Healthy eating is not about strict dietary limitations, staying unrealistically thin, or depriving yourself of the foods you love. Rather, it’s about feeling great, having more energy, improving your health, and boosting your mood. If you feel overwhelmed by all the conflicting nutrition and diet advice out there, you’re not alone. It seems that for every expert who tells you a certain food is good for you, you’ll find another saying exactly the opposite. But by using these simple tips, you can cut through the confusion and learn how to create—and stick to—a tasty, varied, and nutritious diet that is as good for your mind as it is for your body.
Popular diets, often referred to as fad diets, make promises of weight loss or other health advantages such as longer life without backing by solid science, and in many cases are characterized by highly restrictive or unusual food choices.:296 Celebrity endorsements (including celebrity doctors) are frequently associated with popular diets, and the individuals who develop and promote these programs often profit handsomely.:11–12
Not all the nutrients and other substances that contribute to good health have been identified, so eating a wide assortment of healthy whole foods like fruits and vegetables helps ensure that you get all of the health-promoting benefits that foods can offer. If your diet, day after day, consists of the same half dozen foods, it could fall short. In addition, varying your food choices will limit your exposure to any pesticides or toxic substances that might be present in particular foods.
“The Dietary Guidelines recommend eating fish at least twice a week, and I think salmon is the perfect food to incorporate into your weekly meal plan,” says Rizzo. Salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for your heart and can lower inflammation to aid in weight loss and combat water retention. Plus, eating healthy fat keeps you full. The bonus is that salmon has vitamin D to improve mood, she says.
On top of its 4 grams of belly-filling fiber, a cup of hearty oatmeal delivers as much protein as an egg. In other words, the popular breakfast food is an excellent weight loss tool. In fact, according to a study in the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, scientists found that having oatmeal for breakfast resulted in greater fullness, lower hunger ratings, and fewer calories eaten at the next meal compared with a serving of ready-to-eat sugared corn flakes, even though the calorie counts of the two breakfasts were identical. For ways to get more fiber, sprinkle some berries and chia seeds on top of your oatmeal, but be sure to stay away from fattening syrup and sugar.
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.
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.
Yogurt is protein-packed and full of probiotics, which are good for gut health and may help your weight-loss efforts. Your gut health can impact your weight, and eating more fiber and probiotics helps keep your gut bacteria happy, which can be good for your metabolism (read more about your gut-weight connection). Go Greek for more protein; plus, research from Appetite found that consumption of Greek yogurt was associated with reduced appetite and increased satiety. Just keep an eye on added sugars in flavored yogurts, which only add calories. Instead, use fresh fruit to sweeten plain yogurt.
Coconut oil may be high in saturated fat, but that doesn’t mean you should write it off completely, especially when it comes to weight loss. In fact, a study of 30 men published in Pharmacology found that just two tablespoons per day reduced waist circumference by an average of 1.1 inches over the course of a month. What’s more? At roughly 117 calories per tablespoon, coconut oil (which has a versatile high smoke point) is an ideal cooking companion so long as you don’t use it every day and rotate in other cooking oils such as heart-healthy EVOO.
Fears of high cholesterol were frequently voiced up until the mid-1990s. However, more recent research has shown that the distinction between high- and low-density lipoprotein ('good' and 'bad' cholesterol, respectively) must be addressed when speaking of the potential ill effects of cholesterol. Different types of dietary fat have different effects on blood levels of cholesterol. For example, polyunsaturated fats tend to decrease both types of cholesterol; monounsaturated fats tend to lower LDL and raise HDL; saturated fats tend to either raise HDL, or raise both HDL and LDL; and trans fat tend to raise LDL and lower HDL.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you're trying to shed pounds, consider this the ultimate guide to what you should be putting on your plate and the foods you should always keep in your kitchen. These good-for-you foods contain powerful nutrients and antioxidants that have been shown to help your body lose weight, feel full for longer periods of time, and have more energy. As a bonus, many have added benefits, too, such as preventing various diseases or reversing the signs of aging.
What is moderation? In essence, it means eating only as much food as your body needs. You should feel satisfied at the end of a meal, but not stuffed. For many of us, moderation means eating less than we do now. But it doesn’t mean eliminating the foods you love. Eating bacon for breakfast once a week, for example, could be considered moderation if you follow it with a healthy lunch and dinner—but not if you follow it with a box of donuts and a sausage pizza.
It’s time to focus on your lentil health. In one four-week Spanish study, researchers found that eating a calorie-restricted diet that includes four weekly servings of legumes aids weight loss more effectively than an equivalent diet that doesn’t include beans. Those who consumed the legume-rich diet also saw improvements in their “bad” LDL cholesterol levels and systolic blood-pressure. To reap the benefits at home, work lentils, chickpeas, peas and beans into your diet throughout the week.
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.
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.
Speaking of flavonoids, the waist-whittling compounds also exist in higher concentrations in red fruits such as watermelon, Pink Lady apples, and plums, meaning they also have the power to induce weight loss. In fact, a 2016 study in the journal BMJ found that people who eat a diet rich in flavonoid-heavy food tend to gain less weight, which could be promising seeing as many people tend to put on pounds as they age. In addition, anthocyanin, a specific flavonoid compound that gives red fruits their color, has been shown to reduce fat-storage genes.
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.