8 Healthy Food Rules Nutrition Experts Want You to Follow

Forget what you learned about the food pyramid.

Like fashion and beauty, nutritionists say food trends also change for the better—and as we evolve, so should our eating habits. There's a good chance you're not eating like the generations that came before you, and with good reason.

"In the 1950s, getting your daily amount of red meat paired with a starchy potato and washing it down with a glass of dairy milk was considered the standard of health," says Olivia Audrey, a board-certified doctor of natural medicine and host of the Liv Better podcast. "As science has uncovered the link between chronic inflammation (meat and dairy are both major contributors to inflammation), we've revealed that changing the way we once ate may mean the difference between living longer, healthier lives," Audrey explains. "The food pyramid and standard American diet (SAD) are in dire need of a rehaul to reflect scientific findings and hold food producers to stronger rules for food quality."

Whether a result of diet fads or groundbreaking studies, read on as nutritional experts share what they consider some of the biggest shifts taking place when it comes to how we think about food and offer tips for planning your grocery lists moving forward.

01 of 08

The old rule: Eat five plant foods per day.

Varied Fruits and Vegetables

Mika Knezevic / Stocksy

"Aiming for five fruits and veggies a day can be a good place to start, but we can be creatures of habit, and it's easy to get into a food rut," says Megan Rossi, Ph.D., RD, author of Love Your Gut. "The five-a-day rule largely ignores the needs of the trillions of microbes (including bacteria) living in our gut, as they all have different taste preferences and need a diverse nutrient supply to flourish."

According to Rossi, gut bacteria is linked to the health of pretty much every other organ in the body, including the heart, skin, and brain. "The more diverse your gut microbes become, the more 'skills' they have to train our immune cells, increase our resilience to infection, balance our blood sugar, lower blood fats, and help protect against many diseases."

The New Rule: Aim for 30 a week.

Aim for 30 different types of plants a week across all plant food groups—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes (beans and pulses), nuts and seeds, herbs and spices—suggests Rossi.

"This is what I call The Diversity Diet, my inclusive way of eating for optimal health based on my key principles of gut health and dietary diversity. One of the key studies performed at my clinic demonstrated that people who ate at least 30 different plant-based foods a week had more diverse gut microbes than people who ate less than 10," Rossi explains.

And if you can access more than 30, Rossi says there's no need to stop there: "The more, the merrier."

02 of 08

The old rule: Detox to cleanse your system.

Person Holding a Box Full of Bottled Juices in Various Flavors

The word detox has been used as a buzzword to indicate a deep cleanse, but Rossi says the kidney and liver—the main detoxing organs—do just fine without expensive juice diets or dodgy colon cleanses.

"Juicing gets rid of the gut-loving fiber from your favorite fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, restrictive diets can starve your body and, in the case of very low-carb diets, can ultimately start to build up chemicals called ketones in your body, which can make you feel nauseous, weak, dehydrated, and irritable, and may even lead to more serious issues in the long term," Rossi explains.

Furthermore, Rossi says a drastic reduction in food intake has been associated with a weakening of the immune system. "For most people, that 1200-calorie diet just isn't enough. While detox drinks containing laxatives might make you go to the bathroom and feel lighter, they could also put you at risk of dehydration, nutritional deficiencies, and even make you dependent on them to go number two in the future," Rossi adds.

The New Rule: Opt for whole foods.

"If you want to look after your body so it's well-equipped for its own detoxification, focus on eating a balanced, varied diet rich in fiber, flavor, and plenty of beneficial plant chemicals our gut microbes love," suggests Rossi. "That way, your detoxifying organs can work magic (the science-based kind) on their own—no fancy or expensive 'detoxes' needed!"

03 of 08

The old rule: Stick to the food pyramid.

The USDA MyPlate basic food groups for healthy diet, with a plate of food choices including grains, protein, vegetables, fruits and dairy. This plate pie chart concept replaces the former food pyramid recommendation for guidance on the amount of milk, bread, pasta, chicken and other foods advised for balanced meals.
Getty Images

As catchy as it may be, experts point out that the standard food pyramid many learned about in health class isn't always easy to translate when it comes to organizing your meals.

"Looking at colored lines does not translate easily to actual foods, ingredients, and portion sizes," says Abbie Gellman, MS, RD, CDN, a Jenny Craig Science Advisory Board member. "Depending on the year and which pyramid we look at, some of the data [around the recommended food portions] are also outdated."

The New Rule: Apply the MyPlate method.

Instead, Gellman points to MyPlate, an updated method recommended by the USDA that visualizes how a balanced plate could look.

"It's much easier to understand a plate that is half non-starchy vegetables, one-quarter lean protein, and one-quarter starch," Gellman explains. "This is not foolproof, but it's a better place to start when trying to think about what a healthy diet and healthy meal may look like."

04 of 08

The old rule: Eliminate carbs.

loaf of blueberry bread sliced in a basket with a small plate of butter nearby
Meredith Food Studios

"People often villainize carbs and focus on cutting out the entire macronutrient category when they really should be cutting out refined or simple carbohydrates, such as white flour and white sugar," says Gellman.

Gellman adds that carbohydrates are present in most whole foods—including fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains—which provide energy for our bodies and fuel our brains. "Without complex carbohydrates, we may feel sluggish, foggy, and low energy. An extremely low-carb diet may also lead to ketosis, which means our body does not have enough carbohydrates, so it uses fat for energy instead," Gellman explains.

"There is typically not enough dietary fiber (which only can be found in plants) in a low-carb diet, which may affect GI health and can also contribute to issues such as heart disease, diabetes, and more," Gellman continues. "Additionally, low-carb and keto diets typically result in a higher intake of animal protein, which can increase your overall amount of saturated fat and may lead to issues such as heart disease."

The New Rule: Eat complex carbohydrates.

Steer clear of refined carbohydrates (like those found in sugar, white bread, and white rice), which can spike blood sugar and offer minimal nutrients, Gellman suggests.

"Instead, opt for a heavily plant-based diet rich in complex carbohydrates, like those found in fruits, vegetables, legumes, brown rice, and whole grains, which will keep you satisfied, does not spike blood sugar, and supports GI health," Gellman recommends. "The goal here is to make half of all grains whole grains, so some refined carbohydrates are fine. If possible, pair these refined carbs with foods high in fiber. For example, white rice paired with vegetables or sugar in oatmeal."

05 of 08

The old rule: Choose a low-fat diet.

Three Bowls Filled with Sliced Almonds, Macadamia Nuts, and Cashews

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

While it may be intuitive to associate low-fat items with lower body fat—and, therefore, a healthier body—a low-fat and (especially) no-fat diet starves the body of vital nutrients, says Gellman. Many fats are healthy; it just depends on the type of fat and how much you're consuming.

"Unsaturated heart-healthy fats may help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke by improving related risk factors such as total and LDL blood cholesterol, blood pressure, and inflammation. Plant oils also provide essential nutrients, such as vitamin E, to help build and maintain cells in the body," explains Gellman.

"In a New England Journal of Medicine study, researchers tracked 76,464 female and 42,498 male subjects. Those who ate one ounce of nuts per day, including peanuts and tree nuts, had a lower mortality risk than those who ate nuts less than once per week. They had a smaller waist circumference and decreased obesity risk," Gellman adds.

The New Rule: Opt for smart fat.

Instead, Gellman advises choosing smart fats, or "healthy fats," which promote satiety and add flavor and texture to dishes. "These include unsaturated fats found in plant-based foods, such as olive oil, avocado, and nuts. Because you feel more satisfied, you will last longer without being hungry again and be less likely to overeat," Gellman explains.

Gellman says this also includes seafood, which contains omega-3s. "Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids may play a role in reducing the risk of heart disease and other issues such as cancer, arthritis, and Alzheimer's disease. Generally, fattier fish contain more omega-3 fatty acids than leaner fish, but the amount can vary from one type of fish or shellfish to another."

06 of 08

The old rule: Red meat should be a food staple.

Sliced Steak on a Blue and White Plate with Knife

Mary Claire_Lagroue

"While once thought to be the staple of our daily food groups, research shows that limiting red meat consumption can greatly decrease the risk of cardiovascular and other diseases," says Audrey. "Red meat, as well as dairy, contains a substance known as casein, which contributes to overall inflammation in the body and leads to both acute and chronic health issues."

The New Rule: Prioritize plants as a food staple.

"For the past few decades, as information about inflammation has become more prevalent, the benefits of plant-based eating over the recommendations of the food pyramid have grown in popularity," says Audrey.

07 of 08

The old rule: Swap sugar-free substitutes for regular sugar.

Sugar Substitutes Artificial Sweeteners in a Small White Container on a Table

"Some sugar-free substitutes, such as aspartame, have been linked to white cane sugar. Traditional white cane sugar activates the opiate receptors in the brain, which have long been linked to addiction and impulse consumption," explains Audrey.

As a general rule, Audrey says avoiding stimulant-inducing foods that trigger those receptors is a wise choice for your health. "Equally, the chemical substitutions for sugar offer no benefit other than taste and reduced glucose response while providing many other precautionary elements," Audrey continues. "For example, aspartame has been shown to actually increase appetite, leading to excess consumption, while there is a measured risk of other unwanted side effects, such as seizure, headache, and other neurological issues."

The New Rule: Opt for natural sweeteners.

Instead, Audrey advises looking for plant-based replacements such as monk fruit and stevia. "Stevia should be sourced as close as possible to the plant source, or consider substituting honey or molasses instead as a natural sweetener."

08 of 08

The old rule: Consume dairy for strong bones.

Pouring a glass of milk

krisanapong detraphiphat/Moment/Getty Images

Audrey notes research has also shown that humans lack the enzymes necessary to properly digest cow milk and dairy products, which can result in a disruption of the gut microbiome, leading to lower immunity. "When we're babies, our bodies produce an enzyme called lactase to help us digest milk. This is intended for our mother's milk (not from other mammals), and it stops being produced around age 2 to 5 years old," Audrey explains.

The new rule: Limit dairy (or replace it altogether).

Limit dairy to a small amount or replace it with coconut or almond milk, suggests Audrey. "Seek out plant-based sources of calcium (such as beans, peas, lentils, and leafy greens). Removing dairy from your diet can possibly also help alleviate many skin conditions and digestive issues."

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