No doubt you’ve read about how important it is to eat a healthy mix of nutritious foods. Perhaps you’ve also heard that trans fat is evil and skipping meals is a huge no-no. But do you know why? More importantly, do you know how to eat healthy? Follow these 12 important healthy eating do’s and don’ts and you’ll feel better, look better and improve your health in no time.
Do Eat Heart-Smart
If you have high blood pressure or borderline hypertension or you just want to eat heart-smart, the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) or Mediterranean diet is the answer. People with high blood pressure or borderline hypertension can lower their blood pressure and reduce their risk of heart attack simply by modifying their diet, according to a study published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes. Study volunteers who followed the DASH diet for eight weeks decreased their calculated heart attack risk by nearly 20 percent. The DASH diet, recommended by the American Heart Association, is similar to the Mediterranean diet, focusing on plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, as well as a moderate amount of low-fat dairy and lean protein every day. Both diets also zero in on reducing saturated fat, red meat and added sugar. The study also found that eating nine to 11 servings of fruits and vegetables lowered heart attack risk by 11 percent, even when participants kept eating the typical American diet. Switching to a DASH- or Mediterranean-inspired diet is one of the best things you can do for your health. In the meantime, add more produce to your menu by including a piece of fruit and a veggie with every meal.
Do Practice Portion Control
You might think that eating alone is the best way to cut back on your calories. After all, if you’re not distracted by good conversation, you’ll be more mindful of how much food you’re shoveling into your mouth. But that isn’t always the case. While it’s true that some people eat less when dining solo, others chow down when no one is watching. If you frequently overeat, your best bet is to dine with people who practice portion control. Because we unconsciously mirror others’ habits, we eat less when others at the table are doing the same. Likewise, if your dining partner chooses a salad over mozzarella sticks, you may opt for something more healthful too. And remember to include fiber in your diet. Fiber comes from whole foods and fills you up. Try to build your meal with 100 percent whole grains and half a plate of colorful fruits and vegetables.
Do Tame Your Sweets Cravings
The equation is pretty simple: The more sweets you eat, the more you want. Which means that you can train your taste buds to crave less sugar by gradually decreasing the sweets you eat. Human beings are remarkably adaptable creatures. We can adjust to just about anything life throws at us. The same goes for our food preferences. If you’ve never had a swig of soda in your life, you’d probably cringe at how sweet it is. Drink it every day and you’d barely notice it. If you have an insatiable sweet tooth and want to cut back, do it slowly with small, imperceptible changes. That way, your palate can have time to adjust to the new flavors. If you’re a cola fanatic, switch to seltzer and grape juice. Each week, increase the amount of seltzer and reduce the amount of juice until you’re just using a splash of grape juice. Instead of candy, try dried fruits. They’re a nutritious way to satisfy a sugar craving. If you need something crunchy, go for cinnamon- or chocolate-covered almonds.
Do Keep Hunger in Check
If you’re feeling hungry all the time, take a look at how many refined carbohydrates you eat. Without fat or fiber to slow them down, refined carbohydrates fuel the appetite. Sticking with whole grains will make you feel full longer. Eating a bagel with fat-free cream cheese for breakfast? It’s about as good for your waistline as a doughnut. Both of these foods fuel the appetite like gasoline feeds a fire. Downing refined carbohydrates is like mainlining sugar — you get a blood-sugar spike and then a precipitous drop, which leads to rebound hunger. The result? You reach for another sugary goodie to stave off fatigue, irritability and gnawing hunger pangs. Keep your cravings in check by cutting out high-sugar snacks and refined carbohydrates, like white rice, sorbet, cookies and crackers. Or eat small amounts, like half of a bagel or one cup of pasta, with high-quality protein or fiber to slow it down in your system.
Do Keep Treats Hidden Away
Whether we know it or not, most of us are on the see-food diet. When snacks are placed where we can see them, we tend to eat a lot more of them. Researchers at Cornell University found that people given clear candy dishes ate 71 percent more chocolates than those who were given opaque ones. Good thing our favorite treats don’t come in clear containers! The solution: Limit your exposure to hard-to-resist goodies. Tuck them away in your cupboard, or keep them out of the house altogether. Instead, make your fruit bowl the focal point of your kitchen. It will encourage you and your family to dip into it more often.
Do Eat Regularly
Unlike your car, your body doesn’t run equally well whether it’s completely topped off or just a drop away from empty. So it’s critical to keep your fuel level relatively even throughout the day — eating too much at one meal or not enough at another can leave you lagging. That’s one reason nutrition experts are virtually unanimous in their advice to eat small meals — as many as six — throughout the day. “If you refuel every few hours, you avoid the boom and bust cycle that makes you feel depleted and can also lead to overeating,” says Sari Greaves, RD, a New York City-based spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. If you rely on caffeine and sugar to keep you going at various times of day, you’re not fooling your body. “There’s no denying the quick fix you get from both, but the effects don’t last long,” says Greaves. She recommends sticking with “foods that take the edge off and prevent rebound hunger.” That means meals that contain both complex carbohydrates and lean protein.
Do Build a Healthy Plate
Choose foods with the most nutritional bang for your buck. “A good rule of thumb,” advises Amy Jamieson-Petonic, MEd, a registered dietitian and the director of wellness coaching at the Cleveland Clinic, “is to go back to basics — that is, to eat relatively unprocessed foods.” Shoot for 100 percent whole-grain products, fresh or frozen fruits or vegetables, low-fat or nonfat dairy products and heart-healthy fats. To balance your meals, Jamieson-Petonic has a trick: Imagine your plate like a clock. Fill the first half of the circle (from 12 to 6) with fruits and vegetables. Add lean protein to a quarter of the plate (6 to 9); round things out (from 9 to 12) with a whole-grain, high-fiber starch.
Don’t Skip Breakfast
Think you’ll save calories by skipping breakfast? Guess again. The truth is that you’ll be more likely to binge later if you haven’t eaten anything. Without a healthy breakfast in your stomach, you’ll also be more likely to choose unhealthy foods when you finally do eat, such as sweets and salty snacks. Good breakfast options include a bowl of oatmeal, whole-grain cereal with fruit and milk, a slice of toast with peanut butter, or an egg on toast — using 100 percent whole-grain bread, of course.
Don’t Overeat So-Called Healthy Food
Unfortunately, you can’t judge a food by its packaging. Just because it’s organic, high-protein or low-fat doesn’t mean it’s a diet-friendly or healthful option. When foods carry claims like “made with whole grains” or “low in sugar,” we think we’re buying health food — even though that isn’t necessarily the case. And when we think we’re being healthy, we reward ourselves by eating up to 44 percent more! Part of that reason is because we underestimate the amount of calories in so-called health food. The truth is that whole-grain, low-sugar and organic foods, among others, often contain just as many calories and grams of fat as their traditional or original counterparts. Disregard the alluring food labels on the front of packaging and check the nutrition information for yourself. Take a close look at the serving size and calculate how much you should realistically consume in one sitting before digging in.
Don’t Buy Too Much Produce
We’re not telling you to stop buying fresh fruits and vegetables! Rather, when shopping for fresh produce, buy only what you’ll eat right away. And whenever you can, buy local. There’s good reason: Plants start losing nutrients the minute they’ve been picked. One of the perks of locally grown food is that it reaches the supermarket sooner than produce that’s been shipped halfway around the country or the world. Because fruits and vegetables start losing their nutrients the moment they’ve been picked, this suggests that locally grown produce might be slightly better for you. But that’s only the case if you eat it right away. The longer it sits in your crisper, the more vitamins it will lose. That’s why it’s best to not let your produce languish in the fridge. Buy only what you know you’ll be using over a few days. Another option is to buy frozen fruits and vegetables. Since they’re put on ice immediately after being picked, they retain most of their nutrients. Frozen is an especially good choice when buying produce in the winter.
Don’t Believe That Bigger Is Better
Big containers encourage bigger helpings. If you do all of your shopping at wholesale warehouses, you could be padding more than your wallet. Colossal containers cause portion distortion, which makes us reach for 25 percent more than we would normally take. This goes for everything from laundry detergent to stale popcorn, says researcher Brian Wansink at the Cornell Food Lab. If everything you eat comes out of a mammoth package, you’re likely eating much more than you realize. While you don’t necessarily have to stop buying in bulk, you should measure out your serving sizes so you know how much you’re taking.
Don’t Fall for Every Trans Fat–Free Claim
Think your diet is trans fat–free? You might be surprised. Foods that contain less than half a gram of trans fat per serving are allowed to claim they have zero grams of the heart-damaging fat. Current dietary guidelines recommend consuming no more than 1.11 grams of trans fat per day. So eating just a few servings of supposedly trans fat–free products could inadvertently put consumers over that limit. Unlike other fats, trans fat (also known as trans fatty acid) wallops cholesterol levels in two ways — it raises “bad” LDL and lowers “good” HDL, both of which can increase the risk of heart disease. To figure out if a food contains trans fat, scan the ingredients. Fully or completely hydrogenated oil does not contain trans fat, but if the label simply says “hydrogenated,” it’s safer to stay away. That goes for “partially hydrogenated” or “shortening” too, since that product most likely contains some amount of trans fat. Watch out for trans fat in some brands of crackers, biscuit dough, microwave popcorn and cocoa, among other foods.