Wipe your plate clean and start fresh.
Maybe a soggy, boiled Brussels sprout -- the kind that haunted your childhood plate -- comes to mind when you think about eating healthy. Or perhaps you think you'll have to forgo all your favorite foods and feel defeated before any substantive changes you plan to make become habit. Or you just get bored: For you, nutritious equals bland. The thing is, experts say, there are lots of reasons that best intentions fail when it comes to sustaining healthy dietary changes over the long haul. But just as different nutritious diets share common elements -- such as fruits, veggies and healthy proteins -- to make improvements in how you eat last a lifetime, experts advise heeding some fairly universal themes that underlie success and failure.
First things first: Pick a winner.
There are many healthy diets or eating patterns the world over, from the Mediterranean diet to the MIND Diet; start by picking one that's built for the long term. "I tell my clients to find a way of eating that they can stick with for good," says Torey Armul, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Columbus, Ohio. Just say no to avoiding entire food groups or juice cleanses. "I recommend avoiding the fad diet and finding an eating plan that has plenty of healthy foods, practices portion control, accommodates your schedule, but also allows for the flexibility to eat your favorite foods," Armul says.
Make it convenient.
With vending machines and fast food vying for your attention in an on-the-go world, it's easy to push slow food to the back burner. "Life is busy, and oftentimes the easiest, most convenient food choice wins out. So it's important to make the healthy choice the easy choice," Armul says. "Part of that is doing a little bit of food prep -- so preparing your veggies ahead of time, so they're easy to grab or add to dinner midweek." Or cook some eggs, chicken breasts, quinoa or brown rice ahead of time, so you have easy meal starters during the week. It takes a little work upfront, but doing so will pay off in diet staying power, plus more mealtime flexibility.
When you dine out, don't step out on eating well.
Along with preparing foods in advance, it's important to account for when you plan to eat food you didn't make. Accordingly, have some restaurants in mind where you know you have healthy dining options that fit your diet, says Kelly Toups, a registered dietitian nutritionist with Oldways, a nonprofit food and nutrition education organization in Boston. That way, you can stick to eating well, whether grabbing a quick bite or joining family or friends for an easy meal.
It's OK to be hungry -- but don't let yourself get famished.
If your idea of a healthy diet is holding off on eating as long as possible while your stomach growls, you're in for a rude awakening. "Feeling [like you're] starving leads to less healthy food choices -- particularly those comfort foods high in fat and sugar -- and then also overeating," Armul says. "So I recommend clients curb their hunger by eating smaller meals consistently throughout the day, and then planning some in-between-meal snacks that have protein and fiber to help keep you full." Pack a healthy snack of nuts or a piece of fibrous fruit, like an apple, to get you through that afternoon slump, rather than scarfing a supersized portion of whatever sweet or salty processed foods are closest at hand.
Make room for dessert.
If your head is spinning by the mental food fight you're waging with yourself, you probably need to ease up. "The American way is to be perfect," says Brad Biskup, a physician assistant and founder of the Lifestyle Medicine Clinic in the Pat and Jim Calhoun Cardiology Center, part of UConn Health in Farmington, Connecticut. The problem with being a perfectionist, he says, is that it makes people more likely to fall off the healthy eating wagon entirely when inevitably their diet doesn't measure up. Instead, Biskup recommends having a small portion of whatever indulgence you crave daily. Just read labels and keep in mind daily recommendations, like no more than 6 to 12 teaspoons of sugar. The point is not to be overly restrictive, but to take a balanced approach.
Reinvent the Brussels sprout.
Don't like Brussels sprouts boiled? "There are other options. You could have them roasted or you could have them maple-glazed," Toups says; there's all sorts of ways to remake this beleaguered vegetable. Similarly, for all who have suffered veggies that make them pinch their nose, don't skip food groups. Instead, reinvent healthful foods to put the focus on something that's truly contemporary in the world of nutrition: taste. Not sure where to start? Take a page from expert food bloggers who have a background in dietetics and know a thing or two about the most palatable ways to prepare what's good for you.
Cope with something other than food.
Here's another reason not to bang your head against the wall about what you eat: You could find yourself running to the pantry for unhealthy fare to soothe you. "A lot of times when people are having trouble with what they're eating, it can be because they're using food as a coping mechanism for other areas of stress in their life," Toups says. Emotional eating can wreck the best-laid dietary plans. Instead, whether it's being more open about the stressors in your life, slowing down, being more social or -- if emotional or mental health issues spiral out of control -- seeking professional help, find healthful alternatives to ease your mind.
Don't sit still.
Whether you're trying to take the edge off in a healthy way after a long day in the office or attempting to shed pounds or maintain your current weight, exercising can give you an edge in the kitchen as well. "I think exercise is a critical part of a sustainable eating pattern," Armul says. "Exercise is so important for mood and stability -- it's a great stress reliever." But just as you might mix up your workout routine to keep it interesting, don't be afraid to try new foods or switch to another healthy diet. Experts say you're not wed to one eating pattern, and that variety is a key part of a complete game plan to eat well for life.
Michael Schroeder is a health editor at U.S. News. He covers a wide array of topics ranging from cancer to depression and prevention to overtreatment. He's been reporting on health since 2005. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at email@example.com.