One registered dietitian shares the core principles she's learned over 20 years in the field.
I’ve been a practicing dietitian for more than two decades, which is a l-o-n-g time. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with so many wonderful clients with nutrition-related concerns, including pregnant women, children, amateur and professional athletes, overweight and obese adults, and the elderly.
I’ve learned so much during the years, and while new guidelines and recommendations will come and go, there are six core principles I wish I had realized years ago–and they apply to everyone.
Healthy food isn't all-you-can-eat food
Studies show that people will subconsciously eat more food if they believe it’s healthy. More often than not, clients I see struggling with their weight have high-quality diets. Their food journals reveal they’re eating lots of fruits and veggies, lean protein, healthy fats, and quality carbs.
So what gives? They eat too much–period. With today’s oversized portions, it’s easy to overeat without realizing it. And even the healthiest foods can contribute to weight gain if you're taking in too many calories daily. If you can relate, perfect your portions by paying more attention to how much you’re eating compared to what’s recommended.
Think progress, not perfection
Healthy eating is a lifelong journey, so it’s important to have a plan to navigate the bumps and detours that you will eventually encounter in the road. As a dietitian, I can attest that everyone slips up on their diet and fitness routines at some point. If you overdo it on pizza or ice cream every now and again, don’t freak. It’s going to be okay; life happens!
Those who eat well and maintain a healthy weight for life are most likely to get back on track after they’ve had a setback. They don’t give in or give up, they move on. Heart disease or type 2 diabetes won’t develop from what you ate on a specific day, week, or month; these and other conditions progress from the cumulative effects of behaviors like unhealthy eating, lack of exercise, tobacco use, and more. Take a big-picture look at eating, with the ultimate goal of living the longest and healthiest life that you can.
Use mental tricks to keep you on track
Did you know you make more than 200 food-related decisions every day? If you leave those choices up to chance, you’ll deplete your daily willpower—and you’ll be more likely to overeat. But if you have a plan for what and when you’re going to eat, you will limit the number of times you tap into your willpower reserve.
New weight-loss research is focusing on removing many food-related decisions or making healthier options the easiest choice, so your willpower stays strong all day long. To do this, researchers recommend the following: Get adequate sleep (without enough Zz’s, your willpower is weakened, and you’ll be more likely to make less nutritious decisions), and keep your kitchen tidy (store the healthiest foods front-and-center so you’re reminded how convenient they are to eat).
Eat lower on the food chain
Eating low on the food chain means eating more plant-based foods. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 90% of Americans don’t meet the daily recommended servings for fruits and veggies, which is 1.5 to 2 cups of fruit and 2 to 3 cups of veggies a day. A plant-forward menu will naturally have plenty of filling fiber and a range of vitamins and nutrients, plus it keeps calories, sugar, and saturated fat in check. No matter what type of eating plan you follow, strive to fill half your plate with produce for all (or most) of your meals.
A well-stocked pantry, with plenty of canned produce like tomatoes and beans, can help ensure that you hit those targets. Canned produce has similar—and sometimes even more!—nutritional value than fresh varieties.
Supplements aren't cure-alls
It’s estimated that more than half of all Americans take at least one dietary supplement to improve their health. However, according to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements, there’s not always sufficient evidence that supplements improve health–and in some cases, supplements may increase risk for disease.
Throughout my career, I’ve seen a lot of "must-have" supplements that claim to increase energy, burn off belly fat, keep your brain sharp, or fend off (or even cure) any number of chronic conditions. Since manufacturers don’t have to prove that dietary supplements work before they are sold, there’s no guarantee they’ll be effective.
If you fit one of these specific cases, you may benefit from a certain supplement. Otherwise, focus on eating a plant-rich, balanced diet based on the foundation of wholesome, real foods that provide a complex matrix of nutrients.
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Eat quality carbs, not low-carb
If you eat according to what’s trending on your social feeds, you might be avoiding carbs at all cost. However, what I’ve learned through the years is that low-carb diets are hard to follow long-term, and eating quality carbs is better than cutting them out. (The body needs a minimum daily amount of carbohydrates to fuel your muscles and brain, after all.)
However, the types of carbs in, say, soda or cookies are metabolically different than the carbs in beans or brown rice. Enjoy wholesome carbohydrates present in real foods like fruits, veggies, whole grains, and legumes to help you maintain a healthy weight and live longer.