We all need to eat to survive, but there’s a difference between living and thriving.
Our bodies can survive on all kinds of foods and food-like substances. But eating just anything — particularly large quantities of ultra-processed foods — can lead to excess body fat, weight gain and obesity, chronic diseases, and increased risk of all-cause mortality.
Your nutrition is the most overlooked opportunity for improving your health.
Paying attention to what you eat can help you thrive physically and mentally. Eating well feels good. It means walking away from the dining table energized and sated instead of sluggish and stuffed.
At Kickoff, we take a simple approach to healthy eating that's backed by leading nutritionists, researchers, and top personal trainers, and we built our app around these ideas. The four basic principles we follow when it comes to food include:
Eat a wide variety of food in the appropriate amounts
Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated
Listen to your body. When you’re hungry, eat. When you’re not, don’t
Make space for your favorite foods, environment, culture, and social life
The specifics of when, what, and how much you eat will likely differ from what your bestie does — but that’s a good thing. Your body’s needs are unique to you. The idea is to land on a way of eating that encourages good health and frees you to seek the right balance on your own terms.
Let’s delve into more detail on what healthy eating is and isn’t, plus practical actions you can take today (and every day) to make choosing healthy foods feel second nature.
What Is a Healthy Approach to Eating?
Healthy eating can vary for each person, but the following general guidelines provide a solid foundation for everyone.
What to eat:
Prioritize eating a variety of whole foods. This means real foods that grow in nature. A balanced diet includes protein, carbs, and fat (also known as macro nutrients, or macros).
Pick plenty of fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables. Protein sources include chicken, turkey, beef, pork, fish, shellfish, and eggs. Dairy can provide protein in your diet as well; Greek yogurt is higher in protein than regular yogurt (just look for plain or unsweetened varieties). Plant sources of protein include tofu or edamame, hemp and chia seeds, beans, lentils, peas, and tempeh. Examples of whole grains include whole wheat or sprouted wheat bread, oats, quinoa (also a good source of protein), farro, barley, brown and wild rice.
Add smaller amounts of dairy, ghee, olive oil, etc., to add flavor.
Research shows that whole foods may prevent certain diseases and obesity, help avoid chronic inflammation that can lead to illness, and support a thriving gut microbiome. Your gut is an organ like your brain or heart. It regulates your digestive and immune system, and scientists are uncovering ways your gut can impact how much you eat, whether or not you get sick, and even what you weigh.
How much to eat:
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans (USDGA) suggests using the MyPlate Plan to decide how much of each type of food to eat each day. Envision a plate and portion it this way:
Half the plate with fruits and vegetables
One-quarter of the plate with grains, preferably whole grains
One-quarter of the plate with protein
Beside the plate is a one-cup serving of dairy (USDGA recommends low-fat dairy or plant-based alternatives)
You can use this customized MyPlate Plan to hone in on the exact amounts you need for your age, gender, height, weight, and activity level.
What to drink:
Water. Here’s why: An overwhelming amount of research tells us you need to limit or avoid artificially sweetened drinks and sugar-sweetened beverages — especially cola, as research associates cola consumption with low bone mineral density in older women. Research also associates drinking sugar- and artificially-sweetened drinks with increased sweet cravings, weight gain, raised blood pressure, and more.
While we’re at it: Drink less alcohol. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 14.5 million people aged 12 and older have alcohol use disorder, and 26% of adults engaged in binge drinking in the past month. Research shows that people who misuse alcohol have a greater risk of liver disease, heart disease, depression, stroke, stomach bleeding, and certain cancers.
If you do drink (we get it, it’s part of social culture and sometimes it's fun), avoid sugary cocktail mixes and opt for a straight spirit, beer, or red wine.
Eat when you’re hungry:
If you’re transitioning from a mostly processed or ultra-processed food diet, you may need to reacquaint yourself with what hunger and satisfaction feels like. That’s because highly processed foods are addictive and often don’t provide enough nutrition to fuel your body properly. As a result, you can end up nutrient-poor but energy-dense.
As you transition to a diet made up of a majority of whole foods, your palate and cravings will adjust; this should also help you become more mindful of your hunger and satiety cues. Strive to eat only when hungry and stop eating when you’re 80–85% full.
It’s all about sustainability. You’re in it for life:
From this moment on, promise yourself that you’re done with diets for good. Instead, vow to respect your body and give it what it needs to thrive for the rest of your life.
Adopt a fuel versus restrict mentality. You love your body and what it does for you so treat it well. Any sustainable way of eating should be flexible enough to allow for social and pleasurable eating and drinking without guilt or spiraling.
Pick and choose the foods and treat occasions that suit your preferences, goals, customs, culture, religion, traditions, and so on. What’s important is that you find a relationship with food that you can live with for the duration.
What Healthy Eating Isn’t
Three words: ultra-processed foods, consumed in excess and in place of whole foods.
Engineered as relatively inexpensive, shelf-stable ingredients, these frankenfoods tend to be energy-dense, nutritionally vacant or unbalanced, and light up our brains’ reward systems to leave us craving more. Research links ultra-processed food consumption to various forms of cancer, increased cardiovascular disease, and all-cause mortality.
That salty, savory neon cheese-like dust left on your fingers from those crunchy corn snacks suddenly looks less lickable, doesn’t it?
Ultra-processed foods are associated with a range of negative health outcomes, including:
Increased odds of anxiety and depression
Potential nutrient deficiencies that can be harmful to health
A potential imbalance between harmful and beneficial bacteria in the gut
Research suggests a link between gut bacteria imbalance and development of certain diseases.
Problems with glucose (a simple sugar) and insulin regulation from excess sugar intake
For example, one study of over 200 children showed that eating a lot of refined carbohydrates (such as white bread, candy, cookies, etc.) put them at risk for insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone that gets released when you eat sugar (carbs) and it helps you move the sugar out of your bloodstream to use for energy. When your body isn’t able to release insulin properly to move the sugar out of your bloodstream, your blood sugar remains high. Over time, this can lead to insulin resistance, prediabetes, and full-blown diabetes.
Don’t get us wrong: Food processing itself isn’t the issue — not all forms of processing food are associated with negative health outcomes. Drying, non-alcoholic fermentation, chilling and freezing, and pasteurization don’t appear to pose health threats. These age-old methods intend to preserve real foods for longer; think of kimchi, parmesan cheese, and dried apricots.
It’s the overzealous sweetening, partial hydrogenation of oils, and the addition of chemical additives that pose risks to our health. Eating small amounts of ultra-processed foods in moderation can be OK. You have a problem when you replace fresh fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and unrefined whole grains with energy-dense foods high in sugar, salt, and fat.
Don’t Stress. Here’s How to Put it All Together
We just threw a lot of information at you. If you feel a little overwhelmed, here are some simple things you can do right now to move your diet in the right direction.
1. Prioritize Produce, Whether Fresh or Frozen
Buy fresh fruits and vegetables in season for the best price and taste. For out-of-season produce and generally pricier items like berries or pomegranate seeds, frozen is as nutritious as fresh. Chopped, frozen spinach is an incredible buy — the volume of greens you get makes boxes and bags of frozen spinach, priced similarly to instant ramen, an economical steal for the nutritional value.
Generally, the following fresh produce provides high nutritional value for the cost:
Onions and garlic
Lettuces (not the pre-washed packaged stuff)
Canned fruit and veggies provide shelf-stable solutions that may not taste as ripe-off-the-vine as fresh or frozen, but help in a pinch and can keep you regular during the zombie apocalypse. Avoid fruit canned in juice or syrup, and watch the amount of sodium added to canned veggies.
2. Spend More Where it Matters
You know what to do — look for sales, clip coupons, sign up for grocery store rewards programs, look for BOGOs or buy 3, get the 4th free. Spend the majority of your food budget on as many fresh whole foods as you can, and buy the rest frozen or stock up on sale items and stash them in the deep freeze for later.
When it comes to animal proteins, whole birds (chickens and turkeys) provide more value; you get every cut of meat and can use the carcass and bones to make broth or stock. Wild, sustainably caught fish, grass-fed beef, and pasture-raised eggs tend to be the most expensive, but some argue for their nutritional superiority and ethical farming practices. Choose what’s most reasonable for you.
Canned wild salmon, mackerel, sardines, and oysters tend to be less expensive than fresh; opt for fish canned in water or olive oil. You pay more for convenience items — from fresh cut fruit to canned beans — so you’ll have to invest prep time at home to save money.
3. Build Your Whole Foods Pantry
Ultra-processed foods and pre-made convenience sauces and meals are deceptively expensive, not only for your wallet, but also for your long-term health. Scrutinize the inner aisles of the grocery store and compare the price and nutritional value of different foods. Start with a box of cereal versus a container of steel-cut oats and you’ll start to see the differences.
Be ruthless when it comes to processed foods, and compare the cost and nutritional value of any box or package you add to your cart. A box of dried penne made with chickpea or lentil flour provides more fiber and protein than a cheaper box of spaghetti made with semolina and durum wheat flour. Arguably, the bean pasta adds more value.
Big-box stores, club memberships like Costco, and online subscription services like Thrive Market can help you build a better whole foods pantry in a relatively cost-effective way. Be mindful that buying in bulk, even at the bins in the regular grocery store, can be an economical move as long as you store the ingredients properly so they don’t go rancid. Store nuts and seeds in airtight containers, and any oils sold in clear bottles in the refrigerator. Invest in mason jars or glass airtight containers to keep bulk buys fresh and free of bugs or rodent surprises.
Consider this starter pack to build your whole foods pantry:
Extra virgin olive oil
Vinegars: apple cider, balsamic, white
Flours such as almond, coconut, whole wheat, teff, quinoa, buckwheat
Nuts and seeds
All-natural nut butters (made with ground nuts and salt)
Dried beans, lentils, and peas
Natural sweeteners such as dates, maple syrup, honey, monk fruit
Whole grains such as brown and wild rice, quinoa, farro, oats, barley
Dried herbs and spices
Dark chocolate (if you like it)
Make It Your Own
If you take away nothing else from this article, remember this: Eat only as much as you need, stick to real foods, and don't beat yourself up if you slip or treat yourself once in a while.
The specific execution of what, when, why, and how is up to you, but if this responsibility freaks you out, consider chatting with an expert.
We’re here to help.
Kickoff can connect you with a certified nutritionist and personal trainer who can steer you in the right direction and be your cheerleader when you need it. Kickoff personal trainers will meet you where you are and help you incorporate healthy eating practices gradually and on your terms.
Always remember: The goal is continuous improvement, not perfection.