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  • Writer's pictureScott Pettey

What Makes Food Healthy?

Updated: Mar 23, 2022

Food composition has four components—protein sources, carbohydrate sources, fat sources, and micronutrient sources. Within these groups, a food’s impact on health is determined by three important factors: the concentration of micronutrients, the effect on energy levels, and the effect on hunger. Let’s briefly discuss the four components of food composition and an important concept relating to hunger management—food volume.

Protein Sources

The most health promoting protein sources are lean animal products, and complete or complementary vegan/vegetarian protein sources. Unfortunately, not all proteins are created equal.

A complete protein provides all the essential amino acids necessary for health. Animal products like meat, eggs, milk, fish—some plant sources like soy and quinoa—are examples of complete proteins. Most plant sources—spinach, lentils, nuts, rice, etc—are incomplete proteins and require complementary sources to ensure you get the full spectrum of amino acids.

If the majority of your protein intake is from complete sources you’re covered. If you don’t eat animal products that’s perfectly fine, you’ll just need to take some extra precautions:

  • Focus on consuming complete protein sources like soy and quinoa, or pair multiple protein sources together that compliment each other—like rice and beans—to get the full amino acid profile.

  • Eat slightly more protein than is generally recommended to meat eaters.

Carbohydrate Sources

The most health promoting carbohydrate sources are vegetables, fruits, and whole grains because they check the three boxes highlighted in the introduction. Veggies, fruits, and whole grains:

  • Are packed with micronutrients—vitamins, minerals, and fiber

  • Provide sustained energy throughout the day due to their effect on blood sugar levels

  • Curb hunger and help control calorie intake because of the high food volume (more on this later)

Fat Sources

There’s four basic types of fat:

  • Monounsaturated Fats—olive oil, nuts, avocado

  • Polyunsaturated Fats—salmon, corn oil, sunflower oil

  • Saturated Fats—butter, cheese, meats

  • Trans Fat—found in some heavily processed foods to increase shelf life

Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are most health promoting—particularly for cardiac health—and should make up the majority of your fat intake. Two types of polyunsaturated fats, Omega-3 and Omega-6, are necessary for health and are only obtained through diet. Excess saturated fat intake is associated with negative health outcomes—particularly cardiac health—and is best consumed in moderation. Trans fats have reliably shown negative effects on health and as a result, the FDA has recently banned them from being added to processed foods.

Micronutrient Sources

Vitamins, minerals, and fiber are essential for health. However, once you’ve taken in a sufficient amount, more is not necessarily better and chronic over consumption of vitamins, minerals, and fiber can have negative effects on health. If you consume adequate calories from a varied, well balanced diet consisting mostly of foods in the above categories you’ll likely meet all micronutrient requirements.

When should you consider supplementing micronutrients?:

  • If you eat a restricted diet or restrict certain food groups

  • If you are vegan or vegetarian—B vitamins and iron are usually found in animal products

Food Volume

Food volume describes the physical size of the food you consume per calorie it provides. And in the case of dieting—size does matter. The biggest issue, overwhelmingly, when it comes to diet is managing hunger. If you’re chronically hungry you’re more likely to over consume calories and experience changes in your bodyweight and body composition.

Besides the micronutrient content, what really makes foods like lean meats, veggies, fruits, and whole grains healthy is their food volume. You get a physically large amount of food to eat for a disproportionately small number of calories. Let’s looks at an example below:

In terms of physical weight, the granola weighs roughly one tenth of a pound, whereas the carrots weigh a whopping 1.5 pounds! Yet both plates contain 250 calories. It’s clear one of these plates would barely count as an appetizer for most people, and the other would be damn near impossible to finish—I’ll let you decide which plate is the appetizer..

The issue isn’t that granola is unhealthy or bad for you, and it absolutely can fit in the context of a healthy diet. The issue is when you consume mostly low volume foods, they don’t fill you up and it’s easy to overeat calories—there’s a reason Lay’s potato chips has the slogan “betcha can’t eat just one”.


Most people eating a typical American diet will experience an increase in health by bringing their food composition closer to the following guidelines:

  • Getting protein from complete or complementary protein sources.

  • Getting carbohydrates mainly from vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.

  • Getting fats from a balance of sources that favor monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, and limiting saturated fat intake.

  • Consume foods that are high in micronutrients—vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

  • Most of the time choosing foods that have high food volume—particularly lean meats, veggies, fruits, and whole grains.

  • Don’t forget to sprinkle in some fun foods you enjoy in moderation—this will help you stay consistent choosing healthy foods most of the time.

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