Healthy Eating Ultimate Guide: Start Eating Healthy Without Being Miserable
So you want to start eating healthy, eh?
We’ve helped hundreds of thousands of people like you transform into actual superheroes, and we focus on proper nutrition to do so.
These are the exact strategies we teach our Online Coaching clients, and we’ve used these tips to help them lose weight and get in great shape without being miserable.
Plus, we use fun LEGO photos and gifs to keep you entertained.
In this Ultimate Guide, we’ll cover everything you need to start eating healthy today:
- The TRUTH about healthy eating (DON’T SKIP).
- What is “healthy eating” exactly?
- How to start eating healthy: eating real food.
- What about fruit. Is fruit healthy?
- Are cheese and dairy healthy?
- What’s the right diet for me: Keto, Paleo, Mediterranean?
- Healthy grocery shopping, cooking, and meal prep.
- 19 healthy meals you can cook today.
- None of this matters without your BIG WHY:
- Healthy Eating: Next Steps.
It’s really easy to tell people the following advice:
“To lose weight, just eat more REAL food.”
“Just eat less fast food and junk food.”
“Try to eat more organic vegetables watered by unicorn tears, farm-to-table meals served by centaurs, and kale omletes made with eggs from chickens that you raised since birth.”
Okay so maybe people don’t say the last one.
But it’s not far from what healthy people say to people who can’t seem to get healthy.
In my opinion, these positions are completely out of touch with reality and it makes me plum dog mad.
For starters, fast food is crazy delicious and dirt cheap, and often the only way that many busy parents can feed themselves and their kids.
Next, applying morality and guilt to food consumption (“I’m being ‘so bad’ by eating this cookie”) creates an emotional rollercoaster – my least favorite kind of roller coaster.
I mean come on, we don’t need to be told that freshly grown fruits and veggies are better for us than junk food.
We don’t need to be told that organic grilled chicken and kale salad is healthier than a Double Whopper with Cheese.
We all know this!
So rather than “trying harder” to eat healthier we’re going to use things like “science” and “human psychology” and “excessive quotation marks.”
Here’s what you need to know: If you’re just trying to be healthier and maybe lose some weight, there’s no need to start funneling kale smoothies, mainlining chicken and broccoli, and abandoning your loyalty to the Burger King.
You can lose weight and be healthy while still eating these foods occasionally.
I share this info not to promote those foods, but rather make a big point:
If you are terrified of giving up all “junk food”…
You do not need to give up fast food if it brings you joy.
You do not need to feel shame for eating ice cream.
You don’t need to use terms like “cheat meal” or “guilty pleasure” when talking about a chocolate chip cookie.
Food isn’t good or evil, my dear friend!
It’s just food!
Let’s bring it all together:
If we have certain health goals, we can give ourselves the best chance of success by getting strategic about what foods we say “YES” to, and what foods we say “SOMETIMES” to.
These YES foods give us more energy and have fewer calories on average than “junk food,” which means we’re likely to eat fewer total calories without realizing it.
And thus, we end up with the Triforce of Awesome:
- A longer lifespan.
- A smaller waistline.
- A happier, healthier existence.
So what are these magical foods we’re talking about?
I thought you’d never ask.
Removing all the morality and science of food, let’s talk about a realistic definition of “healthy food”:
“Foods I can eat frequently that give me enough fuel to get through the day AND don’t make me miserable.”
Most doctors, websites, and books have generally the same list of “healthy foods”:
- Protein like meat and legumes.
- Fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Healthy carbohydrates like rice, quinoa.
- Healthy fats like almonds and olive oil.
- Occasional cheese and dairy.
(A more complete list of healthy foods is below).
Why is it that these are the foods that happen to end up on every list on every website when it comes to “healthy eating?”
They are full of vitamins and nutrients while also being lower in calories than the processed foods that have been designed to be overeaten.
They also fill us up, making us feel satiated, and keep us under our calorie total for the day.
Now you’re starting to get it:
If we can prioritize these foods on our plate even occasionally, we’ll feel full more often while eating fewer calories…
Which leads to sustainable weight loss and maintenance!
Let me drive this point about calories vs energy into your brain (not literally).
Here are 4 foods in the exact same quantity, 200 calories (courtesy of wiseGEEK):
And here’s a huge plate of broccoli, also 200 calories:
In this context, the realization that we might overeat certain foods compared to others starts to become more clear:
- If we accidentally overeat broccoli, we might eat an extra 20 calories. And who accidentally overeats broccoli?
- If we accidentally overeat spaghetti, we might eat an extra 500-1000 calories.
- If we accidentally eat a family-sized bag of Sour Patch Kids, we might eat an extra 2000 calories (and have no tastebuds left on your tongue).
Which brings me to the next point:
We humans are terrible at estimating how many calories we eat. Like, really really bad at it. I bet the proportions of the above foods surprised you.
We consistently eat much more than we realize, by 40%+.
To make matters worse, we also OVERestimate how many calories we burn through exercise.
One study showed that Fitness trackers like AppleWatch or Fitbit overestimate exergy burned through exercise by 20% or more.
So when we “can’t lose weight,” it’s not because we have a broken metabolism.
It’s not because we have bad genetics.
Or that we’re not eating for our blood type.
It’s because we consistently eat too much food without realizing it.
Because we always have a ready supply of new energy from recently eaten food, more than we need, our body NEVER has to dip into our stored fat to burn for fuel.
And when we think we’ve out-exercised our bad diet, we really haven’t.
So it’s time to stop “trying harder” and instead “try differently”:
In order for us to get healthy, we need to find ways to include more foods that fill us up AND taste good.
Luckily, I have that list riiiiight here!
There are three big macronutrients that we’re going to focus on as we build our plate like the image above:
- Protein: building blocks for our muscles.
- Carbohydrates: our bodies will burn as fuel.
- Fats: can be burned as fuel, and also helps with nutrition absorption!
#1) PROTEIN: Priority Numero Uno.
Protein is amazing.
Protein is both good for you AND satiating without being a calorie bomb.
Protein can come from any number of sources, including:
- Meat (steak, bison, pork).
- Fowl (chicken, turkey, duck).
- Fish and shellfish (salmon, tuna, shrimp).
- Legumes (black beans, chickpeas).
Not a meat-eater? Read our massive plant-based guide!
A serving of protein is about the size and thickness of your palm.
*The 4 oz serving is for an uncooked piece of meat. Cooking reduces about 25% of the weight, bringing it down to about 3 oz.
When building a plate, aim for the following amount of protein:
- Dudes: 1-2 servings (6-8 oz or about 170-228 g): two palms
- Dudettes: 1 serving (3-4 oz or about 85-114 g): 1 palm.
If you’re curious, here’s how much protein is in a serving of food:
- 4 oz (113 g) serving of chicken has around 30 g of protein.
- 4 oz (113 g) serving of salmon has 23 g of protein
- 4 oz (113 g) of steak has 28 g of protein.
- If you weigh 150 pounds (68 kg), target 120-150g of protein.
- If you weigh 200 pounds (90 kg), target 160-200g of protein.
- If you weigh 250 pounds (113 kg), target 200-250g of protein.
- If you weigh more than 250 pounds (113 kg), target 250g of protein.
#2: VEGETABLES: The difference-maker when it comes to healthy eating and weight management.
They are nutrient-dense: full of all the good nutrients that your body can use to function at optimal performance.
Next, they are energy-dense but calorie-light, which means you can eat lots of them, you’ll feel full, but you’re unlikely to over-consume calories.
A serving of veggies is about the size of your fist.
Remember this is what just 200 calories of broccoli looks like (holy crap). This is at least 5 full servings:
Here’s a quick, non-complete list of veggies that can fill your plate:
- Spaghetti squash
- Brussels sprouts
Target 2 servings of vegetables on your plate – it should take up ½ the plate!
“But Steve, I don’t like vegetables…yet!”
That’s cool, I didn’t eat vegetables until I was 22. Now, they’re a main staple of every meal I eat.
If this is you, read our guide on “how to make vegetables taste good.”
To recap portion sizes of protein and vegetables:
#3) HEALTHY CARBOHYDRATES: Fuel and fiber!
These are the foods that can be an important part of a diet, provided you eat them in the right quantities for your goals.
Examples of healthy carbohydrates:
- Rice, brown or white
- Legumes, lentils
- Sweet potatoes
- Whole grain bread
This is a list of REAL food, minimally processed, that also have plenty of fiber.
If you’re wondering how fruit factors into this equation, that’s the next section.
Back to healthy carbs: when consumed in proper proportion, these are great foods that can help you feel full and give you energy and all that jazz.
Just make sure you know what an actual portion of these foods are!
EVERYBODY accidentally overeats carbohydrate-heavy foods, even healthy ones, and then wonders why they aren’t losing weight.
To help you get better at eyeballing serving sizes:
1 serving of a starchy carbohydrate is 1 cupped hand (uncooked), or your two hands forming a cup (cooked).
Here are some images to help you learn proper portion sizes (thanks to SafeFood):
#4) HEALTHY FATS: No longer the enemy!
Fat had a bad rep in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, but now things are swinging wayyyyy back in the other direction.
In some circles, fat is now considered the healthiest thing on the planet, will do your taxes for you, and is considered a superfood.
Let’s get to the truth:
Fat is neither a superfood nor evil.
It’s just a macronutrient that you can eat that can help you reach your goals in the right quantity, or keep you from your goals if it’s overconsumed.
When your doctor tells you to eat more healthy fats, she’s referring to polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.
Healthy fat can be found in foods like:
- Macadamia nuts
- Olive oil
- Almond butter
- Peanut butter
Now, science has recently come around on saturated fat too – once completely vilified, but now cautiously considered okay for moderate consumption.
Saturated fats can come from things like:
- Whole milk
- Full fat dairy
- Coconut oil
- Grass-fed butter
- Fatty cuts of meat
Fat can be good for you provided you’re eating the right quantity for your goals.
However, like carbs, fats can be overconsumed accidentally too.
To help you gauge: a serving size of fat is roughly the size of your thumb!
THIS is a single serving of almonds (162 calories):
THIS is a serving of olive oil (119 calories, taken from Runtastic):
As you can see, if you’re not careful – you can accidentally eat an extra 500 calories of “healthy fats” by absentmindedly eating too many “heart-healthy” fats.
Many folks in our Coaching Program had us analyze why they weren’t losing weight, even though they “only ate grilled chicken and veggies.”
When we dug into it, they had been preparing all of their food in an extra 500-600 calories worth of olive oil they weren’t accounting for.
To recap fats and starchy carbs: feel free to include a starchy portion to your plate in the form of rice, potatoes, pasta, or legumes, and healthy fats can help spice up a meal too.
I realize that was a CRAZY amount of info, so let’s put it all on the same Healthy Plate:
- 1-2 servings of protein (¼ of plate)
- 2 servings of vegetables (½ of plate)
- 1 serving potatoes, rice, or pasta. (1/4th of plate)
- 1 serving of fat (size of your thumb)
- 1 zero-calorie or low-calorie beverage (water, diet soda, tea)
I know that not all of your meals are going to be perfectly segmented like a bento box. For example:
- A fatty cut of meat like chicken thighs means your fat and protein are commingling. Cool.
- Lentils and legumes mean your protein and your carbs are attached at the hip. Swell.
- A burrito bowl with chicken, rice, guacamole, and cheese means all of your macros are cohabitating. Neato!
- Salmon cooked in olive oil and coated in almond flakes means your fat and protein have fused. Stupendous!
This plate and serving size stuff above is just to help you get started thinking about healthy food differently and in proper portion sizes:
- Trying to lose weight? Reduce your portions of carbs and fats.
- Trying to gain weight? Increase your portions of carbs and fats!
Remember, all calories count.
I can already understand your next series of questions:
- “What about beverages?” Simple. Liquid calories count too. So stick to low or zero-calorie drinks like water, tea, coffee, and diet soda.
- “How about condiments?” Grilled chicken slathered in 1000 calories of buffalo sauce means you’re still eating a calorie bomb!
- “But what about things like Paleo or Keto? I thought low carb = healthy?” I address that in the “which diet is right for me?” section. Keep reading.
As we lay out in our “Is Fruit Healthy?” Guide, fruit is absolutely healthy and can help you reach your goals – in the right quantities.
Fruits are full of nutrients, packed with fiber, and can make for a great snack or part of a protein-focused breakfast!
Personally, I blend up frozen mixed berries in my post-workout smoothie.
Just remember that fruit, like every other food, obeys the laws of thermodynamics.
So, simply be aware of the calories (and carb and fiber content if you’re following a lower carb diet):
- Apple: 95 cal, 25g carbs, 4.4g fiber.
- Banana: 105 cal, 27g carbs, 3.1g fiber.
- Orange: 45 cal, 11g carbs, 2.3g fiber.
- Pear: 100 cal, 28g carbs, 3g fiber.
- Peach: 59 cal, 14g carbs, 2.3g fiber.
- Strawberries (1 cup): 47 cal, 11g carbs, 3g fiber.
- Pineapple (1 cup): 82 cal, 22g carbs, 2.3g fiber.
- Grapes (1 cup): 62 cal, 16g carbs, 0.8g fiber.
- Raspberries (1 cup): 65 cal, 15g carbs, 8 fiber.
Fruit is a better, healthier alternative to nutrient-empty food from a vending machine.
Where fruit can get you in trouble is if you start to move in the direction of “fruit-like”:
#1) Fruit juices (cranberry juice, orange juice, grape juice): these are high calorie, sugar-filled beverages.
For example, here are the calories in one 8 oz  serving of:
- Apple Juice: 103 calories, 22 g of sugar
- Orange Juice: 103 calories, 18 g of sugar
- Grape Juice: 136 calories, 32 g of sugar
#2) Dried fruit: notoriously easy to overeat because they are so small. Since the water has been taken out, all that’s left is the sugar and fiber.
Here’s 1 serving of raisins, which is 108 calories and 21 g of sugar:
If you are saying “oh man, I eat 5x that many raisins when I eat them…” then multiply those calorie and sugar numbers by 5!
3) Fruit Smoothies: Just because it’s a fruit smoothie doesn’t mean it won’t make you fat! Have you seen the calorie count and sugar content of smoothies and ‘green drinks’? Yikes.
- Green Machine Naked Juice (15.2 oz or 450 ml bottle): 270 calories, 53 g of sugar.
- Smoothie King Banana Boat (20 oz or 591 ml smoothie): 450 calories, 70 g of sugar.
To recap: fruit is healthy, provided you stick to fresh or frozen and not fruit-like food, dried fruit, or canned fruit packed in syrup.
If you enjoy a small glass of orange juice occasionally, or you pack a serving of raisins in your lunch and it makes life worth living, by all means!
Just don’t chug OJ by the gallon, drink a 64 oz “real fruit smoothie,” and eat raisins by the handful and then wonder why you’re not losing weight.
We get questions about these two types of food frequently.
I’ll also assume you’re not doing Keto, which almost requires you to load up on dairy and cheese to eat enough fat every day!
Let’s pretend you’re just curious if cheese and/or dairy can be consumed on a “healthy diet:”:
YES, you can still eat cheese and be healthy.
YES, you can still eat dairy and be healthy.
And there was much rejoicing:
Like the healthy carbs and fats listed above, it all comes down to your calories consumed in a day, and if these foods fit into your daily calorie goals:
- Want to put cheese on top of your salad of chicken and vegetables? Great!
- Want to eat greek yogurt, a scoop of protein powder, and frozen berries for your breakfast? Amazing!
- Want to eat a bowl of cereal with skim milk (or whole milk) in the morning with your kid before school? No problem.
This is true for higher-fat cheeses or full-fat dairy too – the food just needs to fit into your goals!
Luckily, all dairy comes labeled, and most cheese will come with a nutrition label on it too.
Just make sure your portions are in line. For reference, here are four different servings of cheddar cheese (about 113 calories a serving):
And here’s a serving of greek yogurt (100 calories in 170 grams):
And although nobody in the history of the world has ever eaten an actual serving…here is a serving of ice cream:
(A scoop of ice cream the size of a tennis ball is about 127 calories, cleverly shown above.)
So, dairy and cheese are both perfectly acceptable health food options! Just make sure they fit into your goals.
If you are NOT losing weight, and you consume a lot of dairy and/or cheese, consider measuring your intake and see if it’s in line with your expectations!