These diet changes can help you live a longer and healthier life.

Cynthia Sass, M.P.H., R.D.
April 07, 2021
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Nutrition trends and fads will continue to come and go. But if your aim is to eat healthfully in the long run, your best bet is to focus on habits you can stick with. That's why we asked nutrition expert and registered dietitian Cynthia Sass to share 6 eating habits that are simple to adopt and that can have big health payoffs down the line. Each focuses on maximizing nutrients that research has found to help reduce inflammation, improve cholesterol, support brain health and lower the risk of heart disease and cancer. Best of all? These habits focus on foods that are naturally delicious (berries! chocolate!), so you can craft meals and snacks that will help you feel satisfied—for life

winter cobb salad
Credit: Jennifer Causey

1. Embrace avocados

Avocados may seem decadent, but they're also nutrient powerhouses chock-full of monounsaturated fatty -acids that support heart health and benefit cholesterol levels. A 2018 meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who regularly ate avocados had significantly increased levels of beneficial HDL cholesterol, which may protect against heart disease. Avocados are also high in fiber and provide a suite of vitamins and minerals, including potassium and magnesium. Add avocado to salads (like our Winter Cobb Salad, pictured above) and sandwiches or puree with a little vinegar, garlic and herbs to make a creamy dressing. You can even include avocados in dessert (they work surprisingly well in chocolate pudding—see our recipe for chocolate avocado pudding). Go ahead and enjoy up to a whole avocado a day!

2. Opt for plant protein several times a week

A growing body of research suggests that plant-based eating patterns that emphasize produce, legumes, nuts and whole grains over meat and dairy are associated with a host of health benefits, including a lower risk of heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and obesity. That's precisely why pulses (the umbrella term for beans, lentils, peas and chickpeas) are an excellent replacement for meat: they're a good source of protein, high in fiber and incredibly nutrient-rich. Most are packed with polyphenols, a type of antioxidant tied to anti-inflammation, and are great sources of folate and iron. You can replace 3 to 4 ounces of meat with 1/2 to 1 cup of pulses in dishes like chili, stir-fries, burgers and meatballs—aim to make the swap at least three times a week. Get some inspiration from our healthy bean recipes.

3. Make nuts a go-to snack

Nuts are a near-perfect snack, rich in unsaturated fats, protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and a variety of compounds that have anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, like tocopherols and alpha--linolenic acid in walnuts. A recent research review in the journal Nutrients found that regularly eating a variety of nuts can support healthy cholesterol and blood pressure levels and help people maintain a healthy weight. And don't forget peanuts: although technically a legume, they are also packed with nutrients. As a daily habit, raw or roasted unsalted nuts are best, but you can lightly season your own, as we've done here. Aim for 1/4 cup out of the shell (about the size of a golf ball) or 2 tablespoons of nut butter per snack. And eat a variety—every nut has a unique makeup of micronutrients and fatty acids that are beneficial. 

4. Incorporate veggies into every meal

Eating more vegetables may be the single most important dietary change you can make. A 2017 review of nearly 100 long-term studies in the International Journal of Epidemiology found that eating 7 to 10 servings per day of fruits and vegetables is tied to a significantly lower risk of heart disease and stroke and a slightly lower risk of cancer—likely due to the amount, variety and synergistic effects of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. Eating more produce has also been found to have a positive effect on mental well-being. A simple way to hit the mark is to include veggies in every meal and snack—even breakfast. And don't discount frozen vegetables, which are just as nutritious as fresh and can offer a time-saving shortcut.

5. Enjoy berries as a daily staple

Berries are full of antioxidants known to combat inflammation and protect against cell damage that leads to a number of diseases, including cancer, heart disease and neuro-degenerative disorders. They are also high in fiber (hello, raspberry seeds!) and are great sources of vitamin C and potassium. Of particular interest is their role in brain health: a 20-year-long study of more than 16,000 older adults found that those who ate the most blueberries and strawberries experienced the slowest rates of cognitive decline. Aim for 1 cup of berries a day, and consider frozen as well as fresh. Frozen berries tend to be less expensive and are a great option when fresh berries are out of season.

6. Go ahead, enjoy some dark chocolate! 

There are plenty of -reasons to have a bit of dark -chocolate as a daily ritual. Magnesium, which is found in dark chocolate, is tied to better sleep quality in women and a reduced risk of depression. A 2017 review published in Frontiers of Nutrition suggests that the flavonols in dark chocolate may improve circulation and enhance cognitive performance. And a 2018 randomized trial found that people who ate dark chocolate (70% cacao) every day for six months significantly reduced their total and LDL cholesterol levels. Raw cocoa powder (aka non-Dutched, nonalkalized or natural) is another way to take advantage of chocolate's power-ful benefits. (To swap it for Dutch-process cocoa powder in a recipe, replace the baking powder with half the amount of baking soda.) Try some of our dark chocolate recipes, including truffles, chocolate-covered strawberries and of course, brownies.