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.
Excess sodium, found in many processed foods and restaurant meals, raises blood pressure in some people and can have other adverse effects. The Dietary Guidelines recommend a limit of 2,300 milligrams a day for the general population; people with hypertension or prehypertension can benefit from a further reduction to 1,500 milligrams per day. As you cut back on sodium, eat more potassium-rich foods, which help lower blood pressure. These include citrus fruits, bananas, beans, avocados, some fish, and dairy products.
Craving something sweet? Instead of fattening cookies or cake, reach for fresh figs. Thanks to their dense consistency and high amount of filling fiber, they can slow the release of sugar into your blood. Pair with ricotta cheese, melons, and prosciutto to make a satisfying fruit salad, or use as a topping on whole-wheat pizza with crumbled feta and walnuts.
The saturated fats in animal foods generally boost levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and have other adverse effects. To limit your intake, choose lean meats, skinless poultry, and nonfat or low-fat dairy products. It’s also a good idea to replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats (see next slide). Keep in mind, though, that not all saturated fats are bad for you; those in chocolate, milk, and cheese, for example, are more neutral in their effect on blood cholesterol. Trans fats from partially hydrogenated oils are even worse than saturated fats, but FDA regulations have now nearly phased them out of the food supply.
Swap plain noodles for this hearty variety (which you may find more easily by looking for soba noodles—just check that they're 100 percent buckwheat before purchasing). Buckwheat noodles contain fiber (12 grams per cup), and unlike most carbs, they contain protein, too, (24 grams per cup) making it more filling, aka harder to overeat than the regular stuff.
Speaking of things you find in the sea, oysters have also been shown to contribute to weight loss thanks to their impressive zinc content. One study found that obese people who consumed 30 milligrams of zinc per day—the equivalent of just six raw oysters—had lower BMIs, weighed less, and showed improvements in blood cholesterol levels. If oysters aren’t your thing, spinach, pumpkin seeds, and mushrooms are also excellent sources of zinc.
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.