Developing healthy eating habits isn’t as confusing or as restrictive as many people imagine. The essential steps are to eat mostly foods derived from plants—vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes (beans, peas, lentils)—and limit highly processed foods. Here are our guidelines for building a healthy diet.
1. Consume a Variety of Foods
Not all the nutrients and other substances in foods that contribute to good health have been identified, so eating a wide assortment of foods helps ensure that you get all of the disease-fighting potential that foods offer. In addition, this will limit your exposure to any pesticides or toxic substances that may be present in a particular food.
2. Keep an Eye on Portions
Sure, you can eat all the broccoli and spinach you want, but for higher-calorie foods, portion control is the key. In recent years, serving sizes have ballooned. In restaurants, choose an appetizer instead of an entree or split a dish with a friend. Don’t order anything that’s been “supersised.” When reading food labels, check serving sizes: some relatively small packages claim to contain more than one serving, so you have to double or triple the calories, grams of fat and milligrams of sodium if you’re planning to eat the whole thing.
3. Eat Plenty of Produce
Aim for 2½ cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit a day, for a 2,000-calorie diet. If you consume more calories, aim for more; if you eat fewer than 2,000 calories, you can eat less. Include green, orange, red, blue/purple and yellow produce. The nutrients, fiber and other compounds in these foods may help protect against certain types of cancer and other diseases. Legumes, rich in fiber, count as vegetables, though are moderately high in calories. Choose whole fruits over juice for more fiber. Frozen and canned fruits and vegetables are good options.
4. Get More Whole Grains
At least half your grains should be whole grains, such as whole wheat, barley and oats. Whole grains retain the bran and germ and thus all (or nearly all) of the nutrients and fiber of the grain. Look for a product labeled “100% whole wheat” or “100% whole grain.” If it doesn’t say that, look for a whole grain listed as the first ingredient, though there still may be lots of refined wheat (also called “white” or “enriched” flour) and/or sugar.
5. Limit Refined Grains, Added Sugar
The refined carbohydrates in white bread, regular pasta and most snack foods have little or no dietary fiber and have been stripped of many nutrients. On food labels, watch out for “wheat flour” (also called “white,” “refined” or “enriched” flour) on the ingredients list. Also, limit foods with added sugar, such as soda and candy. These are sources of empty calories that contribute to weight gain. Many sugary foods are also high in fat, so they’re even more calorie-dense.
6. Cut Down on Animal Fat
Saturated fats, especially from red meat and processed meat, boost LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. To limit your intake, choose lean meats, skinless poultry and non-fat or low-fat dairy products. It’s also a good idea to replace saturated fats with “good” fats, found in nuts, fish and vegetable oils, not with refined carbohydrates such as white bread and snack foods.
7. Choose Food Over Supplements
Supplements cannot substitute for a healthy diet, which supplies countless other potentially beneficial compounds besides vitamins and minerals. Foods also provide the “synergy” that many nutrients require to be efficiently used in the body. Still, for many people a basic multivitamin/mineral pill can provide some of the nutrients they may fall short on. In addition, many people need calcium as well as vitamin D supplements to meet recommended intakes.