The explosion of sharing on the internet through websites like Pinterest has made healthy eating so much easier and way more fun. I love scrolling through the beautiful photos of colorful foods and experimenting with different recipes that I never would have thought of on my own.
Cauliflower rice? Baked spaghetti squash pie? Zucchini enchiladas? All amazing, healthy, nutritious ideas I found just surfing the web that are regular staples in our dinner rotation now.
But sometimes, especially for someone who is new to healthy eating and nutrition, it can be overwhelming trying to wade through the recipes. So many recipes claim to be “healthy” – but their definition of what’s healthy doesn’t totally add up.
They might really mean “low-calorie” or “gluten-free” or “vegan”, but not what I would call nutritious or good for you by any means. So how does one spot a truly healthy recipe among the masses claiming to be good for you?
What Food Is Considered Healthy?
This may seem like a very simple question, but it’s not. There are the basics of nutrition, and then there are a million different versions of what may work in an individual’s lifestyle. As a nutrition coach, here are the basics that I look for in the ingredients of a healthy recipe:
- They contain lots of nutrients from real, whole foods.
- They do not include anything processed or any “food-like products”.
- They are not loaded with excessive calories from fats, even healthy ones.
- They are not loaded with sugar, even “natural” or “clean” sugars.
Of course there is nothing wrong with making a recipe every now and then that breaks one of these rules, but if you’re looking for healthy foods to make for you and your family on a regular basis, then let the above criteria be your basic guideline the majority of the time. If you’re following a paleo lifestyle, a vegetarian lifestyle, etc. then add your own criteria ON TOP OF these to customize your eating plan.
Real, Whole Food Ingredients
The greatness of healthy eating is not just that it helps you to look great and lose fat, but that it provides you with the essential nutrients you need to function at your best. Healthy foods provide a nice balance of macronutrients (fat, carbohydrates, and protein) as well as a variety of the all-important micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), both of which are best used by your body from real food (not synthetic vitamins and supplements).
Having a sufficient amount of macronutrients and micronutrients will benefit you in infinite ways, but feeling your best, fighting and preventing illness and disease from the common cold to cancer, regenerating healthy cells, and supplying adequate amounts of energy are just a few of the benefits.
When you’re reading a recipe, check that the majority of ingredients are whole foods like fresh fruits, fresh vegetables (both colorful veggies and leafy greens), high-quality proteins like chicken, fish, eggs, and legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
Processed Food Ingredients
Oh the disappointment when I spot a deliciously appetizing recipe that is labeled healthy, follow the link, and find that indeed, it was too good to be true. Usually the offending ingredient is a can of processed soup, artificial sweetener, a white tortilla or bun, a processed cheese, cold cuts or meats full of nitrites, packaged crescent dough, etc.
It seems that this stems from the “old school” mentality that food is healthy if it helps you to lose weight or is low in calories, no matter where the food comes from.
The additives and chemicals in these food-like products are proving to be more and more addictive, cancer-causing, and one of the major culprits behind the sickness and obesity epidemic in our country. You will be doing your body a huge favor by leaving these ingredients out as often as you possibly can.
Excessive Calories From Fats
First of all, FATS ARE NOT BAD FOR YOU, before anyone jumps on me for being fat-phobic. They are essential and nutritious in the right amounts.
But many recipe creators have taken the healthy fats concept and run with it in a sort of “loophole” direction, labeling recipes as healthy that contain upwards of 800-1000+ calories per serving. Yes, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing!
Typical recipes like this might contain a high amount of cheese, oil, avocado, bacon, or butter/nut butter. Fats are healthy and essential, but also must be kept in ratio with the rest of your diet to some degree, especially if your goal is fat loss.
Excessive Sugar, Even “Whole Food” Sugars
A pan of clean-eating brownies is a beautiful way to get in a treat every now and then, and a wonderful alternative to processed sweets, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call these recipes healthy. To me, the healthy label implies something you should be eating, can eat often, for the benefit of your health.
Sugar is a treat, not an essential nutrient, and too much sugar in any form from maple syrup to honey is not beneficial to your health. Although a teaspoon or so of these sugars a day is probably fine, save the high-sugar recipes for your “every now and then” category to be enjoyed on special occasions.