What does it mean to eat healthy?

What does it mean to eat healthy?

Eating healthy allows you to maintain an optimal body weight and counteract the appearance of wellness diseases, but what exactly does it mean?


  • Ideal body weight and active lifestyle
  • More fruit and vegetables
    • Fibers
    • Vitamins, minerals and antioxidants
    • Benefits
  • More whole grains and legumes
  • Saturated and polyunsaturated fats
    • Triglycerides and fatty acids
    • Fats of animal and vegetable origin
  • Little salt, better if iodized
  • The importance of good hydration

Ideal body weight and active lifestyle

Eating healthy means first of all satisfying one's energy and nutritional needs.

Our body weight remains constant when we are in a state of energy balance in which the calories we enter through food are equivalent to the calories we spend. The energy intake derives from the so-called macronutrients, or nutritional elements that must be introduced in large quantities (hence the definition of "macro") because they represent the most important energy source for the body. The macronutrients are:

  • proteins;
  • carbohydrates;
  • the fats.

Food intake is regulated by various factors (psychological, social and environmental) that interact with each other in a complex way. Energy expenditure, on the other hand, represents the energy used for maintaining physiological and biochemical activities: in conditions of rest, the amount of energy expended by our body is given the name of basal metabolism.

To know our Total Daily Energy Expenditure, the energy spent must be added to the basal metabolic rate:

  • during food digestion and absorption processes (diet-induced thermogenesis);
  • to regulate body temperature (adaptive thermogenesis);
  • for carrying out all physical activities (thermogenesis induced by physical activity).

A healthy diet, therefore, is able to guarantee the maintenance of an energy balance.

Faced with an excess of calories, body weight inevitably increases and the expansion of adipose tissue leads to a greater risk of suffering from chronic-degenerative diseases (diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, neurodegenerative diseases, oncological diseases). On the other hand, an energy deficit leads to a reduction in body weight with loss of muscle mass and deterioration of the state of health as is typical of states of malnutrition.

If we are overweight it will be necessary to reduce energy input and at the same time increase energy expenditure through daily physical activity. One of the most effective approaches is based on a dual strategy:

  • reduce the consumption of energy-dense foods but poor in nutritional value, such as industrially derived foods that are abundant in saturated fats and simple sugars but fail to provide adequate amounts of vitamins and antioxidants;
  • prefer the consumption of low-energy foods, such as those of vegetable origin characterized by a high content of fibers and rich in vitamins, antioxidants and mineral salts.

More fruit and vegetables

Eating healthy means consuming more portions of fruit and vegetables throughout the day. Fruits and vegetables have the characteristic of having a low energy density. This means that they provide few calories per unit of weight and volume.

Let's see the main components of these foods and the beneficial effects of consuming fruit and vegetables for the body.


By eating fruit and vegetables, we can reach a sense of satiety earlier, a factor linked to the high content of soluble and insoluble fiber. Since we do not have the enzymes capable of breaking down dietary fibers into simple sugars, the fibrous component of fruit and vegetables reaches the last section of the intestine unaltered and here becomes nourishment for the colonic bacteria: these microorganisms are able to convert dietary fibers in molecules known as short-chain fatty acids, components that interact with specific receptors present at the level of the intestinal mucosa inducing a sense of satiety.

Dietary fibers can be divided into soluble and insoluble:

  • cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin are water-insoluble fibers and act mainly on the functioning of the gastrointestinal tract by promoting intestinal transit and the evacuation of stool. These fibers, therefore, counteract the phenomenon of constipation;
  • the soluble fibers are pectins, gums and mucilages. These swell when they come into contact with water and form a gel which, in addition to increasing the volume of stool, also limits the absorption of simple sugars and dietary fats. With this mechanism, soluble fibers help keep blood sugar and cholesterol levels low.

Vitamins, minerals and antioxidants

We must not overlook the fact that fruit and vegetables are an important source of vitamins:

  • oranges, tomatoes and kiwis provide vitamin C.
  • green leafy vegetables are a source of folate (the "natural" version of folic acid).
  • carrots, peaches and apricots contain good amounts of beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A.

In addition to providing vitamins, fruits and vegetables are also important sources of mineral salts.

The healthful effects of adequate consumption of fruit and vegetables are also linked to the presence of antioxidant molecules, such as grape resveratrol, green tea epigallocatechin gallate, fruit quercetin, garlic allicin. These are molecules capable of counteracting the action of free radicals.


Numerous epidemiological studies document that a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, low in saturated fats and simple sugars, is able to prevent the onset of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, digestive system diseases and cancers. Based on what has been said so far, eating healthy means ensuring an adequate intake of dietary fiber, vitamins and antioxidants. This goal can be achieved through the intake of at least 5 portions a day of fruit and vegetables (Five-a-Day).

As part of the guidelines for healthy eating (Ministry of Health, 2019), the five recommended portions have been divided into two portions of vegetables that we could associate with the two main meals (lunch and dinner) and three portions of fruit. It is important, however, to underline the fact that the five portions are intended as a minimum quantity.

The other important indication is to process fruit and vegetables as little as possible in order to maintain their nutritional qualities unaltered. The advice regarding fruit is to eat it as it is, avoiding the consumption of fruit juices as much as possible. In general, the transformation processes lead to a reduction in the content of some nutrients. Certainly the nutrient that is most affected by the transformation processes is dietary fiber. The reduced amount of fiber typical of refined foods and industrial products reduces the satiating power. If we eat an orange, we feel a certain sense of satiety. If we drink a juice, the effect on satiety will be far less.

More whole grains and legumes

Cereals and legumes represent a cornerstone of the Mediterranean Diet. They are an important source of nutrients and energy. Many of the traditional Italian food recipes are based on a combination of cereals and legumes (see for example pasta and beans, pasta and chickpeas, rice and peas).

Among the most commonly used cereals are rice, corn, barley, sorghum, millet, oats, rye and spelled. The pseudo-cereals (which do not belong to the family of grasses but because they produce seeds that can be used like those of grasses we refer to them with the term pseudo-cereals) are instead buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth . Like cereals, pseudo-cereals are also sources of carbohydrates, proteins and fibers, unsaturated fats, B vitamins and mineral salts.

Legumes provide starch, dietary fiber, proteins of moderate biological value, vitamins and mineral salts, substances with antioxidant action. They can be available fresh or dehydrated. They are beans, chickpeas, lentils, cicerchia, peas and broad beans. Green beans are also legumes but are assimilated to fresh vegetables since the seeds are in an early state of ripeness and, unlike other legumes, green beans have a significantly lower content in proteins and energy and a high content in water. In other words, they have characteristics more similar to those of fresh vegetables.

Legumes are a good source of protein but it should be specified that proteins of vegetable origin have a lower quality than those of animal origin. In particular, sulfur amino acids and specifically methionine and cysteine ​​are less represented in legumes. Due to the presence of molecules with anti-nutritional activity, legume proteins are quite resistant to the digestive action of enzymes.

The recipes that involve the use of cereals and legumes, typical of the Mediterranean Diet, have a higher protein quality than that of legumes or grains only, due to an effect linked to the complementarity of the amino acid composition. In fact, legumes are deficient in methionine and cysteine ​​but are abundant in lysine. On the contrary, cereals are rich in methionine and low in lysine.

In order to achieve a varied and balanced diet, it is recommended to take three to five portions of legumes per week.

Saturated and polyunsaturated fats

Together with carbohydrates and proteins, fats represent one of the three macronutrients. The main function of fats is to accumulate energy: one gram of fat, in fact, provides 9 kcal. The fats present in the meal we consume allow the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, vitamin K) and carotenoids. In addition, they make our food tastier because they amalgamate the aromatic substances capable of imparting smell and taste.

Triglycerides and fatty acids

Fats are chemically complex substances: the most common in foods are triglycerides, formed by one molecule of glycerol and three molecules of fatty acids.

Fatty acids, contained within triglycerides and more generally in fats, can in turn be classified into:

  • saturated, more difficult to metabolize (they tend to accumulate in the blood and raise cholesterol levels) and therefore to be consumed in moderation;
  • unsaturated (which include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated), considered important for the body.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids, indicated by the acronym PUFA (Poly-Unsaturated Fatty Acids) are said to be essential because our body does not have the ability to synthesize them. Since these fatty acids perform important biological functions they must be introduced with food. The PUFAs belong to:

  • omega-6 fatty acids, whose progenitor is linoleic acid;
  • omega-3 fatty acids, in which alpha-linolenic acid is the head of the family.

Fats of animal and vegetable origin

If it is true that all fats are equivalent from a different energy point of view, it is, on the other hand, the impact on the health of those who consume them.

We know that fatty acids of animal origin promote the formation of atherosclerotic plaques and make it possible to raise LDL cholesterol (also known as "bad cholesterol"). On the contrary, fats of vegetable origin exist as oils because they are fluid at room temperature and have a higher content of mono and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Their prevalent use helps prevent the onset of cardiovascular diseases by raising the value of HDL cholesterol (also known as "good cholesterol").

Of all the fats present in our diet, olive oil is certainly the best. It plays a role in the prevention of cardiovascular diseases as it reduces the share of LDL cholesterol and has the ability to raise the share of HDL cholesterol. HDL lipoproteins have the task of removing cholesterol from the blood and arteries to bring it back to the level of the liver that will eliminate it. The beneficial effect of extra virgin olive oil is not regulated exclusively by its composition in fatty acids but also by the presence of minor components. These include squalene and phenolic compounds capable of counteracting oxidative stress. The phenolic compounds are the same that give extra virgin olive oil a spicy or bitter taste.

Little salt, better if iodized

A diet based on the prevalent consumption of minimally processed plant-based foods provides the right amount of sodium. Under physiological conditions, the amount of sodium that we should replenish with the diet is 0.1-0.6 grams per day. Since one gram of salt contains 0.4 grams of sodium, the amount of salt to add to our dishes every day is very low and is equivalent to the tip of a teaspoon.

In Italy you get to take between 12 and 15 grams of salt per day. A good share of this salt is present in foods of industrial origin. It is known on the basis of scientific evidence that an abundant consumption of salt promotes the onset of arterial hypertension. This in turn represents an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease. A high consumption of salt is associated with a higher prevalence of stomach cancer, contributes to increasing urinary losses of calcium and therefore increases the likelihood of suffering osteopenia and osteoporosis. Based on these considerations, the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests a reduction in salt consumption by at least 30%. The skilful use of spices can give flavor to dishes and encourage a substantial reduction of the salt added during the preparation processes. Since in our country the levels of iodine intake are insufficient and a fair number of people suffer from goiter, the other indication is to take so little salt but that it is iodized and this for the purpose of preventing thyroid diseases.

The importance of good hydration

Taking into account that a portion of the water we consume daily comes from food, it is important to take between one and a half to two liters of water per day. To comply with this indication, it will be enough to drink 6-8 glasses during meals and between meals. The ideal would be to anticipate the sense of thirst by drinking frequently and in small quantities. Children and the elderly are at greater risk of dehydration than adults because they feel less thirsty. It is important to drink mainly water because other drinks bring calories and often contain pharmacologically active substances (see theine, caffeine).

Water is the main constituent of our body. It represents on average 60% of our body weight. An adequate state of hydration is essential for carrying out all the physiological processes and biochemical reactions that take place inside our cells. Water plays an essential role in digestion, absorption, transport and use of nutrients as well as in the elimination of metabolic waste. In addition, it keeps the skin and mucous membranes elastic and compact.

Read also

  • Foods rich in fats: properties, what they are and how to include them in your diet
  • Whole grains and legumes: why it is important to eat them together
  • 5 ideas for an energetic breakfast
  • Tips and good habits for a healthy diet
  • Is it better to eat fruit before or after a meal?

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