What are healthy food and their health benefits

There is a lot that your health depends on, from the genes you were born with to the air you breathe every day. Food and nutrition form a huge part of this foundation for good health in your life. From the moment of conception, nutrition plays an important role in how you develop. Even before childbirth and breastfeeding, babies in the womb obtain nutrition from their mothers. Any nutritional deficiencies, malnutrition or infections the mother has can affect how the child’s brain and body develop. 

So, healthy dietary practices are required to start early in life and continue thereafter for long-term health benefits. This is the reason why following a balanced diet with nutritious and healthy foods throughout your life is very important. Doing so can not only reduce your risk of becoming overweight but also prevent non-communicable diseases like malnutrition, obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke and cancer

The World Health Organization (WHO) says that while a balanced diet consisting of healthy foods is vital for good health, the components of this diet vary depending on characteristics like age, gender, lifestyle, degree of physical activity, cultural contexts, locally available foods and dietary customs. However, the basic tenets of what healthy foods are remain the same globally despite these differences. 

This understanding of healthy foods is driven largely by nutrition science. While the idea that you should get nutrition from a wide range of foods from all categories is well known, recent research also suggests which dietary patterns and unhealthy foods you should avoid for better health. Rapid urbanization and changing lifestyles have also led to greater consumption of processed foods and less consumption of healthy foods. This shift can do further harm to your health so, taking stock of your dietary patterns and diet components is even more important today.

(Read more: Detox diet)

  1. Healthy food groups
  2. Unhealthy foods to avoid
  3. Benefits of eating healthy foods
  4. Micronutrients in healthy foods
  5. Macronutrients in healthy foods

Healthy food groups

Including a variety of healthy foods in your diet is very important for your health. Such variety can not only help keep your diet fresh and interesting but also ensure that you get all the macronutrients and micronutrients your body needs. There are five food groups for complete nutrition and a healthy diet should include foods from all of them. The following are the five food groups you should be deriving nutrition from. 

  1. Fats and sugar
  2. Proteins
  3. Dairy products
  4. Fruits and vegetables
  5. Grains

Fats and sugar

Not all foods from this group are healthy, which is why you need to be extra careful about the kinds of fats and sugars you consume. While polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids are considered to be good for your health, saturated and trans fats are not. Similarly, natural sugars in fruits, jaggery and dates may be healthy but refined sugars and refined sugar products like cakes, jams, cookies, pastries and beverages with added sugars are unhealthy. While your body needs fats and sugars to sustain itself, you need to pick the healthier ones to include in your diet to stay healthy. 

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There is a good reason why proteins are known as the building blocks of life. Whether it is animal protein sources like chicken, eggs and fish or plant-proteins like soybeans, tofu, beans, nuts and seeds and even grains like quinoa, including these foods in your diet is vital. Most of these sources are also packed with minerals and vitamins. However, it is important to avoid red meat, processed meat and undercooked meat to prevent health issues like high cholesterol, salmonella and listeriosis.

Dairy products

Dairy products like milk, yoghurt, curd, paneer, ghee and cheese are key parts of the Indian diet, especially the Indian vegetarian diet. These dairy products are packed with protein, calcium, vitamins A, D and B12 - all essential minerals and vitamins for your immune health. The same products can provide you with more strength and muscle-building capacity. They can also keep your bones and teeth healthy. People with lactose intolerance, however, need to avoid dairy products so that they don’t get an allergic reaction or go into anaphylactic shock.

(Read more: Ghee or butter, which is healthier for you?)

Fruits and vegetables

Whether they are fresh and raw or cooked, vegetables and fruits are necessary parts of your diet. These healthy foods are packed with water, dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants and play a huge role in aiding digestion and boosting your immune system. What’s more, fruits and vegetables - except starchy ones like potatoes and sweet potatoes - are low in calories and also aid weight loss. It’s very important that you include a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in your diet and consume at least five servings every day.


Grains and foods prepared with grains are the biggest sources of carbohydrates and energy in your diet. Some of the most popular grains consumed in India are white rice, brown rice, wheat, barley, millets, buckwheat, amaranth, legumes and lentils. Apart from carbs, most grains are also packed with minerals, phytonutrients and some vitamins. From providing you with energy to aiding weight loss, including grains in your diet can benefit you in a myriad of ways. However, if you have a digestive disorder, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), gluten intolerance or wheat allergy then it is best to consult a doctor about your grain consumption.

(Read more: White rice or brown rice, which is healthier?)

Unhealthy foods to avoid

There are many foods that people consume nowadays because they are tasty, convenient or cheap but aren’t as healthy. Consuming these unhealthy foods can have the exact opposite effect on your health when compared to the results you get from the consumption of healthy foods. This means that eating these foods can lead to health issues like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, speed up ageing and cognitive decline and result in overall low quality of life. 

Often, these unhealthy foods are also marketed in the form of comfort foods, because of which people also tend to consume too much of them. This is an equally harmful practice. Completely cutting off these foods, however, is very difficult and may create a sense of deprivation that can later spur binge-eating or overeating. The best thing to do is to reduce the quantity of unhealthy foods you consume to a minimum and replace the unhealthiest ingredients in these foods with healthier substitutes. The following are some unhealthy foods you should avoid:

  1. Refined grains
  2. Saturated and trans fats
  3. Added sugar
  4. Excess sodium

Refined grains

In their natural form, grains are extremely beneficial because they are healthy foods packed with dietary fiber, essential vitamins and minerals and even phytonutrients. Refined grains, on the other hand, are anything but beneficial for your health. The intake of refined grains and their flours like maida has been associated by many studies with adverse health outcomes like increased risks of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity. This is the reason why most doctors and nutritionists recommend the replacement of refined grains with whole grains.

Saturated and trans fats

The WHO recommends that the intake of saturated fats should be less than 10% of your daily total energy intake, while that of trans fats must be less than 1%. Industrially-produced trans fats in the form of junk, processed or deep-fried foods should be further avoided since they can cause even more harm. The WHO estimates that the intake of trans fats leads to more than 500,000 deaths due to cardiovascular diseases, which is more reason why you should avoid these foods.

Added sugar

You may not realise this but added sugars have a way of sneaking into your diet through everything from junk food and beverages to those desserts you love so much. Consumption of these added sugars can cause obesity, diabetes and damage to your teeth. The WHO says that the ideal daily sugar intake for both adults and children should be less than 10% of their total energy intake. A further reduction to below 5% or roughly six teaspoons per day can prove to be additionally beneficial. It must be noted, however, that most of your daily sugar consumption comes from fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods, so all you need to do is cut off sources of added sugars.

Excess sodium

The main source of sodium in your diet is salt, even though high sodium amounts are also found in processed foods with monosodium glutamate (MSG). The WHO says that most people consume too much salt - in fact, almost twice the recommended maximum levels of intake, which is less than 5g per day. This overconsumption of sodium contributes to high blood pressure and an increased risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke. The WHO insists that sticking to the recommended daily consumption level of less than 5g per day can prevent an estimated 2.5 million deaths every year. 

Benefits of eating healthy foods

Consuming healthy foods every day is essential because they can help you maintain your health throughout your life. Healthy foods include a wide variety of foods from grains and lean proteins to fruits and vegetables. Many people assume neglecting carbs and fats cannot harm their health but the fact is that all macronutrients and micronutrients have a role to play in your health and are necessary even in small doses. 

The benefits of eating healthy foods include everything from the prevention of chronic and potentially fatal diseases to proper maintenance of all bodily and cognitive functions. Eating healthy foods can also help your endocrine function and maintain the balance of hormones necessary for reproductive health, sexual health and especially mental health. Many healthy foods, especially the ones that contain antioxidants, even have the potential of preventing cancers. From improving your digestion to helping you sleep better, consuming healthy foods have too many benefits to count.

(Read more: Ways to overcome insomnia and sleep better)

Micronutrients in healthy foods

Commonly known as just vitamins and minerals, micronutrients are just as important for your health as macronutrients are. You may need comparatively smaller amounts of these nutrients, but their inclusion is vital because, without vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and antioxidants, your entire body is unlikely to function properly. 

What’s more, the major disease-causing nutritional deficiencies in the world occur due to insufficient intake of these micronutrients. Usually, consuming sources of macronutrients provides enough micronutrients to your diet too. However, if there is a deficiency or malabsorption then you might need to consult a doctor about correcting your diet and taking dietary supplements. The following are some micronutrients your body needs.

  1. Phytonutrients and antioxidants
  2. Trace minerals
  3. Microminerals
  4. Fat-soluble vitamins
  5. Water-soluble vitamins

Phytonutrients and antioxidants

Phytonutrients, also known as phytochemicals, are natural compounds found in plants. Consuming phytonutrients, many of which have antioxidant properties, can improve your health in many ways. Phytonutrients like carotenoids, flavonoids, curcumin and capsaicin are found in common plant foods like fruits, vegetables, turmeric and even chillies. Antioxidants, which are similar to but not the same as phytonutrients, are also found in green tea, cinnamon and most herbs. 


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Trace minerals

Trace minerals are the ones that are required in smaller amounts than microminerals. These minerals include iron, manganese, copper, zinc and selenium. Though you need lesser amounts of these trace minerals, they are vital for many functions of your body including nervous system support, healing wounds, defending cells from oxidative stress and supplying oxygen to the muscles.


Common minerals like calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium and potassium are known as microminerals. These microminerals are present in food sources like milk and dairy products, green leafy vegetables, black beans, lentils, bananas and fish varieties like salmon. These microminerals help in a number of bodily functions like controlling your blood pressure levels, improving muscle strength, and maintaining bone health. 

Fat-soluble vitamins

Unlike water-soluble vitamins, fat-soluble vitamins only dissolve in fat and are stored in your liver and fatty tissues for future use. Fat-soluble vitamins include vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E and vitamin K. These vitamins play a huge role in strengthening the immune system, providing antioxidants to prevent inflammation and free radical damage, improve your vision and support blood clotting. Fat-soluble vitamins are found in green leafy vegetables, almonds, sweet potatoes, milk and soybeans.

Water-soluble vitamins

Vitamin B and vitamin C are water-soluble vitamins. Apart from vitamin B12, all other water-soluble vitamins are not stored in the body and get flushed out through the urine. This is the reason why you need to regularly replenish these vitamins by regularly consuming whole grains, eggs, green leafy vegetables like spinach and capsicum, fish, lean meat and citrus fruits. The main function of water-soluble vitamins is to produce energy, prevent cell damage, reduce metabolic stress and create red blood cells. 

Macronutrients in healthy foods

Macronutrients are the types of nutrients that you require in large quantities for energy and proper function. Macronutrients include proteins, carbohydrates and fats and are the main sources of fuel for your body. Many people believe that controlling macronutrient consumption is the key to losing weight, especially when it comes to carbs and fats. However, these nutrients are just as important in small amounts. The following are the three types of macronutrients you absolutely need, even in small portions.

  1. Fats
  2. Proteins
  3. Carbohydrates


Fats or fatty acids are substances that help your body absorb vitamins from broken down foods. While fats like saturated and trans fats get a bad reputation for being unhealthy, your body needs some amounts of it every day to function properly. The fats your body gets from foods like nuts and seeds, olive oil and other sources provide essential fatty acids called linoleic and linolenic acid. These fatty acids are needed for brain development, cognitive function, inflammation control and blood clotting function. 


Proteins are complex organic compounds which are made of many amino acids linked together through peptide, sulfhydryl and hydrogen bonds. Proteins are classified into simple proteins, conjugated proteins and derived proteins. The synthesis of these proteins helps your body produce everything from hormones to neurotransmitters. These proteins are found not only in animal and dairy products but also in plant sources like green leafy vegetables, some grains, nuts and seeds.

(Read more: Protein deficiency)


Carbohydrates are the molecules of sugar your body breaks down into glucose. This glucose or blood sugar is the main source of energy for your body’s cells, tissues and organs and may be either used immediately or stored for later use. There are three main types of carbohydrates:

  • Sugars, which are also called simple carbohydrates and are found in fruits, vegetables, milk, desserts and processed foods.
  • Starches, which are complex carbohydrates found in cereal grains, bread, pasta and also in some vegetables like potatoes, corn and peas.
  • Fiber, which is also a complex carbohydrate and is one of the most beneficial of all carbohydrates. Fiber is found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans and whole grains.
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