When it comes to making healthy changes it can be hard to know where to start. Nutrition advice can be overwhelming and confusing. I wanted to compile my top five simple tips to help you eat healthier from my over 10 years of experience as a registered dietitian to help you cut through some of the clutter and noise. Starting small can be really impactful. Instead of eliminating entire food groups or trying to cut out carbs or all sugar, what I love people to focus on is positive changes that are realistic. Adding just a few of these habits can help you be healthier overall in a non-restrictive and sustainable way. Here are my five favorite tips for how to eat a little bit healthier.
Related: 5 Small Changes with a Big Impact
1. Eat more fruits and veggies
Well this one shouldn't come as a surprise. Most of us don't eat enough fruits and vegetables and it's my top nutrition tip (pretty sure most nutrition experts will tell you the same). Eating more produce is good for your heart, helps reduce risk of chronic diseases, boosts your intake of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants and well, they're just tasty (here's more on why vegetables are so good for you). If you struggle to eat veggies, don't have time to prep them or just think you don't like them-don't give up! During really busy days, I keep ready-to-eat vegetables handy (think baby carrots, cucumbers, bell peppers, frozen broccoli, frozen peas and salad kits), so I can always reach for some for a snack or to add to part of a meal. As for fruit, it's delicious and people love it, but still question whether it's good to include as part of your diet because of the natural sugars (news flash: it is!). Recent research linked eating fruit to lowering your risk of developing diabetes. If fruit seems too expensive or goes bad at your house, don't fret. My favorite, bananas, are a super affordable option. Frozen fruit is just as good for you and makes delicious smoothies and yogurt parfaits, plus it's typically less expensive and lasts longer (no more moldy berries getting thrown away).
Start small, and work your way up to the recommended 2 cups of fruit and 2 ½ cups of vegetables (see what that looks in a day like here). Try throwing greens in your pasta, making a smoothie, snacking on peppers and dip or topping your oatmeal with berries. (Here are 5 easy ways to eat more vegetables every day.)
2. Make more satisfying meals and snacks
You want what you eat to fill you up and give you energy (and taste good). So, what's the secret? Add protein, fiber and healthy fat to most meals and snacks. Those three nutrients are a super satisfying team. They all take longer to digest, so they blunt any rapid blood sugar spikes and keep you feeling full for longer-not immediately reaching for your next snack. This will likely happen naturally if you eat a variety of foods, but it can help to be conscious about it. Protein is found in meat, seafood, cheese, beans, nuts and soy. Fiber is in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds. And healthy fats are in avocado, olive oil and other plant oils, nuts, seeds and fatty fish. You might want to try sprinkling almonds on your oatmeal in the morning, adding pumpkin seeds or tuna to your salad or adding some avocado to your whole-grain toast or burrito.
Another FYI-some days you'll be hungrier than others and it's OK to honor that hunger by eating more than you typically do. Some days you'll also say, nothing with protein, healthy fat and fiber sounds good and I just want a donut for breakfast. That's fine too, but you'll likely notice it doesn't give you the same sustained energy that a more balanced meal would.
3. Drink water
Another basic but super important tip is to make sure you're drinking enough water. Water plays such an important role in our bodies and our hydration status can impact our mood, heart, brain, skin, joints and more (learn all about the important health benefits of drinking water).There are guidelines with how much you should be getting, but the weather, your exercise plan and how much you're getting through food can all impact how much you need. Your best bet is to monitor your urine output and make sure it's light yellow. If it's dark, that means you need to drink up. My favorite tip is to keep a water bottle filled up and with you at most times (seriously, mine lives on my nightstand, in the car or on my desk, so I can always stay hydrated).
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4. Plan a little
Meal prep doesn't mean spending all day in the grocery store and kitchen. If you don't want to cook all the things on Sunday (I don't), there are still ways you can help yourself out with a little bit of planning. Meal prep might be cooking for the whole week or just jotting down some dinner ideas on a notepad. Without any sort of plan, it's a lot easier to get take out or eat cereal and feel defeated that you didn't get your veggies in or have a satisfying meal or snack. I highly highly recommend finding a way to plan that works for you.
EatingWell has so many great meal plans which can give you dinner or snack ideas-really we've got you covered for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Apply that inspiration and make it work for you. I like to have at least three dinners planned out for the week and shopped for, so I can be a bit flexible with the other two days that might look like leftovers or a really quick and easy meal, like eggs with salad and toast or a quick fried rice. If I plan too many meals it feels too rigid, but having three ideas takes some of the pressure off of busy weeknights. (In a pinch, here are 20 healthy meals you can make in 20 minutes.)
5. Cut yourself some slack
Cut yourself some slack when it comes to eating healthy. Please know that is not all or nothing. I find that so many people give up on their healthy diet because they eat a cookie (and it turns into 10 cookies) and they throw in the towel. You can have a cookie-even 10 cookies-as part of a healthy diet. Some of the other tips outlined here (like getting your produce and balancing your meals) will help set up a foundation of eating healthy, but allowing room in your diet for treats and for the food that just make you feel good or satisfies a need is important. That might mean you enjoy some pie your grandma baked up, or had a muffin from a coworker or sat on the couch with some ice cream and a good movie. Whatever it is, you should enjoy those guilt free. Because it's the guilty feelings that usually turn that one cookie into a guilt-induced cookie binge.
It's OK to want to eat something that may not be super nutritious and then instead of dwelling on it or beating yourself up, just move on. A donut is not necessarily a worse choice than an egg sandwich. Sometimes we just want a donut. A lot of people like to break this out into the 80-20 rule; 80% of the time you'll eat your fruits and vegetables, get movement in and enjoy a healthy diet and the other 20% of the time you're going to have some french fries and wine and cookies-and that's totally fine.