What Does Healthy Even MEAN?
Wouldn’t it be nice to eat healthier? We think so.
However, do you even know what ‘healthy eating’ is? It’s hard to aim at a goal you don’t understand, but so many people just don’t know what to do – and our current ideas about healthy food are stupid.
Whether you’re eating for high performance or you’re just trying to lose weight and get into shape, eating better is key. Today we’re going to discuss how diets do and don’t work – and how to think about dieting to support your goals without any of the stress or drama.
This is a particularly great article if you’ve experienced difficulties with sticking to a diet before or find them unrealistic.
- What does health mean right now?
The concept of an unhealthy food is one that doesn’t make much sense.
You’ve heard it before – and probably about a wide variety of foods: “bacon is worse than smoking”, “sugar is unhealthy”, or some other nonsense BS.
Even these sensationalist headlines aren’t about foods – they’re about patterns of eating. For example, sugar is unhealthy if you eat too much of it or your diet relies on it as a key staple for your foods.
The patterns are the problem – not the foods.
- Nebulous concept
Your body doesn’t have an automatic “healthy” or “unhealthy” detector.
It’s a machine for processing and metabolising foods and what matters to the body is what you’re eating, how much, and in what combinations.
Health is not something in the food – it’s how that food and it’s building blocks (nutrients) fit into your diet. Even beyond that, it’s about how it fits your body’s dietary needs in the context of lifestyle and exercise.
You simply don’t know if a food is healthy or unhealthy without considering what the rest of your daily eating and activity look like. A doughnut isn’t necessarily unhealthy if you have one at the end of a day of “healthy” eating – but a diet built around doughnuts and melted chocolate is definitely unhealthy.
The difference here? The pattern and habits. The diet as a whole is the important part: your daily and weekly intake are the key factors in health and wellbeing. It’s also heavily contextualised – foods and patterns of eating that suit an Olympic marathon runner aren’t the same as you and me.
This difference applies at every level. While foods aren’t healthy or unhealthy without the context of a whole diet, diets and their health depend on being matched to your lifestyle and activity levels.
Let’s take a really important example: sugar.
Sugar isn’t unhealthy by itself. It’s a simple, fast-absorbing carbohydrate that stimulates the release of insulin and provides energy rapidly.
The common cry is “but that’s how you get diabetes”. Yes, yes it is – if you’re consuming too much of it and in the wrong context. The health of these substances are not obvious, they’re relative to who is eating them, with what, when, and what else they’re doing with the day.
Because, in another situation, these functions are a perfect way of replenishing energy and carb stores during exercise. They’re processes that are specifically useful to a given context and, when they’re used in other contexts, they produce negative results.
Foods are tools to build a good diet – you can’t blame the tool for someone doing a bad job, so don’t blame specific foods or nutrients because people tend to use them too much or incorrectly. It’s our responsibility to learn what they are and how to use them.
- Getting Better: Health in the real world
Calories always come first: they make the most visible differences to your body and they’re simple to understand. Calories are how much energy you’re taking in, nothing more – and you can start with an estimate of your daily calorie use.
Eating too many produces stored energy as fat or used to build muscle. Eating too few leads to burning fat or muscle to make up the deficit.
The first job of a healthy diet is matching calories to your needs and goals. This means reducing calories below your output if you’re trying to lose weight, increasing them if you’re trying to build muscle, or simply matching them to your maintenance needs for recovery and health.
If you get this wrong, changes in body composition are inevitable – such as gaining excess body fat (the common one).
- Macronutrient balance
Macronutrients are proteins, carbs, and fats. These are the first layer of dieting for performance and health beyond bodyweight.
To over-simplify, here’s how a diet should work: lots of protein, carb intake relative to your exercise intensity/volume, fats to make up the rest.
The type of each is also relevant. Carbs scale in “metabolism-speed” from sugars (the fastest) to fibre (which are non-digestible). Fats scale from saturated to unsaturated – with the latter being better for you, though you need saturated, mono-unsaturated, and poly-unsaturated forms.
The point is preferentially choosing unsaturated fats and making sure your carbohydrates suit your schedule. This means sugar intake should be higher closer to training, and starchier/more fibrous as you get further from training.
- Micronutrients: vitamins/minerals etc.
Health and wellbeing – the conventional ideas we have about them – are all about micronutrients.
These are vitamins and minerals, as well as a bunch of “pseudo-vitamins” and other, less-crucial compounds. These are important for supporting cellular and organ health, as well as ensuring that the processes in the body run smoothly and efficiently.
This is also why we recommend always consuming plenty of plant foods and whole foods wherever you can. They’re richer in micronutrients when compared to low-quality processed foods (think hot dogs and dough balls).
This is the key: nutrient-density. How many nutrients you get for the calories that the food provides. This is because you’ve usually got a limited number of calories per day, but your body needs plenty of vitamins and minerals to perform at its best.
This is also more important on a cut, where your calorie-intake is lower but your need for vitamins and minerals is just as high as ever!
David Nolan from Synapse Performance has put this into perspective in a great way discussing the matrix of calorie-density and nutrient-density. This handy graphic is a great tool to keep in mind:
- Final Thoughts
The way we look at foods – their health and role – needs to be more nuanced. Categorising specific foods as unhealthy has led to huge government regulation and expense, it builds out awfully restrictive and over-simplified diets, and it makes dieting difficult to stick with when you think you can’t enjoy anything you like!
The way we’ve discussed health and foods here isn’t the complete story – but it provides a basic framework for the kind of mentality that makes dieting healthy and sustainable/realistic. These are some of the changes that many of us need to make, operating with a better, balanced – not “clean” – diet.
Working towards a more nuanced understanding of diet means a more nuanced practice, which means more adherence and a better time. If you’ve failed diets in the past, take this approach to heart and focus on the priorities listed above.
Diets don’t work if you can’t stick with them forever. Build a diet that lasts by focusing on quality, but allowing yourself balance and luxuries.