact a food has on your body’s blood sugar and insulin levels. For example, dates and watermelons have a high glycemic index, resulting in a sharp spike of your blood sugar level if you eat them in large quantities. On the other hand, strawberries have a low GI, making them a favorite fruit of the ketogenic diet.
Inflammatory Potential and Gut Bacteria
Food can negatively impact your well-being in numerous ways. If you’re allergic or sensitive to a certain food, your body’s immune system can respond. An example of an immediate immune response would be a peanut allergy.
In other cases, your immune system might respond with a delay of several hours or even days, such as in the case of celiac disease.
While you can often trace an immediate or delayed immune response back to a food you ate, some silent killers won’t manifest until it’s too late. I’m talking about food-induced chronic inflammation and the disturbance of your gut bacteria.
Every time you take a bite from that delicious hamburger or doughnut, you feed inflammatory processes in your body and the “bad” bacteria in your gut. In the long-run, those eating habits increase your risk for, and speed the development of, chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease and cancer.
As a result, I try to limit the amount of foods I eat that have the proven potential to cause inflammation and mess with my gut microbiota.
Quality of Ingredients
Some things are worth paying more money for to get better quality. For my family and I, food falls into that category.
Unfortunately, high-quality food is incredibly expensive in the United States. On a global scale, the earth is overpopulated and it’s not feasible to feed everyone grass-fed meat and pastured eggs. As a result, the poorest among us often cannot afford to eat healthily. That’s a significant problem in our society, and one that doesn’t have a simple solution.
That’s why we’ve made it a priority to spend more money on quality food than we used to. My wife and I consider good eating habits an investment in our health.
Even before I got more involved in food science, I had heard the term anti-nutrient. However, I didn’t quite understand what it meant.
Anti-nutrients are chemical compounds found in certain foods that have a strong binding affinity to certain minerals, thus inhibiting their absorption. Additionally, some anti-nutrients can cause damage to the lining of your gut, thus allowing the uncontrolled release of its contents into your bloodstream.
Note that not everyone is equally sensitive to antinutrients and the only way to find out is via an elimination diet, such as the autoimmune protocol (AIP). You’ll also notice that you can find antinutrients in certain vegetables that I would otherwise consider to be healthy. Examples include nightshades (like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant) and leafy greens (like spinach and kale).
As a result, you might have to avoid consuming those vegetables raw, if you’re sensitive. Below is an overview of the top four antinutrients you should avoid. For more information, check out my science-based review of antinutrients.
These are carbohydrate-binding proteins that can create intestinal permeability by damaging the mucous lining of your gut. That causes low-level inflammation and allows the contents of your gut to get into your bloodstream. Medical professionals call that condition leaky gut syndrome.
The most common sources of lectins are grains (wheat, quinoa, brown rice, etc.), legumes (beans, peas and peanuts), and nightshades (white potatoes, tomatoes and eggplants).
Sweet potatoes have a lower glycemic index and lower levels of lectins compared to white potatoes. These are the two primary reasons why the paleo diet allows sweet potatoes but not white potatoes!
When I say that I don’t eat grains, some people ask me about rice and point to the high consumption rate of that grain in Asia. Besides the fact that I’m not Asian and thus have a slightly different genetic makeup, I do eat rice from time to time. Rice doesn’t have gluten, and most of the antinutrients of that particular grain are in the hull.
That’s the primary reason why white rice is healthier than brown rice, despite the fact that it has less fiber.
Phytic Acid (Phytates)
Phytic acid is one of the primary antinutrients you want to stay away from because it prevents your body from absorbing most minerals, including calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc.
Additionally, phytates also inhibit specific enzymes that are responsible for breaking down carbs and proteins, including pepsin, trypsin and amylase.
Common sources of phytic acid are the bran of grains (whole grains) and legumes (kidney beans, lentils, soy and peanuts).
If you want to continue eating legumes, make sure to cook or soak them in vinegar to remove their anti-nutrients.
Some Asian cultures have perfected the processing of food with high amounts of antinutrients, which might be one of the reasons why they get away with it.
Oxalic Acid (Oxalates)
It might shock you, but some of your favorite superfoods, such as spinach and kale, have large amounts of this antinutrient. Specifically, oxalates can lead to kidney stones or muscle pain.
Other sources of oxalates include radishes, cauliflower, broccoli, chard, parsley, beets, black pepper, chocolate, nuts, berries and beans.
The good news is that cooking, soaking or steaming significantly reduces the oxalic acid concentrations in most of these vegetables. On the flip side, you might want to think twice about adding raw spinach or kale to your smoothie, if you experience issues.
Among all the offenders on this list, gluten is arguably the most famous. Everywhere you go, you can find gluten-free items on restaurant menus and gluten-free options at the grocery store.
But what is gluten and why is it a problem? Gluten is a protein found in certain grains, such as wheat, barley and rye. While oats are not a natural source of gluten, most of the oatmeal you buy at the grocery store is contaminated with it.
The primary issues with gluten are that humans cannot digest it and, similar to lectins, it creates intestinal permeability (i.e., leaky gut). Some people have celiac disease, a delayed immune reaction to gluten. However, many people might suffer from non-celiac gluten sensitivity and don’t even know it.
Remember, low-grade inflammation in your stomach might not cause immediate issues, but it increases the risk of developing a chronic disease in the long run.
Gluten is everywhere — even in things you might not expect, like beer, soy sauce, and certain skin products.
My wife and I buy animal products from sources that make an effort to produce them ethically and sustainably. When it comes to meat, that means grass-fed or grass-finished. For poultry and eggs, it means pastured. Not only is that better for the animals and the environment, but it also results in higher quality products with more nutrients.
Fruits and Veggies
When buying produce, we look for seasonal, organic and non-GMO fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables have the most nutrients when they are in season. That’s why we don’t buy strawberries in winter — we wait until April, when their peak season starts.
I don’t like ingesting toxic chemicals, which is why we try to buy only organic (as opposed to conventionally-grown) produce. However, even organically-grown food might have been exposed to pesticides. In the United States, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates what chemicals farmers are allowed to use as part of the “organic” program.
With regard to GMOs: I appreciate the benefits of genetically modifying organisms, and I recognize the lack of scientific evidence proving a negative impact on our health. However, GMOs are not compatible with the evolutionary framework that I use for making decisions about what to eat, so I try to stay away from them as much as possible.
The primary goal of consuming high-quality food is to get the maximum amount of micronutrients.
“Micronutrient” is a collective term for all the nutrients, besides the macros, a particular food contains. While the two categories of micronutrients you are likely most familiar with are vitamins and minerals, there are hundreds of other nutrients in fresh food — some of which we might not even know about yet. One example of such nutrients are phytochemicals, which are active compounds found in plants.
That’s one of the reasons why supplementing with synthetic vitamin pills is not the same as getting those nutrients from real food.
Nutritional Value of Food
I try to rely on fresh, unprocessed food as much as possible, because there’s an inherent risk in consuming processed food.
Processing food often alters its chemical structure, which can make it less nutritious (in the best case scenario) or create carcinogens (in the worst case scenario).
For example, heating food destroys temperature-sensitive micronutrients, rendering the food less nutritious. Grilling red meat over a direct flame, or curing it with nitrates, creates chemical compounds that can cause cancer in living tissue.
While heat is a prominent factor in altering a food’s chemical structure, some compounds in food change by merely being exposed to air. For example, ground peppercorn oxidizes quickly, thus losing many of its nutrients. You’re unlikely to taste the difference, but the enzymes in your body will. That’s why it’s better to buy whole peppercorns and grind them while cooking.
The challenge is steering clear of processed food as much as possible. In reality, making every meal from scratch with individually-sourced ingredients is not feasible for many of us. As a result, we have to carefully choose which processed foods we purchase.
How to Identify Healthy Processed Food
When I’m confronted with processed food, I always take a close look at the label. The first thing I look for is the macronutrient content. More specifically, I look for the carbs, including sugars and added sugars.
In most cases, I immediately rule out food if it contains:
- Added sugar
- High amounts of sugar (even if it’s from natural sources, such as honey or fruits)
- A high number of net carbs (which is the total carbs minus fiber and other non-caloric carbs)
- High amounts of sodium (salt)
If the food passes the macronutrient test, then I look at the ingredient list. I’m especially interested in the section that manufacturers often label “other ingredients.”
Unfortunately, the list of healthy ingredients is relatively short compared to the list of unhealthy ones.
- Healthy food categories from the list above
- Natural sweeteners in moderate amounts
- Minimally-processed ingredients from the above sources
- Unhealthy food categories from the list above
- Artificial ingredients (preservatives, colors, flavors or sweeteners)
- Stuff I can’t pronounce
- Heavily-processed ingredients (i.e., sugar alcohols)
When grocery shopping, as a rule of thumb, I recommend staying around the outer areas and avoiding foods from the center of the store.
An (Incomplete) List Of Healthy And Unhealthy Foods And Beverages
Below is an incomplete list of foods and beverages that I consider healthy and unhealthy. Because there are so many individual items, I’ve grouped them; in each section, I explain the science and reasoning behind my classification.
I subscribe to the principle of “(almost) everything in moderation.” However, that doesn’t mean that I would consume something in moderation if it poses a significant risk to my health. For example, I don’t do drugs — not even in moderation.
Ultimately, it’s all about how much risk you’re willing to take. I consume alcohol in moderation, but I know there’s no safe level of alcohol (much like there’s no safe level of operating a car). Both have degrees of risk that I accept.
However, I try to minimize my number of dietary risk factors. For example, while I do drink alcohol, I do not consume bread or soda.
The list of healthy foods below refers to raw, organic, non-GMO, unprocessed, grass-fed, pastured or wild-caught items. If the food below doesn’t fit into those categories, it might have a reduced “health score” (or it might even be unhealthy).
Lean, grass-fed red meat is a good example of generally healthy food that has gotten a lot of bad press lately. I wrote about the correlation between red meat and cancer in a separate article that I encourage you to read.
The issue is that most of the red meat Americans consume isn’t raw, lean and grass-fed. Instead, we eat a lot of processed meats in the form of cured bacon, hot dogs, ham, breakfast sausages, and so on.
My recommendation is to eat high-quality red meat in moderation, rather than making it your primary source of protein.
In contrast to red meat, I haven’t seen any study suggesting issues with the consumption of white meat — as long as it’s not processed.
So feel free to enjoy pastured chicken or turkey, wild duck, or any other bird that floats your boat. However, stay away from processed meat, including canned chicken or breakfast sausages. Just like processed red meat, it can increase the risk of cancer.
Besides meat, seafood is another excellent source of protein and healthy fatty acids.
However, I recommend sticking with responsibly wild-caught seafood and staying away from farmed fish. An excellent example is “farmed salmon,” which is often tainted with toxic chemicals, such as ethoxyquin, from the feed the fish ate.
Additionally, there are certain types of fish that have high concentrations of mercury. Examples include shark, mackerel, marlin, grouper and tuna. The latter, in particular, is popular because it’s readily available in cans. So make sure you eat it in moderation.
Fruits and vegetables are probably the two categories of food that you would most likely classify as healthy.
While most fruits are loaded with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, and other micronutrients, they often also have a lot of sugar and a high glycemic index.
I’m not saying you should avoid fruits, but I do recommend consuming seasonal and organically-grown fruits in moderation.
Fruits with a low glycemic index include avocados, cherries, apples, oranges, grapes and kiwi. Some of my favorite fruits are avocados and berries, and I eat them almost every day.
Tip: Avoid discarding the skin of fruits if it’s edible. The skin contains fiber that slows down the conversion of fruit sugar (fructose) into glucose!
Most fresh, organic vegetables are healthy, and you can eat them as much as you like. However, there are a few exceptions — especially among the starchy veggies, such as potatoes.
Non-starchy vegetables usually have a low glycemic index and offer tons of micronutrients. As a result, they should comprise a large portion of your meals.
Starchy vegetables — such as potatoes, parsnips, carrots, beets or squash — have a lot of carbohydrates and, sometimes, a lot of sugar. As a result, I recommend eating starchy veggies in moderation.
If you’re a potato fan, I encourage you to choose sweet potatoes. Depending on how you prepare them, they have a lower GI than white potatoes.
The only veggie I avoid like the plague is corn. It’s an over-engineered food that provides little nutritional value, is hard to digest, and has inflammatory potential. If you don’t believe me, take a peek inside the toilet bowl the next time you have corn; I bet you’ll see the barely-digested kernels.
Besides incompatibility with the evolutionary framework I mentioned earlier, the scientific reasons why specific foods are unhealthy are often related to their nutrients.
For example, if someone is allergic or sensitive to a given food, the cause is usually the food’s proteins. A classic example is gluten, which is an inflammatory protein found in certain grains (such as wheat or barley).
In other cases, it’s anti-nutrients, such as phytic acid, which are found in legumes.
Dairy has two macronutrients that have the potential to cause inflammation: milk proteins (whey and casein) and milk sugar (lactose).
You can learn more about why dairy is a poor dietary choice in this article.
Humans have had a grain-free diet for millions of years, so it’s safe to assume that we don’t need them to thrive. Additionally, many grains contain gluten, which some people are allergic to. Even if you don’t have celiac disease, you might be sensitive to the proteins in grains and not even know it.
The problem is that proteins (such as gluten) have the potential to cause inflammation, which is one of the leading causes of chronic diseases. Remember, the goal of a healthy diet is to inhibit inflammatory pathways and to reduce the risk of developing a chronic illness.
Most raw legumes are toxic and cannot be eaten without soaking, boiling, cooking, or fermenting them. That alone should be motivation enough to stay away from that food source.
Additionally, legumes such as beans, peanuts, and soy are loaded with anti-nutrients, which makes them (and other generally-nutritious foods) less valuable for the body. Considering these disadvantages and the broad availability of healthier alternatives, there’s little reason to eat legumes.
I appreciate that sugar tastes good, which is why many of us are addicted to it. Of course, replacing healthy fats with sweeteners as part of the insane low-fat movement hasn’t done much to help us kick the habit.
In general, there are two types of sweeteners:
- Caloric sweeteners, which directly influence your glucose and insulin levels. Examples of these include regular white sugar, fruit sugar (fructose), and others — from both synthetic and natural sources.
- Non-caloric sweeteners, which you can find in diet sodas and many other (unhealthy) products.
The issue is that just because a non-caloric sweetener doesn’t increase blood insulin levels, that doesn’t mean it won’t negatively impact your glucose metabolism, as recent studies have shown.
So stay away from artificial sweeteners as much as possible, and use natural alternatives like raw honey or maple syrup in moderation. Why in moderation? Because despite their health benefits due to micronutrients, they still contain sugar. That sugar still gets converted to glucose in your body, which leads to an insulin response.
Not Great, But Less Terrible
Here’s a list of foods I consider a “gray area.” That means the items on this list are neither particularly bad nor particularly good.
Rice is a grain. But unlike wheat, barley or rye, it doesn’t have gluten. In other words, the proteins found in rice are relatively gut-friendly compared to those found in other grains. More importantly, rice contains only ~1% protein, as compared to the > 10% in other grains.
Note that the hull of brown rice contains a significant concentration of antinutrients. So if you like rice, I’d stick with white rice.
Oats, like rice, are not a natural source of gluten. Unfortunately, many oat products on the market have traces of that inflammatory protein because of the manufacturing process.
If you like to enjoy oatmeal occasionally, make sure to buy certified gluten-free oats.
Now that we have thoroughly covered solid food, let’s talk about liquids and beverages.
I have seen plenty of people eat wholesome meals paired with sugar-loaded drinks, thus derailing an otherwise healthy diet. So let me give you the bad news up front:
Most beverages are unhealthy, and you should cut them from your diet immediately!
What I have learned during my journey is that liking the taste of pure water makes things a lot easier. If you can’t drink a glass of lukewarm water and feel good about it, you might keep going back to drinks that aren’t good for you.
Water is the reason we exist on this planet, and most of your body is made of it. So, evidentially, it’s important for humans and animals alike.
If you haven’t already done so, I recommend getting in the habit of drinking and enjoying plain water. A few years ago, I barely drank pure water because I was missing the flavor of other beverages. To make the transition to this simplified way of hydration easier, I used to buy Smart Water. I liked the taste, and it made me feel like I was drinking something “better” than tap water.
Unfortunately, high-quality bottled water is expensive. And by consuming it, I produced a lot of plastic waste.
The problem with tap water in most parts of the United States is that it tastes like crap. More importantly, it might make you sick. I read a recent report that showed evidence that 25% of Americans don’t have access to drinking water that meets the EPA’s health standards.
As a result, I understand why drinking tap water might not sound appealing to you. Plus, you might have noticed black gunk on shower heads and faucet aerators, which makes tap water even less attractive.
To work around the taste and optical issues, we installed a reverse-osmosis-based water filtration system*. Since then, we have only been drinking and cooking with filtered water.
Black coffee, much like green tea, has numerous health benefits, thanks to the antioxidants in coffee beans. When buying coffee, make sure it’s pure Arabica coffee. We learned on a recent visit to a coffee plantation in Costa Rica that some manufacturers mix their cheap coffee with sugar. Isn’t that crazy?
Besides its benefits, keep in mind that coffee has caffeine, which might disrupt your ability to sleep even hours after you had your last cup. I stop drinking coffee around noon to make sure I don’t endanger my 9 p.m. bedtime.
Most coffee is also relatively acidic (PH 5), which can harm the enamel of your teeth. So don’t sip coffee all day.
One thing you can do to make coffee an entirely unhealthy beverage is to add milk and/or sugar. So learn to drink your coffee black, or experiment with dairy-alternatives like coconut milk, which adds flavor and a ton of healthy fat.
There are pros and cons to fermented beverages, such as kefir and kombucha. I enjoy both from time to time (particularly the latter).
Kefir is a fermented dairy product, and thus it shares some of the negative characteristics of whole milk. However, due to the fermentation process, kefir is virtually (99%) lactose-free. The only potentially-irritating macronutrients left are the milk proteins.
The base of kombucha is often black or green tea. But to turn that into a carbonated beverage, you have to add a starter culture (bacteria) and sugar.
Don’t worry; the final product has very little sugar because the bacteria use the sugar as food and convert it into other types of carbohydrates. An 8 ounce serving of kombucha has approximately 7 grams of carbs, including 2 grams of sugar.
The reason why I recommend consuming fermented drinks in moderation is because they are loaded with probiotics and other beneficial micronutrients.
Besides kombucha and kefir, I also like the apple cider vinegar-based tonics from Kevita*. You can find them at Whole Foods and on Amazon.
Blended Drinks and Smoothies
I love making smoothies using organic vegetables, fresh fruits, nuts and seeds.
However, there are a couple of things to pay attention to. For example, while blending fruits is fine, juicing is not. That’s because fruit juice doesn’t have any of the fiber that slows down the conversion of sugar into glucose.
Additionally, make sure to drink smoothies slowly instead of guzzling them down like a glass of water. Digestion begins in your mouth, and by chewing food you give your stomach time to prepare for the food that it’s about to receive. When you consume liquid food, you also have to give your stomach a chance to ramp up by taking small sips.
Identifying unhealthy beverages is easy: assume everything that wasn’t covered above falls into the “unhealthy” category. However, some drinks are worse than others, so let’s go over them one by one.
Sodas are arguably the worst beverages you can consume, and it doesn’t make much of a difference whether you drink the regular or diet version. Both are poison for your body.
Regular sodas are bad because each can has more sugar than you should have all day, in addition to all the artificial ingredients such as flavors and colors.
Diet sodas might even be worse! They teach your body that it doesn’t have to release insulin if it comes across molecules that mimic sugar but which don’t have any calories.
Once your body gets used to not releasing insulin as a result of artificial sweeteners, it might also fail to do so when you eat real sugar. As a result, you might end up with high concentrations of glucose in your bloodstream, and that increases your risk of developing diabetes or other metabolic diseases.
What’s wrong with fruit juices, you might ask? How could drinking orange juice be any less healthy than eating the whole fruit?
The short answer is fiber. The flesh of the orange has a lot of fiber, which dramatically slows down the conversion of the fruit sugar into glucose. From a metabolic perspective, fruit juice is sugar water with some extra vitamins. As a result, I highly recommend staying away from fruit juices.
If you enjoy making fruity beverages at home, I recommend blending over juicing to preserve the fiber in the fruits.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that alcohol isn’t healthy. The hypocrite that I am, I’m writing these lines while enjoying a glass of red wine.
But seriously, alcohol isn’t healthy. And according to a British study that made a lot of headlines recently, there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. So that once-a-day glass of red wine your doctor might have recommended is undoubtedly an excellent way to finish the day, but it won’t make you any healthier.
But let’s be realistic: most of us consume alcohol in moderation. I enjoy a glass of red wine in the evening because it relaxes me.
For me, it’s a risk I’m willing to take. If you don’t like alcohol but would like to enjoy some of the supposed benefits of consuming wine, have a few grapes. You’ll get all the benefits without the risk and that ever-so-slight buzz that makes drinking alcohol so enjoyable for many people.
Anything With Artificial Sweeteners
It’s simple; stay away from anything that contains artificial ingredients, and in particular, artificial sweeteners.
The goal of a healthy diet is to lower the risk of inflammation by feeding our body the nutritious food it can use to thrive and repair damaged tissue.
Despite the claims of manufacturers and the food industry, artificial sweeteners are crap food — and we are starting to see scientific evidence of exactly what negative impacts they can have on your health.
Tips to Start Eating Healthy
Changing your dietary habits can be incredibly difficult. That’s especially true if you have a family and you want them to tag along.
When I selfishly decided to go paleo in March of 2015, Kathy, my wife, got upset because I didn’t consult her first.
It wasn’t that Kathy didn’t care about our health. The problem was that I didn’t give her a chance to research the pros and cons of the drastic change I was proposing. After she looked into the paleo diet, she came on board. And she’s been an enthusiastic paleo cook ever since.
Discuss The Changes You’re Proposing
Don’t make the same mistake I did. Instead, openly discuss the changes you’re suggesting with your family and acknowledge that they might have a harder time adjusting than you.
I’m a numbers guy, and I don’t factor emotions into most of my decision-making. If you also fall into that category, keep in mind that your spouse might not be a numbers person!
Try Preparing Your Food at Home
By cooking with fresh and wholesome ingredients, you’re effectively cutting out processed food. As a result, you’re already a step ahead of everyone else.
I would even go as far as saying that eating certain legumes, if prepared adequately from scratch, is better than eating chicken and overcooked veggies from a cafeteria. I have no scientific research to back up that claim, but my point is that you should evaluate food on more than just the base level.
Find Joy in Making the Right Choices
Humans are programmed to thrive on success. So come up with easy-to-reach goals and find happiness in achieving them.
Even after having been on the paleo diet for four years, I still find joy in making the right (food) choices when everyone else around me isn’t. If I go out and have dinner with friends or co-workers, and the waiter brings a bread basket, it fills me with joy knowing that I won’t take a single bite.
Once you’ve figured that out, it’s much easier to keep making the right decisions.
Embrace Sharing a Meal With Friends and Family
Both my wife and I work from home and embrace having healthy, home-cooked meals together as a family. Since all the adults in our household practice intermittent fasting, we aim to have lunch and dinner along with the kids.
But even if you work outside the house, find co-workers who share similar dietary values and have lunch together with them.
Treat Food for What It Is: Fuel for Your Body
Food is, first and foremost, fuel for your body. And great-tasting food is often the enemy of a healthy diet.
I know that sounds harsh, but that’s the reality you should come to grips with. I have reached a point where I still appreciate tasty food, as long as it’s healthy, but I don’t mind if my food doesn’t taste great.
The other day, I was in a rush and I warmed up frozen paleo meals from Ice Age, which I’m currently reviewing. When the meals came out of the steamer, parts of them were still half-frozen. I ate them anyway, even though they would have surely tasted better if they were warm.
You don’t have to be that extreme, but never forget that the most crucial aspect of food is its nutritional value. If it tastes great too, that’s even better.
See Unhealthy Food as Poison
The primary reason why I usually don’t have trouble staying away from unhealthy food is that I see it for what it is: poison for my body.
Most people wouldn’t eat a spoon of arsenic, because they know it would severely harm or even kill them. However, drinking a can of regular coke, which contains 10 tablespoons of sugar, is something many consumers don’t even hesitate to do. That’s because sugar won’t kill you immediately; it’s a silent killer that will get you in the form of chronic disease later in life.
Don’t be short-sighted when it comes to poisoning your body.
Find Healthy but Delicious Dishes
When my wife started cooking paleo-compatible meals, we had a piece of meat with veggies on the side almost every day. That got boring quickly. Fortunately, eating healthy doesn’t have to mean bland-tasting dishes.
Find a couple of good cookbooks and learn how to convert your favorite dishes into healthy meals. If you don’t know where to start, check out the various books by our favorite paleo author, Danielle Walker*.
Take an 80/20 Approach
Nothing in life is perfect, so don’t beat yourself up if you can’t eat healthily every day. Instead, take an 80/20 approach! That means aim to eat well 80% of the time, and give yourself room for 20% of your choices to be slip-ups.
However, think long and hard every time you want to make an exception. It’s all too easy to change the 80/20 to 20/80. That’s why some of my friends and co-workers might think that I’m too strict — I “never” make an exception.
I know that I’m strict, but that allows me to enjoy the heck out of those rare exceptions. For example, once a month we enjoy pizza. As of late, that’s paleo pizza… but it’s still pizza.
Meal Replacement Drinks
Eating healthy while traveling is hard, as it poses unique challenges that you often don’t have when eating at home. I have found meal replacement drinks, and in particular Ample, to be useful alternatives to homemade dishes while I’m on the road. Also, I always pack meat snacks from Wild Zora before going on a trip.
Meal Delivery Services
We are in the fortunate situation that my wife has chosen to stay at home with the kids instead of pursuing a career. I appreciate that not every family can afford to forfeit an income.
If both partners work and you don’t have time to cook as much as you would like, a meal delivery service might be able to fill the gaps. I have reviewed some of them in the past, so check out my roundup for the best options.
Frequently Asked Questions
Below is a list of questions people have frequently asked me. I’ll keep this list updated as I get more questions from readers, so check back from time to time!
Does Counting Calories to Lose Weight Work?
If you’re an elite athlete and you’re counting macros to ensure you’re getting enough protein, counting calories makes sense.
However, in my opinion, in the context of weight loss, counting calories misses the objective. I suggest that you invest your energy into focusing on what you eat rather than into keeping tabs on how much you eat.
If you eat fresh and wholesome foods, including those that contain plenty of non-starchy veggies and sufficient fats from healthy sources, you’ll be unlikely to eat more than what your body needs. Overeating is usually the result of consuming too many carbs and then giving in to those well-known sugar cravings.
Let me ask you this: Have you ever overindulged in leafy greens? If so, good for you. But I doubt that it caused you to gain weight. I have to admit that I occasionally eat more guacamole (sans the chips) than I should. But the high amount of healthy fats in avocados is so satisfying that I often don’t need another meal that day.
My recommendation is to stick with reasonable portion sizes and stop counting calories. Instead, focus on putting quality food on your plate.
Are Carbs Evil?
Not all carbohydrates are harmful, but if you assume they are, you’ll have a much easier time sticking to a balanced diet.
What are terrible are simple, refined and processed carbs that have little or zero nutritional value. The classic example is sugar and all of its derivations.
Where it gets a bit trickier are complex carbs in grains or legumes. In those types of food, it’s not the carbohydrates that are the issue, but the proteins and other (anti)nutrients that come with them.
One of the only types of carbs you don’t need to worry about are the ones in vegetables, such as fiber.
Aren’t Legumes High in Protein and Nutrients?
On paper, most legumes appear to be excellent sources of protein and other nutrients, such as iron and zinc. However, if you take bioavailability and digestibility into account, legumes are poor sources of nutrients across the board.
If you want to dig into the specifics, I highly recommend reading this article by Dr. Loren Cordain on the reasons why beans and legumes are not paleo-compatible.
Aren’t Exclusion Diets Bad?
I’m not a fan of extreme measures that eliminate certain types of macronutrients or food from your diet. Eliminating or drastically reducing your intake of protein or fat are bad ideas considering that the body needs those two macronutrients to thrive.
However, even cutting out carbohydrates entirely is not a smart idea, as you would potentially forfeit essential nutrients from food such as fruits and vegetables.
From a health perspective, I also don’t think removing animal protein and fat is smart — even if there are moral and environmental reasons to do so.
So you might ask:
“Why cut out grains, dairy and legumes? By doing so, don’t we increase the risk of not getting specific nutrients from those foods?”
Not really. Here’s why:
- Our ancestors thrived on a diet that did not include dairy, grains and legumes for millions of years. Evidently, we can easily get all the nutrients we need from other sources.
- We know of plenty of sources of modern food that provide the same or higher amounts of nutrients per 100 grams.
For example, beans, peas and other legumes contain 66% or less protein than lean chicken or turkey. And for all the iron in legumes (which many fans of the food rave about), your body can only absorb 20-25% of it. That’s due to the antinutrients in legumes, such as phytates.
Should Kids Follow My Dietary Lifestyle?
Assuming you’re on a healthy diet that doesn’t intentionally exclude essential nutrients that we know our bodies need to thrive, I’d say yes.
Our 3-year-old and 5-year-old kids eat and thrive on the paleo diet, but unlike my wife and I, they don’t partake in our intermittent fasting protocol. Lucas, our youngest, was born prematurely and has always been lighter than his peers. As a result, our pediatrician advised us to see a nutritionist to find out if he gets enough calories from the food he eats.
Unsurprisingly, the nutritionist we saw followed the classic (bullshit) food guide pyramid way of thinking. She argued that Lucas needed grains to get his B vitamins, among other baseless claims. You can read more about that conversation here, but the result was that her assessment was factually incorrect and lacked any scientific basis.
If in doubt, think about what the kids of our ancestors would have eaten for millions of years. Based on all the information I have seen, the kids of our Paleolithic ancestors ate the same foods as their parents. Still, talk to your pediatrician. We have, and he fully endorses our way of life.
Closing Words: How To Eat Healthily
Our ancestors who lived near water likely had a different diet than those who lived inland. In other words, there’s no single diet that we should all follow. Instead, think of healthy eating as a dietary framework with some wiggle room.
Keep in mind that everybody has a unique genetic makeup and different environmental factors. What works for me might not work for you. For example, we have learned that some nuts, green vegetables and nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, etc.) have anti-nutrients that can cause GI issues when you eat them raw.
Some folks might react negatively to those foods, while others handle them just fine. I can’t have onions without getting bloated, even though onions are incredibly healthy.
Your takeaway should be to find a dietary framework that works for you — one that you can stick to for the rest of your life.
Many consider the Mediterranean diet to be amongst the healthiest way of living, based on observational studies. I agree that the Mediterranean diet includes a lot of healthy choices, and it’s better than the western way of eating. However, it also includes whole grains and other items that we know for a fact aren’t good for the body.
Nevertheless, if the Mediterranean diet is the best you can do, you’re already on a better path that most of your peers. For my family, we have deemed a high-fat/low-carb paleo diet to be the best we can do. Much like intermittent fasting, it has become a lifestyle without an expiration date.
Last but not least, keep in mind that eating habits are only one of three pillars that directly influence your health and well-being. The two others are physical activity and sleep.
If you have successfully changed your dietary habits, if you struggle to make the right choices, or if you want to know whether a particular food is good or bad for you, let me know by leaving a comment below. I’d be more than happy to help!
Also, if you think I should publish another article and go into more depth about a certain sub-topic — for example, “how to get kids to eat healthily” — let me know!