Healthy Eating Defined: Clearing up the Conflicting Messages

healthy eating defined

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Everywhere you look these days someone is touting one diet trend or another. Whether it’s swearing off all meat (vegetarian), all wheat (gluten-free), all grains and dairy (Paleo), or all animal products in general (vegan), let’s face it – unless you have a specific known allergy, there are a lot of conflicting messages out there. Plus on top of some of the more recent trends there are those who still stand by eating low-fat, low-carb, or low-calorie.

Then if you turn on popular health shows or flip through any big fitness magazine you’ll surely see that specific vitamins could improve memory, that some foods might promote better sleep, that particular nutrients can’t be absorbed together, or that certain antioxidants could even help you prevent cancer. I don’t know about you, but I cannot (and choose not) to keep up with intricate details like these. The stress alone of ensuring I follow a bunch of complicated guidelines – or counting every calorie or nutrient I eat – will surely take years off my life. Let’s remember that, aside from providing sustenance, food is supposed to be enjoyable and bring people together!

To be honest, I sometimes cringe a little when people generally classify me as someone who “eats healthy” because I am not sure exactly how “healthy” is being defined. And more often than not people assume that with my “healthy” lifestyle I don’t eat cream sauces, or cheeseburgers, or pizza. Thank goodness that is not true! Plus – since I am being so up front here – I didn’t exactly cut out processed food to get on some health kick in the first place. I did it because I thought it was the right thing to do. I (literally) could not sleep at night once I realized the foods I was feeding my children were full of chemicals, artificial dyes, and other strange-sounding ingredients I couldn’t even pronounce. That right there was enough motivation to transition our family to simple, wholesome, delicious, organic, real food meals, and the fact that we are all “healthier“ as a result was honestly just a wonderful side benefit.

So in the spirit of not being complicated or unrealistic, this is my simple definition of a healthy diet:

Healthy Eating = Consuming a variety of real, whole, unrefined foods that are provided to us by nature. This includes plenty of fresh produce as well as humanely raised animal products, wild caught seafood, nuts/seeds, and whole grains.

And just to make sure we are all on the same page, here is a more detailed definition of real food:

REAL FOOD is defined as…

  • Whole foods that typically only have 1-ingredient like “brown rice” or no ingredient label at all like fruits and vegetables!
  • Packaged foods generally made with no more than 5 unrefined ingredients.
  • Organic dairy products like whole milk, unsweetened yogurt, eggs, and cheese.
  • Breads and crackers that are 100% whole-grain.
  • Wild caught seafood.
  • Locally and humanely raised meat like chicken, pork, beef, and lamb.
  • Dried fruits, nuts, and seeds.
  • Naturally made sweeteners including honey and maple syrup.
  • Foods that are more a product of nature “than a product of industry”*

REAL FOOD is not…

  • Labeled as “low fat” or “low carb” or “low calorie” (in most cases).
  • Made with refined or artificial sweeteners like sugar or aspartame.
  • Deep fried in refined oils like canola oil.
  • 100-calorie packs or any foods made from refined grains like white flour, which is
    often labeled as “wheat flour” without the word “whole” in front of it.
  • In packages with loads of ingredients, some of which you cannot pronounce or would not cook with in your own kitchen.
  • Highly processed foods that are labeled as organic (like organic cheddar crackers, organic cookies, or organic candy).
  • From a drive through window or gas station.

*Source: In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

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72 thoughts on “Healthy Eating Defined: Clearing up the Conflicting Messages”

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  1. This is a great post!

    I think we all do get bombarded with these conflicting messages of what you “should” and “should not” eat that it’s become confusing everytime you sit down to eat! But if we’re eatiing “real food” then we can’t go wrong.

    I have been reading books and watching documentaries for years on the benefits of real food vs processed but I just haven’t been able to bite the bullet and give up my processed foods (they are addicting all right). Right before Christmas though I decided I had enough. I wasn’t doing myself any favors by eating like I was. So about a week and a half ago, my fiance and I ditched the processed foods. It was surprisingly easier than I thought it would be. I’m sure there will be those days that I want some fast food or some garbage out of a bag – old habits die hard! – but so far my overall cravings for food have even subsided!

  2. We spent two weeks staying with my parents over Christmas, which was a bit of a challenge since my mum is of the camp that all fat is EVIL! (she loves her margarine) and will make her fat. I have put on a few kilos (mostly due to not exercising) so that didn’t help my case that full-fat products are better for you.

    In the end I ate the low-fat cheese and milk to keep the peace, but bought some of my own butter, coconut oil, avocado and one-ingredient peanut butter. I am not going to convince her overnight. Unfortunately she saw a nutritionist who told her to buy the lowest fat margarine and we also have ads on TV showing how mums have “saved” their families from saturated fat by switching from butter to margarine. It’s a bit of an uphill battle!

  3. AMEN! Great post! My friends & family do not understand what I mean by not eating processed foods. It is so sad that people are so mislead about how to eat “healthy”. Sugar free, fat free and low fat have never made sense to me even before I started eating REAL food. Do you mind if I link this to my next blog post?

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Lori. Glad you enjoyed it. It’s fine to link back as long as you only post an excerpt with a full link back to our page. Jill

  4. Thank you so much for being reasonable about healthful eating. We are also thanks in large part ot your blog moving toward eating more real food. We are not 100% real food eaters, but trying to improve over time. I really appreciate your sage advice. What you suggest is not a fad, and can easily be incorporated into better living. Keep on posting Lisa.


  5. Very interesting, and helpful post (as always!), Lisa!

    What you do here is totally amazing and transformative to countless people and families!!! Please don’t take this as criticism, rather curiosity.

    My understanding: You didn’t make this change to be healthier, and better health was just a side effect. You thought it was the “right” thing to do.

    If not for health, why did all the chemicals, etc bother you? Why was/is it so important to you to make changes (avoid all the chemicals, etc) if you aren’t/weren’t considering health when you made this big switch?

    Perhaps, I view health as a broader spectrum than the “health” you were considering — I see happiness, mental health, well being, as well as the more traditional: heart health, cancer prevention, etc. to all make up health, which of course ALL gets better when one eats REAL FOOD!

    Thanks for all you do! And Happy New Year!!

    Colleen :)

    1. Funny, my husband asked me the same thing when he proof read this post. And I guess you often hear of people changing their diet because they want to lose weight, hope to improve allergies or asthma, desire more energy, or even help with an auto-immune disorder, etc. My daughter’s asthma and constipation improved after we changed our diet, but it was more like a pleasant surprise and not my original motivation. I personally already felt fairly “healthy” and active before we made the change, but I found it to be disturbing that I couldn’t even pronounce ingredients in the foods I was putting in my children’s bodies. Those foods were made with chemicals and preservatives and artificial ingredients even though the package claimed it was “good for you” – that is just wrong. I also like how wholesome food tastes better (I’ve always been a bit of a foodie) and realized I enjoyed it much more. But I guess to your point, in the end, it probably all somehow comes back to overall health…for example, Why get a good night’s sleep? To feel better (which is obviously better for you). Why avoid processed food? Because it’s not meant to be food (and therefore not good for us…or our health!) :) I hope that makes sense.

  6. I once read ‘if it wasn’t food 100 years ago, it isn’t food today’. I recently found your blog. Thank you for promoting real food. I live in a small town with only 2 little groceries and a half size “Mart”. Not always easy to find real food. We also have a Mennonite owned store with some real food (as well as junk food), so that helps. I grow gardens, use the freezer a lot, and eat what is on sale or in season as long as it is unprocessed. I cook large batches once a week and freeze in small portions (only myself and husband).

  7. There is a GREAT book I am reading now called The China Study. It promotes a whole foods, plant-based diet. Check it out!

  8. Yes. This. So much. I am so tired of people discovering this genius plan that’s going to be their ticket to perfect health, and them carrying on about how genius it is and how no one else knows and understands, and then never shutting up about it. And nearly always, this genius plan somehow falls into their general eating preferences anyway.

    Why is it so hard to understand that the “right” way to do things is the way it’s been done for eons, the way that takes some adjustment and some effort but is ultimately, in the long term, the most reasonable?

  9. Lisa – I am 100% with you. I don’t count calories or following a specific diet. I look at it as if God made it naturally on this earth and He designed your body, then your body knows how to process it. (I know not everyone is into the religious reference but it works for me) Thank you for continuing this blog. I look forward to reading it!!!

  10. Thanks for this post! Eating whole, real foods means not eating all that junk. When I kindly turn down junk food, people immediately say things like “you eat so healthy.” Not that it isn’t true, because eating real food is very healthy, but just like you mentioned, who knows what they assume “healthy” means. This post puts into words all that I want to say for myself.

  11. Hey Lisa! I, like others love your blog. I also believe that food serves the purpose of fuel for living and some fuel is good and some is crap.

    Whole grain/wheat and fruits&veggies are two areas I struggle to explain to my friends..

    I try the “spectrum” idea – where there is a spectrum of options (ex. from whole wheat to sprouted wheat and from apple juice to raw kale) when considering “real food”. I posted a lengthier comment on my blog – hope you like it!


  12. Thank you Lisa for this great article. I absolutely agree with you, although my definition of real food differs from yours: I include deep-frying, refined oils & grains, and regular sugar. I guess everybody makes his/her own rules, which is good.

    What I certainly do not include are the products of your newest sponsor. You nicely explain, how everybody is trying to sell as a different weird trend and now you are presenting your readers with a new sponsor, who tells us that (whole) grain is not good enough anymore, it has to be sprouted. Sprouted grain?! Whatever pseudo-scientific stuff that company is telling us, I personally stick with food that has a long tradition – don’t eat anything your grandmother would not have recognized;-) Also, I am not sure if sprouting grains is such a good idea, as the natural defense system of the grain is going to kick in when sprouting starts (google for benzoxazinoids). In the spirit of real food, “sprouted grains” is a trend I’ll happily ignore.

    1. What I like about my newest sponsor’s products is that they are whole grain (sprouted grain or not). Speaking of scientific studies, I would love for you to share how exactly the refined grains that you mention would be better for you than eating a whole grain product like this? Here are 2 posts that might be of interest: and

      1. 1. Sprouted grain versus non-sprouted grain: I am personally not a fan of sprouted grains for the already mentioned reasons (toxic components).
        2. Whole grain versus refined grain: as shown in your article, whole grain has more trace elements and vitamins in comparison to refined grains; on the other hand, refined grains have less phytic acid and lectins. Neither the higher amounts of phytic acids and lectins in whole grains nor the lower amounts of vitamins and minerals in refined grain scare me and I eat both.

        The question whether the one or other is “better” for you is hard to answer as just looking at single ingredients might be a too simplistic approach. Traditionally, human beings tested the safety of food the hard way. Therefore, I prefer to stick with products with a long history and am cautious about new creations the food industry is bombarding us with like HFCS or sprouted grain pasta.

        To cite Michael Pollan: “Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians.” – good advice, all three nations have excellent food, high life expectancy, and eat refined grains. Those nations have proven for centuries that you can have excellent nutrition although eating refined grains. It does not show (and I never claimed), that refined grains are better than whole grains, but it shows that they are not harmful and therefore a general bashing of refined grains is not justified.

  13. Thank you for posting this! I have a hard time getting people to understand that eating real food is not a “diet,” but rather it’s a lifestyle. We made changes gradually, and I can’t say enough how much eliminating processed food has made a difference in how we feel. In addition, a natural next step in our lifestyle change was switching to health and beauty products with minimal/organic/fair-trade ingredients (I’ve even started making my own), since they’re absorbed through your skin, and cutting out pharmaceuticals by seeing an herbalist and using herbal remedies for pretty much everything you might use OTC drugs for. The human body’s ability to heal itself when it’s well nourished and free of man-made garbage is amazing! Thanks again for all your hard work!

  14. Great post as usual! I agree with you and everyone else. It can feel overwhelming sometimes for me but that is because I fail to plan everything out. That has always been my problem, not the food, lol! In the world we live in now, it’s just not always possible to consume real food in every situation. We won’t croak and we will be fine! I am excited to grow heirloom veggies this year in the little gardening space that we have. This is the cheapest way to get real food year after year. Plant seeds, they grow, eat, save seeds, and repeat.

  15. Lisa – I started following your blog last year and as our New Year’s resolution my husband and I took the 10 day pledge…which turned into 30 days, then 100 days, and now shapes our regular eating habits every day. Thank you so much for continuing to post these healthy reminders, as well as new recipes – it helps keep us on track! You have certainly changed our lives and we are forever grateful for you introducing us to a healthier lifestyle!

  16. Hi Lisa, I enjoy reading your blog about eating healthy, unprocessed foods. I’ve been eating this way since I was little, based on my grandfather’s belief: “don’t compromise on your stomach.” Lately, I’ve had issues with wheat/gluten and continue to bake using quinoa or coconut flour, and almond meal with great results. Recently, I’ve learned about the hazards of eating cow’s milk products and the idea that they actually leach calcium from our bones. Have you done any investigations on this? I live in Holland and love cheese. This one would be tough to give up! Any thoughts would be most appreciated!

    1. Pasteurized milk will leach calcium from your body. Raw milk will not. Most cheeses are pasteurized too. The best way to go is to make your own from raw milk. Unfortunately.

    2. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Jennifer. No, we have not done any specific research on this. Sorry we can’t be of further help. Thanks for reading the blog…we’re glad you’re enjoying it. Jill

  17. Food us food, just food. We are conned into thinking that if it says something else, such as healthy it is better for us. I think breakfast cereals are one of the main culprits, manufactured bread being another. So let’s just eat food.

  18. If my grandma couldn’t buy it (or her mom couldn’t make it) when she was a child, I don’t want it. Except maybe shortening, and if they had it, they used it as a cheap replacement for CANDLES. Not to EAT! blech.

    I began this food journey because two of my kids were out of control and watched a miracle in terms of behavior improvement. Ive been eating it along with them and gaining muscle mass! I just noticed my arms are more defined and I don’t exercise. I’ve gained about 1 lb each month since we started in July but my clothes fit far better. Yyyesss!

  19. I agree completely! Your definition is exactly what my family strives toward and what I gear my health coaching clients towards. It can seem overwhelming at first to give up the processed, convenient foods, but with a little planning, eating this way can truly be simple, quick and yummy!

  20. Lisa, I just want to say that this post is absolutely insightful. You have concisely defined healthy and further explained what NEEDS to be promoted in all media outlets as the realistic definition of healthy eating. I congratulate you for yet another post showing us all how to work towards better health through thoughtful eating! Please keep up the great work! -Sherra, McDonald, Tennessee

  21. Hip Hip Hooray!
    Thanks so much for posting such an honest and up-front explanation of this current situation. I find it mind-boggling that so many people find it difficult to understand you can eat whole food and still enjoy lots of flavour and richness along with good health.
    Please keep informing us and encouraging the companies that support this way of life.

  22. Thank you for posting this! I was talking to my dh and we decided that you can “prove” anything you want to using the internet these days – if you want to prove soy is good/bad, you will. You want to prove whole grains are good/bad, you will. At some point and time you just need to sit back and decide for yourself. Being a believer in God, I feel like He knew what He was doing when He created the earth, including all of our food. So your statement “Consuming a variety of real, whole, unrefined foods that are provided to us by nature.” is the exact conclusion that I have come to. If people have modified it (chemical additives, GMOs, etc) than it always seems to have negative outcomes. This message is simple and to the point!!

  23. Doesn’t it get tiring worrying about what you should eat, won’t eat, blah, blah, blah! It was making me crazy! Then I just decided that I highly doubt that French women are worrying about not eating grains, or dairy, or having too much fat, so I’m not going to anymore either! (Because for a while, I became a crazy lady about doing everything just so. Then I realized I could be headed for orthorexia….no thanks!)

    So now we eat whatever we can pick, hunt, fish, gather or milk. Just the way my grandparents did and lived well into their 90s. I do of course avoid processed food, chemicals and dyes, but other than that, I just eat! My sister died at 39 unexpectedly and I could just hear her screaming in my ear to just enjoy life and stop worrying about whether a paleo lifestyle, vegetarian or whatever, was the best and healthiest way to go! Just enjoy life, do the best you can and stop stressing out about which diet is best. Life is too short and I want to laugh and play and eat some good food! :)

  24. I overheard a friend describe me as, “just really into health food.” It frustrated me because she knew the reason we changed our diet is because of my sons’ behavioral and physical reactions to food additives. I guess it’s just a pain to explain it all.

  25. So funny that you should write this today as I am being overwhelmed with all the info I have been reading. I am feeling very overwhelmed and having long discussions with many people about it that are causing me to stress out. Just trying to take a breathe of fresh air and remember what you said. Thanks for that!

  26. great post….you took the words out of my mouth!!
    and this is what i know about canola oil, is toxic and very unhealthy oil and a very highly and refined oil that is heated at high temperatures and treated with hexane a fluid used in dry cleanning, the refinement process of canola oil involves bleaching and degumming which requires the use of more chemicals of questionable safety.

  27. I noticed the part where it says to use organic “whole” milk. Does that mean no using non-fat, 1%, or 2%? If so, why?

    1. Darla- Nature intended milk to be full fat. All of the other ones, non-fat, 1%, etc, have been processed. Our brains need fat! Consisting of 65% fat, they need good fats to function, and the children need it to make bigger, smarter brains! We went to whole milk a couple of years ago and it is just so darn good! I gladly give my kids milk when they ask for it knowing that they are getting all those great minerals, but giving their brain the very thing it is starving for: Fat!

      1. Thank you for your reply. I no longer have children. I always gave them 2% and I have been using nonfat. You were the second person I have heard say to use whole milk and I was curious about your rationale. The other reason I had heard was that when the fat is removed, the sugar concentration is then higher. Seems there is validity to both of your reasonings. Again thanks.

      2. If you have fresh milk from the cow, the cream and fat rises to the top. It is easy to “skim” the fat off. Is this processing? I agree that 1%, 2% etc is more processed than skim or whole and the milk you buy in the conventional grocery is probably more processed than fresh milk from a cow. But I don’t think skimming milk is processing it. ” Nature intended milk to be full fat. ” Nature also intended milk to be consumed by a baby cow directly from the teet, but we don’t let that stop us. I think drinking skimmed milk is fine.

      3. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

        Hi Matolbert…I think that is fine if you are simply skimming what rises to the top. Jill

  28. I was just commenting on FB earlier that there’s no “big secret” to losing weight if you need to. Eat less, make what you do eat GOOD eating, and exercise more. That’s it. I’m fat… but my food choices are not to blame (well, for the most part… i did eat chocolate over Christmas). My portion sizes are to blame, and the fact that I work from my desk and so I don’t make time to exercise. :)

    1. So true! I think that is something I’m struggling with as I work to make the move to Real Food: I still have to watch my portion sizes carefully! Eating 4 cups of brown rice is not okay even if it is brown rice! Even with Real Food, we have to watch our portion sizes in order to be healthy. Moderation is key!

  29. Breads and crackers that are 100% whole-grain….even those that are 100% whole grain have bad ingredients in them. I just bake my own bread and crackers.

  30. I agree with what you wrote, except that I include refined grains.

    Martha Rose Shulman wrote this in her Recipes for Health ( series in the New York Times:

    “Rice is a thoroughly sustaining food. According to Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid in “Seductions of Rice,” a beautiful, well researched survey of rice traditions around the world , “Rice has the highest protein digestibility and energy digestibility among all the staple foods.” In most rice-consuming cultures, rice is supplemented with vegetables and legumes, small amounts of meat and fish, and oil.

    “I don’t share the current national aversion to white rice. True, nutritionists prefer brown rice because the high fiber content slows down the carbohydrate absorption rate. But you can get the same benefit by combining rice with high-fiber vegetables and legumes.

    “Mr. Alford and Ms. Duguid make another interesting point about the nutritional quality of brown rice:

    “‘It is true that brown rice has more calcium and iron as well as higher protein levels and significantly more of the B vitamins [and] more fiber than white rice. But brown rice is less digestible than white . . . rice. The aleurone layer and embryo, still present in brown rice, contain phytate phosphorus, which seems to interfere with the absorption of calcium, zinc, and iron.’

    “Bottom line: if you prefer white rice, just make sure you’re also eating lots of vegetables or beans with it.”

    Though I do eat some whole grains, I prefer refined grains to whole grains and I do eat a lot of vegetables, fruits, and beans.

    People in much of Europe and Asia have been eating refined grains for centuries. As Michael Pollan also said, “Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks. Confounding factors aside, people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally healthier than we are. Any traditional diet will do: if it weren’t a healthy diet, the people who follow it wouldn’t still be around.”

    1. Thank you for this! I had really been thinking about if I should give up ALL refined grains or not, but I was thinking that “traditional foods” are usually not whole grain. (I was thinking of Japanese white rice and Italian pasta for examples.) We eat mostly whole grain foods, but I am glas to her there are others out there to support my desire to eat white flour tortillas with my bean burritos!

    2. I could not agree more with your comment. It seems to be engraved in US Americans’ minds that whole grain is better for you, while the “healthiest” nations (e.g. Japanese, French, Italians) are mostly consuming refined grains. Maybe it is time to get rid of that false dogma. I personally eat what I prefer taste wise, which is mostly refined grains (pasta, rice, tortillas, pizza, cookies, cakes).

  31. I love that Dierdre, “drop the titles and live”.
    I try to live by that. I do eat mostly organic but I try not to broadcast it (besides right now :p). I just make most of our food at home from scratch and I hope to influence my family to do the same.
    When my husband and I were first married, we were the junkiest eaters. When I became pregnant we decided to swear off soda because we didn’t want our children drinking it. Then, after our daughter was born we watched Food Inc. and that is when we really became conscious of what we were eating. It started out as staying away from gmo’s, but now I have been learning about all these other additives in our food that are completely worthless and harmful. I don’t buy anything prepackaged unless it’s organic. And even then, you have to look out for junk.
    Anyways. Didn’t mean to write out my food life story :) I just wanted to say, that no matter what you are eating just be concerned about your own family and what your needs are. Eat real foods and ignore all the hype and fads. I’ve been keeping a food diary lately, and its crazy how many grain products I eat. I’m still undecided on how healthy even whole grains are, but I’m sure I don’t need a grain at every meal and for every snack.
    I feel like I’m writing a blog post, so I better quit now. :p

    1. Your funny! Thanks for sharing! Great job taking your families health into your hands. If we dont, no one else will.
      We are big on smoothies. I have 3 kids and smoothies are the trick to getting them to eat spinach, kale and broccoli.
      There are some more documentaries too

      Genetic roulette
      Hungry for change
      Food matters

      All fairly new. Great info.
      Thanks for sharing!

  32. Try sunflower, coconut (yes, it’s healthy), sesame, walnut oils. All are good for you and not as expensive as you might think. Unless you are deep frying that is!

  33. I love this post! Its so easy to get caught up in the riff raff of details. There are so many stereotypes out there for healthy eaters. I was raised vegetarian, now I eat meat. Wild, free range organic…. Healthier now then when I was a “potato chip” vegetarian. titles are dangerous in any setting. With titles are placed unreasonable expectations and stress. Same when claiming one religion over another.
    I always encourage people to drop the titles and LIVE.
    Thanks for all you do!

  34. Hello
    I was under the impression that canola oil was one of the better ones… as opposed to vegetable oil. I cant use olive oil for everything is there an AFFORDABLE, healthier option?

    1. Canola oil does have a healthy fat profile and it’s great for frying (or use at high temperatures)because heat doesn’t alter its chemistry. The problem is that it’s got a bad rep for being a genetically modified product. I don’t lump all getically modified products into the same basket and continue to use canola oil, myself.

  35. Thank you! Been trying to be more aware for about 6 months but am now taking a more active look at what we eat and it can be so overwhelming. I could see muskeg getting carried away and then getting burned out and giving up. This will help me focus!

  36. Great post! It can be so confusing for people when they look to TV and magazines for advice. Most of them suggest a low-fat diet that includes processed foods that are laden with chemicals. Thank you for putting this clearly so everyone can understand.

  37. I couldn’t agree more with this simple definition of a healthy diet. I think everyone could benefit from more simple, real food meals and I think it’s much easier than trying to follow a prescribed “diet” system. Just eat real food!