20 Top Healthy Eating Habits, According to a Dietitian
Including healthy eating habits in your life is a must if you want to support your overall well-being. While trendy diets and lifestyle overhauls are all the rage, the truth is that simple changes and swaps can lead to big results in the health department.
As a registered dietitian, I have some go-to healthy-eating tips that I lean on when people want to eat more healthfully. All of my tips are simple to do and they won't require juice cleanses or expensive supplements to accomplish. To make implementing healthy-eating habit changes more sustainable, I generally recommend that people choose two or three tips to kick-start their healthy-eating journey. Once you master a few tips, you can add more.
For people who truly want to make positive changes in their eating routine, here are 20 top healthy eating habits that are dietitian-approved and are incredibly impactful.
1. Skip drinks with added sugars
Added sugars are lurking in many seemingly healthy drinks, like fruit punch and sports drinks. Unfortunately, taking in too many added sugars has been linked to adverse outcomes including obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and metabolic syndrome.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that people limit their added sugar intake to less than 10% of their total calories. For a 2,000-calorie diet, that means around 12 teaspoons of the sweet stuff. Yet, the average intake of added sugars among U.S. adults is about 17 teaspoons, far exceeding the suggested quota.
Swapping out beverages with added sugars—think regular soda, sweet tea, sports drinks, fruit punch, lemonade and fruit "drinks"—for no-sugar-added choices like water, seltzer water, unsweetened coffee or tea and even 100% fruit juice in moderation can give your body the hydration it needs without any added sugars.
2. Include fermented food in your diet
Kimchi, sauerkraut and other fermented foods not only taste delish, but they also fuel the body with live probiotics that support our overall health in various ways. To give your body a boost of probiotics, start your day with plain yogurt, enjoy a miso soup at dinnertime or sip on a kombucha midday for some fermented goodness.
3. Eat 2 to 3 servings of low-mercury non-fried fish every week
Although the Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests that most Americans eat at least 8 ounces of fish every week, the majority of people are sorely missing the mark. Fish, especially oily fish like salmon, is a rich source of DHA omega-3 fatty acids, selenium, vitamin B12 and a slew of other important nutrients that support our health.
Fish eaters appear to live an average of 2.2 years longer than people who don't eat fish. Eating fish is linked to a plethora of other potential health benefits too, including a reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
4. Swap out highly processed meat for fresher options
Highly processed meats like lunch meats, bacon and sausage are certainly convenient and incredibly appetizing. But these meat choices can also be loaded with nitrates, a component that, when heated, can produce potentially cancer-causing compounds. Many of these meat choices are loaded with sodium as well.
Fresh cuts of meat like turkey, chicken and beef can be a lower-sodium and nitrate-free meat option that can be just as satisfying to eat.
5. Have a glass of milk every day
Milk isn't just for kids. As a staple food that is a perfect accompaniment to chocolate chip cookies, a glass of milk is loaded with 13 essential nutrients, including bone-building calcium, protein and magnesium. Yet, as nutrient-dense as milk is, only 20% of adults are drinking even one glass of this beverage a day.
6. Add fruit to your midday snack
Only 1 in 10 Americans are eating the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables every day. And since a lower intake of fruit is linked to outcomes like increased risk of certain cancers, heart disease and stroke, sneaking in some fruit every day is a smart move.
When the 3 p.m. slump strikes, instead of reaching for sugary candy or caffeine-laden drinks, enjoying fruit as a part of your balanced snack can give you sustained energy along with some energy-supporting nutrients. Combining a serving of fruit with protein can help give your snack some staying power, so you will feel satisfied and avoid a potential sugar crash shortly after eating.
If you don't have fresh fruit at your fingertips, know that dried, freeze-dried and frozen fruit are all healthy options as well, as long as they don't contain added salt or sugar. So, from freeze-dried blueberries to dried mango slices, the fruit choices are endless.
7. Add more vegetables to your dishes
Vegetables are one of the best sources of fiber, a nutrient that can help keep your body healthy by supporting gut health and possibly reducing the risk of developing certain cancers. Plus, many veggies are low in calories and can help make dishes a bit more satisfying and flavorful.
Adding vegetables to your dishes doesn't mean living off of salad every day of the week. Adding extra broccoli to your stir-fry or tossing a handful of spinach in your homemade soup can give your dishes a healthy boost in a simple way.
8. Don't eat in front of the TV
Your meals are meant to be enjoyed. And when you eat while watching TV, you can end up being distracted and ultimately eat more calories, as data shows that TV-watching can affect several processes that normally assist the voluntary regulation of food intake.
Instead, enjoy your meals with friends and family. Or, at the very least, simply make sure you are not distracted by the TV while you are eating.
9. Choose BPA-free canned foods
Canned foods like tuna, tomatoes and beans are convenient foods that can be easily included in a healthy diet. But if the cans that your food is stored in contain BPA, a chemical that helps prevent metal corrosion, you may not be eating as well as you think.
The FDA says there's insufficient evidence that BPA from cans causes any ill effects, yet some studies have linked higher BPA levels to increased risk of type 2 diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and other negative outcomes. Most U.S. can manufacturers have voluntarily phased out BPA, but there's concern that similar substitute materials may carry risks as well. At this point, there's not enough known research to make a conclusion about the safety of these substitutes. Ultimately, if you're concerned about these materials, choose foods stored in glass or aseptic paper-based boxes.
10. Plan your meals
Meal planning can help people eat a healthier diet and even may help them experience less obesity. Taking the time to plan out your meals for the week can help you navigate your healthy eating with ease. To meal-plan, figure out what you are going to eat for your meals throughout the week. Make yourself a shopping list and prep your ingredients for quick meals for the entire week.
11. Don't eat the same foods on repeat
To eat a healthy diet, variety is key. Eating a wide variety of foods will give your body different nutrients and may help prevent nutritional gaps. Plus, some research suggests that focusing on a variety of healthy foods may reduce the risk of developing metabolic syndrome.
One strategy that many dietitians recommend is to "eat the rainbow", meaning that people should aim to eat foods that naturally contain a wide variety of colors throughout the week. Purple cabbage, orange carrots, red radishes and green spinach are all good-for-you foods, but each variety contains a different nutritional composition. Rotating your food can add some excitement to your plate as well as giving your body different important nutrients every day.
12. Prep your veggies
Before you put your groceries away after your shopping haul, prep your veggies before you store them in the fridge. Having chopped onions and sliced cucumbers on hand makes it incredibly easy to add good-for-you vegetables to your dishes.
13. Skip the diet soda
Intuitively, it makes sense to believe that drinking diet soda is a healthy choice, thanks to the calorie-free sweetness that it provides. It turns out that drinking diet soda isn't as healthy a choice as we once thought, with data suggesting that sipping on the bubbly sweet stuff is linked to an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease. And for people with type 2 diabetes, results from a different study show that people who drink more than four cans of diet soda every week are more likely to develop vision challenges.
14. Limit fried foods
There is nothing like biting into a crispy french fry or piece of fried chicken. But eating too many fried foods is linked to a slew of unsavory health outcomes.
To get that satisfying crunch without the added calories and fat, opt for air-frying or baking your dishes instead.
15. Swap cocktails for mocktails
Consuming alcohol can increase risk of certain types of cancers. But for some people, doing without an evening cocktail can be a huge life change. Enjoying a mocktail instead of a cocktail is one way to limit or eliminate alcohol intake while still partaking in the ritual of sipping on a craveable beverage.
16. Choose leaner cuts of beef
Beef lovers can rejoice when they learn that beef can be a part of a healthy diet: it's a natural source of iron, protein, zinc and many other important nutrients. And although some cuts of beef are on the higher side when it comes to saturated fat, leaner cuts, like flank steak, are perfectly appropriate to include in a wholesome diet.
17. Use beans as a protein source
Regardless of whether you are a carnivore or a strict vegan, beans can be one of the best foods to include in your healthy diet for many reasons. They're a plant-based and economical protein source that is versatile and delicious. Beans naturally contain total and soluble fiber as well as resistant starch, all of which contribute to their low glycemic index. They also provide polyphenols, many of which are strong antioxidants.
Including beans in a healthy diet may help lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol and reduce the risk of developing diabetes.
18. Don't skip breakfast
We have all been told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. And newer research highlights exactly why this is. According to this study, eating breakfast consistently is linked to a greater intake of many nutrients, including folate, calcium and iron. Plus, results showed that breakfast skippers consume significantly more calories, carbohydrates, total and saturated fat and added sugars during lunch, dinner and snacks than people who eat breakfast.
19. Don't deprive yourself of your favorite foods
While it is true that you shouldn't be eating a dozen doughnuts or a gallon of ice cream every day if you want to live a healthier lifestyle, giving up your favorite foods cold-turkey may lead to overindulging in the long run.
Treat yourself to a once-in-a-while indulgence to help keep you satisfied and on track. As long as you are eating an appropriate portion of the food and you are doing this in moderation, a little treat once in a while is A-OK.
20. Embrace herbs and spices instead of salt
Americans eat an average of about 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day, despite the Dietary Guidelines recommending a limit of fewer than 2,300 mg per day.
Eating too much sodium on a daily basis may increase your risk of developing hypertension.
To reduce your sodium intake, a good start is to limit the amount of salt that is added to your dishes, as just 1 teaspoon of table salt contains over 2,000 mg of sodium. When you are limiting your added salt intake, add flavorful additions like herbs and spices that are sodium-free but pack a punch in the flavor department.