Mindful Diet: The Optimal Diet

A Guide to the Optimal Diet

Post written by Leo Babauta.

What’s healthy and what’s not — it’s one of the most confusing questions in our lives.

One of the problems is that there are so many different approaches to healthy eating — a dozen different diets advocating often extreme approaches. Should you eat all vegetables, all meat, no grains, all juice, no dairy, lots of dairy, low fat, high fat? It can be too much to sort through.

Another of the problems is that there are so many studies out there, new ones every day, and they can often seem to contradict each other. It’s enough to make most people just give up on paying attention to the research.

In this guide, I will attempt to sort through the mass of contradicting diets and research, and simplify things a bit. I do my best to rely on the mountains of research I’ve read in the last seven years, but often also rely on my own experiences and experiments as I’ve tried to simplify health advice down to the essentials.

It’s a fairly long guide, because I’m covering a lot of topics, but I hope it’ll be useful to those who have been confused as to what they should be eating, and what to avoid, how often, and how to put it all together into an optimal diet.

Short version: If you want to just get the key points, head to the bottom section, “Putting It All Together”.

Sorting Through Different Diets

Every week, it seems like, there’s a new fad diet. I’ve seen diets like the Grapefruit Diet, the Cookie Diet, various juice fasts, and diets that celebrities have used. I’ve personally tried a bunch of them myself, from Atkins to Paleo to the South Beach Diet to the Flat Belly Diet to the Slow Carb Diet to Mediterranean and Okinawan diets to low fat to vegetarian and vegan diets.


I’m going to briefly comment on some of the main ones, and then share what I’ve learned in a nutshell from my various experiments.

What I’ve learned: Through my own experiments and research with all of the above diets, I’ve found some things that are true:

  1. Extreme diets are not necessary. If a diet restricts you incredibly, it’s probably not necessary. It will probably work for weight loss in the short term, because you won’t eat as many calories as usual, but extreme diets tend to be hard to stick to (though some people will always be exceptions). Note that while vegan diets might be considered extreme, I don’t do it because of health reasons — I do it for ethical reasons. And within the possibilities of veganism, there are actually a ton of options, so it doesn’t feel restrictive once you get used to it.
  2. Less processed food is good. The best parts of most of the diets above are when people move from processed foods to less processed foods. Whole foods are healthier, in general, more full of nutrients and more filling.
  3. Vegetables are king. All of the above diets tell you to eat veggies. Plant foods in general are full of fiber, nutrients, and all around good health. Green veggies are the absolute best, while veggies of all colors are awesome. Fruits, nuts, beans, seeds are also awesome.
  4. Grains are fine. Reducing grain intake can be a good thing, if you replace them with veggies, good protein, nuts, seeds and beans. But a moderate amount of whole grains won’t hurt. Processed grains aren’t great and should be done in moderation.
  5. Calories are also important. Many of the above diets work mostly because they restrict what you can eat in some way, and therefore restrict calories. If you eat fewer calories, you will lose weight, and for many people that will be a healthy change.

Foundation of an Optimal Diet

The following components are the most important elements of a healthy diet, and you should try to include them every day:

  1. Vegetables & fruit. By far, one of the most important groups, and most people don’t get enough of them. We’ll go over how to incorporate more veggies into your diet in another article. A variety of vegetables is good — dark green ones are most important, but it’s good to have red, yellow, orange, along with some white veggies.
  2. Beans, nuts, seeds. Good sources of plant protein, fiber, and good fats. I love raw almonds and walnuts especially, and incorporate ground flaxseeds into many meals. Lentils and black beans are among my favorite beans, though I regularly also use red and pinto beans, white and garbanzo beans.
  3. Healthy proteins. For non-vegetarians, fish is the best protein, followed by the less fatty parts of poultry (not fried), and smaller amounts of red meat. Read more. Yogurt is also a good protein. For vegans, the above category of beans, nuts & seeds is great, along with soy protein such as tofu and tempeh, and seitan and other types of protein. (No, soy is not unhealthy.)
  4. Healthy fats. Saturated fats should be kept to a minimum, despite what you might have read on the Internet (check sources to see if there is a good amount of peer-reviewed evidence behind claims that saturated fat is healthy), but instead of going low-fat, it’s good to replace saturated fats with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats — avocados, nuts, olive oil, seeds, and fish.
  5. Healthy grains. While some groups on the Internet have a grain phobia, I haven’t seen any good evidence that whole grains are unhealthy. Processed grains, on the other hand, are often empty calories and should be avoided. Good grains include flour-less bread (sprouted grains), brown rice, quinoa, steel-cut oats and others.

Other Super Healthy Foods

Other than the above broad categories, a handful of foods offer a huge nutritional bang for your buck. I would try to include them on a regular basis:

Meat vs. No Meat

Is meat healthy for you? Should you avoid it or eliminate it completely? Is it really so bad?

I’m not going to be able to provide a definitive answer to that question here, but I’d like to make a few points about meat:

  1. No, it won’t kill you. That’s probably the last thing you’d expect to hear from a vegetarian, but honestly, including some meat (especially poultry and fish) can be very healthy. It really depends on how you do that. That said, again, I don’t eat meat for ethical reasons, and I’d recommend you consider those issues as well.
  2. Excessive red meat can be unhealthy. Studies have linked eating more than half a serving a day of red meat to cancer and cardiovascular disease deaths. That’s not to say you have to eliminate it completely — but eating less than most people eat is a good idea.
  3. Fish can be very healthy. If I weren’t vegan, I would probably eat mostly fish for protein. There are health problems to consider with fish (mercury, etc.) but in general fish protein tends to be one of the healthiest proteins possible. Poultry is also good, but without the good fats that fish have.
  4. Eliminating all meat can be healthy as well. There are lots of forms of protein that come from plants, and in general plant protein is very healthy. If you eat a variety of plants, you’ll have no problem getting protein — beans, nuts, tofu, seitan, tempeh, seeds, grains, even veggies all have protein. You don’t need meat to be healthy.

Other Important Nutrients

What other nutrients besides protein do you need to worry about? Actually, there are a host of them, but some important nutrients include:

Foods to Avoid

I don’t believe that any foods need to be completely eliminated from a healthy diet, but it’s clear that some foods can cause health problems when eaten in excess.

So while you don’t need to be afraid of the foods below, I would eat them in moderation — and if you eat a lot of them now (several times a day), I would reduce your intake of them over the long term:


So what should you drink? There are so many choices, and I’ll make some recommendations below:

When & How Often to Eat

Does it really matter how many times you eat throughout the day? How many meals are optimal? When should you eat? Is fasting good or bad for you?

The short answer is no, it doesn’t matter.

I’ve personally tried a variety of meal timing approaches for at least a month at a time (sometimes for several months), and none of them made any difference in terms of health and weight loss.

Here’s what I’ve tried:

Portion Sizes

Are portions sizes important, and what are the optimal portion sizes?

The short answer is yes, portion sizes do matter.

An abundance of calories is what makes people overweight. There is evidence that the number of calories isn’t the only thing that matters (composition of calories is a factor), but by and large, if you consume too many calories, you will gain weight over time.

There are a couple ways to take in too many calories: by eating large amounts of food, or by eating foods that are calorie-dense. Calorie-dense foods are high in calories for their weight — examples would include fat and oil and really anything high in fat or oil, like nuts, meats, fried foods, and dairy.

The healthiest groups of people, such as the traditional Okinawans, Mediterranean cultures, and Japanese, on average eat fewer calories than more modern societies that tend to be not only overweight, but higher in heart disease, diabetes, and other lifestyle diseases. Reducing calories is one of the best ways for people who are overweight to get healthy quickly (there are other good ways, like exercise, eating more nutrient-dense foods like vegetables, and meditation, for example).

Portion sizes can easily get out of hand, and result in too many calories. Fast food places supersize meals, while chain restaurants in the U.S. tend to serve huge platters of food, and people in Western societies often snack on junk food throughout the day.

So while portion sizes aren’t everything, they do mater. Reducing portion sizes is a good way to keep calories in check, while enjoying a variety of foods (even smaller amounts of unhealthy ones). Another approach would be to eat huge portions of foods that aren’t dense in calories, such as lots of veggies, fruits, and some whole grains.

If you’re looking for a rough guideline, keep protein and whole grains each to a portion the size of your fist. Then eat as many veggies and fruits as you like. Have a few bites of dessert if you like, but don’t overdo it.

Putting It All Together

So, considering all of the above information, what is the optimal diet? The truth is, there isn’t one answer, but the following guidelines should help create an amazingly healthy diet:

  1. Plan meals that incorporate the healthy foundation foods. It’s good to think through your meals in advance, before you get hungry, and perhaps plan several dishes to eat throughout the week. I will cook several days worth of veggie chili or tofu or tempeh stir-fry, for example, so that I don’t have to worry about preparation for every meal. Try to find meals that don’t take a ton of work to prepare, that can be cooked in large batches, and that include lots of veggies, along with beans, seeds, nuts, healthy protein, healthy fats, and a moderate amount of healthy grains.
  2. Have a healthy breakfasts. Eating breakfast usually means you’re less hungry later in the day, and usually means you won’t grab a muffin or croissandwich. A couple of my favorite healthy include steel-cut oats with berries, flaxseeds, raw almonds, raisins and cinnamon … or Greek yogurt with berries, raw almonds, and flaxseeds.
  3. Eat mindfully. Mindful eating means you can stop when you’re full, and fully enjoy the food rather than being left unsatisfied when you’re done eating. It means you can enjoy social occasions without overeating, and eat unhealthy foods sometimes without overdoing it. It means you enjoy healthy foods more, because you learn to appreciate their often subtler tastes.
  4. Plan healthy snacks. There will likely be a time between meals when you start getting hungry, and if you don’t have healthy snacks planned, you’ll grab whatever’s convenient, which is not likely to be very healthy. I enjoy nuts and fruit as a quick, easy, healthy snack.
  5. Have tea, dark chocolate, berries & wine each day. It’s important to eat healthy foods that you can savor, and these four foods tend to do it for me. A daily tea ritual in the morning or afternoon is relaxing and enjoyable. A bit of dark chocolate with berries helps satisfy any sweet cravings, and gives you a ton of anti-oxidants — savor this treat slowly. A glass or two of wine helps keep heart disease away, and makes a nice end-of-day relaxing ritual.
  6. Variety is good. While it’s not a bad idea to make large batches of meals that you can eat for several days, over the course of a month, you should switch the meals up, so that you get a variety of veggies, protein sources, healthy fats, whole grains. It gives you a variety of nutrients, and also helps keep things interesting.
  7. Allow yourself the less-healthy foods in moderation. It’s unhealthy to be afraid of any kind of food, even if it’s unhealthy, and making yourself feel very restricted is likely to result in binge behavior. Instead, allow yourself some fried foods, fatty foods, sweet treats, processed bread … but in smaller amounts, and on occasion, instead of all day long.