Take a minute to think about what “healthy” food means to you. Is it something low-calorie? Low-fat? Low-carb? Filling without containing very much substance? That’s not healthy food, that’s diet food. There’s a difference.
You see, healthy habits are ones you can keep up sustainably. When you are dieting, as in trying to lose weight, your goal is to eat unsustainably little food. Weight loss is, by definition, not a healthy habit. You are under-nourishing yourself on purpose to make your body smaller. But you can’t shrink forever, and it certainly wouldn’t be healthy if you did.
So if you decide you’re going to lose weight by eating salads and chicken breasts instead of burgers and fries, you’re doing two things at once. You are eating more vegetables and maybe healthier fats—these are healthy habits—and you are eating fewer calories than before.
Yes, we often combine the goals of getting healthier and losing weight. But they are not the same thing. Just eating healthier, without making sure you have a calorie deficit, won’t make you lose weight, and you’ll be disappointed if you expect it will. On the flip side, you should eat healthy even when you’re not trying to lose weight.
There is a weight-gaining forum on Reddit that is notoriously full of people complaining that it’s hard to hit their target calories while eating chicken breasts and steamed veggies. Well, of course it is. That’s diet food. The reason people eat it is because it’s low-calorie. But we get the idea that low-calorie food is healthy, and then we’re afraid of being “unhealthy” if we eat anything other than diet food.
What it looks like to eat healthy without dieting
So what is “healthy” if it’s not low-calorie? It’s stuff like this:
- Fruits and vegetables of all colors
- Whole grains
- “Good” fats, like those found in plant oils
- Variety, because each food has a different selection of vitamins and nutrients
- Not too much added sugar
It’s also mentally healthy to be able to enjoy some treats without beating yourself up about it.
We’ve got a guide here with some ideas about how to improve your diet without counting calories. It’s not just about iceberg lettuce and chicken breasts. You can have chicken thighs, for chrissakes. You can put grains and hearty veggies and rich dressings on your salads. You can eat—and I know this is a shocker—potatoes.
And don’t forget that, in most cases, healthy food should come in large portions, not small ones. What’s the point of having a 400-calorie salad for lunch if you’re just going to get hungry and grab a 300-calorie candy bar later? Do yourself a favor and just eat 700 calories of nutritious food in the first place.