Reaching for processed or fast food might be a convenient way to temporarily stave off hunger, but it's not your best move for long-term health. The quality of your diet -- as well as other lifestyle habits -- has a significant impact on your long-term health. Follow a balanced diet, and it'll help you look and feel your best.
An unhealthy diet is one of the biggest contributors to obesity, explains the Harvard School of Public Health, and eating healthy can make it easier to manage your weight. The healthy foods that form the foundation of a healthful diet -- like fruits and veggies -- are naturally low in calories. Produce, whole grains, nuts and legumes also offer lots of dietary fiber, a type of carb that keeps you full after your meals.
Keep in mind, though, that even healthy foods have calories. You'll still need to practice portion control if you want to lose or maintain your weight.
While the sugar, salt and trans fats found in many processed foods put you at a higher risk of disease, a healthy diet has the opposite effect. A diet rich in whole grains, for example, has been shown to lower the risk of type-2 diabetes, and whole grains might also reduce your risk of cancer. Fruits and veggies offer potassium and fiber -- nutrients that lower blood pressure and improve blood cholesterol, respectively. That can translate to a lower risk of heart disease.
A healthy diet is also linked to a lower risk of other health issues, including stroke, dental cavities and osteoporosis, notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A healthy diet can also help you feel your best because nutrient deficiencies can zap your energy or harm your mental health. Iron deficiency, a common nutritional deficiency caused by an unhealthy diet, reduces oxygen transport to your cells and tissues, causing fatigue. Low levels of omega-3 fatty acids -- the healthy unsaturated fats found in fish, walnuts and flaxseeds -- can cause fatigue, along with mood swings and depression.
A healthy, balanced diet prevents these, and other, nutrient deficiencies.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's dietary guidelines include five major food groups: vegetables, grains, fruits, protein foods and dairy. You should eat several servings of vegetables and fruits daily as the basis for a healthy diet, selecting produce in a variety of colors for the most health benefits. Your grain intake should come from whole grains -- like quinoa, brown rice, oatmeal or 100-percent whole-wheat bread -- instead of white bread or rice. Protein food intake should come from fatty fish, like salmon, as well as beans, nuts, eggs and lean meat and poultry. Meet your dairy intake with low- or nonfat options, like nonfat Greek yogurt, skim milk or low-fat milk alternatives.
The amount of food you'll need from each group depends on your age, gender and activity level. For help planning a balanced diet personalized to your needs, consult a registered dietitian.
- Harvard School of Public Health: Obesity Causes
- Linus Pauling Institute: Whole Grains
- USDA MyPlate: Why Is it Important to Eat Vegetables?
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Nutrition and the Health of Young People
- Linus Pauling Institute: Iron
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- USDA ChooseMyPlate: Welcome to the Five Food Groups