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What makes something healthy?

By Kyle Sewell, Senior Trainer at Camberwell



  1. A state of physical, mental and social well-being in which disease and infirmity are absent.
  2. In a good physical or mental condition; in good health.

What makes something healthy?  Who deems a food healthy or unhealthy? Good or bad? Healthy (or not) depends on context. The definition of ‘healthy’ is now often based more on confirmation bias and opinion than facts.

A healthy diet is one that includes a variety of whole foods, either plant and/or animal-based that provide adequate nutrients to the body giving energy and keeping it running.

There is a perception that eating ‘healthy’ will equate to weight loss. The correlation between eating healthily and weight loss does have its merit, however simply eating better will not guarantee weight loss success. But it is a start. 

Successful weight loss requires two things, an energy (or calorie) deficit and hormonal balance. Consistency and patience round out the equation. Should these things be missing, the chances of losing weight will be severely challenged, regardless of how healthy one’s diet is.  An effective weight loss diet must keep hunger, energy, cravings under control whilst again providing the body adequate energy for daily function and maintaining homeostasis.

Throughout history there have been many perceptions as to what constitutes healthy eating and many dietary incarnations.  As far back as Ancient Greece, physicians identified diet as key in treating disease in their patients. Written in 1863, Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public was written by William Banting, an English undertaker. Letter on Corpulence is considered to be among the first diet books. In it, the formerly obese Banting described how “abstaining as much as possible from bread, butter, milk, sugar, beer and potatoes” helped him lose over 15kg.[1]

Fad diets have come, gone and stayed over the years. Think Keto, Atkins, Zone, 5:2, Cookie, Body for Life, Grapefruit, Beverly Hills, South Beach, Velocity, Cambridge and Carnivore to name a few. What do all these diets have in common? They all promote an energy deficit in some way shape or form. How many of these are healthy? How many teach lifestyle changes that are sustainable?

When looking globally at population groups and sustainably healthy lifestyles it is hard to look past peoples living in the Blue Zones[2]. Spread across Europe, Latin America, Asia and the U.S., researchers have identified these regions as having the lowest rates of chronic lifestyle diseases in the world. Peoples of these geographic regions are also extremely long lived, with many living beyond 90 and into their 100s.

Similarly following a Mediterranean diet, perhaps the most popular and well known of the Blue Zones are the peoples of Icaria, Greece and Sardinia, Italy.  Based on eating patterns and lifestyles dating back to the 1960s, their “diet” emphasizes fruits, vegetables, beans, bread and whole grains, lean proteins from fish, seafood, poultry and eggs, some dairy mainly from cheese and yoghurt, with moderate amounts of red wine plus coffee as a staple.  Making up the bulk of energy are good healthy fats from nuts and extra virgin olive oil. Fad diet or no, multiple studies have rated the Mediterranean Diet as “the World’s Best Diet” multiple years running.

Another Blue Zone, the eating habits of the people of Japan’s Okinawa islands appear the near opposite to the higher fat content of their Mediterranean counterparts. With a big focus on carbohydrates (over 80%), it emphasizes fresh vegetables, particularly starchy vegetables like sweet potato, pumpkin, okra and daikon radish, plus noodles, and rice, alongside tofu, small amounts of pork and fish plus ample amounts of green tea.

People who reside in Blue Zones live exceptionally long and healthy lives compared to the rest of the world’s population. But it would appear that their eating habits can greatly vary. Then what do these populations have in common? Whole, minimally processed foods. Consistent, moderate physical activity, a strong family and community connection and eating slowly, mindfully and until satisfied, not full.

The human body adapts to many ways of eating. Peoples in the Artic circle and parts of Africa traditionally eat high amounts of animal proteins and fat and low in vegetables due to availability. Alternatively, many South Pacific peoples, the Amazon and elsewhere in Africa follow a low fat, high carbohydrate through lots of vegetables and starchy carbohydrates. 

So what constitutes as healthy eating? The “best diet” is ultimately one that you can stick to. It factors in energy balance, meaning eating the appropriate amount of food for your body and daily energy needs. Consuming adequate protein is vital. Whilst no single food will magically help to burn fat, research shows that protein may burn more energy when metabolised, promoting a greater thermogenic impact. Furthermore, protein-rich foods promote satiety, reducing cravings for high carbohydrate and fatty foods.

Choose whole, minimally processed foods. The closer food is to nature, the better. Eat lots of stuff that comes from the ground: this translates to fruits and (in particular) vegetables. These are fibre, water and nutrient dense foods, low in calories and high in volume which minimises the prospect of overconsumption.

Further lifestyle factors may impact weight loss and overall health. These include consistent, moderate physical activity, be it structured exercise or incidental activity, and having a strong social and community connection.

The “best diet” is ultimately one that you can stick to, therefore choose your definition of healthy.


[2] A non-scientific term first used by New York Times and National Geographic published author Dan Buettner. Regions identified include Icaria, (Greece), Ogliastra, Sardinia (Italy), Okinawa (Japan), Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica), Loma Linda, California (USA)

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