How to Start Eating Healthy: 10 Changes You Can Make Now
Starting a healthy-eating journey can be daunting. But here are 10 tips from registered dietitians that are simple enough to keep up for the long term.
One of the most important things that you can do to maintain your optimal health is to eat a balanced and nutritious diet. Doing so helps adults stave off chronic conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes, and allows those who are already chronically ill to manage their diseases. But what exactly is “healthy eating”? It can look different for everyone, but the ultimate goal is to establish a pattern of taking in foods and drinks that supply you with the necessary nutrients to keep up your overall health. So how can you start eating healthfully—and make it stick for the long term? Here are the best strategies for doing just that, according to experts.
1. Start slow.
Chances are that you’re not going to know everything about healthy eating when you’re just starting out on your dietary journey. There’s a lot to know, after all. To that end, registered dietitian Trista Best advises you to start slow: “One approach is to try a new vegetable each week. Pick a vegetable you’ve never tried before and research a new recipe to integrate it into a meal. If you do this each week, or even just once a month, you’ll end the year with several new healthy foods and recipes you didn’t know you liked before.” And that’s a surefire way to eat healthily in a manner that won’t overwhelm you.
2. Log your intake.
If you go about your day thoughtlessly noshing on whatever you want, or if you don’t plan your meals before eating them, you might find that you’re eating less healthfully than you intend to. You also may not be taking in your desired amount of certain foods. One way to be more mindful, according to registered dietitian Lisa DeFazio, is to put your pen to paper: “Write down your reasons for wanting to eat healthy (lose weight, lower cholesterol, increase energy, improve moods, etc.) and read your list every day. Track your intake with an app to make sure you are getting all the nutrition you need.” Indeed, you might be surprised what you learn when you take the time to really record what you’re eating. As for figuring out what your ideal intake is in the first place, talk to your doctor or get a referral to a dietitian. You can also get a primer from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate Plan, which is a personalized food plan for your age, sex, height, weight and physical activity level that shows what and how much to eat.
3. Eat fewer ultra-processed foods.
Pre-made foods can be super convenient, especially when you’re juggling work, family and other obligations. But as per registered dietitian Summer Yule, ultra-processed foods make it tough to control your food intake due to multiple portions in one package or excessive not-so healthful ingredients. According to Yule, “Ultra-processed foods are highly processed and designed in such a way that they’re very easy to overeat. Some examples include store-bought cookies, sugary breakfast cereals, frozen corn dogs and similar convenience foods. These foods are often high in added sugar, white flour and/or added oils, providing relatively few vitamins and minerals but a lot of calories.” So instead, make your default whole foods and meals that you prepare yourself. That way, not only will you eat more healthful foods, but you’ll also be more likely to eat the amount you intended, since whole foods can fill you up faster than processed foods. And note that items like chopped and frozen veggies, canned beans or shelled pistachios are not ultra-processed—they’re still considered whole foods because they’ve been minimally processed and have no additives.
4. Eat more plants.
The benefits of adopting a plant-based diet—like vegetarianism or veganism—are well-documented. For example, research has shown that vegans have higher levels of healthy fats, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds in their bodies than non-vegetarians. This is “likely because [vegans] consume more produce and other whole, plant-based foods,” reports Cynthia Sass, RD. To that end, eating a more plant-based diet may be one way you can start eating healthier. Just be sure to be gentle with yourself if you try this approach, as you don’t have to go full vegan or vegetarian to reap health benefits. In fact, the flexitarian diet, which is primarily a vegetarian diet but includes the occasional animal protein, was named one of the best diets of 2022. “Remember, it’s not all or nothing. This perspective can be daunting and lead to failure,” says Best. “Try making one of your favorite non-vegan meals vegan by changing some of the ingredients, like tofu tacos instead of beef.” You may find that not only are you eating healthier with this approach, but you’re also trying new foods.
5. Balance your plate.
Another way that you can start eating healthier is to think in terms of what’s on your plate. There are certain foods that should play a large role in your diet at every meal, according to DeFazio. “Fruits and vegetables should be the foundation of your diet; half your plate should be vegetables,” she says. Along with one serving of fruit at each mealtime, DeFazio recommends having lean protein on your plate. To get that protein at breakfast, aim for an ounce of nut butter, turkey bacon or cottage cheese or an egg. Protein should be about a quarter of your plate during lunch and dinner; reach for 3 to 4 ounces of skinless chicken breast or fish. Pro tip: If you’re not sure what 4 ounces looks like, it’s about the size of a deck of cards.
6. Make sensible swaps.
While no foods are inherently good or evil, there are some that are best consumed in moderation. One of these foods is white flour, which is found in many baked goods and breads. Fortunately, Yule has a handy tip for moderating your white flour intake: Swap out a significant amount of it (or other simpler carbs) for whole grains or vegetable alternatives. For example, you can “use cauliflower rice instead of white rice, legume pasta instead of white-flour pasta or enjoy sandwich fillings in a lettuce wrap,” she says. “These swaps help you eat more veggies and eat less white flour. It’s a double-win!” You can also swap out mayonnaise for mustard, use spiralized veggie noodles for your pasta, and drink seltzer water instead of soda.
7. Try volume eating.
Looking for a way to eat healthily that doesn’t involve counting calories or having a restrictive mindset? If so, volume eating may be right for you, notes Best. “Volume eating is a fascinating and relatively new concept to eating a balanced, nutrient-dense, low-calorie diet pattern without sacrificing hunger,” she says. “Essentially, the consumer eats large volumes of food that are low in calorie density.” In fact, doing so has helped Best in her personal healthy-eating journey, as it’s helped her to reach her desired weight and improve her overall well-being. The approach has also been named one of the best diets for 2022.
8. Don’t ditch the carbs and fats.
If there are two foods out there that have gotten a bad rap over the years, there’s no question they would be carbohydrates and fats. Over time, the belief that these foods are “bad” for you has become prevalent. But that’s just not the case, according to DeFazio. “You need carbohydrates at each meal for energy, as cutting carbs leads to binging and sugar cravings,” she says. “Aim for about 1 cup of cooked starch per meal, such as oatmeal, rice, sweet potatoes, couscous or pasta—whole-grain whenever possible.” She also suggests making sure you have a serving of healthy fats like nut butter, avocado or olive oil at each meal. By making sure to consume healthy fats, you will decrease your risk of heart disease, hardening of the arteries and stroke and also help lower your blood pressure, triglycerides and “bad” cholesterol. Your “good” cholesterol, on the other hand, will likely get a boost.
9. Up your water intake.
If you’re looking for ways to eat healthier, you also want to make sure you’re drinking healthier, too. After all, drinking enough water—2.7 liters a day for women and 3.7 for men, on average—will help you regulate your temperature and process wastes, as well as protect your spine and joints, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So make sure you’re getting enough water each day. If you’re not drinking enough water, you can start upping your amount by swapping out the soda and sugar-sweetened beverages in your diet for water, Yule suggests. Again, sugar-sweetened beverages aren’t evil foods, but moderation in your intake is key. So when in doubt, reach for a glass of H20.
10. Shop and prep smart.
One of the reasons it can be difficult to start eating healthily is because it takes time and energy to do so. That’s why convenient foods are so tempting, especially when you’re swamped or low on energy. However, DeFazio has some great tips to set yourself up for healthy-eating success. “Go to the market or order grocery delivery; you need a healthy-stocked fridge and pantry so you have healthy choices in the house,” she says. “For meal prep, make big batches of rice and chicken or fish when you have time so you have dinner ready on busy days.” DeFazio also suggests going the sheet-pan meal-prep route; essentially, you can prepare lean protein and vegetables beforehand and store them in the fridge, then throw them on a sheet pan and into the oven when you get home from work. All of these options will have you thanking your past self when you sit down to a healthy, delicious dinner on weeknights.
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