Healthy eating is not about strict nutrition philosophies, staying unrealistically thin, or depriving yourself of the foods you love. Rather, it’s about feeling great, having more energy, and keeping yourself as healthy as possible– all of which can be achieved by learning some nutrition basics and using them in a way that works for you.
Healthy eating begins with learning how to “eat smart”—it’s not just what you eat, but how you eat. Your food choices can reduce your risk of illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, as well as defend against depression. Additionally, learning the habits of healthy eating can improve your health by boosting your energy, sharpening your memory and stabilizing your mood. Expand your range of healthy food choices and learn how to plan ahead to create and maintain a satisfying, healthy diet.
Healthy eating tip 1: Set yourself up for success
To set yourself up for success, think about planning a healthy diet as a number of small, manageable steps rather than one big drastic change. If you approach the changes gradually and with commitment, you will have a healthy diet sooner than you think.
- Simplify. Instead of being overly concerned with counting calories or measuring portion sizes, think of your diet in terms of color, variety and freshness—then it should be easier to make healthy choices. Focus on finding foods you love and easy recipes that incorporate a few fresh ingredients. Gradually, your diet will become healthier and more delicious.
- Start slow and make changes to your eating habits over time. Trying to make your diet healthy overnight isn’t realistic or smart. Changing everything at once usually leads to cheating or giving up on your new eating plan. Make small steps, like adding a salad (full of different color vegetables) to your diet once a day or switching from butter to olive oil when cooking. As your small changes become habit, you can continue to add more healthy choices to your diet.
- Every change you make to improve your diet matters. You don’t have to be perfect and you don’t have to completely eliminate foods you enjoy to have a healthy diet. The long term goal is to feel good, have more energy and reduce the risk of cancer and disease. Don’t let your missteps derail you—every healthy food choice you make counts.
Think of exercise as a food group in your diet.
Find something active that you like to do and add it to your day, just like you would add healthy greens, blueberries or salmon. The benefits of lifelong exercise are abundant and regular exercise may even motivate you to make healthy food choices a habit.
People often think of healthy eating as an all or nothing proposition, but a key foundation for any healthy diet is moderation. Despite what certain fad diets would have you believe, we all need a balance of carbohydrates, protein, fat, fiber, vitamins, and minerals to sustain a healthy body.
- Try not to think of certain foods as “off limits.” When you ban certain foods or food groups, it is natural to want those foods more, and then feel like a failure if you give in to temptation. If you are drawn towards sweet, salty or unhealthy foods, start by reducing portion sizes and not eating them as often. Later you may find yourself craving them less or thinking of them as only occasional indulgences.
- Think smaller portions. Serving sizes have ballooned recently, particularly in restaurants. When dining out, choose a starter instead of an entrée, split a dish with a friend, and don’t order supersized anything. At home, use smaller plates, think about serving sizes in realistic terms and start small. Visual cues can help with portion sizes—your serving of meat, fish or chicken should be the size of a deck of cards. A teaspoon of oil or salad dressing is about the size of a matchbook and your slice of bread should be the size of a CD case.
Healthy eating is about more than the food on your plate—it is also about how you think about food. Healthy eating habits can be learned and it is important to slow down and think about food as nourishment rather than just something to gulp down in between meetings or on the way to pick up the kids.
- Eat with others whenever possible. Eating with other people has numerous social and emotional benefits—particularly for children—and allows you to model healthy eating habits. Eating in front of the TV or computer often leads to mindless overeating.
- Take time to chew your food and enjoy mealtimes. Chew your food slowly, savoring every bite. We tend to rush though our meals, forgetting to actually taste the flavors and feel the textures of what is in our mouths. Reconnect with the joy of eating.
- Listen to your body. Ask yourself if you are really hungry, or have a glass of water to see if you are thirsty instead of hungry. During a meal, stop eating before you feel full. It actually takes a few minutes for your brain to tell your body that it has had enough food, so eat slowly.
- Eat breakfast, and eat smaller meals throughout the day. A healthy breakfast can jumpstart your metabolism, and eating small, healthy meals throughout the day (rather than the standard three large meals) keeps your energy up and your metabolism going.
Fruits and vegetables are the foundation of a healthy diet—they are low in calories and nutrient dense, which means they are packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. Fruits and vegetables should be part of every meal and your first choice for a snack—aim for a minimum of five portions each day. The antioxidants and other nutrients in fruits and vegetables help protect against certain types of cancer and other diseases.
Eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables every day—the brighter the better.
The brighter, deeper colored fruits and vegetables contain higher concentrations of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants—and different colors provide different benefits. Some great choices are:
- Greens: Greens are packed with calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, zinc, vitamins A, C, E and K, and they help strengthen the blood and respiratory systems. Be adventurous with your greens and branch out beyond bright and dark green lettuce—kale, mustard greens, broccoli, Chinese cabbage are just a few of the options.
- Sweet vegetables: Naturally sweet vegetables add healthy sweetness to your meals and reduce your cravings for other sweets. Some examples of sweet vegetables are corn, carrots, beets, sweet potatoes or yams, winter squash, and onions.
- Fruit: A wide variety of fruit is also vital to a healthy diet. Fruit provides fiber, vitamins and antioxidants. Berries are cancer-fighting, apples provide fiber, oranges and mangos offer vitamin C, and so on.
Don’t forget to shop fresh and local whenever possible
The local farmer’s market, fruit stand or Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group are great ways to get access to fresh, local produce. To find local growers, farmer's markets, and CSAs in your area, visit Local Harvest.
Avoid: Fruit juices, which can contain up to 10 teaspoons of sugar per cup; avoid or dilute with water. Canned fruit is often in sugary syrup, and dried fruit, while an excellent source of fiber, can be high in calories. Avoid fried veggies and those with dressings or sauces—too much unhealthy fat and calories.
Water—a vital part of a healthy diet
Water makes up about 75% of our bodies and helps flush our systems of waste products and toxins. Yet many people go through life dehydrated—causing tiredness, low energy and headaches.
Caffeinated beverages, in particular, actually cause the body to lose water. Fresh fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, contain plenty of water and can help with hydration, especially when you are looking for an alternative to your eighth glass of water for the day.
Choose healthy carbohydrates and fiber sources, especially whole grains, for long lasting energy. In addition to being delicious and satisfying, whole grains are rich in phytochemicals and antioxidants, which help to protect against coronary heart disease, certain cancers, and diabetes. Studies have shown people who eat more whole grains tend to have a healthier heart.
A quick definition of healthy carbs and unhealthy carbs
Healthy carbs (sometimes known as good carbs) include whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables. Healthy carbs are digested slowly, helping you feel full longer and keeping blood sugar and insulin levels stable.
Unhealthy carbs (or bad carbs) are foods such as white flour, refined sugar and white rice that have been stripped of all bran, fiber and nutrients. Unhealthy carbs digest quickly and cause spikes in blood sugar levels and energy.
- Include a variety of whole grains in your healthy diet, including whole wheat, brown rice, millet, quinoa, and barley. Experiment with different grains to find your favorites.
- Make sure you're really getting whole grains. Be aware that the words stone-ground, multi-grain, 100% wheat, or bran, don’t necessarily mean that a product is whole grain. Look for the new Whole Grain Stamp. If there is no stamp look for the words “whole grain” or “100% whole wheat,” and check the ingredients.
- Try mixing grains as a first step to switching to whole grains. If whole grains, like brown rice and whole wheat pasta, don’t sound good at first, start by mixing what you normally use with the whole grains. You can gradually increase the whole grain to 100%.
Avoid: Refined grains such as breads, pastas, and breakfast cereals that are not whole grain.
Fiber: An essential component of a healthy diet
Dietary fiber, found in plant foods (fruit, vegetables and whole grains) is essential for maintaining a healthy digestive system. Fiber helps support a healthy diet by helping you feel full faster and for a longer amount of time, and keeping your blood sugar stable. A healthy diet contains approximately 20-30 grams of fiber a day, but most of us only get about half that amount.
The two types of fiber are soluble and insoluble.
- Soluble fiber can dissolve in water and can also help to lower blood fats and maintain blood sugar. Primary sources are beans, fruit and oat products.
- Insoluble fiber cannot dissolve in water, so it passes directly through the digestive system. It’s found in whole grain products and vegetables.
Good sources of healthy fat are needed to nourish your brain, heart and cells, as well as your hair, skin, and nails. Foods rich in certain omega-3 fats called EPA and DHA are particularly important and can reduce cardiovascular disease, improve your mood and help prevent dementia.
Add to your healthy diet:
- Monounsaturated fats, from plant oils like canola oil, peanut oil, and olive oil, as well as avocados, nuts (like almonds, hazelnuts, and pecans) and seeds (such as pumpkin, sesame).
- Polyunsaturated fats, including Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, found in fatty fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and some cold water fish oil supplements. Other sources of polyunsaturated fats are unheated sunflower, corn, soybean, and flaxseed oils, and walnuts.
Reduce or eliminate from your diet:
- Saturated fats, found primarily in animal sources including red meat and whole milk dairy products.
- Trans fats, found in vegetable shortenings, some margarines, crackers, candies, cookies, snack foods, fried foods, baked goods, and other processed foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
Protein gives us the energy to get up and go—and keep going. Protein in food is broken down into the 20 amino acids that are the body’s basic building blocks for growth and energy, and essential for maintaining cells, tissues and organs. A lack of protein in our diet can slow growth, reduce muscle mass, lower immunity, and weaken the heart and respiratory system. Protein is particularly important for children, whose bodies are growing and changing daily.
Here are some guidelines for including protein in your healthy diet:
Try different types of protein. Whether or not you are a vegetarian, trying different protein sources—such as beans, nuts, seeds, peas, tofu and soy products—will open up new options for healthy mealtimes.
- Beans: Black beans, navy beans, garbanzos, and lentils are good options.
- Nuts: Almonds, walnuts, pistachios and pecans are great choices.
- Soy products: Try tofu, soy milk, tempeh and veggie burgers for a change.
- Avoid salted or sugary nuts and refried beans.
Downsize your portions of protein. Most people in the U.S. eat too much protein. Try to move away from protein being the center of your meal. Focus on equal servings of protein, whole grains, and vegetables.
Focus on quality sources of protein, like fresh fish, chicken or turkey, tofu, eggs, beans or nuts. When you are having meat, chicken, or turkey, buy meat that is free of hormones and antibiotics.
Complete, incomplete and complementary proteins
- A complete protein source—from animal proteins such as meat, poultry, fish, milk, cheese and eggs—provides all of the essential amino acids.
- An incomplete protein—from vegetable proteins like grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and beans—is low in one or more essential amino acids.
- Complementary proteins are two or more incomplete protein sources that together provide all of the essential amino acids your body needs. For example, rice and dry beans are each incomplete proteins, but together they provide all of the essential amino acids.
- Do complementary proteins need to be eaten in the same meal? Research shows that your body can combine complementary proteins that are eaten within the same day.
- Why are complete and complementary proteins important? Complete and complementary proteins that provide all of the essential amino acids will fill you up longer than carbohydrates because they break down more slowly in the digestive process.
Calcium and vitamin D are essential for strong, healthy bones—vitamin D is essential for optimum calcium absorption in the small intestine. Recommended calcium levels are 1000 mg per day, 1200 mg if you are over 50 years old. Take a vitamin D and calcium supplement if you don’t get enough of these nutrients from your diet.
Great sources of calcium include:
- Dairy products, which come already fortified with vitamin D.
- Dark green, leafy vegetables, such as kale and collard greens
- Dried beans and legumes
See Osteoporosis, Diet and Calcium for more about the role of calcium in your diet.
Healthy eating tip 9: Limit sugar, salt, and refined grains
If you succeed in planning your diet around fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and good fats, you may find yourself naturally cutting back on foods that can get in the way of your healthy diet—sugar, salt and refined starches.
Sugar and refined starches
It is okay to enjoy sweets in moderation, but try to cut down on sugar. Sugar causes energy ups and downs and adds to health problems like arthritis, diabetes, osteoporosis, headaches, and depression.
- Give recipes a makeover. Often recipes taste just as good with less sugar.
- Avoid sugary drinks. One 12-oz soda has about 10 teaspoons of sugar in it! Try sparkling water with lemon or a splash of fruit juice.
- Eliminate processed foods. Processed foods and foods made with white flour and white sugar cause your blood sugar to go up and down leaving you tired and sapped of energy.
Salt itself is not bad, but most of us consume too much salt in our diets.
- Limit sodium to 2,300 mg per day, the equivalent to one teaspoon of salt. Most of us consume far more than one teaspoon of salt per day.
- Avoid processed, packaged, restaurant and fast food. Processed foods like canned soups or frozen meals contain hidden sodium that quickly surpasses the recommended teaspoon a day.
Healthy eating starts with great planning. You will have won half the healthy diet battle if you have a well-stocked kitchen, a stash of quick and easy recipes, and plenty of healthy snacks.
Plan your meals by the week or even the month
One of the best ways to have a healthy diet is to prepare your own food and eat in regularly. Pick a few healthy recipes that you and your family like and build a meal schedule around them. If you have three or four meals planned per week and eat leftovers on the other nights, you will be much farther ahead than if you are eating out or having frozen dinners most nights.
Shop the perimeter of the grocery store
In general, healthy eating ingredients are found around the outer edges of most grocery stores—fresh fruits and vegetables, fish and poultry, whole grain breads and dairy products. The centers of many grocery stores are filled with overpriced, processed foods that aren’t good for you. Shop the perimeter of the store for most of your groceries (fresh items), add a few things from the freezer section (frozen fruits and vegetables), and the aisles with spices, oils, and whole grains (like rolled oats, brown rice, whole wheat pasta).
Cook when you can
Try to cook one or both weekend days or on a weekday evening and make extra to freeze or set aside for another night. Cooking ahead saves time and money, and it is gratifying to know that you have a home cooked meal waiting to be eaten.
Have an emergency dinner or two ready to go
Challenge yourself to come up with two or three dinners that can be put together without going to the store—utilizing things in your pantry, freezer and spice rack. A delicious dinner of whole grain pasta with a quick tomato sauce or a quick and easy black bean quesadilla on a whole wheat flour tortilla (among endless other recipes) could act as your go-to meal when you are just too busy to shop or cook.
Stock your kitchen to be meal ready
Try to keep your kitchen stocked with recipe basics:
- Fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables.
- Recipe and soup starters such as garlic, onions, carrots, and celery.
- Healthy staples like brown rice, white Basmati rice, whole-wheat pasta, quinoa, and wild rice.
- Whole wheat bread and tortillas for healthy sandwiches and wraps.
- Beans such as lentils, black beans, chickpeas, black-eyed peas, kidney beans, fava beans, and lima beans.
- Frozen corn, peas, and other vegetables to add to recipes or for a quick vegetable side dish.
- Frozen fruit and berries to make smoothies or frozen desserts.
- Dark greens for salads, plus salad add-ins like dried fruit, nuts, beans, and seeds.
- Fresh and dried herbs and spices.
- Healthy fats and oils for cooking, such as olive oil and canola oil. You can also try specialty oils like peanut, sesame, or truffle oil for adding flavor.
- Unsalted nuts for snacking, like almonds, walnuts, cashews, peanuts, and pistachios.
- Vinegars, such as balsamic, red wine, and rice vinegar for salads and veggies.
- Strong cheeses, like aged Parmesan or blue cheese for intense flavor in salads, pasta, and soups.