What defines a healthy meal? That sounds like a simple question, but it’s often not. We know that a donut is a less healthy breakfast than a veggie omelet … but why? Specifically, what are the components of a healthy meal that ensure we walk away from the table feeling energized, satisfied, and full, that keep our blood sugar stable, that protect our long-term health, and that help us reach our health goals?
Good news – I’m going to lay out 5 key components of a healthy meal for you today, then give you an easy acronym to remember as you put together your upcoming meals. When you eat this way, I can almost guarantee that you’ll feel better in the short term, and I know your body will thank you in the long term!
5 Components of a Healthy Meal
While I don’t believe in perfection, I am to include at least these 5 components in each healthy meal I enjoy:
- Antioxidants and micronutrients. Think of these as fancy words for “all the good stuff in plants.” Specifically, antioxidants are molecules that help your body deal with inflammation (or, even more specifically, they help reverse oxidative stress, which if unmitigated can cause chronic inflammation). Antioxidants are plentiful in the deeply colored vegetables and fruits – some of the richest sources are berries, kale, beets, red cabbage, bell peppers, and dark chocolate (yes!). Micronutrients, on the other hand, can include antioxidants, but are a broader category, including any nutrients (mostly vitamins and minerals) that we need in small (Macronutrients are needed in large quantities; micronutrients in small quantities … but they’re still essential!). All plant foods have micronutrients – this includes everything from the magnesium in leafy greens to the vitamin C in an orange. Micronutrients are involved in almost every single biological process in our bodies, from giving us more energy to helping with digestion, from preserving eye and brain health to helping regulate our genes.
- Fiber is an indigestible form of carbohydrates that doesn’t get absorbed the same way most “carbs” do, but rather helps feed the gut bacteria that are critical for our overall health. It’s not just about elimination (although having 1-3 bowel movements per day, every day, is critical!) but also about bloating, energy, satiety, immune health, mental health (80% of your serotonin is found in your gut, and the gut and brain are intimately linked!), and SO much more. The current USDA Dietary Guidelines report states that “more than 90 percent of women and 97 percent of men do not meet recommended intakes for dietary fiber.” And honestly, the guidelines (22-28g per day for adult women and 28-34g per day for adult men) fall pretty short of optimal in the first place. I’d suggest going for at least 35g per day, but ideally 40g, 50g, or as much as possible!
- Protein is an essential macronutrient; one that most of my clients fall short on. This post details how to find how much protein you need, as well as several benefits of protein, from body composition and satiety to bone health, immune health, heart health, wound healing, and more!
- Healthy fat. The idea that “fat free” or “low fat” meals are healthier is so 1995! Yes, of course, there are healthier types of fat (I’m not about to tell you to load up on double bacon cheeseburgers all day every day!), but we absolutely need healthy fat in our meals to stay satiated, absorb nutrients properly, stabilize blood sugar, keep our hair, skin, and nails healthy, and even support brain health! Here’s more on which fats to choose, and how much fat to eat according to your goals.
- While I like to focus on adding in all of the above, I do also focus on reducing the following in most of my meals:
- Added sugars. I’m not worried about the sugar from carrots or blueberries, and I don’t think you need to be either, but when it comes to added sugar, I do try to minimize it. Here’s how to find added sugar on nutrition labels.
- Refined grains. This is not an “all or nothing” mentality, but for me (and for most people, I’d argue!), refined grains cause so much after effect when eaten in excess that it’s generally better to minimize them. What is a refined grain? Any grain that has been ground into a flour and then prepared into a new product. This includes bread (wheat ground into a flour and baked), pasta (wheat ground into a flour and baked), even rice noodles (rice ground into a flour and baked) or quinoa crackers (quinoa ground into a flour and baked), or any other grain-based product. Great news, though – there are so many healthier grain-free options available – from breads to crackers to pastas and more. See my Megan Recommends page for some of my favorites!
- Low-quality oils. Vegetable oils sound healthy, but they’re likely to oxidize and cause inflammation in the body. I aim to minimize oils like canola, sunflower, safflower, soy, corn, and any hydrogenated oils. See this post for the healthiest cooking oils to use!
- Inflammatory foods. Fried foods, heavily processed foods, added sugar, alcohol, and gluten and dairy are inflammatory for most people, so I aim to minimize them in most meals. See this post for more on inflammation and how to reduce it.
The Magic Formula for a Healthy Meal: VVFP
To make it simple for my Revitalize members and 1-to-1 clients, I simplify this by suggesting a VVFP meal. VVFP stands for:
You can also think of it as standing for “very, very filling plate,” because when you eat a VVFP meal, you’ll be surprisingly full!
Simply put, we’re going for 2 servings (or 2 fist-sized portions) of veggies on each plate, about one serving of healthy fat (see this post for guidance), and at least one serving (about a palm size) of protein.
Many meals that you already consider healthy will follow this formula! For example:
- An omelet with spinach, broccoli, and mushrooms (2 fist-sizes of veggies for VV, egg yolks for F, egg whites for P)
- A big salad with tons of veggies, shrimp, hemp seeds, and balsamic vinegar and olive oil for dressing (at least 2 fist-sizes of veggies for VV, hemp seeds and olive oil for F, shrimp and hemp seeds for P)
- A cauliflower “fried rice” dish with tofu and veggies (at least 2 fist-sizes of cauliflower and other veggies like peas and carrots for VV, sesame oil or olive oil for F, tofu for P)
- Lettuce wraps with deli turkey, hummus, avocado, tomato, and sprouts (lettuce, tomato, and sprouts for VV, avocado for F, turkey and hummus for P)
See? It doesn’t have to be too complicated!
Two important notes:
- You might be thinking, “wait, is it ONLY VVFP?! What about fruit … and donuts … and rice … and pasta … and chocolate?!” Don’t worry. I don’t believe meals have to be ONLY VVFP. VVFP is the base of every healthy meal, but we can add on from there. In my Revitalize Health Accelerator, I teach members how to add in bonuses (like fruit and rice) and extras (like donuts and pasta) while still keeping balance and reaching goals!
- The order of the food can make a meal even more healthy! So, if you are going to include those extras, do you eat them first or last? You’ll benefit from listening to my FREE Blood Sugar Masterclass right here!
Now it’s your turn … What’s one VVFP meal you’ve had lately, or that you enjoy?
🎙️ Want to hear about this topic in audio format? → Check out the podcast episode here!
Want more? In my Revitalize Health Accelerator, I walk you through every step of what it takes to be a well-rounded healthy person. The information, motivation, and accountability in this program is simply unmatched! You’ll learn everything from inflammation to emotional eating, from supplements to sleep quality, from macronutrient balance to meal planning – I’ll walk you through my proven system to teach you how to implement it. If you’re curious, set up a free call with me here to discuss!