Tips for healthy eating: Experts say take baby steps, keep recipes simple

Many people want to eat better so they can look and feel better, but most of us also realize that wanting something and achieving it are very different things.

The good news is that healthy eating doesn't have to be as overwhelming or complicated as some people make it out to be.

Like most anything else, one's first healthy eating goal should be to start small. "Choose just one food at a time to introduce more frequently to your diet and be sure to incorporate healthy foods you also enjoy," suggests Lisa Young, PhD, an adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University and author of "Finally Full, Finally Slim."

Health experts have some great more tips about where and how to begin.

How to eat healthy

Starting small might mean choosing better snack options before tackling meal choices. "Use veggies as a snack with hummus or fruit and a low-fat cheese stick so you get some protein and fat along with your produce," says Audra Wilson, MS, bariatric dietitian at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital.

When it comes to meals, Wilson suggests opting for smaller portions or to simply stop eating when full.

Other suggestions include not skipping breakfast, eating slower to allow hormones time to signal one's brain when full, drinking more water, shopping with a list in hand to avoid impulse buys, or substituting a lower-calorie side over an unhealthy one.

"I would suggest not trying to make too many changes at the same time," Wilson advises. "Such small changes may not produce the dramatic effect of a fad diet, but they are sustainable and over time lead to long-term health and wellness."

What is the healthiest food?

Healthy eating also means choosing "clean" foods when possible, meaning whole foods that are close to their natural form and ones that haven't been heavily processed or refined. Such foods include nuts, seeds, herbs, seafood, onions, snow peas, Brussels sprouts, avocado, sweet potatoes, squash, green beans, carrots, leafy greens, peppers, eggs, fish, turkey, chicken, clarified butter, olive and coconut oils, bananas, mango, apples, kiwi, lemons, limes, grapefruit, berries and melons.

When in doubt about which foods aren't heavily processed, "choose fruits and vegetables," advises Young.

What are the most unhealthy foods?

As important as knowing which foods are good to eat is knowing which ones to avoid. "Stay away from ultra-processed foods high in sugar and salt," says Young. "I also suggest limiting eating at fast-food places."

Wilson agrees with the suggestion to eat more often in one's own kitchen. "Much of the excess sodium and saturated fat in the American diet comes from eating outside of the home," she says. "Most restaurant options that may seem healthy contain much higher amounts of sodium and saturated fat than if you had prepared the same foods at home."

Is healthy eating hard to manage?

Wilson adds that healthy eating shouldn't be overwhelming and comes down to all the little choices made throughout one's day. "Swap out beef for chicken or fish, choose either sour cream or cheese as opposed to both, order salsa instead of guacamole, pick a half sandwich with a salad versus just a whole sandwich, add more veggies to your diet," she suggests.

For those wanting an all-encompassing approach, Walter Willett, MD, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, similarly advises against overcomplicating things and points to how much flexibility and many options one has. He recommends starting by making sure your diet includes whole grains and healthy fats, ("That’s where we get most of our calories," he says), then adding a variety of vegetable and fruits with "an emphasis on plant protein sources;" plus modest amounts of fish, poultry, dairy and eggs. Finally, "minimize sugar (especially as beverages), refined starches and red meat," he recommends. "Emphasize quality, variety and enjoy. Don't make it overly complicated."

Read more about health foods, healthy eating here:

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Healthy eating: How to eat healthy for a healthy weight and lifestyle