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, legumes (such as beans and lentils), and nuts—and limit highly processed foods. If you eat animal foods, you can add in some dairy products, fish, poultry, and lean meat. Studies show that people who eat this way have a reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, and possibly cancer and other chronic diseases. Here are our guidelines for building a healthy diet.
As long as you don't go nuts on nuts (which can be calorie overload), they can be super beneficial in helping you lose weight. In a study published in the European Journal of Nutrition, researchers found that those who got their protein from nuts instead of animal products had less weight gain than those who never ate them. So consider this your permission to snack on peanuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios, and walnuts — so long as you practice portion control. If sodium is a concern, grab roasted or raw over salted varieties.
For a 2,000-calorie daily diet, aim for 2½ cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit a day. If you consume more calories, aim for more produce; if you consume fewer calories, you can eat less. Include green, orange, red, blue/purple, and yellow vegetables and fruits. In addition to the fiber, the nutrients and phytochemicals in these foods may help protect against certain types of cancer and other diseases. Legumes, rich in fiber, can count as vegetables (though they have more calories than most vegetables). For more fiber, choose whole fruits over juice.
If you’re on a quest to jumpstart weight loss, why not kick your metabolism into overdrive by sneaking spicy foods into your diet. Capsaicin, the active ingredient in cayenne pepper that gives it its spiciness, revs up your metabolism in a way that’s conducive to weight loss. In fact, according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, those who supplemented their diet with capsaicin consumed 200 fewer calories during their next meal.
A complete plant protein boasting all nine essential amino acids, quinoa is a weight loss superfood win. One cup of cooked quinoa has about 220 calories, 5 grams of fiber, and 8 grams of protein. “Complex carbohydrates like those in quinoa can help with satiety when eaten with other healthy foods (like heart-healthy avocados for a healthy dose of fats) that inevitably will help with weight loss in the long run,” explains Elizabeth Ann Shaw, MS, RDN, CLT, CPT.
Sure, nuts aren’t known for being low in calories, but they have an array of other properties—namely a high protein and fiber content—that makes them ideal for weight loss. A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, Circulation, found that consuming 1.5 ounces of almonds daily (as opposed to a carb-dense muffin) along with a heart-healthy diet, helped to improve cholesterol and lipid profiles among the research participants. The study also found that eating almonds reduces belly fat, too.