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.
These foods—notably vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains—should supply about 20 to 35 grams of dietary fiber a day, depending on your calorie needs. (Aim for 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories, as advised by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.) Fiber slows the absorption of carbohydrates, so they have less effect on insulin and blood sugar, and it provides other health benefits. Try to fill three-quarters of your plate with produce, legumes, and whole grains—leaving only one-quarter for meat, poultry, or other protein sources.
An apple a day might not always keep the doctor away, but they can help keep unwanted pounds at bay. According to a study published in the journal Nutrition, researchers found adding three apples into your daily meal plan can result in weight loss thanks to all that added fiber. Consumer Reports found that most people don't get enough of the daily nutrient, so consider this an easy way to up your tally.
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.
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.
Your favorite childhood snack is good for your grown-up self, too. Because peanut butter is a great source of protein and healthy fats, it can curb hunger and keep you feeling full long after you're finished eating. Having small snacks during the day that include a lean protein such as peanut butter with complex carbs (like an apple or banana) can also help keep your metabolism running smoothly.
“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.
Yes, peanut butter is high in calories, but if you stick the real stuff—a tasty combo of peanuts and maybe a touch of salt—the legumes can earn a place as one of the best foods for weight loss. In addition to providing you with belly-slimming monounsaturated fats, tummy-filling fiber, and metabolism-boosting protein, peanuts also contain genistein, a compound that helps turn down the genes for obesity and reduces your body’s ability to store fat.
Yes, you can eat dark chocolate to lose weight. A study among women with normal weight obesity (or “skinny fat syndrome”) who ate a Mediterranean diet that included two servings of dark chocolate per day showed a substantial reduction in waist size than when on a cocoa-free meal plan. Researchers attribute dark chocolate’s weight loss abilities to flavonoids, heart-healthy compounds in the sweet treat that the scientists at Harvard say can reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and mortality. Like nuts, dark chocolate has also been found to induce satiety. When reaching for chocolate, just make sure you choose a bar with at least 70 percent cacao. Anything less contains more belly-bloating sugar and a significantly reduced flavonoid content.
The weight of evidence strongly supports a theme of healthful eating while allowing for variations on that theme. A diet of minimally processed foods close to nature, predominantly plants, is decisively associated with health promotion and disease prevention and is consistent with the salient components of seemingly distinct dietary approaches. Efforts to improve public health through diet are forestalled not for want of knowledge about the optimal feeding of Homo sapiens but for distractions associated with exaggerated claims, and our failure to convert what we reliably know into what we routinely do. Knowledge in this case is not, as of yet, power; would that it were so.
Similar to Greek yogurt, a study from Nutrition Research showed that eating eggs for breakfast can make you feel more full and help you eat fewer calories throughout the day, meaning they’re quite the secret weapon for weight loss. Nutritionally speaking, one large hard-boiled egg (about 50 grams) contains less than one gram of carbs and remains an excellent source of protein. Eggs are also loaded with amino acids, antioxidants, and healthy fats.
Hello, hydration. Watermelon, which gets its pretty color from the antioxidant lycopene, is a juicy, delicious way to make sure you’re staying hydrated—a key factor in weight loss for various reasons. When you’re drinking enough water, all your systems (including your metabolism) are better able to work at their maximum capacity, Shawn Talbott, Ph.D., a nutritional biochemist, told SELF in a previous article. Plus, proper hydration prevents you from confusing thirst for hunger, which can lead you to overeat throughout the day. And don’t buy into the hype about watermelon being a calorie bomb—1 cup only contains 46 calories.
Here’s more reason to add avocado to everything. “Most of the carbohydrate content in avocados comes from fiber (1/3 of an avocado provides 11 percent of our daily fiber needs), and it also contains monounsaturated fat, which is known as a ‘good’ fat and [is] important for heart health,” says Zigler. Together, the healthy fats and fiber will keep you full to avoid mindless munching throughout the day.
These support bone health and have other possible benefits. Dairy products are the best sources of calcium, but you can also get it from fortified foods as well as canned salmon, sardines, dark leafy greens, and most tofu. If you can’t get the recommended 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams a day from food, take a calcium supplement. It’s hard to consume enough vitamin D from foods (the RDA is 600 to 800 IU a day, though other experts advise more). Thus, many people—especially those who are over 60, live at northern latitudes, or have darker skin—should consider taking a supplement.