How To Compose Healthy Meals: The New Building Blocks

If you eat three times per day then you eat 21 meals in a week, 1.095 in a year, and 10.950 in ten years.

Considering the amount of food that transitions through your body, the criteria you use to put together your meals can make a big difference.

An healthy eating routine is strongly associated with good health. But what is an healthy eating routine? At the end, it is the sum of the individual meals you eat over time.

We could say that an healthy eating routine is a way of eating that is based on meals that are healthy most of the times.

So, what is an healthy meal?

There is no definite answer to this question.

In fact, a single meal will almost never make a difference to your health, unless you are affected by specific health conditions. But this remains a good question to ponder. It can help you steering your choices in the right direction when deciding what to eat.

In fact, in order to build and maintain good health you want the majority of your meals to be healthy.

Calories Should Not Be The Primary Focus

Unhealthy packaged foods and ultra processed foods

Very often calories are the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about controlling the way we eat.

But calories are only one of the many aspects to consider, and definitely not the most important one.

Imagine that your recommended caloric intake is 2.000 kcal per day. Does it mean that if you eat 2.000 kcal or less in a day, then you are eating healthy?

This is not the case.

In fact, you could very well remain within your calories target while eating exclusively junk food. You may even lose weight doing so, if this is your objective. But you will put your health in great danger.

Focusing on calories as the main factor for our meal choices is a simplification that often leads to unhealthy eating behaviors. Studies provided evidence that what we eat is much more important for our health than how much we eat. [1]

The Eight Building Blocks Of Healthy Meals

What criteria should you follow to create healthy meals? Like a Lego construction game you can think of a meal as made of small nutritional building blocks. Let’s look at these building blocks in details.

  1. Carbs
  2. Proteins
  3. Fat
  4. Fiber
  5. Vitamins
  6. Minerals
  7. Phytonutrients
  8. Probiotics

Macronutrients

Macronutrients are nutrients that normally come in large amounts and are usually measured in grams.

These are: Carbs, Proteins, Fat, and Fiber.

The first three of the list are the most popular macronutrients.

Fiber is a type of carbohydrate, but in the context of meal planning it’s helpful to consider it as a new separate building block.

1. Carbs

The healthiest carbs are whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes

Carbohydrates are present in a large variety of both healthy and unhealthy foods.

They play a very important role by providing the body with glucose, which is converted into energy that supports various bodily functions and fuels physical activity.

Some types of carbs are healthier than others.

The healthiest sources of carbohydrates are whole and intact grains. Examples are whole wheat, barley, wheat berries, quinoa, oats, brown rice, and foods made with them, such as whole wheat pasta. These carbs have a milder effect on blood sugar and insulin than white bread, white rice, and other refined grains.

Learn more: Are carbs healthy or unhealthy? Here’s the simple truth

2. Proteins

The healthiest sources of protein according to proven science

Proteins are the essential building blocks of our body and are present in muscles, bones, skin, hair and in all parts of our organism.

The healthiest sources of protein are fish, poultry, legumes, and nuts.

It is best to limit red meat and cheese, and avoid processed meats such as cold cuts and sausages.

Learn more: The healthiest sources of protein according to proven science

3. Fat

Discover why healthy fats are great for your body

In the past, dietary fats had a bad reputation of being harmful for health and of being responsible for weight gain. New research, however, demonstrates that certain healthy fats are necessary to promote good health.

The healthiest sources of fat are healthy plant oils like extravirgin olive oil, nuts, seeds and fatty fish.

Learn more: Discover why healthy fats are great for your body

4. Fiber

The amazing health benefits of fiber rich foods

Dietary fiber is a component of plant-derived food that cannot be completely digested by the body. A high intake of dietary fiber brings health benefits and lowers the risk of several diseases.

Most fiber has a prebiotic effect, which brings health benefits by feeding the good bacteria that populate our guts.

Typically fiber is classified into two main categories: soluble fiber, which dissolves in water, and insoluble fiber, which does not dissolve in water.

Examples of soluble fiber rich foods include: oatmeal, chia seeds, nuts, legumes, lentils, apples, and blueberries.

Examples of insoluble fiber rich foods include: whole wheat products, quinoa, brown rice, legumes, leafy greens like kale, almonds, walnuts, seeds, and fruits with edible skins like pears and apples.

Learn more: 5 amazing health benefits of fiber rich foods

How To Combine MACRONUTRIENTS To Create A Healthy Meal?

Some people follow nutritional plans that set specific targets for each of the three most popular macronutrients. For example, 50% of caloric intake from carbs, 30% from proteins, 20% from fat.

If we let this type of specific objectives guide how we eat, however, we may make a gross simplification mistake. In fact, not all carbs, proteins and fats are equal. Some of them are healthy, some others are not.

What counts is what type of foods we eat, not the absolute quantities of the macronutrients they bring.

As a rule of thumb, a good approach is to have a “balanced” intake of all the macronutrients in every single meal.

This does not mean including all of them in specific proportions. It’s sufficient to combine foods so that each meal provides at least some quantity of all the macronutrients.

Micronutrients

Micronutrients are present in foods in much smaller amounts than macronutrients. These are vitamins and minerals, and are often measured in milligrams or even micrograms.

5. Vitamins

Eat balanced, colorful and tasty meals

Vitamins are organic substances that our body needs to function properly.

They are essential micronutrients, which means that the body cannot produce vitamins. Therefore we must obtain them regularly from the food we eat.

Most health organizations identify thirteen vitamins: A, B1 , B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12, C, D, E, and K.

Typically vitamins are classified as either fat soluble or water soluble.

Fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) dissolve in fat and tend to accumulate in the body.

Water-soluble vitamins (C and the B-complex vitamins) must dissolve in water before they can be absorbed by the body. Water-soluble vitamins cannot be stored and are excreted through urine when in excess.

Learn more: What are vitamins and why are vitamins important?

6. Minerals

Minerals are micronutrients that are needed to our body to function properly

Like vitamins, minerals are micronutrients that are needed to our body to function properly. Minerals are inorganic elements present in soil and water, which are absorbed by plants or consumed by animals.

Our body can not produce minerals, therefore it’s important to obtain them from food.

Most health organizations identify sixteen minerals: Calcium, Chloride, Chromium, Copper, Fluoride, Iodine, Iron, Magnesium, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Phosphorus, Potassium, Selenium, Sodium, Zinc.

Learn more: Minerals in food and their powerful health benefits

How To Ensure Adequate Presence Of MICRONUTRIENTS In Your Meals?

You don’t need to know exactly which vitamins and minerals are contained in all foods you eat.

In order to ensure adequate intake of micronutrients in your meals, it’s sufficient to consider the following recommendations.

Put emphasis on whole plant foods and eat plenty of vegetables and fruits. Learn more: The Ultimate Guide to Different Diets: Which One Is Best For Health?

Make sure you base your macronutrients choices on healthy whole foods. Carbs from whole and intact grains. Proteins from fish, poultry, legumes, and nuts. Fats from healthy plant oils like olive oil, nuts, seeds and fatty fish. Whole foods are packages that contain plenty of healthy micronutrients in addition to their macronutrients.

Prioritize whole unrefined foods. The process of refining food involves the removal of valuable healthy nutrients from their natural form and creates a more nutritionally poor product with less macro- and micronutrients. Learn more: The Hidden Dangers: Ultra Processed Food and Our Health

Vary the foods you eat as much as possible. For example, for whole grains (and pseudo-whole grains) you can vary between wheat, spelt, various types of rice, oats, rye, barley, quinoa, amaranth, millet, buckwheat, Kamut wheat, etc. Avoid eating always the same foods.

Vary the “format” of the foods you eat. For example, you can eat grains as pasta, bread, grains, flakes, etc.

Vary cooking methods: use pan cooking, baking, air frying, boiling, grilling, microwave cooking, pressure cooking, steaming, etc.

New Building Blocks

The last two nutritional building blocks are often neglected but they play a very important role to build and maintain our health. These are phytonutrients and probiotics.

7. Phytonutrients

Unlocking The Secrets Of Phytonutrients In Colorful Foods

Sometimes considered micronutrients, phytonutrients are natural chemical substances that can be found in plant foods.

In fact, “phyto” comes from the Greek word for “plant”.

They contribute to the flavor, aroma, and to the beautiful colors of whole plant foods. Phytonutrients are typically found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, herbs, tea, coffee, and even in dark chocolate.

More than 25.000 phytonutrients can be found in plant foods. Extensive research has found that when we eat plant foods, phytonutrients protect us from chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, and have potent anti-cancer and anti-heart disease effects. [2]

The best way to benefit from these powerful health effects of phytonutrients is simply to include as many plant-based colorful foods in your meals as possible.

In fact, each color provides specific health benefits. If you maximize the amount of colors you eat, you also maximize your insurance for good health. In doing so, you also enrich the range of aromas and flavors you can enjoy with your meals.

These colors must come from natural whole plant foods, like vegetables and fruits with their skin whenever it’s edible. In fact, plants use phytonutrients to protect themselves against the threats from the external environment. That’s why typically the skin of vegetables are normally brightly colored and offer an high concentration of healthy phytonutrients. This is one of the reasons why it’s important to eat vegetables and fruits with their skin whenever this is possible, such as apples, peaches, eggplants, etc.

Learn more: Unlocking The Secrets Of Phytonutrients In Colorful Foods

8. Probiotics

Eating probiotic foods contributes to a healthy microbiome and plays an important role in promoting the correct functioning of the human body.

Probiotics are foods or supplements that contain live microorganisms that can maintain or even improve the composition of the population of “good” bacteria in our body, which is known as our microbiota.

Eating Probiotics plays an important role in promoting health and the correct functioning of the human body. [3]

A few examples of healthy probiotic foods are fermented foods such as yogurt, milk kefir and water kefir, fermented vegetables like sauerkraut and pickles, tempeh, kimchi, miso and kombucha.

Learn more: The Surprising Health Benefits of Eating Probiotic Foods

Whole Foods Are More Than The Sum Of Their Nutrients

It’s useful to be able to rapidly classify foods based on their predominant nutrients for meal composition purposes.

However, when choosing foods based on whether they contain primarily carbs, proteins, fat, or fiber, beware of the simplification trap.

Many people tend to make 1:1 connections between certain foods and their macronutrients. Some typical examples are “meat is protein” or “grains are carbs or “olive oil is fat”.

Although it is certainly true that these are the predominant macronutrients in these cases, foods come in complex packages of macronutrients and several other micronutrients and substances.

Scientists have identified only some of the substances that are contained in foods. In addition, many foods bring health benefits that can not be explained by the individual effects of the known substances they contain.

The Complexity Of Nutrients In Food

It may be helpful to attach macronutrient-labels to foods for meal planning purposes, but you have to remember that these labels always imply great simplifications.

Consider for example wheat flour.

100g of white wheat flour contain about 74g of carbs and 100g of whole wheat flour contain about 71g of carbs.

So it’s understandable why most people think flour = “carbs”.

However, if you look a the other known nutrients that are present in flour, then you realize that between whole wheat and white flour there is a huge difference.

As you can see in the table below, whole flour (in green) contains also 14g of proteins and a significant amount of vitamins and minerals. Whereas white flour (in red) contains much less of all these other nutrients. And this does not account for the differences in phytonutrients content.

Whole grains vs refined grains
Nutrients comparison: whole grains vs refined grains (nutrients in 100g of flour)

The table below illustrates another example, comparing different types of “protein” foods.

Examples of protein foods
Examples of protein foods

Broiled sirloin steak contains a great amount of proteins but these come with a large amount of saturated fat (which is unhealthy fat).

Ham steak also is a good source of proteins and has much less saturated fat but contains a huge amount of sodium (which is unhealthy).

Grilled salmon is also a great source of proteins and is very low both in saturated fat and sodium. In addition, salmon is a source of omega-3 fats that are very good for the heart.

Lentils come with a good amount of proteins and a lot of fiber, and have basically no saturated fat and sodium.

In A Nutshell: How To Combine The Building Blocks To Create Healthy Meals

Now that we have seen all the 8 building blocks, how can we combine them together?

The Harvard T.H. Chan School Of Public Health has released the Healthy Eating Plate infographic below, which is a simple and useful guide for creating healthy and balanced meals.

I strongly recommend one addition to the Healthy Eating Plate: add probiotics in it.

There is increasingly strong evidence about their important role for our health. So, eating or drinking Probiotics in all or most of your meals can be a very good idea.

Learn more: Free Weekly Meal Planner: The Best Tool For Healthy Eating

Healthy Eating Plate, Copyright © 2011, Harvard University. For more information about The Healthy Eating Plate, please see The Nutrition Source, Department of Nutrition, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, www.thenutritionsource.org, and Harvard Health Publications, www.health.harvard.edu.
Copyright © 2011, Harvard University. For more information about The Healthy Eating Plate, please see The Nutrition Source, Department of Nutrition, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, www.thenutritionsource.org, and Harvard Health Publications, www.health.harvard.edu.

References

[1] The Best Diet: Quality Counts | The Nutrition Source | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

[2] Phytonutrients: Paint your plate with the colors of the rainbow – Harvard Health

[3] The benefits of probiotics bacteria – Harvard Health

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