By Leo Babauta

There are so many definitions of what’s healthy — low-fat, low-carb, Paleo, vegan, Mediterranean, raw, and so on. It can be downright confusing.

While I risk making a lot of people mad by writing this article, I’m going to attempt to synthesize my personal research on healthy eating. This isn’t definitive, and I’m not a nutritionist, but I’ve been exploring a healthy diet and have read hundreds of articles on this, sorting the good from the bad.

In this article, I’d like to talk about what I believe is healthy — with the idea that you can easily disagree!

But first, let’s start by talking about something that might seem obvious — why eat a healthy diet in the first place?

Why Eat a Healthy Diet

Give me a minute to make my case, in three awesome reasons:

Awesome Reason #1: It’s an act of self-compassion. Eating healthy food isn’t about looking better (though it can help with that) … it’s about feeling better. And taking care of yourself. Just as you might shower so you don’t feel dirty, or brush your teeth so you don’t have bad breath and rotten teeth … you should eat well so you don’t feel sick. You don’t feel low on energy, which affects everything else around you. Taking care of yourself is a compassionate act.

Awesome Reason #2: My dad just died, guys. I don’t mean to be light-hearted about such a sad topic, nor do I want to play the sympathy card. But my time with my dad in the hospital as I watched him die was a stark reminder of what we do to our bodies when we don’t eat well, for years. It might seem like something that’s too distant to worry about, but my dad was 62, and that’s not that old. He drank and ate poorly and didn’t exercise while being diabetic, which really wasn’t smart, but he had built up bad habits for years and never really put the effort required to change them.

Seeing someone in such a condition, especially someone you love, is a very visceral illustration of what happens if you don’t take care of yourself. Life is too short to waste it with bad health.

Awesome Reason #3: It’s Delicious. While you might not think vegetables are the heigh of deliciousness … they truly can be. While you might think pastries and fried chicken and French fries and pizza are delicious … in another light, they aren’t.

Let me explain: what you think is delicious right now is partly a product of conditioning, what you’re used to. Of course, sweet and fatty and salty things are hardwired into us to taste good, but the level at which we enjoy these things and can tolerate them can be changed. I know this because of my own experience.

I slowly changed my taste buds over the years, so that now I still might enjoy some fried foods, if I eat too much of them I start to feel gross, bloated, greasy. They aren’t nearly as appealing to me as they used to be. And vegetables and other healthy foods are much, much more appealing to me now than they used to be. It took a long time to change, but I did it gradually, and I enjoyed myself along the way.

OK, now that we’ve talked about the Why, let’s talk about what a healthy diet might look like.

Overall Principles

A diet is healthy if it gives your body nutrients it needs, without giving you too many calories (too many calories leads to obesity over time) or unhealthy things (like saturated or trans fat, nitrates, excess sodium, unhealthy chemicals). This definition is for the long term, not day to day. On any given day, you could have less nutrients than you need, and too many calories and sodium, but if the diet balances out over time, then it can be healthy.

So healthy food contributes to that: a good nutrient-to-calorie ratio without a lot of the bad stuff.

What kind of nutrients does your body need? It needs essential amino acids (protein), healthy fats, some carbs for energy, and a bunch of vitamins and minerals like iron, calcium, Vitamin D, sodium, potassium, and so forth. Fiber is good too, and of course you need water. This obviously isn’t a complete list.

If a food gives you some of those nutrients, without a lot of empty calories, it’s probably healthy. For example, spinach gives you Fiber, Protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E (Alpha Tocopherol), Vitamin K, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Copper and Manganese and more. Without giving you a lot of calories or unhealthy things.

But half a loaf of white bread might give you a bunch of calories without too many nutrients (maybe a bit of protein and a few other vitamins). These are empty calories, and we want less of those.

Everything, though, is fine in moderation. You can eat bread without guilt if it’s just a smaller part of your diet, and the rest of your diet is full of nutrient-dense stuff. If your diet is mostly empty calories, that’s not healthy.

Nutritious Foods

With that in mind, here’s an incomplete list of foods I think are amazingly healthy:

  1. Greens. Green leafy vegetables are the nutrient kings. They contain a ton of great vitamins and minerals, lots of fiber, not a lot of calories or other unhealthy things. Good examples: kale, spinach, broccoli, bok choy, mustard greens, green bell peppers, romaine lettuce.
  2. Red, yellow & orange fruits & veggies. These colorful veggies add nutrients you won’t get as much elsewhere, like lycopene, potassium, vitamin C and beta-carotene (vitamin A). Good examples: carrots, squash, tomatoes, red and yellow bell peppers, sweet potatoes, squash, pumpkin, corn. Plus fruits: mangos, oranges, apricots, bananas, papaya.
  3. Onions & garlic. I put these in all kinds of meals, and they have been shown to have cancer-protection properties.
  4. Beans and such. Lentils, black beans, red beans, white beans, peas, mung beans — lots of fiber and minerals and protein. I absolutely love a good lentil soup or black bean burger or chili with various kinds of beans.
  5. Nuts & seeds. Healthy fats and proteins — walnuts, almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, quinoa.
  6. Proteins. As a vegan, I get my protein from plants — vegetables and whole grains have protein, but you can get lots of it in tofu, tempeh, seitan, soymilk. If you’re not vegan, I recommend fish and poultry, with red meat in moderation (it’s been shown to increase risks of cancer, for example, especially processed red meats like sausage, bacon and corned beef).
  7. Fruits. Some people are afraid of fruits because they have sugar, but I’ve found them to be extremely healthy, and they satisfy my sweet cravings. My favorites: berries, apples, stone fruit (like peaches, apricots, plums), tropical fruits (mangos, papayas, starfruit, bananas, coconut).
  8. Healthy fats. Our bodies need healthy fats, and polyunsaturated fats are especially healthy and seem to lower risks of heart attacks and certain cancers. Good sources: walnuts, canola oil, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, chia seeds, olive oil, fish, avocados, whole grain wheat, flaxseed oil, soybeans.
  9. Whole grains. Some people shy away from grains, but I’ve found them super healthy when they aren’t ground into flour. So I’ll eat Ezekiel flourless breads and cereals, but also brown rice, steel-cut oats, amaranth, and quinoa (which isn’t technically a grain). There are lots of other traditional grains to try. And whole-grain flour isn’t bad in moderation.
  10. Dairy and/or soy. As a vegan, I tend not to advocate dairy, but there’s no doubt we need calcium and vitamin D, and dairy provides those as well as protein. I drink soymilk, which gives me the same things (along with Vitamin B12, which vegans need).
  11. Drinks. Avoid sugary drinks and too much alcohol. Black coffee (or with a splash of cream), tea, green juice, and a glass of red wine are all great. And water is best!

Oh, and mushrooms are super healthy! I’ve probably forgotten 10 other healthy foods, btw.

Moderation: You should base your diet on the list above, but you can always have other foods in moderation. White rice, white breads, white potatoes, sugars, fried foods, fatty foods, red meats … these can all be a part of a healthy diet. I’ll have pancakes now and then, but it’s not my main breakfast. And a good muffin is wonderful!

There aren’t any “bad” foods … it’s all about including whatever treats you want into an overall picture of a healthy diet.

A note on veganism: While you will hear me talk about being vegan, I should note that I don’t think you need to be a vegan to be healthy. And not all vegans are healthy. I’ve found that you can be very healthy as a vegan, the same way you can with any other diet: eat lots of healthy foods from the list above. But I am vegan for reasons of compassion and the environment.

A Healthy Diet

Taking the big picture into account, here’s what I would gradually progress towards:

Eat mostly whole foods, mostly healthy foods from the list above.

For breakfast, Ezekiel flourless whole grain cereal with soymilk and berries and nuts, or steel-cut oats with berries and nuts, or yogurt (soy or milk) with berries and nuts. Or some fruit with whole-grain toast and almond butter. Or a tofu scramble with lots of veggies.

For lunch and dinner, the possibilities are endless, but I tend to aim for something with protein, lots of veggies, and healthy fats, with a touch of whole grains. Some examples:

The stir-fry is my go to meal, and has been for awhile.

I have coffee in the morning, green tea or oolong tea in the afternoon, and red wine at night.

With that healthy base in mind, you should feel free to indulge in pizza, croissants, muffins, a veggie burger (or the regular kind) with fries without guilt, as long as the lion’s share of your diet is healthy.