How to Eat a Balanced Diet Without Restricting Your Guilty Pleasures

Maintaining a healthy diet shouldn’t mean depriving yourself of all the foods you love.

These days, we live in a very shame-heavy culture where we feel guilty if we skip a workout, spend a whole day vegging on the couch, or dare to eat a second slice of pizza. Combine all that with a restrictive diet culture, and we can't help but feel like the only way to stay healthy is to avoid treats altogether.

However, a balanced diet that is great for your body and mind does not restrict you from pizza or cookies. Believe it or not, it's better for your overall well-being to have a certain percentage of seemingly unhealthy foods in your diet.

We asked nutrition experts for a few tips on eating a balanced diet without shame or regret. These little habits will help you make the right body-fueling choices for the long haul and help you realistically reach your health goals.

01 of 06

Stop labeling foods as good or bad.

When it comes to eating for your overall health, it's all about balance: prioritizing clean, nutrient-dense foods while allowing for the occasional indulgence. "Food should be an enjoyable part of life, and I think it's very important to include the things you love in your diet," says Mitzi Dulan, RD, CSSD, a Kansas City-based nutrition expert. "Should you eat a big chocolate chip cookie every day? No. But once a week, sure. Giving yourself permission is important in order to have a healthy relationship with food."

Most responsible nutrition experts are reluctant to call foods strictly "good" or "bad" and instead think it's preferable to look at what you eat as being either a healthy choice or a not-so-healthy choice. And those not-so-healthy choices? It's not the end of the world if you eat them every now and then.

"We've moved into this very disordered way of thinking about food and diets, in which you're either all in or all out," says Christina Stapke, RDN, CD, Seattle-based integrative and functional dietitian. "There is psychological harm that can come from restriction, making you obsessive about what you eat and ultimately just adding more stress to your life, which can spike cortisol and create systemic inflammation."

02 of 06

Reasonably limit your intake of unhealthy foods.

"Assuming there are no chronic health issues, it's a good idea to aim for an 80:20 ratio of healthy foods to unhealthy foods, where most of the time you're following a clean, veggie-heavy, non-inflammatory diet, and then the rest of the time, you don't worry about it," Stapke says. "So three to five times a week, whether it's a meal or a snack, you're indulging." And with a little more freedom, it's far easier to stay the course.

03 of 06

Start eating more clean foods when possible.

Reading labels is a drag, so keep it simple by opting for whole foods that aren't stamped with a lengthy ingredient list. "Stick to single-ingredient foods or, if there are several ingredients on the label, you should be able to recognize them as 'real' and not feel like you're taking a chemistry test," says Dulan.

You'll want to learn to go easy on excess and added sugar, packaged foods, refined carbs, and even bread and pasta that tend to be heavily processed. In addition, Stapke says you may want to consider avoiding inflammatory foods like gluten, dairy, vegetable oil, and alcohol.

Just remember that life is all about balance. These less healthy foods aren't inherently bad, but it may not be helpful for your overall health to consume an excessive amount. Balance is key (and can prevent harmful binging or restricting cycles).

If you're overwhelmed by clean eating, start small by incorporating one clean food at every meal (and removing one less healthy option). If you take your time and remain kind to yourself, making healthier food choices is more likely to stick without causing psychological harm.

04 of 06

Eat enough protein and fiber to keep you full.

When you're filling up on non-starchy veggies and lean proteins, there won't be much room left in your gut for empty calories. "Load your plate (at least half) with colorful fruits and vegetables, which are a great source of fiber, and packed with powerful antioxidants and inflammation-fighters," suggests Dulan. You'll also want to fill about one-fourth of your plate with lean protein and fatty fish, which is full of omega-3s.

05 of 06

Buy organic foods when it makes sense to do so.

Buying organic isn't always a budget-friendly choice. Also, some foods are just fine in non-organic form. However, experts recommend purchasing organic options for the dirty dozen produce, like apples, celery, and spinach, whenever possible.

You will also want to choose mainly organic, free-range poultry, grass-fed meats, dairy, and eggs. "The pesticides and hormones in our food system can wreak havoc on our bodies and our immune systems," Stapke explains. "If it's just too expensive, consider buying organic every other shopping trip. Also, frozen organic vegetables are less expensive but just as nutritious."

06 of 06

Prepare veggies so that you start to crave them.

Back in preschool, you may have decided that healthy foods are gross, but we all need to reframe our thinking—and our cooking—to embrace veggies as the delicious, good-for-you indulgence they are. Really, it's all in how you make them.

"There are so many easy ways to prepare vegetables that make them really pop with flavor," says Dulan. "I love adding lemon juice and Parmesan cheese to Brussels sprouts or marinating asparagus and radishes in balsamic vinegar."

Roasted or grilled, with the right sauces, your veggies can be a highlight of your meal rather than a side note. And when you're digging into a big plate of grilled bell peppers loaded with black beans and guacamole, you'll see just how amazing eating well—with the right balance—can feel.

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