12 Healthy Eating Habits That You Can Start Doing Today
Change your eating, change your life
There’s a ton of advice out there about good eating habits—how to start, how to keep up with them. But there are some tips that stand the test of time. Here are 12 (actually doable) healthy eating strategies that nutritionists recommend to their own clients—and how you can successfully implement them into your life.
Calorie counting shouldn’t be a full-time job
You may want to ditch the habit and instead focus on good-for-you foods, Frank Lipman, MD, integrative and functional medicine physician and founder of New York City’s Eleven Eleven Wellness Center tells Health. Instead of how many calories you’re consuming, ask yourself where the food came from and if it's nutritious. "Healthy, nutrient-rich foods will keep hunger at bay, help maintain stable blood sugar levels, minimize cravings, and help your brain signal your belly when you're full," he says. In other words, you don't have to go through all the trouble of counting.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also says that counting calories all the time is unnecessary. However, in the beginning of your healthy eating journey, the tactic may help in determining how many calories you regularly take in. A food diary might be helpful with this.
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Make your “boring” food exciting
Nutritionists are always saying to eat more vegetables, so cook them in a way that takes them from ho-hum to yum. "I even think that steamed veggies can be very boring!" Ilyse Schapiro, RD, a nutritionist serving clients in the greater New York City-area, tells Health. Always incorporate high-flavor add-ons to jazz up veggies, like sautéing with olive oil and garlic, or spraying them with olive oil before throwing them in an oven with salt, pepper, and garlic powder. That way, you don't equate "healthy" with "tasteless," a mindset that will knock you off the veggie bandwagon fast. Another tip: buy a spiralizer and make zucchini noodles. Topped off with a rich tomato sauce, you'll feel like you're eating pasta.
Prep and store
Even more important than shopping for healthy foods? Actually eating them. When you get home from the store or farmer's market, bounty of fruits and veggies in tow, wash and chop them right away and store in a pretty glass container in your fridge. "Studies show that spending more time on food prep is linked to better eating habits," Dr. Lipman says. It's all about convenience—if they're ready for you, you'll grab them in a pinch. If not? It's chips and dip time. You can also do this with other foods, like making a batch of quinoa for the week or roasting a bunch of veggies to throw together for quick lunches.
Make lunch your main meal
You probably remember learning in school that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. And it truly does have a lot of health benefits. But just because it’s important doesn’t mean it has to be your biggest meal. In actuality, "your biggest meal should be around noon when your digestion is at its peak and you can feed your body when it actually needs fuel," says Dr. Lipman. So at lunch, emphasize fueling foods like protein and greens (think a hearty bowl of lentil soup and kale salad). A larger meal at lunch also means that you probably won't be looking for a huge meal at dinner, which is good since you don’t need that much food to fuel yourself just to watch TV and go to be bed.
Eat at the right time
When you eat can be just as crucial as what you eat. “Eating in tune with your circadian rhythms—aka your body’s inner clock that guides you to wake and sleep—automatically helps your health. You are getting fuel when you can actually use it and allowing your body to rest when it needs to,” Michael Roizen, MD, chief wellness officer of the Cleveland Clinic and coauthor of What to Eat When previously told Health. That means eating during daylight hours (or, at least in a 12-hour window—say 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.—during those winter days when there’s not as many hours of sunlight).
Your resistance to insulin is highest at night, when you’re less active and your body thinks it should be resting, meaning most of the calories you consume in the evening tend to be stored as fat. Late-night noshing has been linked to several bad health effects, including increased risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. “Ideally, you’ll consume about 75% of your calories by 4 p.m.,” Tamara Duker Freuman, RD, author of The Bloated Belly Whisperer, previously told Health.
Always have a plan
It's easy to get sucked into the lure of the restaurant menu when you're hungry and everything looks good. But eating healthily doesn’t always mean having to order the plain grilled chicken breast with steamed veggies. Order what you'd like, but balance the meal out with the rest of the day, author Elisa Zied, who had an over-20-year career as a registered dietitian, tells Health. If you know you're going out for a steak and potatoes dinner, go easy on the meat and starch at lunch. Make sure you're also fitting in healthy fare like whole grains, fruit, veggies, and nuts and seeds in the other meals and snacks that day. That way a hunk of steak won't derail your healthy eating streak, and you'll leave happy.
Enjoy your food
It's easy to think of food as something that helps you lose (or gain) weight. But thinking only in terms of numbers on the scale takes away a huge part of what eating is about: pleasure. "If you think of eating as something enjoyable and something you do without guilt or without judging yourself, and you stay active, you're less likely to overeat, have a better diet, and maintain any weight loss for the long haul," Zied says.
By focusing so much on the effects that food may have on your weight, the Mayo Clinic points out that “you might limit calories too much, eat the same foods repeatedly, and banish treats.” Doing this might just lead you to have increased food cravings, especially in response to emotions.
Eat the rainbow
Greens, oranges, reds, purples, yellows...you get the picture. Eating the rainbow will supply your body with a range of disease-fighting phytonutrients and will naturally fill you up to help you cut back on less nutritious foods, Dr. Lipman says, so aim for a diverse intake of produce of all colors. The CDC says that adult women need at least 1½ cups of fruit and 2½ cups of vegetables each day. But don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re not eating that amount quite yet—it’s something that most adults struggle with. A CDC analysis showed that only 12% of US adults ate the recommended amount of fruit. Meanwhile, only 9% of US adults ate the recommended amount of vegetables.
Store up on snacks
Sure, you don't know what you'll be in the mood for later, and will you even be hungry? Yes, probably. "When you leave your office to go find something, that's when bad choices are made," Schapiro says. "That's when a hot pretzel, bag of candy, or donut can look very appealing." Make sure your desk (or fridge) is stocked with an emergency stash of snacks, like Greek yogurt, individual packs of nuts, dried fruit, and nitrate-free jerky. And consider this, during the pandemic, people are snacking more than usual, as reported by the 15th Annual Food & Health Survey by the International Food Information Council. So now more so than ever, having healthful snacks on hand is a good idea.
Consider the 80/20 rule
There are two ways you can think about 80/20 eating. One: eat healthy 80% of the time and save 20% for splurges. That's great because it stresses how eating is not about perfection and, as mentioned earlier, how it can be pleasurable, too. However, what does that really look like? That might mean having a 150-calorie treat daily, like Schapiro does, or saving it all up for a big meal out on the weekend. Make it work for you rather than stressing out about percentages.
Another spin on the 80/20 rule, says Dr. Lipman: stopping eating when you're 80% full. That means slowing down and checking in periodically throughout the meal about what your body is saying. Does the food no longer taste great? Are you getting that "I don't really need any more feeling"? Thinking 80/20 as you eat can help slow you down and be more mindful. Being in tune with your body prevents overeating, he says.
Don't give anything up
Eat all the foods you enjoy—but the key is to do it in smaller quantities. “Healthy eating is all about balance. You can enjoy your favorite foods, even if they are high in calories, fat or added sugars,” the CDC says. The key? Eating those foods only once in a while and balancing them with healthier foods and more physical activity. So if you’re eating some of your favorite comfort foods every day, try cutting it back to once a week or once a month. You can also eat a smaller amount of the food or a lower-calorie version. The CDC gives this example: “If your macaroni and cheese recipe includes whole milk, butter, and full-fat cheese, try remaking it with non-fat milk, less butter, low-fat cheese, fresh spinach and tomatoes. Just remember to not increase your portion size.”
Don’t forget about water
Women 19 and older need over 11 cups of fluid a day, according to the Institute of Medicine (IOM). About 20% of your fluids come from food, but that still leaves about 9 cups based on the IOM guidelines, not including additional needs due to exercise. Enter water. Besides being needed for every process in the body—from circulation to digestion—it’s also been shown to boost metabolism, as Health previously reported. Plus, drinking water before meals has also been shown to naturally reduce meal portions.
Here’s how Cynthia Sass, RD, Health's contributing nutrition editor, says you can incorporate more water into your diet: “As a minimum I recommend 8 cups a day. Think of your day in four blocks: 1) from the time you get up to mid-morning; 2) mid-morning to lunchtime; 3) lunchtime to mid-afternoon; and 4) mid-afternoon to dinnertime. Aim for 2 cups (16 ounces) of water during each of these blocks.”