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Eating Healthy: 7 Simple Tips for Getting Started Today

Dec. 29, 2021 - Katie McCallum

Let's cut right to the chase: Adopting a healthy diet isn't as easy as it sounds.

Understanding "the why" of eating healthy usually isn't the issue, though. You know it can help you live longer and reduce your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity. It can also help manage existing diabetes and prevent complications from other chronic conditions, like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and atherosclerosis. In some cases, eating a healthy diet can even eliminate the need for medications that help control these issues.

No, it's not the why of dieting that's complicated — it's the how.

How do you start eating healthy and, maybe even harder, how do you keep doing it day in and day out?

Fortunately, Emma Willingham, clinical dietitian at Houston Methodist, is here with a guide for how to start eating healthy.

1. Know what a healthy diet looks like

"A healthy diet is an eating pattern that provides nourishment, balance, satisfaction and can be consistently followed long-term," says Willingham. "Because we're overwhelmed with messaging about dieting these days, I like to use the term 'eating pattern' instead of diet since it helps emphasize the need for consistency to reap health benefits."

In addition, Willingham points out that a healthy eating pattern encourages fueling your body throughout the day by not skipping meals and does not eliminate food groups.

Healthy eating emphasizes:

  • Nonstarchy vegetables, such as dark leafy greens, tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, onions, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, cucumbers, fresh herbs, carrots
  • Whole fruit, fresh or frozen, as well as canned fruit packed in water or its own juice
  • Whole grains, such as whole wheat bread and pasta, whole oats, brown rice and quinoa
  • Lean proteins, including poultry, seafood and lean cuts of meat (tenderloin, round, chuck and sirloin)
  • Calcium-rich foods, such as low-fat milk products
  • Protective, unsaturated fats, like avocados, nuts, seeds, oily fish, and olive or canola oil

Eating healthy also means choosing these whole foods over processed, packaged ones more often than not.

"The saturated fat, added sugar and salt found in processed foods add flavor to your plate and can help food last longer, but they don't offer any additional vitamins or minerals beneficial to your health," says Willingham.

Essentially, they add calories without any extra benefit. Yikes.

"In addition, high intake of salt, added sugar and saturated fat can greatly increase your risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes," Willingham warns.

2. Remove blockers to healthy eating

"The hardest part about eating healthy is being consistent," says Willingham. "Life happens and barriers arise that challenge consistency, making it a lot easier to revert to old habits instead of figuring out how to adapt."

One of the biggest challenges to achieving this consistency is that many people view a "healthy" or "nutritious" eating plan as one that's very restrictive. Willingham stresses that this shouldn't be the case.

"No foods are off limits. All foods fit, there are just some foods we want to choose more often and other foods we want to consume in moderation," explains Willingham. "Thinking about food through an all-or-nothing lens makes it harder to establish consistent habits."

She also warns that relying on a scale to measure progress is another common blocker to sticking with a healthy eating pattern.

"The number we see on the scale serves as a single snapshot, not the full picture," says Willingham. "You can use the scale as a data point, but make sure to assess the way your clothes fit, the way that you look in the mirror and the way that you feel."

3. Set realistic goals if you're trying to lose weight

People often start thinking about eating healthy when they want to lose weight. This is great, since a healthy weight can be a fantastic indicator of overall health. But Willingham points out that it's not just about losing fat.

"For weight loss to be accomplished in the healthiest way, it's best to maintain your muscle mass while losing weight, even though this results in slower weight loss," explains Willingham.

Achieving healthy weight loss takes setting the right goal, and *spoiler* a scale alone doesn't provide the level of detail needed to measure your progress.

"The numbers on a scale don't tell you anything about your body composition — how much of your weight is muscle mass versus fat mass," says Willingham. "Plus, it's not helpful to look at one measurement of weight. We want to watch the trend over time — from weeks to months — as an indicator of your progress toward your goal."

Instead of simply identifying a target weight, choose a more relevant wellness goal, like becoming more mobile, going down a clothing size or even one as simple as feeling healthier.

"Don't view the numbers on a scale as synonymous with your health. There are many things that weight loss can help you improve that can't be measured on a scale," Willingham adds.

4. Get help in creating a healthy eating plan that's right for you

When it comes to an eating plan, there are plenty of trendy diets out there: Keto, Whole30, intermittent fasting and the list goes on.

But are these diet programs the right way to approach healthy eating?

"Restrictive diets may help you achieve short-term weight loss, but they're usually not helpful in creating long-term lifestyle behaviors that improve your overall health," explains Willingham. "They often eliminate entire food groups, which can damage your relationship with food and create unnecessary food fear."

Skip the popular diets and start simple by emphasizing the healthy foods above and reducing the not-so-healthy alternatives you might be used to choosing.

And if you're struggling to adopt a healthy eating pattern, get help from a dietitian. He or she can help offer the tailored guidance, tips and tricks needed to help you form lasting habits.

A dietitian can also advise you on how many calories you should be eating per day to meet your weight loss or weight maintenance goals. Calorie intake is determined based on height, weight, sex, age and activity level — making it complicated to determine on your own at home.

5. Know how to eat healthy when dining out or ordering in

There's eating healthy at home, and then there's eating healthy when you're not at home — which becomes considerably more difficult.

"It's always helpful to skim the menu before going to a restaurant. We are more likely to order impulsively and not be as mindful or strategic with our choices when ordering in the moment," says Willingham. "Look and plan ahead."

And, as mentioned, nothing is off limits. Willingham's next piece of advice is to make healthy adjustments to that less-than-healthy dish you want.

"You can always alter a menu item, such as asking for a different protein, dressing on the side or swapping a starchy side for a vegetable," Willingham recommends. "Try to always include some type of colorful veggie on your plate."

And one last tip, eat your veggies before the rest of your entrée — this can help from both an appetite and digestive perspective.

6. Snack smart to stay full between meals

Another time when it's easy to make not-so-healthy food choices is between meals.

"If we're not prepared, it becomes harder to select the better options, especially when we're in a hurry," adds Willingham. "When choosing snacks, try to select a snack that contains a variety of food groups — which will be more filling and satisfying."

She also recommends packing snacks for work or if you know you'll be away from the house for a while.

Here are Willingham's healthy snack recommendations:

  • Low-fat Greek yogurt with fruit
  • Low-sugar, ready-to-drink protein shake with a handful of nuts
  • Low-fat string cheese with a cup of grapes
  • Raw vegetables with hummus
  • Hard-boiled egg with avocado

7. Be patient with yourself

Whether you hit a roadblock as you're just getting started or when the holidays come around, know that adopting a healthy eating pattern takes patience, compromise and balance

"I strongly recommend against approaching food with an all-or-nothing mentality! We want to think of healthy eating on a spectrum, not as being black or white," says Willingham.

Instead, she recommends approaching healthy eating like you would a traffic light:

  • Green light = whole, healthful foods you choose most often
  • Yellow light = less healthy foods you choose less often
  • Red light = not-so-healthy foods you choose least often

"Try to gauge where a particular food falls in helping you achieve your health goals, keeping in mind that there is room for 'fun foods' that might not be as healthy but nourish you by connecting you to familial memories," says Willingham.

And remember, if you get stuck, a dietitian can be your guide to forming lasting healthy eating habits.

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