How to Eat Healthy—and Why

Eating a diet rich in whole plant foods, lean, high-protein foods, and healthy fats can curb your risk of numerous diseases.

antioxidant foods

Make sure your diet includes antioxidants; pecans, gala apples, strawberries, blackberries, black plums, and, of course, blueberries—all pictured here—are among the options. Wild blueberries rank with small red beans and red kidney beans (dried) as the most generous antioxidant-yielding foods you'll find.

© Robyn Mackenzie |

The foods you place on your plate every day are far more powerful than you realize. If you choose to eat certain foods while limiting or avoiding other foods, you can have a major impact on your overall health. So it’s important to understand how to eat healthy.

Hundreds of studies, after all, suggest that you can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, inflammatory diseases, age-related eye diseases, kidney diseases, liver diseases, obesity, and other health problems by learning how to eat healthy.

Threats to Your Health

Researchers now know that one common root of chronic diseases is inflammation and oxidative stress. While acute inflammation—the body’s natural reaction that defends your body against an injury or assault—is a good thing, chronic inflammation is not. Acute inflammation subsides once your body has successfully fought off a threat. But when chronic inflammation is present, your body’s inflammatory reaction fails to shut off or becomes activated when there is no real trigger.

This ongoing inflammation, which may last for days, weeks, or even years, can contribute to many diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, neurological degeneration, and pulmonary diseases.

Oxidative stress and inflammation go hand in hand. Oxidative stress occurs when the level of free radicals (unstable, reactive molecules) in your body exceeds your body’s capacity to neutralize these substances, which can damage cells, proteins, and DNA.

Your diet comes into play because antioxidants and other substances in foods can help counter chronic inflammation and oxidative stress in your body. Conversely, an unhealthy diet may promote inflammation and oxidative stress.

Studies have shown that diets high in refined starches, sugars, saturated fats, and trans fats and low in plant foods and fish appear to activate the body’s inflammatory response. This dietary pattern is called the “Western diet” because it is typical in industrialized nations, including the U.S.

However, a diet rich in whole plant foods, healthful carbohydrates and fats, and lean, high-protein foods cools down inflammation in the body. This dietary pattern is what most health organizations recommend for optimal health.

How to Eat Healthy: Your Diet Plan

A healthful diet plan emphasizes nutrient-rich foods, including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and fish. These foods as part of your diet plan provide your body with essential vitamins, minerals, and other compounds that offer health benefits. And, filling your plate with nutrient-rich foods can help keep your calorie counter in a range that supports a healthy weight.

Plant foods are rich in phytochemicals, plant compounds that serve as a natural defense system. Phytochemicals are found in the plant’s skin and flesh. Scientists have identified thousands of phytochemicals in plant foods, with new ones being discovered all the time.

Phytochemicals also provide protective benefits to humans who eat them. Phytochemicals have strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activities that have been shown to help protect against chronic disease. In addition, research has revealed other beneficial actions of phytochemicals.

By eating a rainbow of whole plant foods, you can gain the benefits of eating an array of phytochemicals.

Finding Phytochemicals—and Why You Should

Phytochemicals, as well as vitamins, minerals, and fiber, are found at the highest levels in whole, unrefined plant foods. When plant foods are peeled, ground up, and mixed with unhealthful fats, sodium, and sugars, they lose their powerful nutrient profile.

However, don’t confuse highly processed, refined foods with foods that have been canned (without added salt or sugar), frozen, or cooked. Most whole foods retain the majority of their nutrients if they are cooked, frozen, or canned. Keeping canned and frozen foods on hand helps ensure that you always have nutrient-rich foods available for your healthy meal plans, regardless of what is currently in season.

Science has shown that specific foods show particular promise for fighting disease. These “superfoods,” which include proteins, whole grains, vegetables, fruits, beverages, fats, herbs, and spices, can easily be added to your daily diet.

Originally published in May 2016 and updated.

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Dawn Bialy

Dawn Bialy has been executive editor of Weill Cornell Medicine’s Women’s Health Advisor newsletter since 2007. Bialy also has served as managing editor for a variety of special health reports, … Read More

View all posts by Dawn Bialy

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