Defining Good Nutrition

By: Jeremy Partl, RD

What defines good nutrition for you? Take a minute to list 3-5 aspects of “good nutrition”.

If you ask 50 people what “good” or “healthy” nutrition is, odds are you will probably get about 40 different answers. Surely, some people will use the terms “balanced”, or “includes more whole foods”.

But, what does it actually mean?

Good Nutrition Defined

 “Good nutrition” is a multi-faceted term that provides insight on what the food lifestyle we have and the food we eat contribute to our goals and overall health.

 Controls energy balance

  1. Provides nutrient density
  2. Achieves health, body composition, and performance goals
  3. Honest and outcome-based
  4. Sustainable and consistent

Taking a look further into each area….

  • Controls energy balance

The phrase energy balance represents the relationship between “energy in” and “energy out”.

The energy in component is quite simple, it is the calories that you are consuming. But, the energy out component represents the daily activity you do, the energy your body uses just to survive, and even the energy used to digest food.

Usually, it is referred most to in terms of weight balance. If you eat more than you burn, than you will gain weight. Similarly, if you eat less than you burn, then you will lose weight. If the two are the same, then you will maintain your weight.

However, both positive and negative energy balance states can impact everything from your metabolism, to your hormonal balance, all the way to the mood you carry throughout the day. Negative energy balance can result in loss of body mass (both fat and muscle), decreases in performance and fitness, declines in metabolic rate, and even cognition troubles. Positive energy balance can result in consequences to long-term health such as the buildup of plaque in the arteries, accumulation of fat, and more.

But, focusing on the positive, controlling energy balance can help you to reach large scale your goals.

  • Provides nutrient density

Nutrient density refers to the ratio of nutrients (vitamins, minerals, fiber, etc.) to the total calorie content in a food. Think of 100 calories of broccoli versus 100 calories of butter. The food with a higher amount of nutrients is obviously going to be the broccoli, which may be more beneficial to long-term health, even with the same calorie content.

Foods with a greater nutrient density provides for easier control of calorie intake, longer periods of fullness between meals, difficulty overeating, and more nutrients per volume of food

The foods with the highest nutrient density tend to be whole, unprocessed foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, lean dairy, beans and legumes, etc. Examples of low nutrient dense foods include refined grains and sweets, high-fat meats and dairy, etc.

  • Achieves health, body composition, and performance goals

A lot of people diet and exercise solely for the reason to look good. They want to lose fat, gain muscle, get a flat stomach, or just look good naked. But, focusing too much on the way you look can take people down the path of using unsustainable practices, developing a negative mindset, or using short term crash protocols that sacrifice long term health and well being.

Rather than focusing solely on aesthetics, individuals should be encouraged to employ strategies that improve markers of health and reduce symptoms and risk of illness.

In addition, whether you want to be a professional athletes, are a weekend warrior, or just want be able to live daily without any struggles, proper nutrition habits can improve performance in terms of energy levels and stamina.

There can be a lot of overlap and you can improve all three facets at the same time. If you focus exclusively on just one of the goals above, it can lead to long term consequences that you might want to avoid.

  • Honest and outcome-based

Each of us has goals that we want to achieve, or reasons we do what we do. If our nutrition plan is helping us to achieve those goals, then we should continue what we are doing. However,

if we are not achieving our goals, then it’s time to make a corrective action.

For example, if a high school wrestler who needs to gain weight to reach a more competitive weight class starts to drop a bunch of foods from his diet because the are not “whole or unprocessed” and starts losing weight, he is not doing what he needs to in order to reach his goals, even if he is making improvements in his nutrition.

This honest evaluation and response is called outcome based decision making, and should help to guide our nutrition habits.

  • Sustainable and consistent

Often times we hear about crash diets or professionals writing out specific meal plans that define the foods to eat at a specific time. While they may produce short term results, the majority of them do not lead to long term success.

Good nutrition is something that you would be do for the long-term, maybe even for the rest of your life. It is a result of developing habits that will stick with you.

Additionally, good nutrition is consistent. If you don’t like certain foods, or can’t fit in the number of meals you are supposed to eat into your lifestyle, it is not going to get you the results you want. Oftentimes, the best plan not the most scientifically backed plan, but the one that will work for you.

A good question to ask yourself to determine the sustainability and likelihood of consistency is “Will I be able to do this day in and day out for the long term”?


Again, what does good nutrition mean to you?

Did it change as a result of reading this article? Did it make you think of something additional that you include into your definition of good nutrition?

Feel free to share your definition of good nutrition in the comments to get a discussion going.


 Berardi, J., & Andrews, R. (2013). The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition 2nd ed. Precision Nutrition. Inc. p165.