Social media and the internet are saturated with fad diets, supplements, and “superfoods” that are all supposed to be the key to “eating healthy.”
Plus, there is conflicting information that changes over time: first butter is bad for you, and now it’s supposed to go in your coffee?
If you’re like a lot of my new clients, you’re probably confused about what “eating healthy” really means.
Let me break it down for you:
Eating healthy is not complicated or hard; eating healthy does not require you to cut out your favorite foods, stop eating after a certain time, or eliminate entire food groups. You can start eating healthy today by simply incorporating more nutrient-dense foods into your diet.
It can feel overwhelming when you try to change too much at one time, so I’ve written this article to share simple tips that you can start implementing today that will improve your eating habits.
- Healthy eating involves eating minimally processed foods, understanding how much food you need based on your goals, and practicing mindful eating.
- You can improve your health and wellness through healthy eating by making small changes over time, rather than attempting a complete overhaul of your diet.
- To stick to healthy eating long-term it’s important to develop new habits, ask for support when you need it, and remember why you started in the first place.
What Does Healthy Eating Look Like?
Healthy eating doesn’t have to be complicated. Author Michael Pollan summed it up quite well in his book “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto”:
“Eat [real] food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”– Michael Pollan, American Author
However, most people need more guidance than this to feel confident that they’re on the right track when it comes to eating healthy.
Healthy eating is about what you eat, how much you eat, how you eat, and putting it all together in a balanced way.
What You Eat
What you eat matters because it determines the quality of the food that you’re consuming, which determines whether your body is getting all the nutrients it needs to function optimally or not.
I encourage my clients to eat more real food to get the most nutrients to fuel their bodies. I add the word “real” to point out that foods should be reasonably close to their natural state, meaning they’ve undergone minimal processing.
These days it’s easy to confuse “real food” with hyper-palatable, highly processed “food products”.
Here are two prime examples:
A ripe tomato is a minimally processed food, whereas tomato ketchup is a processed food product.
A baked potato has undergone just a few processing steps: harvesting, cleaning, and baking; whereas a Pringles potato chip has been ground down into potato flour and then combined with other ingredients, formed into a stackable chip shape, and deep-fried and packaged.
Healthy eating involves having the majority of your intake come from minimally processed whole foods (I’ll provide a list later on for you to reference for inspiration).
How Much You Eat
There are lots of apps and calculators out there to try to tell you how much to eat, but your body is the best calculator there is.
Learning to listen to your body for guidance on when to eat and how much to eat is a skill; one that I recommend everyone practice.
If your goal is to lose weight, then you should be able to tune in to hunger and fullness cues to stop eating when you still feel just a little bit hungry, but satisfied.
If your goal is to gain weight, then you’ll need to eat a bit more; recognizing when you’re just beyond comfortably full, but not bursting at the seams.
Healthy Eating is being able to listen to your body and adjust your intake based on your goals.
How You Eat
How you eat is just as important as what you eat because ravenously wolfing down food, even if they’re “superfoods”, doesn’t give your body the best opportunity to actually digest and benefit from the nutrients in those foods.
Mindlessly snacking while you’re doing other activities, like watching TV, makes it easy to overeat before you’ve even noticed it, making it hard to achieve the “how much” principle described above.
Instead, I recommend you minimize distractions at meal times by putting away screens and devices and focusing solely on your meal. This will improve digestion and give you time to realize when you’ve had the right amount of food.
Healthy Eating looks like mindful eating rather than mindless eating. Aim to stay present, slow down, enjoy your food, and chew your food thoroughly.
Related Article: Want To Improve Your Digestion? Do These 5 Things Every Day
The goal is for each meal or snack to give you a balance of the macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins & minerals) that your body needs to feel and function at its best.
Then, this meal or snack will be eaten and enjoyed slowly and mindfully, with minimal or no distractions as described above.
Aim to make each meal or snack a combination of a lean source of protein, a source of complex carbohydrates, vegetables and/or fruits, and a healthful source of fat.
To help you learn what minimally processed foods provide these macronutrients, I’ve provided a grocery shopping list for you later in the article.
Related Article: Best Single Macro Foods (Complete List + PDF Download)
Benefits Of Healthy Eating
There are numerous benefits to healthy eating, which are outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Some of these benefits include:
- May help you live longer
- Keeps skin, teeth, and eyes healthy
- Supports muscles
- Boosts immunity
- Strengthens bones
- Lower risk of certain diseases and health conditions
- Helps the digestive system function
- Helps achieve and maintain a healthy weight
The food you eat directly impacts your health and wellness so learning to eat healthy is a huge step toward improving your quality of life. There’s no better time to start than right now.
5 Tips To Start Eating Healthy
Here are 5 simple tips to begin your journey of healthy eating. Just like any journey, you only have to start with a single step.
1. Do A Kitchen Clean Out
To start, it can be helpful to get rid of (or at least minimize) the foods that you know aren’t helping you to eat healthier. These are the foods that you feel you have no self-control around that are always causing you to overeat.
Dr. John Berardi (Founder of Precision Nutrition) has coined “Berardi’s First Law,” which states:
“If a food is in your possession or located in your residence, either you, someone you love, or someone you marginally tolerate will eventually eat it.”– Dr. John Berardi, Founder of Precision Nutrition
So, reduce the temptation to eat highly processed foods by getting them out of your fridge, freezer, and pantry.
This can mean packaged cookies, chips, candy and crackers, sweetened sodas and juices, ice cream, and other foods you would generally call “junk food”.
If you hate the idea of food going to waste, see what you can give to coworkers, family, and friends. You can donate them to a local food bank if the products are still sealed and before their expiration date.
This doesn’t mean you can’t eat these foods ever again; it just means that you’re taking a step back to focus on adding in more nutrient-dense foods to find your groove before figuring out how to incorporate them.
2. Stock For Success
Now that your kitchen has been stripped of the foods that won’t improve your health, it’s time to fill it with the minimally processed whole foods that will improve your health.
Prepare a grocery list (get inspiration from our list, below) and head to the grocery store or use an online grocery shopping app.
Online grocery shopping is one of my favorite things to do because it saves me time and I can search for the things I want, without getting distracted by the processed foods on display at the end of the grocery aisles.
With online grocery shopping, I save time and money, AND I’m more likely to buy only healthy foods – it’s a win-win-win!
That said, if shopping online isn’t your thing, then you can set yourself up for success in-store by vowing to stick to your list and reminding yourself that there will be a time and place for the foods that may look tempting.
My clients and I tend to have the best success when we shop once or twice a week, getting enough food to cover meals for the week ahead.
This forces you to plan ahead, ensures you have lots of healthy foods on-hand, and saves time compared to multiple trips each week.
3. Learn To Cook
Having a bunch of healthy foods in your kitchen still won’t help you if you don’t know how to cook those foods or prepare them in an appetizing way.
You don’t have to become a gourmet chef overnight, but you can learn some basic cooking skills like how to cook a pot of grains, how to cook meats in a few different ways (baking, grilling, poaching, and stir-frying), and how to prepare vegetables in a few different ways (raw, steamed, boiled or roasted).
YouTube has lots of great tutorials for those who want to learn to prepare meals that taste great.
On nights when you don’t feel like cooking (we all have those), you can take advantage of more convenient options like microwavable brown rice, pre-cooked rotisserie chicken, and bagged salad.
Learning how to prepare meals that taste great is a key to long-term success because if you enjoy the meals that you’re eating, then you’re more likely to keep eating healthy.
If you hate the taste of your meals, then you’re more likely to throw in the towel and go back to your old habits and food choices.
4. Start Small
Trying to change everything all at once can be overwhelming and can lead to failure, which is why I encourage my clients to start small by focusing on one change at a time.
When you’re first starting to eat healthier, consider which meals feel easiest for you to change, and start there.
For example, maybe you have more time in the evening to devote to preparing and cooking a healthy dinner. Or, maybe that’s the worst time because you’re juggling activities and extracurriculars for yourself and/or family members like kids’ sports.
Consider your own schedule and priorities and pick the best meal for you.
Or, maybe it’s not even a meal, maybe it’s an element of a meal.
- If you have orange juice with your breakfast, consider eating a whole orange instead
- If you normally have sweetened yogurt, try getting plain yogurt and adding fresh fruit
- If you don’t normally have vegetables at lunch, try adding a handful of baby carrots or other vegetables that you like
5. Build On Success
Once you’ve successfully implemented one small change for at least a week, congratulate yourself! Consider what your next change will be, while you sustain the original change.
Maybe you’ve gotten in the habit of putting away your phone during dinner, so next you challenge yourself to eat lunch away from your desk, without checking emails.
Your new behaviors will feel easier and more automatic the more that you do them. As long as you’re consistent, one day you will wake up and find out that eating healthy is simply a habit.
Healthy Eating Grocery Guide
One of my favorite healthy grocery shopping tips is “shop the perimeter.” But what does that mean?
Your average grocery store is laid out with “real foods” around the perimeter of the store, such as the produce section, the meat counter, the dairy fridges, and the bakery.
As Nurse Practitioner Joan Shepherd explains:
“Most foods in the middle of the store that have an extended shelf life are likely to contain trans fats and unhealthy carbohydrates.”– Joan R. Shepherd, NP
In general, the center aisles of the store have more of the processed food products but there are some exceptions.
For example, whole grains and bags of dried legumes are healthful sources of complex carbohydrates, fiber, and plant-based protein, but you will find them in the center aisles.
To help you identify healthy foods, which macronutrient category they fall into, and where to find them I’ve put together this grocery store cheat sheet for healthy eating:
The meat & seafood departments can be a great place to get:
- Beef (extra lean ground beef or lean cuts of steak like flank steak or tenderloin – steer clear of fattier, marbled cuts like rib eye which are high in saturated fat)
- Chicken (ground chicken, breasts or thighs, or whole chickens)
You can also get animal-based protein in the dairy section with:
- Cheese (soft cheeses like cottage cheese, ricotta, or goat cheese, and hard cheeses like mozzarella or cheddar)
- Yogurt (especially Greek yogurt)
- Eggs and egg whites
Plant-based protein will come from legumes that you will find in the center aisles:
- Black beans
- Kidney beans
- Navy beans
- Pinto beans
- Soy beans
- Split peas
Carbohydrates have gotten a bad reputation for being fattening, but that is often because when people think of carbs, they think of refined carbohydrates like sugar and processed grains that are included in processed foods like chips, cookies, candy, and cake.
The slow-digesting, complex carbohydrates in whole foods like starchy vegetables and whole grains are an important part of eating healthy.
Complex carbs can be found in the produce aisles (starches) or the center isles (grains & legumes)
Look for items like:
- Potatoes, all varieties
- Quinoa (technically a seed, but treated like a grain)
- Rice, all varieties
- Squashes (acorn, buttercup, butternut, kabocha, and more)
- Sweet potato
- Whole wheat
Vegetables & Fruits
Don’t be shy when it comes to picking fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables in the produce section. Aim to get the whole rainbow of colors, including fruits and vegetables such as:
- Bell peppers
- Spaghetti Squash
- Green beans
Related Article: 5 Simple Ways to Eat More Vegetables Every Day And Improve Your Health
Healthy fats add flavor to your meals and also help to reduce inflammation and balance your hormones. Some healthy options include:
- Olive oil, Avocado oil, Coconut Oil
- Grass-Fed Butter
- Brazil Nuts
- Chia Seeds
- Flax Seeds
- Hemp Seeds
- Sesame Seeds
- Sunflower Seeds
How To Stick To Healthy Eating Long-Term
Make It A Habit
Sticking to healthy eating long-term is easier when you take the time to build up the habit over many weeks and months. The more consistent you are with your behaviors, the more they become automatic, and not something that requires extra time or energy to think about.
Find Your Motivation
Once you start noticing improvements in your energy, mood, and health measure (i.e. blood pressure, A1C, resting heart rate) from eating healthy, you will be motivated to stick to it.
Make sure to take time to celebrate every win, no matter how small.
If you find yourself struggling, revisit your reasons for starting to eat healthy in the first place because this will serve as a reminder to keep going.
A good way to stick to it in the first weeks is to enlist support from like-minded people. This won’t always be your family and friends, especially if they feel threatened or confused by your change in behavior.
Know that this is common and most of the time when your change in behavior makes people feel uncomfortable it’s because it points out a change they want to make for themselves but aren’t ready to commit to.
If those around you aren’t supportive, seek out a sense of community on an online message board, at a local gym, or cooking class.
You can also get support and accountability from a certified coach.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can You Eat Healthy Without Going On A Diet?
Yes, you can eat healthy without going on a diet. Eating healthy isn’t about restriction; it’s about eating more of what your body needs (whole foods) and less of what it doesn’t (such as added sugars, trans fats, and additives) which can naturally lead to achievement of a healthy body weight.
Can You Eat Healthy On A Budget?
Yes, you can eat healthy on a budget. Buy in bulk and watch for sales and discounts, especially on products you can freeze or store long-term. Frozen vegetables can be less expensive than fresh. Look for local, in-season products which are less expensive than exotic options. Consider a garden or local co-op as well.
Why Is It So Hard To Eat Healthy?
Eating healthy can seem hard at first because the food industry makes hyper-palatable, highly processed food options so easy and affordable. We naturally want to save effort, time and money, and these foods are engineered to make us crave them. Eating healthy can take effort at first, but it is worth it.
About The Author
Lauren Graham is a Precision Nutrition Level 1 certified nutrition coach. She focuses on helping busy professionals balance healthy eating and purposeful movement. Lauren has a background in competitive swimming and is currently competing as a CrossFit athlete. She has a passion for training, teaching, and writing.