Developing healthy eating habits isn’t as confusing or as restrictive as many people imagine. The essential steps are to eat mostly foods derived from plants—vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes (such as beans and lentils), and nuts—and limit highly processed foods. If you eat animal foods, you can add in some dairy products, fish, poultry, and lean meat. Studies show that people who eat this way have a reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, and possibly cancer and other chronic diseases. Here are our guidelines for building a healthy diet.
Eat a variety of healthy foods
Healthy food variety
Not all the nutrients and other substances that contribute to good health have been identified, so eating a wide assortment of healthy whole foods like fruits and vegetables helps ensure that you get all of the health-promoting benefits that foods can offer. If your diet, day after day, consists of the same half dozen foods, it could fall short. In addition, varying your food choices will limit your exposure to any pesticides or toxic substances that might be present in particular foods.
Focus on high-fiber foods
Yogurt, granola, seeds, fresh, dry fruits and honey in a bowl
These foods—notably vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains—should supply about 20 to 35 grams of dietary fiber a day, depending on your calorie needs. (Aim for 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories, as advised by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.) Fiber slows the absorption of carbohydrates, so they have less effect on insulin and blood sugar, and it provides other health benefits. Try to fill three-quarters of your plate with produce, legumes, and whole grains—leaving only one-quarter for meat, poultry, or other protein sources.
Eat lots of produce
Mixed berries and greens
For a 2,000-calorie daily diet, aim for 2½ cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit a day. If you consume more calories, aim for more produce; if you consume fewer calories, you can eat less. Include green, orange, red, blue/purple, and yellow vegetables and fruits. In addition to the fiber, the nutrients and phytochemicals in these foods may help protect against certain types of cancer and other diseases. Legumes, rich in fiber, can count as vegetables (though they have more calories than most vegetables). For more fiber, choose whole fruits over juice.
Limit sugary foods and beverages and refined grains
Mini chocolate muffins
These include soda, candy, white bread, regular pasta, and many snack foods and baked goods. A high intake of added sugar increases inflammation and insulin resistance, increasing the risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other disorders—and it supplies “empty” calories that contribute to weight gain. Refined grain products have little dietary fiber and have been stripped of many nutrients; a high intake can cause many of the same health problems as added sugar.
Go for whole grains
Loaf whole wheat bread.
At least half your grains should be whole grains, such as whole wheat, oats, barley, or brown rice. Whole grains retain the bran and germ and thus all (or nearly all) of the nutrients and fiber of the grain. One sure way of finding whole grains is to look for a product labeled “100% whole wheat” or “100%” of some other whole grain. You can also look for a whole grain listed as the first ingredient, though there still may be lots of refined wheat in the product. Another option is to look for the voluntary “Whole Grain Stamp” from the Whole Grains Council. Or try this tip: Look for less than a 10-to-1 ratio of “total carbohydrates” to “fiber” on the nutrition label.