Cut back on carbs, but fill up on whole ones. Pour on the olive oil, but don’t pour too much into your pan because it’s full of calories. Get more veggies, but not too many starchy ones. Don’t pour white sugar into your coffee. But wait, don’t use artificial sweeteners, either.
For novice health nuts trying eat clean, reading up on nutrition advice usually imparts a sort of sinking “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” feeling. And confusion goes without saying. Massive feelings of overwhelm? You betcha.
And, while yes, there’s something to each of those mind-numbing eating tips, you don’t have to get caught up in the weeds to eat healthier. More importantly, even, you shouldn’t. If you’re going to eat healthy (without bashing your head against a plate), you’ve got to make things simple. Start with these seven foundational tips:
“Healthy eating” is not an all-or-nothing thing.
First things first. When integrating healthy eating into your new-and-improved lifestyle, do just that: integrate.
“Focus on small changes that you hardly even notice,” Albert Matheny, a registered dietitian and trainer with SoHo Strength Lab in New York City, said by phone. “When you adapt to one, add another, focusing on things that you see yourself being able to do for a long time.”
“Don’t decide that there are good or bad foods.”
And that doesn’t include never having a gin and tonic or bite of fried cheese ever again. “Don’t decide that there are good or bad foods,” New York City registered dietitian nutritionist and author of The Small Change Diet Keri Gans said over the phone. “There are simply foods that are better for you, and you should eat more of them. And there are foods that have less nutritional value, and you should eat less of them, but you don’t need to cut them out. That’s not sustainable.”
Remember, it’s what you eat most of the time that determines your nutrition, not what you eat every now and then.
Keep healthy foods on hand.
“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail,” Gans said. “With healthy eating, it doesn’t get more direct than that.” To plan for all of those times you need to grab something fast (like always), Gans recommends having an array of healthy meals and snacks ready to go in your kitchen, your desk, your car, purse, man bag — everywhere.
The easiest, healthiest way to make that happen: prepping meals and snacks once every week (or however often is comfortable for you), packaging them up in single-serving containers and then munching on them for the week, she said. That way, you won’t have to cook an individual chicken breast every time you want chicken. Or hard-boil a single egg at a time when you now you go through several per week.
When it comes to meal prep, simple is always the best place to start. “You don’t need to be a gourmet cook,” Marie Spano, a sports nutritionist for the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, said in an email. “Don’t get overwhelmed and try to follow what others do.” #InstagramFail, anyone? Instead, focus on assembling easy-to-prep foods into multiple, easy meals.
“Start with your protein, add veggie or fruit sides, healthy grains or starchy carbs,” Spano said. And don’t fear frozen or canned fruits and veggies. They can save you a ton of time and still score you the nutrients you need.
Become a breakfast person.
“If you want to eat healthier, eat breakfast,” Gans said. It’s so simple, but it makes such a huge impact in your day — it doesn’t matter if you’re trying to improve your focus at work, lose weight or get in more of that vitamin D everyone says you need.
“Breakfast is a great opportunity to increase your intake of fiber, calcium, vitamin D and nutrients that you might not get much of at other meals,” Gans says. Think about what’s on the menu in the mornings: Greek yogurt, oatmeal, eggs, milk, maybe some chia seed pudding. They all pack nutrients in which a lot of people are lacking, she says.
If your stomach doesn’t handle breakfast very well, start small: Even a glass of milk or piece of toast with peanut butter is better than nothing. Give it time and, as your body adapts, you’ll be able to step it up until you’re eating a full breakfast that will boost your energy, quell cravings throughout the rest of the day and help you hit your nutritional goals, she said.
Drink more water — and pee more often.
Perhaps the most underrated of nutrients, water makes up the bulk of your body and is non-negotiable in any healthy eating plan. “So many people walk around chronically dehydrated, which impairs mental functioning, energy levels and can make you feel tired and grouchy,” Spano said.
Plus, dehydration can increase your risk of heat stroke, make your workouts feel so much harder and increase blood pressure (the less water is in your blood, the thicker it is and the harder your heart has to work). On the flip side, drinking more water can actually make eating healthier foods all the more easier, according to Gans, who notes that people commonly confuse symptoms of dehydration for hunger.
To hydrate and fend off overeating in a single sip, try keeping a refillable water bottle with you at all times. And don’t get hung up trying to hit a number of ounces to water to drink per day; after all coffee, tea and even fruits, vegetables and other fluid-y foods count toward your overall intake. Make things simpler by gauging how often you have to pee, Spano said. If you regularly go longer than a few hours without needing to go number one, it’s time to work on that water bottle.
Eat whole carbs, protein and fat at every meal (and snack).
When you get right down to it, balanced eating involves three things: whole carbs, protein and fat — at every meal, Gans said. When eaten together, the three macronutrients (aka nutrients that your body needs in large amounts), carbs, protein and fat fuel your body with an array of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants as well as balance your blood sugar levels, energy and hunger for hours after each meal or mini meal (aka snack).
Plus, if you reach for whole carbs, meaning ones that haven’t been heavily processed, like quinoa, oats, spelt and whole wheat bread, you’ll get a healthy dose of fiber, which promotes satiety, improves digestion and is linked to improved heart health.
Furthermore, most Americans only get about half of the fiber they need each day, Spano said. Another great source of both whole, unprocessed carbs and tons of fiber: fruits and veggies. At every meal, aim to fill half of your plate with produce. Yes, seriously.
Cut down on processed foods.
Eat food, not chemicals. This simple guideline will overhaul your health. Eating whole foods (like those whole carbs we just talked about) over heavily processed ones automatically results in eating less added sugar, sodium, chemical additives, fillers, and other unpronounceable, made-in-labs ingredients. Besides, when you don’t rely on processed foods, you make more room for fruits, veggies, lean meats, dairy, whole grains and other good-for-you foods, Matheny said.
And don’t be fooled by packaged foods sporting labels like “healthy,” “low fat,” “zero trans fat” and “natural,” he said. They are all marketing speak for money. And, whenever food manufacturers take something out of their food formula, be it fat, gluten, or anything else, they add in something else. Usually sugar, salt and more of those unpronounceable chemicals.
Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full.
“The easiest way to eat healthier is to simply decrease your portion sizes by eating according to your true, physiological hunger,” Matheny said. After all, no matter how healthy the menu, most people overeat. They eat because they are bored, sad, celebrating, watching a movie (where’s the popcorn?), or just because food tastes good. After meals, “I’m stuffed” and “who wants to roll me home?” are common refrains.
“At some point, you need to realize that you don’t like feeling like that,” he said. Then, ask yourself, “Am I really hungry?” If you are, eat. If you aren’t don’t. It’s that simple. Ask yourself that question throughout the course of your meal, and put down your fork when you feel slightly satisfied, but not completely full, he said. It takes about 20 to 30 minutes for your brain to receive the signal from your stomach that it’s full.