Easy Tips for Planning a Healthy Diet and Sticking to It

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Healthy eating is not about strict dietary limitations, staying unrealistically thin, or depriving yourself of the foods you love. Rather, it’s about feeling great, having more energy, and stabilizing your mood. If you feel overwhelmed by all the conflicting nutrition and diet advice out there, you’re not alone. It seems that for every expert who tells you a certain food is good for you, you’ll find another saying exactly the opposite. But by using these simple tips, you can cut through the confusion and learn how to create a tasty, varied, and healthy diet.

Healthy eating tip 1: Set yourself up for success

To set yourself up for success, think about planning a healthy diet as a number of small, manageable steps rather than one big drastic change. If you approach the changes gradually and with commitment, you will have a healthy diet sooner than you think.

Think of water and exercise as food groups in your diet.

Water. Water helps flush our systems of waste products and toxins, yet many people go through life dehydrated—causing tiredness, low energy, and headaches. It’s common to mistake thirst for hunger, so staying well hydrated will also help you make healthier food choices.

Exercise. Find something active that you like to do and add it to your day, just like you would add healthy greens, blueberries, or salmon. The benefits of lifelong exercise are abundant and regular exercise may even motivate you to make healthy food choices a habit.

Healthy eating tip 2: Moderation is key

Harvard Healthy Eating Plate

People often think of healthy eating as an all or nothing proposition, but a key foundation for any healthy diet is moderation. But what is moderation? In essence, it means eating only as much food as your body needs. You should feel satisfied at the end of a meal, but not stuffed. Moderation is also about balance. Despite what certain fad diets would have you believe, we all need a balance of carbohydrates, protein, fat, fiber, vitamins, and minerals to sustain a healthy body.

The goal of healthy eating is to develop a diet that you can maintain for life, not just a few weeks or months, or until you've hit your ideal weight. For most of us, that means eating less than we do now. More specifically, it means eating far less of the unhealthy stuff (refined sugar, saturated fat, for example) and replacing it with the healthy (such as fresh fruit and vegetables). But it doesn't mean eliminating the foods you love. Eating bacon for breakfast once a week, for example, could be considered moderation if you follow it with a healthy lunch and dinner—but not if you follow it with a box of donuts and a sausage pizza. If you eat 100 calories of chocolate one afternoon, balance it out by deducting 100 calories from your evening meal. If you're still hungry, fill up with an extra serving of fresh vegetables.

Healthy eating tip 3: It's not just what you eat, it's how you eat

Healthy eating is about more than the food on your plate—it is also about how you think about food. Healthy eating habits can be learned and it is important to slow down and think about food as nourishment rather than just something to gulp down in between meetings or on the way to pick up the kids.

Healthy eating tip 4: Fill up on colorful fruits and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are the foundation of a healthy diet. They are low in calories and nutrient dense, which means they are packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber.

Try to eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables every day and with every meal—the brighter the better. Colorful, deeply colored fruits and vegetables contain higher concentrations of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants—and different colors provide different benefits, so eat a variety. Aim for a minimum of five portions each day.

Some great choices include:

The importance of getting vitamins from food—not pills

The antioxidants and other nutrients in fruits and vegetables help protect against certain types of cancer and other diseases. And while advertisements abound for supplements promising to deliver the nutritional benefits of fruits and vegetables in pill or powder form, research suggests that it’s just not the same.

A daily regimen of nutritional supplements is not going to have the same impact of eating right. That’s because the benefits of fruits and vegetables don’t come from a single vitamin or an isolated antioxidant.

The health benefits of fruits and vegetables come from numerous vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals working together synergistically. They can’t be broken down into the sum of their parts or replicated in pill form.

Healthy eating tip 5: Eat more healthy carbs and whole grains

Choose healthy carbohydrates and fiber sources, especially whole grains, for long lasting energy. In addition to being delicious and satisfying, whole grains are rich in phytochemicals and antioxidants, which help to protect against coronary heart disease, certain cancers, and diabetes. Studies have shown people who eat more whole grains tend to have a healthier heart.

A quick definition of healthy carbs and unhealthy carbs

Healthy carbs (sometimes known as good carbs) include whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables. Healthy carbs are digested slowly, helping you feel full longer and keeping blood sugar and insulin levels stable.

Unhealthy carbs (or bad carbs) are foods such as white flour, refined sugar, and white rice that have been stripped of all bran, fiber, and nutrients. Unhealthy carbs digest quickly and cause spikes in blood sugar levels and energy.

Tips for eating more healthy carbs

Whole Grain Stamp

Avoid: Refined foods such as breads, pastas, and breakfast cereals that are not whole grain.

Healthy eating tip 6: Enjoy healthy fats & avoid unhealthy fats

Good sources of healthy fat are needed to nourish your brain, heart, and cells, as well as your hair, skin, and nails. Foods rich in certain omega-3 fats called EPA and DHA are particularly important and can reduce cardiovascular disease, improve your mood, and help prevent dementia.

Add to your healthy diet:

Reduce or eliminate from your diet:

What is a healthy daily limit for saturated fat and trans fat?

Experts recommend you limit the amount of saturated fats you eat to less than 7 percent of total daily calories. That means, for example, if you need about 2,000 calories a day, no more than 140 of them should come from saturated fats. That’s about 16 grams of saturated fat a day.

No more than 20 of those calories should come from trans fat. That’s less than 2 grams of trans fat a day.  Given the amount of naturally occurring trans fat you probably eat every day, this leaves virtually no room at all for industrially manufactured trans fat.

Source: American Heart Association

Healthy eating tip 7: Put protein in perspective

Protein gives us the energy to get up and go—and keep going. Protein in food is broken down into the 20 amino acids that are the body’s basic building blocks for growth and energy, and essential for maintaining cells, tissues, and organs. While too much protein can be harmful to people with kidney disease, the latest research suggests that most of us need more high-quality protein than the current dietary recommendations. It also suggests that we need more protein as we age to maintain physical function.

How much protein do you need?

Protein needs are based on weight rather than calorie intake.  Adults should eat at least 0.8g of protein per kilogram (2.2lb) of body weight per day. A higher intake may help to lower your risk for obesity, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes, and stroke.

Source: Environmental Nutrition

The key to ensuring you eat high-quality protein is to try different types, avoid red meat and whole milk dairy products which are high in saturated fat.  Trying different healthy protein sources such as fish, beans, nuts, seeds, peas, tofu-fermented , chicken, and fermented-soy products will open up new options for healthy mealtimes.

Good Sources of Protein *

The following is a sampling of high-protein foods—some may not be healthy to eat in anything but moderation. Most red meat is very high in fat, as are whole-milk cheeses and the skin on chicken or turkey. In the U.S., non-organic meat and poultry may also contain antibiotics and hormones.

Aim for sufficient protein intake at each meal—including breakfast—in the leanest and healthiest form.

Food

Serving size

Protein
grams

Sat. fat (g)

Calories

 

FISH

Canned tuna

3.5 oz (100g)

19

0.2

 

86

Wild Caught Salmon

3.5 oz (100g)

21

0.8

130

Halibut

3.5 oz (100g)

23

0.4

111

Fresh tuna

3.5 oz (100g)

30

1.6

184

POULTRY (skinless)

Turkey breast -Free Range

3.5 oz (100g)

31

0.6

147

Chicken breast-Free Range

3.5 oz (100g)

31

1

165

Chicken thigh-Free Range

3.5 oz (100g)

25

2.3

179

Chicken leg

3.5 oz (100g)

24

2.1

174

MEAT

Pork chops

1 chop (145g)

39

5

286

Skirt steak

3.5 oz (100g)

27

4

205

Ground beef (70% lean)

3.5 oz (100g)

14

11

332

Leg of lamb

3.5 oz (100g)

26

6.9

258

Cured ham

3.5 oz (100g)

23

9

178

LEGUMES

Soy beans Non GMO

1/3 cup (100g)

17

1.3

173

Kidney beans

1/3 cup (100g)

10

0

123

Black beans

1/3 cup (100g)

9

0.1

132

Baked beans (canned)

1/3 cup (100g)

5

0

94

Peas

1/3 cup (100g)

8

0

118

MILK & EGGS

NUT milks

1/2 cup (100g)

3.4

0

34

Soy milk

1/2 cup (100g)

3.3

0.2

54

Eggs-Cage Free

2 boiled (100g)

13

3.3

155

Egg white

3 eggs (100g)

11

0

52

CHEESE -Vegan






















NUTS & SEEDS






Almonds

1/4 cup (28g)

6

1

167

Pistachios

1/4 cup (28g)

6

1

159

Sunflower seeds

1/4 cup (28g)

6

2

166

Flaxseed

1/4 cup (28g)

5

1

150

OTHER PROTEIN OPTIONS

Veggie burger

1 patty (100g)

23

2

219

Tofu-Fermented

3.5 oz (100g)

7

0.3

55

High-protein cereal

1 cup (50g)

13

1

160

Greek yogurt (non-fat)

1/2 cup (100g)

10

0

59

Whey protein powder

1/3 cup (32g)

19

0.2

120

* Nutrition values are approximate only; significant variations occur according to brand, cut of meat, cooking method, etc.

Healthy eating tip 8: Add calcium for strong bones

Calcium is one of the key nutrients that your body needs in order to stay strong and healthy. It is an essential building block for lifelong bone health in both men and women, as well as many other important functions. Only plant based calcium.

You and your bones will benefit from eating plenty of calcium-rich foods, limiting foods that deplete your body’s calcium stores, and getting your daily dose of magnesium and vitamins D and K—nutrients that help calcium do its job.

Recommended calcium levels are 1000 mg per day, 1200 mg if you are over 50 years old. Try to get as much of your daily calcium needs from food as possible and use only plant based calcium supplements to make up any shortfall.

Good sources of calcium include:

Healthy eating tip 9: Limit sugar and salt

If you succeed in planning your diet around fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and good fats, you may find yourself naturally cutting back on foods that can get in the way of your healthy diet—sugar and salt.

Sugar

Sugar causes energy ups and downs and can add to health and weight problems. Unfortunately, reducing the amount of candy, cakes, and desserts we eat is only part of the solution. Often you may not even be aware of the amount of sugar you’re consuming each day. Large amounts of added sugar can be hidden in foods such as bread, canned soups and vegetables, pasta sauce, margarine, instant mashed potatoes, frozen dinners, fast food, soy sauce, and ketchup. Here are some tips:

How sugar is hidden on food labels

Check food labels carefully. Sugar is often disguised using terms such as:

  • cane sugar or maple syrup

  • corn sweetener or corn syrup

  • honey or molasses

  • brown rice syrup

  • crystallized or evaporated cane juice

  • fruit juice concentrates, such as apple or pear

  • maltodextrin (or dextrin)

  • Dextrose, Fructose, Glucose, Maltose, or Sucrose



Salt

Celtic,Sea Salt, Pink Salt, Aztec Salt

Most of us consume too much salt in our diets. Eating too much salt can cause high blood pressure and lead to other health problems. Try to limit sodium intake to 1,500 to 2,300 mg per day, the equivalent of one teaspoon of salt.

Healthy eating tip 10: Bulk up on fiber

Eating foods high in dietary fiber can help you stay regular, lower your risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, and help you lose weight. Depending on your age and gender, nutrition experts recommend you eat at least 21 to 38 grams of fiber per day for optimal health. Many of us aren't eating half that amount.

How fiber can help you lose weight

Since fiber stays in the stomach longer than other foods, the feeling of fullness will stay with you much longer, helping you eat less. Eating plenty of fiber can also move fat through your digestive system at a faster rate so that less of it can be absorbed. And when you fill up on high-fiber foods, you'll also have more energy for exercising.

To learn more, read: Fiber: The Essential Guide

More help for healthy eating

Resources and references

Healthy eating: carbs and protein

What is protein? – Information about what foods have protein and what happens when we eat more protein than we need. (Center for Disease Control)

Protein: Moving Closer to Center Stage – Article examines protein and health, and how not all protein is the same. (Harvard School of Public Health)

Optimal Dietary Protein Intake in Older People – New evidence that shows older adults need more dietary protein than do younger adults. (JAMDA)

Environmental Nutrition Newsletter (subscription required) – June 2014 issue includes information on latest guidelines for suggested daily protein intake. (Environmental Nutrition)

Healthy eating: fat

Face the Fats – (PDF) Describes the complicated relationship between good fats, bad fats, and various diseases. (Nutrition Action Healthletter)

Omega-3 Fats: An Essential Contribution - What Should You Eat... – All about health benefits of the important omega-3 fatty acids, including the best food sources in which to find them. (Harvard School of Public Health)

Saturated or not: Does type of fat matter? – Article that outlines the health values of different fats. (Harvard School of Public Health)

Essential food groups in a healthy diet

Healthy Eating Plate And Healthy Eating Pyramid – The U.S. government has scrapped its MyPyramid icon in favor of the fruit-and-vegetable rich MyPlate—an improvement, yet one that still doesn't go far enough to show people how to make the healthiest choices. This is Harvard’s remedy. (Harvard School of Public Health)

The World’s Healthiest Foods – Using the theory of nutrient density - a measure of the amount of nutrients a food contains in comparison to the number of calories – this site lists the 129 most healthy foods. (The George Mateljan Foundation)

Vegetarian Diet – How to get the best nutrition for non-meat eaters. (Mayo Clinic)

Healing Foods Pyramid – Emphasizes foods known to have healing benefits or essential nutrients, including plant-based choices. (University of Michigan)

Eating smart: a key step to healthy eating

Mastering the mindful meal – Describes the importance of mindful eating, along with tips on how to eat more mindfully. (Brigham & Women’s Hospital)

The role of sugar and salt in a healthy diet

Sodium Content of Your Food – How sodium affects your body and how to cut down on dietary sodium. Included tips on reading nutrition labels, and suggestions for cooking and shopping. (University of Maine – PDF)

Sugar Stacks – Photos showing the amount of sugar in different foods. (Sugar Stacks)

Public Health Takes Aim at Sugar and Salt – Article detailing evidence that too much of these ingredients can harm health. (Harvard School of Public Health)

Other tips and strategies for a healthy eating plan

Living the MediterrAsian Way – People in Mediterranean and Asian cultures have long been known for their healthy diets and longevity. Here's how you can incorporate their dietary principles and lifestyle practices into your own life. (Mediterrasian.com)

Ten Tips Nutrition Education Series – A collection of tip sheets on healthy eating subjects like cutting back on sugar and salt, following a vegetarian diet and adding vegetables to your diet. (My Pyramid Nutrition Education Series)

Nutrition Data (commercial site) – Provides searchable database of nutrition labels for many different foods, including restaurant items. (Self.com)

Meal planning and stocking the kitchen

Stocking a Healthy Kitchen – The basics on stocking a healthy kitchen and cooking easy, delicious and nutritious meals. (Harvard School of Public Health Nutrition Source)

Local Harvest – Information about finding local growers, farmer’s markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) groups in your area.

The Well-Stocked Pantry – List of basics for a well-stocked kitchen and sample meal plans focused on adding more vegetables and fruits to your diet. (Fruits and Veggies More Matters)

Authors: Maya W. Paul, Melinda Smith, M.A. and Jeanne Segal Ph.D. Last updated: November 2014.