To start eating healthy, incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your diet which will boost your fiber, vitamin, and mineral intake.
Eating healthy also means limiting your consumption of processed foods like refined grains or deli meats.
If you are struggling to start eating healthy, it can be helpful to create a plan that includes a weekly layout of healthy meals.
Eating well is a crucial part of a healthy lifestyle and can help ward off conditions like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even some cancers. However, everyone has their own unique health needs, so it's important to talk with a doctor about what sort of diet is right for you.
In general, consuming a plant-focused diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and sources of protein is healthy for most people. We've broken down the basics of healthful eating to help you get started.
1. Eat more fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables contain many vitamins and minerals your body needs, like:
Magnesium, which supports bone health.
Eating fruits and vegetables can reduce your risk of disease. A large 2018 review found a diet rich in fruits and vegetables reduces markers of inflammation, which is associated with chronic health conditions, like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
The recommended amount of fruits and vegetables you need each day varies based on age, sex, and physical activity. Here is how many servings you should be eating according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA):
For most fruits, a serving size is based on one whole fruit, like one peach, for instance, says Amanda Miller, a registered dietitian from Chicago who specializes in weight loss and medical nutrition therapy. Medium bananas are usually considered two fruit servings and a serving of vegetables is about ½ cup to one cup.
2. Choose whole grains
Bran, the outer layer which contains fiber and B vitamins
Endosperm, the inner layer which contains carbohydrates and protein
Germ, the core which contains B vitamins, healthy fats, and vitamin E
White or refined grains undergo a process that removes the bran and germ, resulting in a finer texture and improved shelf life, but a loss of fiber and B vitamins, Miller says. Refined grains still contain carbohydrates and protein, but whole grains contain more fiber and micronutrients and offer more health benefits.
Most people should aim for at least half of the grains they consume a day to be whole grains, Miller says. The general recommendation is between three and eight ounce-equivalents a day, depending on your age and activity level.
Examples of whole grains include:
3. Limit processed foods
Processed foods have been changed from their original form and cooked, packaged, canned, or frozen. Fortifying and preserving these foods can also change their nutritional composition and as a result, heavily processed foods are usually high in calories and low in nutrients.
Examples of heavily processed foods include:
Cured meats, like deli meat
Frozen meals made with refined grains and sodium or sugar-rich sauces
Salt, sugar, and preservatives are usually added to processed foods, which can have negative effects on your health, like an increased risk of heart disease, says Alana Kessler, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant based in New York City.
Two large 2019 European studies found an association between ultra-processed foods, like sugary cereals and baked goods, and cardiovascular disease. Additionally, the World Health Organization classifies processed meats as a carcinogen - a substance capable of causing cancer. Research also links processed meats to diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
To cut down on health risks, Kessler suggests swapping out processed foods for healthier alternatives, like:
Sparkling water or tea instead of soda
Plain oatmeal or yogurt instead of sugary cereal
Plain popcorn instead of chips
Packaged foods are technically processed foods, but that doesn't mean you need to cut them out entirely, Kessler says. Some packaged foods like frozen fruit and vegetables ensure nutritional quality and can make eating well easier and more convenient.
4. Practice portion control
Portion control is when you eat the recommended serving sizes of foods throughout the day.
Practicing portion control requires mindfulness about what you are eating and how much, Miller says. Understanding serving sizes can also help you structure a healthy plate consisting of half fruit and vegetables, a quarter protein-rich food, and a quarter whole grains.
Miller suggests these tips for understanding serving sizes and practicing portion control:
Look at the food label to know how much one serving is. Remember some foods like pasta and rice puff up when they're cooked. The label will tell you if the serving size is for cooked or uncooked portions.
Try pre-portioning your food into a small bowl or plate to keep yourself from overeating right out of the bag or tub. "If you ever spoon out ice cream from the tub, chances are you consume way more than the suggested serving size," Miller says. "Free-spooning from the tub could lead to consuming two to three times the suggested serving size."
Pay attention to high-calorie foods. Nuts for example are very nutritious and have healthy fat, but they are also high in calories. Most nut labels will suggest about a one to two-ounce serving - which is about 30 almonds.
Be careful with beverages, specifically loaded coffee and teas, Miller says. All the syrup, sugar, flavorings, foam, and cream add fat, sugar, and calories to your drink. If you are craving such a drink, opt for the smallest size available.
5. Eat more healthy fats
Fat is an essential part of a healthy diet, Kessler says. These nutrients help the body maintain metabolism and store energy. But not all types of fat are the same, and some can cause negative health effects.
Saturated fat is typically solid at room temperature and includes foods like coconut oil, full-fat dairy, and fatty pieces of meat. Saturated fat can raise levels of blood lipids or cholesterol, which could increase the risk of heart disease, Kessler says, so saturated fat should be consumed in moderation. The American Heart Association recommends limiting your intake of saturated fat to less than 6% of your daily calories.
Unsaturated fat is typically liquid at room temperature. Examples of unsaturated fat include nuts, avocadoes, olive oil, and fatty fish like salmon. Unsaturated fat can have a positive effect on your heart health. A large 2009 study found participants who replaced 5% of their dietary intake of saturated fats with unsaturated fats were less likely to experience coronary heart disease. The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends unsaturated fats make up 20% to 35% of total calories.
Trans fat used to be found in fried and processed foods, like frozen pizza, french fries, and donuts but has since been phased out per FDA regulations. Trans fat offers no nutritional value and can increase your risk of chronic conditions, like heart disease.
Omega-3 fatty acids, a type of unsaturated fat, are another essential component of a healthy diet. These are found in fish, flaxseed, and plant oils like canola oil. Omega-3's help make up the components of cells and support your heart and immune system.
Experts at the National Institutes of Health have not set overall omega-3 daily intake recommendations, but they do recommend adult males get 1.6 grams and adult females get 1.1 grams of ALA a day - a type of omega-3 fatty acid primarily found in plant oils.
6. Create a plan
An eating plan can help set you up for success. It can include the recommended amount of fruits, vegetables, protein, and grains, how they will be prepared, and when they will be eaten, Kessler says. Some ways to create a healthy eating plan include:
Meal prep. Decide what meals you will eat when and prep by chopping veggies and portioning out servings. Having ready-to-go foods can help you avoid snacking and choosing unhealthy alternatives.
Use the MyPlate diagram to plan meals. This can offer you a visual of how to create a healthy plate with ½ fruits and vegetables, ¼ protein, and ¼ grains.
Adjust your environment. Make sure your fridge and pantry are stocked with healthy options, and limit the amount of processed food in your home. This can help you reach for something healthy when you are bracing a snack.
Healthy eating plans will vary by individual and the right plan for you depends on your overall health, lifestyle, age and level of activity. If you need help creating an eating plan, reach out to your doctor or a registered dietitian.
Eating a nutritious diet can decrease your risk of several chronic conditions, like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. To create a healthy eating plan, aim to fill your plate with ½ fruits and vegetables, ¼ protein, ¼ grains, and limit your intake of heavily processed foods or foods high in saturated fat.
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