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.
Like peanuts, lentils also contain genistein, but their weight loss powers don’t end there. In one four-week Spanish study, researchers found that eating a calorie-restricted diet that also included four weekly servings of legumes aided weight loss more effectively than an equivalent diet sans the pulses. Those who consumed the legume-rich diet also saw improvements in their “bad” LDL cholesterol levels and systolic blood pressure. Next time you’re cooking something starchy for dinner, consider eating fiber and protein-packed lentils instead.
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.
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.
Protein gives you the energy to get up and go—and keep going—while also supporting mood and cognitive function. Too much protein can be harmful to people with kidney disease, but the latest research suggests that many of us need more high-quality protein, especially as we age. That doesn’t mean you have to eat more animal products—a variety of plant-based sources of protein each day can ensure your body gets all the essential protein it needs. Learn more »
Think smaller portions. Serving sizes have ballooned recently. When dining out, choose a starter instead of an entree, split a dish with a friend, and don’t order supersized anything. At home, visual cues can help with portion sizes. Your serving of meat, fish, or chicken should be the size of a deck of cards and half a cup of mashed potato, rice, or pasta is about the size of a traditional light bulb. By serving your meals on smaller plates or in bowls, you can trick your brain into thinking it’s a larger portion. If you don’t feel satisfied at the end of a meal, add more leafy greens or round off the meal with fruit.
For many people, food is a chore, a challenge, even a source of dread, as they try to overcome poor eating habits. But eating should be a joy and a centerpiece of family life. Many cultures around the world emphasize the enjoyment of food, which includes cooking and eating with others, as an integral component of good health. The latest Dietary Guidelines say that eating healthfully involves “enjoying food and celebrating cultural and personal traditions through food.” According to some research, shared mealtimes, especially during childhood, may help protect against nutrition-related health problems as well as increase prosocial behavior in adulthood.
A fat-burning superfood, grapefruit contains a compound that can lower the fat-storage hormone insulin, which in turn can lead to weight loss. In fact, eating half a grapefruit before each meal could help you lose up to a pound a week—even if you don't change anything else about your diet. Because grapefruits are 90% water, which fills you up, they also act as a natural appetite suppressant.
“Pistachios are a great addition to a diet aimed to help one lose weight because they're one of the lowest-fat and lowest-calorie snacks that offer the most nuts per serving (49 pistachios per 1-ounce serving) compared to cashews (18) and walnuts (14 halves),” says Shaw. Get in-shell pistachios because the leftover shells may provide a visual cue for portion control to curb intake.
Not to be outdone, oolong tea—a Chinese beverage—can help those who drink it shed up to a pound per week. According to a study in the Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine, participants who regularly sipped oolong tea lost six pounds over the course of six weeks. What’s more? The tea’s antioxidants are thought to remove harmful free radicals and improve bone health.
Potatoes often get a bad rap, but when it comes to weight loss they're hard-to-beat sources of scale-dropping fiber. According to the Cleveland Clinic, sweet potatoes will up the insoluble fiber in your diet, keep you full longer, and you can bake and eat one for just 114 calories. Just watch what you load it with — instead of cheese or sour cream, opt for good-for-you fillings like black beans, tomatoes, and bell peppers.
^ Jump up to: a b Vos, Miriam B.; Kaar, Jill L.; Welsh, Jean A.; Van Horn, Linda V.; Feig, Daniel I.; Anderson, Cheryl A.M.; Patel, Mahesh J.; Cruz Munos, Jessica; Krebs, Nancy F.; Xanthakos, Stavra A.; Johnson, Rachel K. (22 August 2016). "Added Sugars and Cardiovascular Disease Risk in Children". Circulation. 135 (19): e1017–e1034. doi:10.1161/CIR.0000000000000439. PMC 5365373. PMID 27550974.
A 2012 CDC study found that the average adult consumes about 100 calories worth of alcohol daily, but favoring a glass of wine instead of beer or sugary cocktails can drastically reduce that figure and make your waistline slimmer. In addition to having fewer calories than most alcoholic beverages, red wine, in particular, is a good source of those waist-shrinking flavonoids that are also found in red fruits. Resveratrol, a particular flavonoid found in red wine, is believed to have heart health benefits because it helps prevent blood vessel damage and reduces your ‘bad cholesterol.’ Just remember to imbibe in moderation.
Kefir is a yogurt-like substance, but it actually contains less sugar and more protein than conventional yogurt while remaining packed with gut-friendly probiotics that can help you lose weight by aiding digestion. In one study, kefir displayed weight loss properties similar to those of milk and other dairy-rich products. Other probiotic-rich foods include kombucha, bone broth, and fermented items such as sauerkraut and kimchi.
Artichokes are incredibly filling—in fact, they are one of the highest-fiber vegetables, says Sass. A single boiled artichoke contains a whopping 10.3 grams of fiber—almost half the recommended daily amount for women. To curb your appetite before a meal, Sass suggests enjoying the veggie as a pre-dinner appetizer: try them in a refreshing salad with edamame and asparagus, or make homemade salsa with artichoke hearts, tomatoes, olives, and red onions.
These include soda, candy, white bread, regular pasta, and many snack foods and baked goods. A high intake of added sugar increases inflammation and insulin resistance, increasing the risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other disorders—and it supplies “empty” calories that contribute to weight gain. Refined grain products have little dietary fiber and have been stripped of many nutrients; a high intake can cause many of the same health problems as added sugar.
Lentils and beans are great foods for weight loss, but chickpeas also belong in your pantry. They contain a whopping 39 grams of protein per cup, which nearly meets your recommended daily amount from the USDA, so you're guaranteed to stay full for awhile after noshing on these beauties. Most eat them in hummus form, but you could also toss them in seasonings and roast in the oven, which you can then sprinkle into meals or eat alone for a crunchy snack.
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.
From a psychological and cultural perspective, a healthier diet may be difficult to achieve for people with poor eating habits. This may be due to tastes acquired in childhood and preferences for sugary, salty and/or fatty foods. In the UK, the chief medical officer of the government recommended in December 2018 that sugar and salt be taxed to discourage consumption.
Long live the sweet potato, savior to all people looking to cut back on carbohydrates in a healthy way. "Carbohydrates are your body's preferred source of energy," Abbey Sharp, R.D. with Abbey’s Kitchen, told SELF in a previous article. "Enjoying more fiber-rich complex carbs like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables will be more conducive to weight loss and health in general than eating refined ones, which can spike blood sugar quickly." That’s where sweet potato comes in, serving up 41 grams of healthy carbs and 7 grams of fiber (keep the skin on!) per cup.