7 Principles of Healthy Eating

The remedy for eating better isn’t deprivation, blandness, or a rigid diet―it’s incorporating good habits into your life.

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Photo by Con Poulos

The key to eating right and maintaining weight is a plan that fits your life. Consider these points:


1. Know yourself. Some people revel in the art of food preparation. For others, the microwave is a lifesaver. What matters is that you find a healthy way to cook and eat that works for you. If you love a large, sit-down dinner, for example, ignore conventional wisdom that says it's best to eat lots of small meals (just be sure not to snack all day if you plan to feast at night).

Knowing yourself also means planning for pitfalls. If, say, you often nosh while you work, keep food as far from your desk as possible or bring in a healthy snack from home. If your downfall is salty junk food, don't eat directly from a multiserving package; take out a handful and put the rest away. Slight changes don't feel like sacrifice, says Brian Wansink, a professor of marketing and nutritional science at Cornell University, but they do make a difference: "Eating 200 fewer calories a day can mean 20 pounds of weight lost in a year."

2. Give peas (and peaches) a chance. It's easy to say "Eat more vegetables," but what about people who don't like spinach and broccoli? With a little attention to food prep, even vegephobes should be able to find greens (and oranges and reds) that are appealing. "People, when they cook, focus on the recipe for meat," says Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Then they serve plain steamed broccoli on the side. And that's boring. You need to put the same care into vegetables." Wootan suggests dipping Brussels sprouts in Dijon mustard or sautéing spinach, collards, or Swiss chard with garlic―or bacon. "Why can't we add some of the fat in our diet to our vegetables, or some sweetener to our fruit?" she says. "What's wrong with a little bit of sugar left clinging to a peach?"

Think about using leftover or fresh vegetables in risottos, soups, casseroles, and stews and putting leftovers in breakfast frittatas or pureeing them with olive oil to make a spread or a dip for a sandwich or an appetizer, suggests Laura Pensiero, who cowrote The Strang Cancer Prevention Cookbook ($17, amazon.com) and owns the Gigi Trattoria, in Rhinebeck, New York.

Another benefit of piling on the vegetables is that you can pump up the volume of a meal, even as you trim calories. People tend to eat the same weight of food, not the same number of calories, over the course of a day, says Barbara Rolls, a professor of nutritional sciences at Pennsylvania State University, in University Park. By adding water-rich vegetables and fruits and substituting leaner cuts of meat in a recipe, you can create lower-calorie, healthier meals--and trick yourself into thinking you're eating as much as you always have.

Finally, if chopping broccoli or picking through raspberries isn't your thing, buy frozen. You get the same nutrients without the hassle.


3. Eat less meat. The mainstays of a healthy diet should be grains, nuts, and seeds, as well as nonstarchy vegetables and fruits, rather than meat. Whole grains (oatmeal, brown rice, whole-wheat bread) provide fiber, which aids the digestive system and makes you feel fuller, and B vitamins, which can boost energy and aid metabolism. Nuts and seeds contain nutrients, such as vitamin E in almonds and sunflower seeds, that are otherwise hard to come by. Legumes―including beans, soybeans, peanuts, and lentils―provide fiber, too, along with protein, iron, folate, and other nutrients. Replacing meat with legumes as a protein source is a good strategy for reducing saturated-fat intake.

It's easier than you think to work these foods into your day. Open up a can of kidney beans or chickpeas and add them to soup, chili, or pasta. Or try a bowl of fortified breakfast cereal, 1 1/2 ounces of shelled sunflower seeds on a salad, or two ounces of almonds. You'll be one of the less than 3 percent of Americans who get the recommended daily dose of vitamin E.

4. Separate your fats. When it comes to fats, there's perhaps no other area of nutrition in which researchers have learned so much and confused so many consumers in the process. What you need to know is this: Fat has more calories per gram than carbohydrates or protein, so if you're trying to maintain or lose weight, limit the amount of fat you eat. That said, not all fats affect the body equally. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are the "good" fats; they're found in nut and vegetable oils and oily fish, such as salmon, trout, and herring. They don't raise blood cholesterol levels and may even reduce the risk of cardiovascular problems. According to the American Heart Association, eating seafood with omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon and sardines, twice a week may reduce the risk of certain forms of heart disease.

Saturated and trans fats, also known as the "bad" fats, are found in dairy and beef products and palm and coconut oils. The more of them you eat, the higher your risk of cardiovascular disease. Trans fats are also found in French fries and many commercially baked products, such as cookies and crackers, but are becoming less common. After the U.S. Food and Drug Administration mandated that companies list trans fats on food labels, some restaurants, like Wendy's and Red Lobster, reduced their use, and many manufacturers have reformulated products to get rid of trans fats altogether. (Be aware, however, that many of those products now contain saturated fats instead.)


5. Watch those portions. Even as you try to eat foods that are loaded with nutrients, pay attention to the overall amount you consume. Brian Wansink, a professor of marketing and nutritional science at Cornell University, explains that people have three measures of satiety: starving, could eat more, and full. "Most of the time, we're in the middle," he says. "We're neither hungry nor full, but if something is put in front of us, we'll eat it." He suggests announcing out loud, "I'm not really hungry, but I'm going to eat this anyway." This could be enough to deter you, or to inspire you to eat less.

Restaurants bring challenges, because portions are huge and tend to be high in fat and sodium. "Eating out has become a big part of our diet, about a third of our calories," says Wootan. "When eating out, we should apply the same strategies we do at home―not on your birthday, but on a Tuesday night when there's no time to cook." One strategy: Share an entrée. You'll eat a healthier portion size and also save money.

6. Eat, don't drink, your calories. Beverages don't fill you up in the same way that foods do: Studies have shown that people eat the same amount whether or not they wash down their food with a 150-calorie drink. And most beverages don't contribute many nutrients.

In fact, all you really need is water, says Barry Popkin, head of the division of nutrition epidemiology at the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill. "In a historical context," says Popkin, aside from breast milk, "we drank only water in the first 190,000 years of our existence.

7. Limit packaged foods and read labels. Many nutritionists recommend shopping the perimeter of a supermarket, where fresh foods, such as fruits and vegetables, are usually sold, and avoiding highly processed foods, which tend to be found in boxes in the center aisles. But you may find it hard to resist the core of the store, with its convenient treats and processed foods. Just be aware that three-quarters of the sodium and most of the trans fats and added sugar Americans ingest come from packaged foods.

The trick is to turn a blind eye to all the enticing claims on the fronts of packages―low-fat, low-net-carbs, zero trans fats!―as some are empty, some are unregulated, and some are misleading. Instead, cast a critical eye over the nutrition-facts box. Look first at calories, saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium. Saturated fat and sodium are presented in grams and milligrams, respectively, and as a percentage of the recommended limit of what we should eat in a day; calories and trans fats are listed simply as amounts. If the numbers seem high, check out a few competing products to see if you can do better. Note that you may need to multiply if there's more than one serving in a package and you realistically expect to eat two or three servings. Also read the figures for fiber, magnesium, potassium, calcium, and vitamins A, C, and E. These are the nutrients you need to be eating more of every day.