Forget Everything, This Is What A 'Healthy Diet' Means

Ignore the fad diets and restriction.

27/06/2016 7:06 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:54 PM AEST
It's about progress, not perfection.

"Eating healthy is impossible." We've all said it, we've all thought it and many of us believe it.

But it's not. Well, it doesn't have to be.

"One thing I've noticed more than anything else is that people seem to think eating healthy is really hard. I think that's a real shame because it doesn't need to be," Chloe McLeod, accredited practising dietitian, told The Huffington Post Australia.

Lisa Renn, accredited practising dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, agrees, saying popular fad diets have confused us and complicated the idea of healthy eating.

"It can be easy -- it's only as hard as you make it," she said.

This is a big problem with the perception of healthy now, that people have to be perfect, so they don't bother. Perfection is impossible and not necessary.

"I've been a dietitian for 16 years and in the early days of my career I thought people would know what healthy eating is and that I would feel obsolete telling them what it's all about," Renn said.

"But now, because of all the conflicting information available online, people have absolutely no idea what healthy eating is anymore."

So, let's try to stop the confusion. This is what a healthy diet means.


Knowing that eating healthy isn't about perfection

With so many different diets and conflicting statements, it's no wonder we've lost sight of what it means to have a healthy, balanced diet. Keyword: balance.

"This is a big problem with the perception of healthy now, that people have to be perfect, so they don't bother. Perfect is impossible and not necessary," Renn told HuffPost Australia.

"Try not to think, 'if I'm eating healthy I'm never having a biscuit or takeaway'. That is an unsustainable position. These all have a place in our diet -- a small place, but it's there."

Healthy eating is not a punishment and it doesn't mean you can't have fun with food.

"Try not to get sucked into the extreme messages of 'avoid this and avoid that' because that's not part of a healthy diet," Renn said.

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Having your favourite burger doesn't make you bad or mean you're 'failing'.

Ditching the diets and labels

"I find it really frustrating because a lot of the claims made by fad diets have enough truth in them that they sound like it all must be true, like any good lie," McLeod told HuffPost Australia.

"Trying to sell that one size fits all is actually not the best approach -- everybody is different. If you're not sure what your needs are, see someone who's going to make it specialised and individualised for you."

Take for example removing gluten from your diet.

"For some people they feel better if they include wheat and gluten in their diets, whereas for other people they feel better without them. That doesn't mean a gluten free diet is better or worse than a gluten containing diet, it just depends on what's best for that individual," McLeod said.

The same approach goes for labelling food as 'good', 'bad' or 'rewards'.

"When people make it too complicated they confuse themselves and avoid perfectly healthy foods (for example, fruit)," Renn said.

"Even labelling food as 'good' or bad', which is a tendency we all have, is really unhelpful as it can translate to emotional eating. When you put so much restriction on, the only way out is to rebel and eat what you know is really unhealthy food."

Stop pinning one against the other. Enjoy both, but simply more of the left.

Focusing on the three macronutrients

The three macronutrients important for overall health are: carbohydrates, protein and fats. One is not the devil, one is not an angel -- they are all important and come in a variety of forms.

1. Carbohydrates

I think carbohydrates are the main area of confusion," Renn told HuffPost Australia. "What we need are good carbohydrates (our body's main source of energy), which are whole grains and high fibre."

The easiest way to find the best carbohydrate option is to look at the fibre column in the nutrition information panel and choose the highest amount per gram.

"This goes for cereal, muesli bars, bread, pasta and so on. That will be the best choice," Renn said.

"Quantity of course matters -- if you eat too much of everything it's going to be extra calories. Just because it's good for you doesn't mean you can't eat too much of it."

Keep calm and eat carbs.

2. Protein

Protein is another macronutrient which is a really important part of the diet.

"Protein is a source of nutrients, as well as being important for growth and repair," Renn said. "Protein also makes us feel full and satisfied after eating."

Whether you're a meat eater, pescetarian, vegetarian or vegan, you can get good quality protein in adequate amounts.

"You can have vegetarian protein like legumes, tofu, nuts and seeds or it can be meat, poultry, seafood, dairy and eggs," Renn said.

3. Fat

"The other macronutrient is fat and there's lots of different fats," Renn said. "Vegetable based fats are the healthier fat and oils, and the less healthy (generally speaking) are the visible fats on some meat."

"Healthy fats from different nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil and oily fish are the best sources," McLeod said.

Eating as many vegetables as you can

Aside from these macronutrients, aim to eat legumes (such as lentils, chickpeas and kidney beans) and as many vegetables as you can.

"Then you've got your fruit and vegetables. Just get two serves of fruit and five serves of veg," Renn said.

What it comes down to is appreciating there is no 'perfect' diet.

If you feel like eating enough vegetables is impossible (and, as a result, you don't try), start slow and work your way up. It's about progress not perfection.

"Only eight percent of Australian adults eat enough vegetables on a daily basis. It's scary," McLeod told HuffPost Australia. "Vegetables are the cornerstone of a healthy diet.

"And if you tolerate them, include legumes."

Limiting (not restricting) processed foods

"What it comes down to is reducing your overall consumption of processed foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt," McLeod said.

"Aim to eat foods which comes in its natural form for the majority of your diet -- this will result in the best benefits."

And if you do eat something that's on the unhealthy side, don't worry. Enjoy it and gently get back on the healthy wagon.

"What it comes down to is appreciating there is no 'perfect' diet," McLeod said.

Keeping it simple

"This may be a boring answer but how your grandmother ate is potentially how we need to eat," Renn told HuffPost Australia.

"Simply minimise takeaway foods, cook at home, have a high fibre cereal for breakfast, a nice salad sandwich and piece of fruit for lunch, and meat (or vegetarian alternative) and vegetables for dinner."

Here are examples of healthy day's worth of meals.


"Of course, you can tailor these to your individual needs to fit the general guidelines," McLeod said.


  • Poached, fried, scrambled or boiled eggs with whole grain toast, avocado, tomatoes, spinach and mushroom
  • Rolled oats with banana and berries, chia seeds and yoghurt


  • Lentil and vegetable soup with whole grain toast
  • Chicken salad with chickpeas
  • Whole grain roll or sandwich with mixed salad, cheese, and lean meat (e.g. sliced turkey or leftover roast meat)

Eating healthy doesn't have to be fancy.


  • Grilled salmon with grains and sweet potato
  • Meat or tofu and vegetable stir fry with brown rice
  • Grilled steak, chicken or fish with roast potato and salad or vegetables


  • Handful of mixed unsalted nuts
  • Tub of low fat yoghurt with fresh strawberries or frozen berries
  • Piece of fresh fruit
  • Vegetable sticks (carrot, celery, cucumber, capsicum) with tzatziki or hummus dip
  • Reduced fat cheese with wholegrain crackers
  • Piece of wholegrain toast with natural peanut butter
  • Sliced apple or celery sticks with natural peanut butter
  • Air popped popcorn
  • Small reduced fat coffee or hot chocolate

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