How To Start Eating Healthy: 10 Changes You Can Make

These dietitian-approved changes are more practical to stick with for the long term.

One of the most important things you can do to maintain your optimal health is to eat a balanced and nutritious diet. Doing so can help adults stave off chronic conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes, and allow those who are already chronically ill to manage their diseases.

"Healthy eating" can look different for everyone, but the ultimate goal is to establish a pattern of taking in foods and drinks that supply you with the necessary nutrients to keep up your overall health.

So how can you start eating healthily—and make it stick for the long term? Here are the best strategies for doing just that, according to experts.

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Start Slow

Chances are you're not going to know everything about healthy eating when you're just starting out on your dietary journey: There's a lot to learn, after all.

To that end, registered dietitian Trista Best, LD, advised that you start slow. A surefire way to start eating healthily in a manner that won't overwhelm you can be making one to two small changes to your diet at a time.

You can also do the same thing by trying new healthy foods. "One approach is to try a new vegetable each week," Best told Health. "Pick a vegetable you've never tried before and research a new recipe to integrate it into a meal. If you do this each week, or even just once a month, you'll end the year with several new healthy foods and recipes you didn't know you liked before."

Log Your Intake

You might find you're eating less healthfully than you intend to.

One way to be more mindful about your food choices, according to registered dietitian Lisa DeFazio, RD, is to put your pen to paper. "Write down your reasons for wanting to eat healthily (lose weight, lower cholesterol, increase energy, improve moods, etc.), and read your list every day," said DeFazio. "Track your intake with an app like MyFitnessPal to make sure you are getting all the nutrition you need."

Indeed, you might be surprised by what you learn when you take the time to record what you're eating. As for figuring out what your ideal intake should be in the first place, talk to a healthcare provider or get a referral to a dietitian.

You can also get a primer from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA)'s MyPlate Plan, a personalized food plan for your age, sex, height, weight, and physical activity level that shows what and how much to eat.

Eat Fewer Ultra-Processed Foods

Pre-made foods can be convenient, especially when juggling work, family, and other obligations. However, ultra-processed foods have been associated with decreased nutritional diet quality as well as obesity and other health issues.

As per registered dietitian Summer Yule, RD, ultra-processed foods make it tough to control your food intake due to multiple portions in one package or excessive not-so-healthful ingredients.

"Ultra-processed foods are highly processed and designed in such a way that they're very easy to overeat," said Yule. "Some examples include store-bought cookies, sugary breakfast cereals, frozen corn dogs, and similar convenience foods. These foods are often high in added sugar, white flour, and/or added oils, providing relatively few vitamins and minerals but a lot of calories."

Planning meals can help jumpstart your decisions to eat better. So instead, make your default whole foods and meals that you prepare yourself: That way, it might become easier over time to eat more healthful foods instead of reaching for ultra-processed foods.

And a note, this suggestion of eating fewer ultra-processed foods doesn't include items like chopped and frozen veggies, canned beans, or shelled pistachios—while they have been processed, they're still whole foods.

Eat More Plants

The benefits of adopting a plant-based diet—like vegetarianism or veganism—are well-documented. For example, research has shown that vegetarians have higher levels of healthy fats, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory compounds in their bodies than non-vegetarians. This is "likely because [vegans] consume more produce and other whole, plant-based foods," as Health's nutrition editor Cynthia Sass, RD, previously reported.

Thus, eating a more plant-based diet may be one way to start eating healthier. Be gentle with yourself if you try this approach, as you don't have to go vegan or vegetarian to reap health benefits. The flexitarian diet, which is primarily a vegetarian diet but includes the occasional animal protein, was named one of the best diets of 2022 by the U.S. News & World Report.

"Remember, it's not all or nothing. This perspective can be daunting and lead to failure," said Best. "Try making one of your favorite non-vegan meals vegan by changing some of the ingredients, like tofu tacos instead of beef." You may find that not only are you eating healthier with this approach but also that you're trying new foods.

Balance Your Plate

Another way to start eating healthier is to think in terms of what's on your plate. It's crucial that you eat a variety of foods. However, certain foods should play a significant role in your diet at every meal, according to DeFazio.

"Fruits and vegetables should be the foundation of your diet; half your plate should be vegetables," said DeFazio. Along with one serving of fruit at each mealtime, DeFazio recommended having lean protein on your plate.

To get that protein at breakfast, aim for an ounce of nut butter, turkey bacon, cottage cheese, or an egg. Protein should be about a quarter of your plate during lunch and dinner; reach for three to four ounces of skinless chicken breast or fish. Of note, if you're not sure what three ounces look like, it's about the size of a deck of cards.

Make Sensible Swaps

Some foods are best consumed in moderation, such as foods with added sugars or high in sodium.

Another food to eat in moderation is white flour, which is found in many baked goods and bread. Fortunately, Yule has a handy tip for moderating your white flour intake: Swap out a significant amount of it (or other simpler carbs) for whole grains or vegetable alternatives.

For example, you can "use cauliflower rice instead of white rice, legume pasta instead of white flour pasta, or enjoy sandwich fillings in a lettuce wrap," said Yule. "These swaps help you eat more veggies and eat less white flour. It's a double-win!"

You can also swap out mayonnaise for mustard and use spiralized veggie noodles for your pasta. You could also consider switching sodas for sparkling water or olive oil for butter.

Try Volume Eating

Looking for a way to eat healthily that doesn't involve counting calories or a restrictive mindset? If so, then volume eating may be right for you, as noted by Best.

"Volume eating is a fascinating and relatively new concept to eating a balanced, nutrient-dense, low-calorie diet pattern without sacrificing hunger," Best stated. "Essentially, the consumer eats large volumes of food that are low in calorie density." Research has found weight loss benefits of volume eating as well.

Volume eating has also helped Best in her personal healthy eating journey, as it has helped her to reach her desired weight and improve her overall well-being. The approach has also been named one of the best diets for 2022.

Don't Ditch the Carbs and Fats

If there are two foods out there that have gotten a bad rap over the years, there's no question they would be carbohydrates and fats. Over time, the belief that these foods are "bad" for you has become prevalent. But that's just not the case, according to DeFazio.

"You need carbohydrates at each meal for energy, as cutting carbs leads to binging and sugar cravings," explained DeFazio. "Aim for about 1 cup of cooked starch per meal, such as oatmeal, rice, sweet potatoes, couscous, or pasta—whole grain whenever possible."

DeFazio also suggested making sure you have a serving of healthy fats like nut butter, avocado, or olive oil at each meal. By consuming healthy fats, you will decrease your risk of heart disease, hardening of the arteries, and stroke and lower your blood pressure, triglycerides, and "bad" cholesterol. Your "good" cholesterol, on the other hand, will get a boost.

Up Your Water Intake

If you're looking for ways to eat healthier, you also want to make sure you're drinking healthier. After all, drinking enough water will help you regulate your temperature, process wastes, and protect your spine and joints.

So, make sure you're getting enough water each day, either by finding ways to drink more water (e.g., adding lemon to a glass of water) or eating foods high in water content.

You can also start upping your amount by swapping out the soda and sugar-sweetened beverages in your diet for water, suggested Yule. With sugar-sweetened beverages, moderation in your intake is key due to their added sugar content and association with health problems (e.g., diabetes, weight gain, gout).

Set Yourself Up for Success

One of the reasons it can be difficult to start eating healthily is that it takes time and energy. That's why convenient foods are so tempting, especially when you're swamped or low on energy. However, DeFazio has some great tips for setting yourself up for healthy eating success.

"Go to the market or order grocery delivery; you need a healthy-stocked fridge and pantry, so you have healthy choices in the house," said DeFazio. "For meal prep, make big batches of rice and chicken or fish when you have time, so you have dinner ready on busy days."

DeFazio also suggested going the sheet pan meal prep route. You can prepare lean protein and vegetables beforehand and store them in the fridge, then throw them on a sheet pan and into the oven when you get home from work. All these options will have you thanking your past self when you sit down to a healthy, delicious dinner on weeknights.

A Quick Review

Eating healthily is important, but sometimes it can be difficult to know where to begin. However, there are a variety of changes you can make when on your journey to healthy eating. The changes include methods such as being mindful of what you eat and swapping out food and beverage options. Start slow in making those and other adjustments and find ways to set yourself up for success. If you find you are having difficulty eating healthy, ask a health provider or mental health professional for guidance.

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