If you’ve ever asked someone how to be healthy, you’ve probably heard this advice: Eat a healthy diet. Really, though, what does that even mean? If you ask many followers of the trendy ketogenic diet, it means shunning sweet potatoes and quinoa in favor of cheese and coconut oil. For another person, it might mean avoiding sugary foods like ice cream and candy at all costs. And someone else may tell you to avoid all dairy and nix gluten.
The problem is, this back-and-forth about what’s truly healthy can cause a whole lot of confusion, not to mention prompt people to try unsustainable and unnecessarily restrictive diets in the name of health. If that’s you, there’s no need for embarrassment: Just be relieved to learn that healthy eating is far simpler than you may think.
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Healthy vs. Unhealthy Eating Habits: What’s the Difference?
“What I promote to clients is a whole-foods diet, meaning, eat foods as close to their original form as possible,” says Alicia Galvin, RD , who’s based in Dallas. When food is processed or refined, it’s stripped of most of its fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and often preservatives are added in their place, she explains.
A plant-based eating pattern is the way to go. “Studies show that people who consume a more plant-based diet have a lower risk of all the chronic diseases,” says Heller. Case in point: A study published in August 2019 in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that people who stick with plant-based eating patterns have a 16 percent lower risk of developing heart disease, possibly because these diets tend to include more heart-healthy fiber and nutrients like potassium, while limiting intake of saturated fat and cholesterol. The definition of plant-based eating can vary, but can include vegan (no animal products), raw vegan (no animal products and only raw foods), vegetarian (no meat), or even flexitarian (eating vegetarian most of the time).
Also key: cultivating a happy relationship with food. “Food is not the enemy,” says Galvin. Rather than focus on what you shouldn’t be eating, think about what you can add to your plate that will improve your health, like nuts for heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids or raspberries for their fiber and antioxidants.
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Why Should I Make Healthy Food Choices?
Food is one of the most important tools for a life lived well — and long, says Galvin.
A Healthy Diet Can Help Prevent Disease
“In the United States, the top leading causes of death are related to chronic disease, which comes from having an unhealthy lifestyle,” she says. Smoking, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, and excessive alcohol use are the top causes of chronic disease, which includes heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Food Choices Affect Your Mental Health
It’s not just our physical health that can see a boost when we prioritize a healthy diet. Research shows that food choices also affect mental health. In a review published in July 2016 in Clinical Nutrition Research, study authors report that a diet rich in vitamins and minerals is associated with a lower risk for mental health disorders including anxiety, depression, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Eat a Healthy Diet, and You May Lose Weight
Being overweight or having obesity are associated with increased risk of these health conditions, per the CDC, so weight loss can be important if you have a high body mass index (BMI). Fortunately, following a high-quality diet in which you pay attention to portion sizes can also help you reach a healthy weight, according to the Mayo Clinic. Another piece of the puzzle: eating mindfully. Stop eating when you’re full, and don’t eat too fast or for emotional reasons, notes Mayo.
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Why Should I Strive for a Healthy Lifestyle?
In sum, the payoff of a healthy lifestyle is huge. “Over time, when you make healthy decisions about food, you are at a lower risk for cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and even anxiety and depression. You will have more energy, feel better, and may even be in a better mood on a daily basis,” says Samantha Heller, RD, a senior clinical nutritionist at NYU Langone Health in New York City.
Again, it comes down to the length and quality of your life. In a review published in June 2017 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a healthy diet was found to decrease the risk of early death from any cause by 56 percent. Researchers defined a healthy diet as one that focuses on eating whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and fish. On the other hand, a higher intake of red or processed meats increased the risk of early death by twofold.
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How to Improve and Change Your Eating Habits
If your goal is to eat healthier, it can feel overwhelming to think that you have to change up your eating habits all at once. Here are six tips on how to start.
1. Make a Plan for Your New Healthy Diet
The first step is to develop a concrete and specific plan of action, says Heller. For instance, tomorrow morning when it’s time to eat breakfast, plan to skip the fast-food breakfast sandwich and eat a piece of whole grain toast with peanut butter at home.
2. Save Your Lunch Money
Bringing your lunch to school or work has more than one perk. It’s a good way to save money and use up what you have in the house, and it will likely be more nutritious. One easy way to do that, suggests Heller: Pack leftovers from last night’s dinner.
3. Keep Unhealthy Foods Out of Sight
Purge your pantry and fridge of any unhealthy food, and start thinking about getting only the good stuff into your kitchen. That way, you’ll have more of a chance of eating healthy and much less of a chance of eating junk. Make a shopping list so that you can pick up all the vegetables, fruit, and other plant-based foods that you need for the next three days, says Heller.
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5. Take Baby Steps
Set small, doable goals, says Galvin. For instance, you’re going to eat three more servings of vegetables this week. How can you make that happen? Maybe that’s by adding one extra serving of veggies to dinner just three nights this week. Or, you’re going to make one meal that’s bean-based, like chili for lunch just one day this week.
6. Start a Journal to Monitor Food Choices
A food diary is one way to eat healthier, says Heller. It’s not to track calories or carbohydrates — instead, writing down your food habits will help you better understand the why behind what you ate. Getting to this root reason is a critical step toward behavioral change. For instance, you came home after work and binged on chips and salsa while preparing dinner. Revisiting your food diary can help you understand that it was because you skipped breakfast and ate a small, rushed lunch—you were really hungry when you got home and couldn’t wait!
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Establishing Healthy Eating Habits in Children
If you’re perplexed by the fact that Junior has declared he hates broccoli after liking it last week, or that he finds anything but chicken nuggets or boxed mac ‘n’ cheese offensive, you’ll be happy to know you don’t have to force healthy eating habits on your child. What works better? Modeling those healthy habits yourself.
“Home is where we can make the most impact on what our children are eating,” says Heller. That means getting them involved in food shopping and preparation in age-appropriate ways. Make good-for-them food accessible by putting apples and oranges in a bowl on the kitchen counter; give them a variety of foods to snack on when they get home from school and they’re naturally ravenous (baby carrots, edamame); and make an effort to have family dinner together. The last point is especially important. Families who eat together generally consume healthier diets, including more fruits and veggies, and less fast and takeout food, according to a study published in November 2018 in JAMA Network Open.
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What Are Some Healthy Foods to Eat Every Day?
There are so many healthy foods, and you can choose the ones you like, without worrying about the latest “superfood.” Remember: “There is no bad fruit, vegetable, nut, seed, legume, or whole grain. They’re all good and there’s no single one that’s magical,” says Heller. Here are a few indisputably healthy foods to incorporate into your meals and snacks:
- Fruits Berries, bananas, citrus, mango, kiwi, apples, melons
- Vegetables Leafy greens like kale, arugula, and collard greens; peppers; carrots; sweet potatoes; mushroom; squash
- Legumes Beans, lentils, dried peas, hummus
- Whole grains Brown rice, wild rice, whole-grain bread, quinoa, amaranth, millet, bulgur
- Nuts and seeds Almonds, pistachios, cashews, walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, hemp, sunflower, pumpkin seeds
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What Are Some Diets That Promote Balanced Eating?
Following a diet that promotes balanced eating rather than a trendy diet that lays out several rules and restrictions, and possibly cuts entire food groups, is a more sustainable approach, says Heller. These include the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet, the MIND diet (a combination of DASH and Mediterranean that’s focused on brain-friendly foods to help prevent Alzheimer’s disease), as well as a vegetarian diet (if you choose to avoid meat).
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One Last Thing on the Importance of Healthy Eating
Filling your plate with plant foods like vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains will help protect your body against chronic disease, including heart disease and diabetes. Avoid fad diets, which are short-lived and unsustainable.
“Our body’s mission is to keep us alive,” says Heller. “We can help our body do that by supplying it with the nutrients it needs to keep it healthy, so you can feel great every day.”