Whether you’re striving to lose weight or looking to become healthier, there are numerous diet plans to follow. There are so many “healthy” diet plan options because most of these plans are not effective in the long term. Before you pick any diet plan, you must ensure it provides you with a wide variety of nutrients while helping you achieve your goals. Let’s understand more about this by looking at the top diet plans to follow.
What does healthy eating mean, and why is it important?
Almost everyone today is talking about “healthy eating,” but what does this term mean? Contrary to what most people think, healthy eating is not about cutting out foods you love. It’s about eating a variety of foods in the right quantities to give your body different vitamins and minerals it needs to be in the optimum condition. This also means that people can adapt to diet plans that meet their taste preferences and health requirements.
Eating healthy foods or following healthy diet plans has numerous benefits. It helps you maintain a healthy weight and reduces the risk of some of the most dangerous conditions, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancers. The benefits of healthy diet plans are not limited to diseases. When you start eating well, almost every aspect of your life sees an improvement—your sleep quality improves, you have more energy, you focus better, have a clarity of thought, and an elevated mood. All of this adds up to a happier and more fulfilled life! And no matter the age, a person whose diet is well-balanced tends to have a healthy body weight and better physical and mental health.
Understanding calories and energy balance
Calorie counting is not just important for people trying to lose weight; total calorie intake plays a key role in determining physical health. This is what you need to understand—if you eat more calories than you burn, your body stores these extra calories in the form of body fats or new muscles. On the other hand, if you burn more calories through exercise or other activities than what you eat, you will lose weight. This is known as a calorie deficit, and an individual trying to lose weight aims for this. You must keep in mind that regardless of the diet plan you follow, it is essential to maintain calories and energy balance.
What nutrients are essential for overall health?
A healthy diet plan includes the right balance of macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients, or macros, are nutrients that the body needs daily in relatively large quantities. The three primary macronutrients are carbohydrates (or carbs), proteins, and fats. Macronutrients provide your body calories (or energy) needed for growth and performance of various bodily functions. Let’s understand more about each of these nutrients.
The body prefers carbohydrates because they can be quickly and easily converted into glucose, which can be used immediately for energy or stored in the body for later. The brain, the muscles, and the cells in the body need carbohydrates to function. Some popular sources of carbohydrates are peas, beans, fruits, starchy vegetables, whole grains, bread, cereals, rice, pasta, sugar, candy, and soda.
Note: 1 gram of carbohydrate contains 4 calories.
The body breaks down proteins into smaller units called amino acids, which are the building blocks for the muscles, brain, nervous system, hair, and skin. Proteins also provide oxygen and other vital nutrients to various parts of the body. When the body lacks carbohydrates, it derives the energy from proteins. Some common sources of protein include meat, fish, dairy, eggs, nuts, seeds, tofu, and legumes.
Note: 1 gram of protein contains 4 calories.
Some people think that fats are unhealthy, but that is not entirely true. There are different types of fats, such as saturated, unsaturated, and trans fats. While unsaturated fats are healthy, saturated, and trans fats are harmful to the body and must be either taken in limited proportion or avoided. Fats are also an important source of energy and are necessary for insulation, proper cell function, and protection of the organs. Because they provide more energy (or calorie) to our body than carbohydrates and proteins, they must be consumed in moderation. Also, you must specifically look for diet plans that contain healthy or unsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats can be obtained from nuts, seeds, fatty fish, avocados, olive oils, and flaxseeds. Familiar sources of saturated and trans fats include butter, lard, fatty meats, cheese, cakes, biscuits, cookies, crackers, doughnuts, and stick margarine.
Note: 1 gram of fats contains 9 calories.
The amount of macronutrients a person should intake will depend on their lifestyle, goals, and personal preferences.
Now, let’s understand the second relevant categories of nutrients in healthy diet plans, the micronutrients. These are essential vitamins and minerals your body needs for energy production, immune function, blood clotting, bone health, brain health, fluid balance, and growth. Because the content of micronutrients in each food is different, it is crucial to consume a wide variety of foods to enjoy the benefits of various vitamins and minerals. Additionally, your body requires some micronutrients to prevent and fight diseases. Listed below are some common micronutrients you must know about:
- All vitamins
This includes all the types of water-soluble and fat-soluble vitamins, everything from vitamin A to vitamin K. Each cell and organ in our body needs certain vitamins to function properly. Vitamins contribute to energy, metabolism, blood cell formation, and hundreds of other tasks.
Iron is necessary to carry blood from the lungs to other tissues and organs in the body. Some iron-rich foods include spinach, peas, broccoli, tofu, chicken liver, oysters, eggs, and tuna.
Calcium keeps your bones and teeth strong and is also very important for your heart, nervous system, and muscles. Foods high in calcium are milk, yogurts, cheese, sardines, and leafy greens.
Potassium helps your muscles and nerves function better. It also keeps your blood pressure levels in control and maintains fluid balance. Foods packed with this mineral include potatoes, tomatoes, kidney beans, avocado, salmon, and spinach.
Magnesium is part of more than 600 cellular processes in the body. It is also required for energy production, muscle, and nerve functions. Foods loaded with this mineral include spinach, collard, tamarind, okra, soy nuts, almonds, and flaxseeds.
As your body needs a wide variety of foods to get all the necessary macronutrients and micronutrients and stay healthy, it is crucial to choose a diet plan wisely.
Top healthy diet plans
Now, that you’re well aware of the many beneficial nutrients for your body, let’s have a look at the diet plans that can provide these. While there are many diet plans you can find online, most offer quick fixes and lack sustainability. However, there are a handful of diets that do live up to the hype, simply because they have worked for people who followed it diligently. Here, we have listed four such diet plans.
The Mediterranean diet
This diet is well-known for lowering “bad” cholesterol levels, controlling diabetes, improving heart health, and boosting brain health. While offering all these benefits, the Mediterranean diet also helps in weight loss.
How it works
It’s not a structured diet, so there is no single way to do it right. The diet focuses on foods commonly eaten by people around the Mediterranean region during the early 20th century. The foods included different fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and nuts.
Foods to eat
Mediterranean diet is high in plant-based foods and low in animal foods. However, eating fish and seafood, such as salmon, sardines, tuna, mackerel, and oysters, is a vital part of the diet. You can eat vegetables like tomatoes, carrots, and different types of leafy greens, and fruits like apples, bananas, oranges, and pears. One must also add mixed nuts and seeds, legumes, whole grains, eggs, poultry, dairy products, and healthy fats, like extra virgin olive oil, to their diet.
Foods to avoid
When following this healthy diet plan, you need to cut down unhealthy foods and ingredients, like added sugars, refined grains, trans fats, refined oils, processed meats, and highly processed food.
The Paleo diet
It is one of the most healthy diet plans known for weight loss and significant health improvements. It can control the blood pressure level, reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, and prevent heart diseases.
How it works
The idea behind the Paleo diet is to eat like our paleolithic ancestors. With this diet plan, there is no one right way for all. People can eat a low-carb diet that is high in animal food or consume a high-carb diet with plenty of plant-based foods.
Foods to eat
The Paleo diet is based on whole, unprocessed foods. This includes unprocessed meats like beef, lamb, pork, chicken, and turkey. Other foods include fish and seafood, such as salmon, trout, shellfish; vegetables, like broccoli, kale, peppers, onions, carrots, tomatoes; nuts and seeds, like almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, and pumpkin seeds; and salt and spices, like sea-salt, garlic, and turmeric.
Foods to avoid
When following the Paleo diet, the number one food you need to eliminate is processed foods. Other foods to avoid include all dairy products, cereal grains, legumes, starchy vegetables, like potatoes, artificial sweeteners, sugary soft drinks, and fruit juices. Essentially, foods that were not readily available to the Paleolithic humans should not be a part of this diet.
The DASH diet
DASH stands for Dietary approaches to stop hypertension. It is one of the most effective diet plans designed to treat and prevent high blood pressure.
How it works
Understanding how the DASH diet works is pretty simple. All you need to do is load up your diet with blood pressure-deflating nutrients, such as calcium, potassium, protein, and fiber. Also, you need to keep foods high in saturated fats, like fatty meats and dairy products, off-limits. It’s a well-balanced diet that people can follow for the long term to keep their heart healthy.
Foods to eat
The DASH diet comprises all heart-healthy foods. People following the diet must consume a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables; whole grains, like whole-grain bread and brown rice; and ancient grains, like bulgur, quinoa, and oatmeal. Other foods like fat-free cheese, milk, and yogurt, lean meats, nuts, seeds, legumes, and healthy vegetable-based oils are a part of this diet plan.
Foods to avoid
Following the DASH diet means strictly limiting or avoiding any food that can increase the blood pressure levels. This means eliminating sugar products like candies, cookies, cakes, sugary fruit juices, and energy drinks. It is also important to reduce alcohol intake, as it raises the blood pressure.
The Flexitarian diet
This healthy diet plan promises several benefits. It can help people achieve weight loss goals and reduce the risk of cancer. And like all the other diet plans on this list, the Flexitarian diet can help manage diabetes and reduce the risk of heart disease.
How it works
The Flexitarian diet is a combination of two words: flexible and vegetarian, created by dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner. By following this diet, people can reap health benefits associated with vegetarianism, without eliminating meat from their lives. The diet is flexible and focuses on including more vegetarian foods. The ultimate goal is to eat as many plant-based foods as possible and reduce the consumption of meat.
Foods to eat
The purpose of the diet is to include more plant-based proteins and whole foods that are minimally processed. You can get proteins from soybeans, tofu, tempeh, legumes, and lentils. The diet must also incorporate starchy vegetables like winter squash, peas, corn, and potatoes, and whole grains like quinoa, teff, buckwheat, and farro. For plant-based milk alternatives, you can choose from among almond, coconut, hemp, and soy milk. Finally, when you feel like eating animal products, you have choices like eggs, fish, meat, poultry, and dairy.
Foods to avoid
The diet specifically requires you to limit the amounts of meat and animal products, such as beef, bacon, sausage, and bologna. In addition to this, you must also limit highly processed foods; refined carbs like white bread, white rice, bagels, and croissant; foods with added sugar, and fast foods like fries and burgers.