6 easy ways to start eating healthy, according to dietitians

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Eating well is a crucial part of a healthy lifestyle and can help ward off conditions like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even some cancers. However, everyone has their own unique health needs, so it’s important to talk with a doctor about what sort of diet is right for you.

In general, consuming a plant-focused diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and sources of protein is healthy for most people. We’ve broken down the basics of healthful eating to help you get started.

Fruits and vegetables contain many vitamins and minerals your body needs, like:

Eating fruits and vegetables can reduce your risk of disease. A large 2018 review found a diet rich in fruits and vegetables reduces markers of inflammation, which is associated with chronic health conditions, like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

The recommended amount of fruits and vegetables you need each day varies based on age, sex, and physical activity. Here is how many servings you should be eating according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA):

For most fruits, a serving size is based on one whole fruit, like one peach, for instance, says Amanda Miller, a registered dietitian from Chicago who specializes in weight loss and medical nutrition therapy. Medium bananas are usually considered two fruit servings and a serving of vegetables is about ½ cup to one cup.

Whole grains include the entire kernel of wheat. Each part of the grain contains important nutrients like:

White or refined grains undergo a process that removes the bran and germ, resulting in a finer texture and improved shelf life, but a loss of fiber and B vitamins, Miller says. Refined grains still contain carbohydrates and protein, but whole grains contain more fiber and micronutrients and offer more health benefits.

A 2020 analysis of randomized controlled trials found consuming whole grains instead of refined grains can improve total cholesterol and lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Most people should aim for at least half of the grains they consume a day to be whole grains, Miller says. The general recommendation is between three and eight ounce-equivalents a day, depending on your age and activity level.

Examples of whole grains include:

Processed foods have been changed from their original form and cooked, packaged, canned, or frozen. Fortifying and preserving these foods can also change their nutritional composition and as a result, heavily processed foods are usually high in calories and low in nutrients.

Examples of heavily processed foods include:

Salt, sugar, and preservatives are usually added to processed foods, which can have negative effects on your health, like an increased risk of heart disease, says Alana Kessler, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant based in New York City.

Two large 2019 European studies found an association between ultra-processed foods, like sugary cereals and baked goods, and cardiovascular disease. Additionally, the World Health Organization classifies processed meats as a carcinogen – a substance capable of causing cancer. Research also links processed meats to diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

To cut down on health risks, Kessler suggests swapping out processed foods for healthier alternatives, like:

Packaged foods are technically processed foods, but that doesn’t mean you need to cut them out entirely, Kessler says. Some packaged foods like frozen fruit and vegetables ensure nutritional quality and can make eating well easier and more convenient.

Portion control is when you eat the recommended serving sizes of foods throughout the day.

Eating incorrect portion sizes can negatively impact weight, metabolism, hormone balance, and energy, Miller says.

Miller suggests these tips for understanding serving sizes and practicing portion control:

Fat is an essential part of a healthy diet, Kessler says. These nutrients help the body maintain metabolism and store energy. But not all types of fat are the same, and some can cause negative health effects.

Omega-3 fatty acids, a type of unsaturated fat, are another essential component of a healthy diet. These are found in fish, flaxseed, and plant oils like canola oil. Omega-3’s help make up the components of cells and support your heart and immune system.

Experts at the National Institutes of Health have not set overall omega-3 daily intake recommendations, but they do recommend adult males get 1.6 grams and adult females get 1.1 grams of ALA a day – a type of omega-3 fatty acid primarily found in plant oils.

An eating plan can help set you up for success. It can include the recommended amount of fruits, vegetables, protein, and grains, how they will be prepared, and when they will be eaten,  Kessler says. Some ways to create a healthy eating plan include:

Healthy eating plans will vary by individual and the right plan for you depends on your overall health, lifestyle, age and level of activity. If you need help creating an eating plan, reach out to your doctor or a registered dietitian.

Eating a nutritious diet can decrease your risk of several chronic conditions, like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. To create a healthy eating plan, aim to fill your plate with ½ fruits and vegetables, ¼ protein, ¼ grains, and limit your intake of heavily processed foods or foods high in saturated fat.

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