Maintaining a healthy diet shouldn’t mean depriving yourself of all the foods you love. Achieving that feel-good, eat-well balance is really a numbers game.

By Jennifer Benjamin
June 22, 2021
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These days, we live in a very shame-heavy culture, where we feel guilty if we skip a workout, spend a full day vegging on the couch, or dare to eat a second slice of pizza. Combine all of that with a diet culture that assigns "good" and "bad" labels to food, and we can't help but feel like the only way to stay virtuous is to avoid treats completely. 

"We've moved into this very disordered way of thinking about food and diets, in which you're either all in or all out," says Christina Stapke, RDN, CD, Seattle-based integrative and functional dietitian. "There is psychological harm that can come from restriction, making you obsessive about what you eat and ultimately just adding more stress to your life, which can spike cortisol and create systemic inflammation."

When it comes to eating for your overall health, though, it's all about balance: prioritizing clean, nutrient-dense foods, while allowing for the occasional indulgence. "Food should be an enjoyable part of life, and I think it's very important to include the things you love in your diet," says Mitzi Dulan, RD, CSSD, a Kansas City-based nutrition expert. "Should you eat a big chocolate chip cookie every day? No. But once a week, sure. Giving yourself permission is important in order to have a healthy relationship with food." To that point, experts are reluctant to call foods strictly "good" or "bad," and instead think it's preferable to look at what you eat as being either a healthy choice or a not-so-healthy choice.

So what exactly is a balanced diet? 

"Assuming there are no chronic health issues, it's a good idea to aim for a 80:20 ratio of healthy foods to unhealthy foods, where most of the time you're following a clean, veggie-heavy, non-inflammatory diet, and then the rest of the time, you don't worry about it," Stapke says. "So three to five times a week, whether it's a meal or a snack, you're indulging." And with a little more freedom, it's far easier to stay the course. Here, a few tips on how to eat a balanced diet and make body-fueling choices during that 80 percent of your feeding time. 

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Stick to Clean Foods

Reading labels is a drag, so keep it simple by opting for whole foods that aren't stamped with a lengthy ingredient list. "Stick to single ingredient foods or, if there are several ingredients on the label, you should be able to recognize them as 'real' and not feel like you're taking a chemistry test," says Dulan. You'll want to learn to go easy on excess and added sugar, packaged foods, refined carbs, and even bread and pastas that tend to be heavily processed. In addition, Stapke says you may want to consider avoiding inflammatory foods like gluten, dairy, vegetable oil and alcohol.  

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Balance Your Plate

When you're filling up on non-starchy veggies and lean proteins, there won't be much room left in your gut for garbage. "Load your plate (at least half) with colorful fruits and vegetables, which are a great source of fiber, and packed with powerful antioxidants and inflammation-fighters," suggests Dulan. You'll also want to fill about one-fourth of your plate with lean protein and fatty fish, which is full of omega-3s. 

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Go Organic When You Can

Obviously, buying organic isn't always a budget-friendly choice, but experts recommend trying to get your dirty dozen produce (like apples, celery, and spinach) organic whenever possible. You will also want to opt for mainly organic, free-range poultry, grass-fed meats, dairy, and eggs. "The pesticides and hormones in our food system can wreak havoc on our bodies and our immune systems," Stapke explains. "If it's just too expensive, consider buying organic every other shopping trip. Also, frozen organic vegetables are less expensive but just as nutritious."

Indulge in Veggies

Back in preschool, you may have decided that healthy foods are blech, but we all need to reframe our thinking—and our cooking—to embrace veggies as the delicious, good-for-you indulgence they are. Really, it's all in how you make them. "There are so many easy ways to prepare vegetables that make them really pop with flavor," says Dulan. "I love adding lemon juice and Parmesan cheese to Brussel sprouts, or marinating asparagus and radishes in balsamic vinegar." Roasted or grilled, with the right sauces, your veggies can be a highlight of your meal rather than a side note. And when you're digging into a big plate of grilled bell peppers, loaded with black beans and guacamole, you'll see just how naughty eating well—and with the right balance—can feel.

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