What is the healthiest diet? The answer is about more than just food.
Interested in a new diet trend you saw on TikTok? If you’re looking for a way to eat healthier, it can be hard to know where to turn with so much contradicting, often misleading information on social media. Diet culture can also have mental and emotional health impacts, including disordered eating and anxiety.
But if you’re looking to make a change, there are ways to consider all aspects of your health.
“There’s a big misconception that stepping away from diet culture means not listening to your body or not prioritizing any part of your health,” says Kat Benson, a registered dietitian with Top Nutrition Coaching.
What is the healthiest diet?
The healthiest eating lifestyle puts less emphasis on “diet” and more on holistic health, according to Benson: “It’s one that is flexible in nature, it’s generally nutrient-dense and it allows for foods that you enjoy.”
This may be increased mindfulness around the food you eat, cooking at home more often or eating minimally processed food. For example, the Mediterranean diet has been named the “best diet overall” six years in a row. It’s been found to reduce the risk of heart disease in women by 24% and relies on plant-based foods, beans, nuts, whole grains, seafood and lean poultry with a focus on unsaturated fat.
You can tailor something like the Mediterranean diet to your unique needs based on the best outcomes for all aspects of health – physical, mental, social and emotional.
“If we’re doing actions that support our physical health but they are harming other aspects of health, then it’s not really healthy,” Benson says.
What is a balanced diet?: Everything to know about quantity and quality
How to start eating healthy
Prioritizing your mental, social and emotional wellbeing as much as your physical health is the first step to a healthy diet. Benson recommends focusing on foods that make you feel your best, using the “three C’s” model to frame your thinking:
- Curiosity: What do I need this food to do for me? What texture and taste experience do I want?
- Compassion: When you’re stepping away from diet culture, it’s okay to feel confused. Benson says to keep in mind that “there’s nothing wrong with you, you’re trying to deconstruct that diet mentality.”
- Context: How do I want this food to serve me in the context of my day? How can it help me focus at work, have the energy for a workout or fuel me through a long day of classes?
With that in mind, there are a few concrete ways Benson says you can make your diet healthier:
- Look for diversity in your diet
“We want diversity, so a wide range of foods that helps us not only meet those macronutrient needs like protein and carbohydrates and fats but also the micronutrients, the vitamins and the minerals,” Benson says.
Stocking up on a variety of proteins or an array of vegetables can be costly, but there are low-cost options like potatoes or beans that come in a variety of nutrient-dense forms. Variety could mean filling your fridge with loads of vegetables, but it could also mean buying black beans one week, kidney beans the next and pinto beans after that. Also, avoid buying pre-diced or cubed fruits and vegetables. If you cut them yourself you’ll save money.
“Diversity doesn’t need to be every single time you go to the grocery store,” Benson says. “Maybe every two weeks there’s a little bit different of a variety.”
- Stay hydrated
Experts recommend about 100 ounces of water a day, both in plain form and from other sources like fruits and other beverages. Hydration is an important part of maintaining a healthy diet because it keeps your body’s temperature in balance, cushions your joints, protects your spinal cord and tissues and may even prevent chronic conditions. Dehydration can cause fatigue, chills, constipation, dizziness, muscle cramps, confusion, headaches and other health issues.
- Choose minimally processed foods when you can
“Processed” foods exist on a spectrum. At one end is ultra-processed food, which contains little to no energy-dense whole foods and at the other is minimally processed food, which exists in or close to its natural state. Ultra-processed food consumption “may be linked to an increased burden and mortality for overall and certain site-specific cancers,” a 2023 study published in eClinicalMedicine found.
“The word process can be confusing sometimes because a bag of spinach is a processed food,” Benson says. “So we can’t just say eliminate processed food but … most of the time, minimally processed foods are going to have a variety of nutrients within them.”
How to get out of diet mentality
If your TikTok is inundated with diet fads and health hacks, it can be difficult to get out of “diet mentality,” or the thinking that you need to stick to a diet to be healthier. If you do see an enticing trend, Benson says you have to do your homework – is the evidence or research cited? Is it a flashy new phrase designed to go viral?
“That’s a huge red flag,” Benson says. “There’s so much nutrition-related research going on, but we know what a healthy diet is, what a diet (is) that’ll help with physical health that’s also not going to be very restrictive.”
Framing how you think about your daily diet can help, but it’s more than just “listening to your body,” which Benson says can be confusing when you start to deconstruct diet culture.
“Use those tools, like the three C’s, that curiosity, compassion and context to really make those choices that are going to be best,” Benson says.
Experts previously told USA TODAY that replacing the word “diet” with “healthy eating plan” can also create a better overall mentality.
It’s helpful to move away from an “all or nothing” approach – part of Benson’s recommendation for a healthy diet includes making room for foods you enjoy. You can have a donut for breakfast on occasion, but try to add a source of protein or healthy fat on the side so you have the energy to power you through your day.
This also includes making room for cultural foods or the food you grew up with– so-called “healthy” diets often demonize food from Black, Asian and Latinx communities which can lead to feelings of shame and harm the mental or emotional aspects of a healthy diet.
“You can make that Mediterranean look different, it can be shifted to more different cultural foods depending on that person’s background,” Benson says.
If you or someone you know is struggling with body image or eating concerns, the National Eating Disorders Association’s toll-free and confidential helpline is available by phone or text at 1-800-931-2237 or by click-to-chat message at nationaleatingdisorders.org/helpline. For 24/7 crisis situations, text “NEDA” to 741-741.
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