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.
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.
Like peanuts, avocados contain metabolism-enhancing monounsaturated fats that have been shown to reduce hunger. In fact, a study in Nutrition Journal found that participants who ate half a fresh avocado with lunch reported a 40 percent decreased desire to eat for hours afterwards. What’s more? The trendy toast topping is also loaded with unsaturated fats, which seem to prevent the storage of belly fat, as well as satiating fiber and free-radical-killing antioxidants.
Apples contain pectin, an ingredient that naturally slows digestion and encourages feelings of fullness. Studies show that eating a whole apple with your meal (as opposed to apple juice or applesauce) is a natural appetite suppressant, helping you consume fewer overall calories without feeling deprived. Sass likes using shredded apple in slaws and stir-fry, or mixing them into burger patties to add moisture.
A study in the journal Metabolism found that eating half a grapefruit before meals may help reduce visceral fat and lower cholesterol levels. Participants in the 6-week study who ate a Rio Red grapefruit fifteen minutes before each meal saw their waists shrink by up to an inch, and LDL levels drop by 18 points. Though researchers don’t exactly know what makes grapefruit so good at burning fat, they attribute the effects to a combination of phytochemicals and vitamin C found in the tart treat.
You could complicate things if you wanted to, but why bother when the simple way tastes so great? Not counting salt, pepper, and oil, this recipe contains just six ingredients—and tastes like a million bucks. That’s because the lightly seasoned chicken releases all its chicken-y goodness into the skillet, where onions, garlic, kale, and chickpeas lap it up so that none of the rich poultry flavor goes to waste. If you can, purchase air-chilled and/or organic chicken thighs. Since chicken is the star here, you want the best you can find.
Make the right changes. When cutting back on unhealthy foods in your diet, it’s important to replace them with healthy alternatives. Replacing dangerous trans fats with healthy fats (such as switching fried chicken for grilled salmon) will make a positive difference to your health. Switching animal fats for refined carbohydrates, though (such as switching your breakfast bacon for a donut), won’t lower your risk for heart disease or improve your mood.
Like a marathoner stretching before the big run, eating half a grapefruit before a meal can enhance your body’s fat-burning performance. A study published in the journal Metabolism found that this “warm-up” tactic can help whittle your middle—by up to an inch—in just six weeks! The scientists attribute the powerful effects to the grapefruits’ fat-zapping phytochemicals. The fruit can interact negatively with certain medications, so as long as you get the green-light from your M.D, plan to have half of a grapefruit before your morning meal and add a few segments your starter salads to reap the benefits.
Greek yogurt is an extremely satiating breakfast or snack, thanks to its thick, creamy texture and a whopping 17 grams of protein (nearly three times more than is in an egg, in fact). A study from the journal Appetite found that people who ate a high-protein yogurt snack three hours after lunch felt fuller and ate dinner later than the other participants. And on top of that, other studies suggest that the acids produced during yogurt fermentation might help increase feelings of fullness.
Salmon is a rich source of high-quality protein and provides plenty of "good" fats: omega-3 fatty acids. A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids helped people feel more satisfied when they were watching their calories, per a study in Appetite. Eating salmon can be a delicious and versatile way to get your recommended two weekly servings of heart-healthy fish.
Fresh, Frozen, or Canned Vegetables ― try something new. You may find that you love grilled vegetables or steamed vegetables with an herb you haven’t tried like rosemary. You can sauté (panfry) vegetables in a non-stick pan with a small amount of cooking spray. Or try frozen or canned vegetables for a quick side dish—just microwave and serve. When trying canned vegetables, look for vegetables without added salt, butter, or cream sauces. Commit to going to the produce department and trying a new vegetable each week.
Cabbage is rich in antioxidants and vitamin C but extremely low in calories (just 22 per cup), so you can fill your plate with the leafy green guilt-free. And while you're probably familiar with the infamous Cabbage Soup Diet, there are plenty of alternate ways to eat this veggie that won't leave you feeling hungry. It's delicious in a variety of slaws or salads, and makes a crunchy garnish atop tacos or burgers.
As long as this popular crunchy treat isn't doused in movie-theater butter, it makes an excellent weight-loss snack. Not only is popcorn high in fiber, it even delivers some protein. A 1-ounce serving of air-popped corn (about 3½ cups) has 4 grams of fiber, almost 4 grams of protein and clocks in at 110 calories. This combination makes it a snack with staying power. Popcorn is filled with air, so you get a pretty large portion without a lot of calories. You can eat 3 whole cups of popcorn for only 100 calories.