Healthy eating is not about strict dietary limitations, staying unrealistically thin, or depriving
yourself of the foods you love. Rather, it’s about feeling great, having more energy,
improving your health, and stabilizing your mood. If you feel overwhelmed by all the
conflicting nutrition and diet advice out there, you’re not alone. It seems that for every
expert who tells you a certain food is good for you, you’ll find another saying exactly the
opposite. But by using these simple tips, you can cut through the confusion and learn how
to create a tasty, varied, and nutritious diet that is as good for your mind as it is for your
Healthy eating and your mood
We all know that eating right can help you maintain a healthy weight and avoid certain
health problems, but your diet can also have a profound effect on your mood and sense of
wellbeing. Studies have linked eating a typical Western diet—filled with processed meats,
packaged meals, takeout food, and sugary snacks—with higher rates of depression,
stress, bipolar disorder, and anxiety. Eating an unhealthy diet may even play a role in the
development of mental health disorders such as ADHD, Alzheimer’s disease (/articles/
alzheimers-dementia-aging/preventing-alzheimers-disease.htm), and schizophrenia, or in
the increased risk of suicide in young people.
Trusted guide to mental, emotional & social health
Eating more fresh fruits and vegetables,
cooking meals at home, and reducing your intake
of sugar and refined carbohydrates, on the other hand, may help to improve mood and
lower your risk for mental health issues. If you have already been diagnosed with a mental
health problem, eating well can even help to manage your symptoms and regain control of
What is a healthy diet?
Eating a healthy diet doesn’t have to be overly complicated. While some specific foods or
nutrients have been shown to have a beneficial effect on mood, it’s your overall dietary
pattern that is most important. The cornerstone of a healthy diet pattern should be to
replace processed food with real food whenever possible. Eating food that is as close as
possible to the way nature made it can make a huge difference to the way you think, look,
The Healthy Eating Pyramid
The Harvard Healthy Eating Pyramid represents the latest nutritional science. The
widest part at the bottom is for things that are most important. The foods at the narrow
top are those that should be eaten sparingly, if at all. This Healthy Eating Pyramid
shows daily exercise and weight control in the widest, most important category. Fats
from healthy sources, such as plants, are in the wider part of the pyramid. Refined
carbohydrates, such as white bread and white rice, are in the narrow top. Red meat
should also be eaten sparingly, while fish, poultry, and eggs are healthier choices.
Building your healthy diet
While some extreme diets may suggest otherwise, we all need a balance of protein, fat,
carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, and minerals in our diets to sustain a healthy body. You
don’t need to eliminate certain categories of food from your diet, but rather select the
healthiest options from each category.
Protein gives you the energy to get up and go—and keep going—while also supporting
mood and cognitive function. Too much protein can be harmful to people with kidney
disease, but the latest research suggests that many of us need more high-quality protein,
especially as we age. That doesn’t mean you have to eat more animal products—a variety
of plant-based sources of protein each day can ensure your body gets all the essential
protein it needs. Learn more » (/articles/healthy-eating/choosing-healthy-protein.htm)
Fat. Not all fat is the same. While bad fats can wreck your diet and increase your risk of
certain diseases, good fats protect your brain and heart. In fact, healthy fats—such as
omega-3s—are vital to your physical and emotional health. Including more healthy fat in
your diet can help improve your mood, boost your well-being, and even trim your waistline.
Learn more » (/articles/healthy-eating/choosing-healthy-fats.htm)
Fiber. Eating foods high in dietary fiber (grains, fruit, vegetables, nuts, and beans) can
help you stay regular and lower your risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. It can
also improve your skin and even help you to lose weight. Learn more » (/articles/healthyeating/high-fiber-foods.htm)
Calcium. As well as leading to osteoporosis, not getting enough calcium in your diet can
also contribute to anxiety, depression, and sleep difficulties. Whatever your age or gender,
it’s vital to include calcium-rich foods in your diet, limit those that deplete calcium, and get
enough magnesium and vitamins D and K to help calcium do its job.
Carbohydrates are one of your body’s main sources of energy. But most should come
from complex, unrefined carbs (vegetables, whole grains, fruit) rather than sugars and
refined carbs. Cutting back on white bread, pastries, starches, and sugar can prevent
rapid spikes in blood sugar, fluctuations in mood and energy, and a build-up of fat,
especially around your waistline. Learn more » (/articles/healthy-eating/choosing-healthycarbs.htm)
Making the switch to healthy eating
Switching to a healthy diet doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition. You don’t have
to be perfect, you don’t have to completely eliminate foods you enjoy, and you don’t have
to change everything all at once—that usually only leads to cheating or giving up on your
new eating plan.
A better approach is to make a few small changes at a time. Keeping your goals modest
can help you achieve more in the long term without feeling deprived or overwhelmed by a
major diet overhaul. Think of planning a healthy diet as a number of small, manageable
steps—like adding a salad to your diet once a day. As your small changes become habit,
you can continue to add more healthy choices.
For example, choose just one of the following diet changes to start. Work on it for a few
weeks, then add another and so on.
Easy ways to switch to a healthy diet
Switching to a heart-healthy diet
DIETARY ELEMENT AIM TO…
Fast food meals Eat one fewer fast-food meal per week.
Make a sandwich at home or try a
supermarket salad, for example.
Fruit Eat an extra serving of fruit every day.
Blend frozen fruit into a smoothie or add
fresh berries to yoghurt for a delicious
Switching to a heart-healthy diet
Vegetables Eat an extra serving of vegetables every
day. Add a side salad to your evening
meal, for example.
Seafood Eat one serving per week. Replace a
ham sandwich or fast-food lunch with a
Snack chips and crackers Cut one serving per week. Try a handful
of nuts instead.
Desserts and sweets Cut one serving per week by replacing
Butter or meat fat Replace with a light drizzle of olive oil
and use spices to add flavor.
Source: Harvard Heart Letter, January 2018 (https://www.health.harvard.edu/hearthealth/small-diet-tweaks-can-help-your-heart-and-overall-health)
Setting yourself up for success
To set yourself up for success, try to keep things simple. Eating a healthier diet doesn’t
have to be complicated. Instead of being overly concerned with counting calories, for
example, think of your diet in terms of color, variety, and freshness. Focus on avoiding
packaged and processed foods and opting for more fresh ingredients whenever possible.
Prepare more of your own meals. Cooking more meals at home can help you take
charge of what you’re eating and better monitor exactly what goes into your food. You’ll
eat fewer calories and avoid the chemical additives, added sugar, and unhealthy fats of
packaged and takeout foods that can leave you feeling tired, bloated, and irritable, and
exacerbate symptoms of depression, stress, and anxiety.
Make the right changes.
When cutting back on unhealthy foods in your diet, it’s important
to replace them with healthy alternatives. Replacing dangerous trans fats with healthy fats
(such as switching fried chicken for grilled salmon) will make a positive difference to your
health. Switching animal fats for refined carbohydrates, though (such as switching your
breakfast bacon for a donut), won’t lower your risk for heart disease or improve your
Read the labels. It’s important to be aware of what’s in your food as manufacturers often
hide large amounts of sugar or unhealthy fats in packaged food, even food claiming to be
Focus on how you feel after eating. This will help foster healthy new habits and tastes.
The healthier the food you eat, the better you’ll feel after a meal. The more junk food you
eat, the more likely you are to feel uncomfortable, nauseous, or drained of energy.
Drink plenty of water. Water helps flush our systems of waste products and toxins, yet
many of us go through life dehydrated—causing tiredness, low energy, and headaches.
It’s common to mistake thirst for hunger, so staying well hydrated will also help you make
healthier food choices.
Moderation: important to any healthy diet
What is moderation? In essence, it means eating only as much food as your body needs.
You should feel satisfied at the end of a meal, but not stuffed. For many of us, moderation
means eating less than we do now. But it doesn’t mean eliminating the foods you love.
Eating bacon for breakfast once a week, for example, could be considered moderation if
you follow it with a healthy lunch and dinner—but not if you follow it with a box of donuts
and a sausage pizza.
Try not to think of certain foods as “off-limits.” When you ban certain foods, it’s natural
to want those foods more, and then feel like a failure if you give in to temptation. Start by
reducing portion sizes of unhealthy foods and not eating them as often. As you reduce
your intake of unhealthy foods, you may find yourself craving them less or thinking of them
as only occasional indulgences.
Think smaller portions. Serving sizes have ballooned recently. When dining out, choose
a starter instead of an entree, split a dish with a friend, and don’t order supersized
anything. At home, visual cues can help with portion sizes. Your serving of meat, fish, or
chicken should be the size of a deck of cards and half a cup of mashed potato, rice, or
pasta is about the size of a traditional light bulb. By serving your meals on smaller plates
or in bowls, you can trick your brain into thinking it’s a larger portion. If you don’t feel
satisfied at the end of a meal, add more leafy greens or round off the meal with fruit.
Take your time. It actually takes a few minutes for your brain to tell your body that it has
had enough food, so eat slowly and stop eating before you feel full.
Eat with others whenever possible. Eating alone, especially in front of the TV or
computer, often leads to mindless overeating.
Be careful about the foods you keep at hand. It’s more challenging to eat in moderation if
you keep unhealthy snacks and treats at hand. Instead, surround yourself with healthy
choices and when you’re ready to reward yourself with a special treat, go out and get it
Control emotional eating. We don’t always eat just to satisfy hunger. Many of us also turn
to food to relieve stress or cope with unpleasant emotions such as sadness, loneliness, or
boredom. But by learning healthier ways to manage stress and emotions, you can regain
control over the food you eat and your feelings (/articles/diets/emotional-eating.htm)
It’s not just what you eat, but when you eat
Eat breakfast, and eat smaller meals throughout the day. A healthy breakfast can
jumpstart your metabolism, while eating small, healthy meals keeps your energy up all
Avoid eating late at night. Try to eat dinner earlier and fast for 14-16 hours until
breakfast the next morning. Studies suggest that eating only when you’re most active
and giving your digestive system a long break each day may help to regulate weight.
Make fruit and vegetables a tasty part of your diet
Fruit and vegetables are low in calories and nutrient dense, which means they are packed
with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. Focus on eating the recommended daily
amount of at least five servings of fruit and vegetables and it will naturally fill you up and
help you cut back on unhealthy foods. A serving is half a cup of raw fruit or veg or a small
apple or banana, for example. Most of us need to double the amount we currently eat.
To increase your intake:
• Add antioxidant-rich berries to your favorite breakfast cereal
• Eat a medley of sweet fruit—oranges, mangos, pineapple, grapes—for dessert
• Swap your usual rice or pasta side dish for a colorful salad
• Instead of eating processed snack foods, snack on vegetables such as carrots, snow
peas, or cherry tomatoes along with a spicy hummus dip or peanut butter
How to make vegetables tasty
While plain salads and steamed veggies can quickly become bland, there are plenty of
ways to add taste to your vegetable dishes.
Add color. Not only do brighter, deeper colored vegetables contain higher concentrations
of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, but they can vary the flavor and make meals more
visually appealing. Add color using fresh or sundried tomatoes, glazed carrots or beets,
roasted red cabbage wedges, yellow squash, or sweet, colorful peppers.
Liven up salad greens. Branch out beyond lettuce. Kale, arugula, spinach, mustard
greens, broccoli, and Chinese cabbage are all packed with nutrients. To add flavor to your
salad greens, try drizzling with olive oil, adding a spicy dressing, or sprinkling with almond
slices, chickpeas, a little bacon, parmesan, or goat cheese.
Satisfy your sweet tooth. Naturally sweet vegetables—such as carrots, beets, sweet
potatoes, yams, onions, bell peppers, and squash—add sweetness to your meals and
reduce your cravings for added sugar. Add them to soups, stews, or pasta sauces for a
satisfying sweet kick.
Cook green beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and asparagus in new ways. Instead
of boiling or steaming these healthy sides, try grilling, roasting, or pan frying them with chili
flakes, garlic, shallots, mushrooms, or onion. Or marinate in tangy lemon or lime before cooking.