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.
Cheese isn’t traditionally thought of as something you consume to encourage weight management, but calcium-rich Parmesan, when eaten in moderation, can help stave off sugar cravings that can easily lead to weight gain. How does that work, you ask? The native Italian cheese contains the amino acid tyrosine (a building block of protein) which has been shown to encourage the brain to release dopamine without any unhealthy insulin spikes. What’s more? The combination of calcium and protein found in dairy products such as Parmesan has been found to increase thermogenesis—the body’s core temperature—and thus boost your metabolism.
For quick weeknight meals, go for the broiler. It preheats in a flash and acts like an upside-down grill, bringing salmon to perfect doneness in just 10 minutes. Don't sweat it if you slightly overcook the salmon. Serve it with a luscious dipping sauce, or drizzle a bit of olive oil over top to bring back instant moisture. Round out the meal with Simple Blistered Broccolini.
“This warming—or cooling—beverage serves a dual purpose. Not only is it full of antioxidants and other healthy phytochemicals, but it has the benefit of slightly increasing your metabolism,” says Harris-Pincus. Sipping tea in the evening instead of snacking, or trading in your PSL for a cup of green tea will lower your calorie intake and help you burn a few extra calories. Just be sure to keep it unsweetened.
When it comes to condiments, mustard is about as healthy and low cal as it gets, and the pungent yellow stuff that contains about 5 calories per teaspoon has also been found to stimulate weight loss. Scientists at England’s Oxford Polytechnic Institute found that eating just one teaspoon of mustard can boost the metabolism by up to 25 percent for several hours after it’s been consumed. Researchers attribute this to capsaicin and allyl isothiocyanates, phytochemicals that give the mustard its characteristic flavor. So instead of reaching for the sickeningly sweet ketchup, make sure you have mustard on hand at your next BBQ.
Prepare more of your own meals. Cooking more meals at home can help you take charge of what you’re eating and better monitor exactly what goes into your food. You’ll eat fewer calories and avoid the chemical additives, added sugar, and unhealthy fats of packaged and takeout foods that can leave you feeling tired, bloated, and irritable, and exacerbate symptoms of depression, stress, and anxiety.
Drinking enough water can help you stay slim, too. Research from the American Chemical Society in Boston found that having two 8-ounce glasses of water before a meal while also reducing portion sizes could help you lose weight and keep it off. Not to mention, water fills you up, curbing your appetite: "In addition to slightly boosting your metabolism, drinking water before meals has been shown to help you eat less without trying," says Sass.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: fat is your friend! To be more specific, healthy fats will be your weight loss friends. Consider adding extra virgin olive oil to your diet and you might see the scale start to tip in your favor. One Journal of Women’s Health study discovered that an EVOO-enriched diet helped participants lose more weight than those on a low-fat diet. Like peanuts and avocados, extra virgin olive oil’s belly-blasting abilities are thought to be a result of the monounsaturated fats it contains.
Compared to other nut varieties, pine nuts tend to be on the pricier side, but adding them to your shopping cart could be a good investment for your health. Research suggests that the fatty acids in these little nuts could increase satiety hormones, helping you feel full. They're also packed with vitamin B1 and manganese, a mineral that helps your body metabolize carbohydrates and protein.
The American Heart Association, World Cancer Research Fund, and American Institute for Cancer Research recommend a diet that consists mostly of unprocessed plant foods, with emphasis a wide range of whole grains, legumes, and non-starchy vegetables and fruits. This healthy diet is full of a wide range of various non-starchy vegetables and fruits, that provide different colors including red, green, yellow, white, purple, and orange. They note that tomato cooked with oil, allium vegetables like garlic, and cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, provide some protection against cancer. This healthy diet is low in energy density, which may protect against weight gain and associated diseases. Finally, limiting consumption of sugary drinks, limiting energy rich foods, including “fast foods” and red meat, and avoiding processed meats improves health and longevity. Overall, researchers and medical policy conclude that this healthy diet can reduce the risk of chronic disease and cancer.
At least half your grains should be whole grains, such as whole wheat, oats, barley, or brown rice. Whole grains retain the bran and germ and thus all (or nearly all) of the nutrients and fiber of the grain. One sure way of finding whole grains is to look for a product labeled “100% whole wheat” or “100%" of some other whole grain. You can also look for a whole grain listed as the first ingredient, though there still may be lots of refined wheat in the product. Another option is to look for the voluntary “Whole Grain Stamp” from the Whole Grains Council. Or try this tip: Look for less than a 10-to-1 ratio of “total carbohydrates” to “fiber” on the nutrition label.
The next time you're craving some crunch, drop the potato chips and grab celery. The veggie is essentially all water and fiber — two things that fill you up quickly — and while one cup of chips can be upward of 160 calories, celery only contains about 14 calories per cup, chopped. Dip them in a serving of natural peanut butter (it's best if the ingredients list only has peanuts and salt on it) or hummus for a healthy snack.
Good news, wine drinkers. Thanks to resveratrol, an antioxidant found in grape skin, drinking red wine in moderation can be part of a healthy diet. Some studies suggest that people who drink wine have smaller waists and less abdominal fat than those who drink mainly liquor. And having one glass of red wine can increase your body's calorie burn for up to 90 minutes afterwards. The antioxidants in wine might even help your body prevent cancer and improve heart health. Just be sure to stick to no more than a glass a day—the calories can add up fast.
Riffing off the flavor of a Greek gyro, these turkey burgers cook up fast in a cast-iron skillet or grill pan. Lemony, olive-studded yogurt sauce adds more Middle Eastern–inspired flavor and is a tasty alternative to ketchup and mustard. Piled high with arugula, cucumber, and red onion, these are filling enough to be called dinner. Or, round out the meal with roasted potato fries. For the juiciest burgers, go for 93% lean ground turkey (a combination of white and dark meat).
^ Biesiekierski JR (2017). "What is gluten?". J Gastroenterol Hepatol (Review). 32 Suppl 1: 78–81. doi:10.1111/jgh.13703. PMID 28244676. Similar proteins to the gliadin found in wheat exist as secalin in rye, hordein in barley, and avenins in oats and are collectively referred to as “gluten.” Derivatives of these grains such as triticale and malt and other ancient wheat varieties such as spelt and kamut also contain gluten. The gluten found in all of these grains has been identified as the component capable of triggering the immune-mediated disorder, coeliac disease.
Carbs are not the nutritional Voldemort. Actually, certain healthy carbs can help you lose weight—and air-popped popcorn is one of them. “Portion-wise, it has a lower calorie per unit volume than many other snacks,” Lauren Harris-Pincus, M.S., R.D.N., and owner of Nutrition Starring You, told SELF in a previous article. You get more bang for your caloric buck, and since popcorn is made up of complex carbs, it’ll digest more slowly, keeping you fuller longer.
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.
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.
^ Sacks, Frank M.; Lichtenstein, Alice H.; Wu, Jason H.Y.; Appel, Lawrence J.; Creager, Mark A.; Kris-Etherton, Penny M.; Miller, Michael; Rimm, Eric B.; Rudel, Lawrence L.; Robinson, Jennifer G.; Stone, Neil J.; Van Horn, Linda V. (15 June 2017). "Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association" (PDF). Circulation. 136 (3): e1–e23. doi:10.1161/CIR.0000000000000510. PMID 28620111.