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10-06-2024 | Hadassah Groenewold

Eating healthy #4: The basics of a healthy diet

In my previous blogs, we described the process of building a healthy lifestyle. In this blog, I explain how to build a healthy lifestyle. Also, be sure to read part 1, 2, and 3.

A plate of cookies


Your body needs certain substances for energy production, growth, and maintenance. To stay healthy, your diet must contain at least enough of these substances. These are the basics: proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. However, there is a lot of variation in what you should eat to provide a good base.

Measurement is knowledge and knowledge is power

Once you know what you need approximately, you can start calculating what and how much you should eat. Personally, I keep track of my food intake to the gram for several days in a row, about twice a year. During these periods, I try to eat as "honest and normal" as possible to get an accurate picture of my daily intake. You can track this in an app or simply in an Excel sheet. I look at the amounts of all the so-called macros (carbs, proteins, and fats) in each product and then weigh how much of it I eat.

A lot of work: 100%! But it has given me a lot of insights. Foods that I thought were healthy (flaxseed, for example) turned out to be enormously high in fat and calories. This does not mean that flaxseed is not healthy, but it did not fit into my daily nutritional intake. After all, I also eat nuts and olive oil daily, which gives me enough fats. But for someone who doesn't eat nuts daily, flaxseeds can be a good addition.

Now we know what our starting point is and what we take in daily. But how do you know what to eat and how much of each macro you need to stay healthy and achieve your (sports) goals? Because this depends so much on each person and their goals, there is no one size fits all solution. This is where I enlisted the knowledge of sports dietitian Patrick van der Duin.

From too little to just enough

Together with Patrick, I discovered that I was generally eating far too little, leading to binge eating or the well-known insatiable hunger the day after a big bike ride. I was not consciously eating too little, but simply thought I was eating enough because I was not hungry at the time (which turns out not to be a good indicator if you exercise a lot!). After the binge eating and the uncontrollable hunger on Mondays, I was way over my calorie requirement and didn't feel very happy. Patrick gave me insight into what I need and when, so I can adjust my nutrition by tracking it. Additionally, Patrick provided meal suggestions that I can try to see if they work for me. For example, we don't eat meat every day, and I am very sensitive to HB deficiency (not a good combination). Thanks to Patrick, I know what to eat to avoid this.

Do I only eat "healthy" food then? No, absolutely not. I don't believe in forbidden foods or the dichotomy of 'healthy' and 'unhealthy' food. For example, chocolate can be tremendously healthy for my brain at times, chips can be a delicious addition during a movie, and a cookie can be a delightful icebreaker with tea.

Patrick says about this:

I think we should not label individual foods as healthy or unhealthy but look at the complete diet including lifestyle habits and goals. In that case, you can use a step-by-step plan to make your diet healthy.

  1. First of all, your diet must fit your energy needs. This is different for each person and depends on daily activities.
  2. A diet must be maintainable. Structure provides balance and the body likes balance, obviously, you are already looking for healthier foods here.
  3. Only after that do you look at foods and seek the healthiest possible choices to provide all the necessary nutrients. Again, this is individually determined.
  4. You can then add a final step based on beliefs. Think religion, environment, etc. (For example, eating plant-based because you believe it supports the environment or avoiding pork due to religious reasons.

Healthy eating thus has nothing to do with individual foods but actually depends on the overall diet. This is the same as healthy living. It is a consequence of habits and does not arise from a single action. Someone who eats organic for a week does not necessarily have a healthy diet; likewise, someone who eats French fries, pizza, or pancakes once a week does not immediately have an unhealthy diet. Nutrition or a diet is unhealthy when it detracts from someone's health. It is healthy when it contributes to someone's health. And, of course, there are foods that detract or contribute more per unit to health. But what is healthy?

It's all about balance.

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