We all know the benefits of a healthy diet – more energy, lowered disease risk, a longer life. But eating healthy, simple as it sounds, has never been harder. Celebs, food bloggers, and fitness gurus alike urge us to eat this and avoid that, leaving us adrift in a sea of choices. Should you go paleo or plant-based? Pop a multivitamin, or just eat whole foods?
To help you wade through the confusion, we asked five nutrition experts to dish their best advice.
1. Sugar isn’t your friend
You’ve probably heard by now: Sugar has lots of empty calories that can pack on the pounds and raise the risk of heart disease and diabetes. In fact, the 2015 draft of the US government’s nutrition guidelines says that most people should only get 4 to 6 percent of calories from added sugars (about 4 to 9 teaspoons a day). It adds up fast: Just one sugary drink can pack nearly 40 grams (10 teaspoons) of sugar in a serving.
It’s a good idea to check the labels because added sugar hides everywhere, even in savory foods. “Sugar by any other name is just as sweet,” says Miami-based nutritionist Janet Brill. “You’ve got to learn those sneaky names and aliases for sugar.” Some of those names: high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, maltose, and dextrose. For lower-sugar drinks, she suggests fat-free milk or soy milk, or unsweetened coffee or tea. Water is ideal, of course.
2. Eat grains. Whole grains
Unless you have celiac disease or a gluten allergy, carbs are not the enemy. In fact, they’re your brain and body’s main source of fuel, which is why paleo and other low-carb diets can leave dieters feeling sluggish. Gluten-free foods might not be so great, either — manufacturers often use sugar instead of gluten (the “glue” that makes pasta so chewy) says Martha Rosneau, a Colorado Springs-based registered dietitian.
For good carbs, stick to whole grains like whole wheat and brown rice, which are loaded with fiber, iron, B-vitamins, and other good stuff. Refined grain products like white rice and regular pasta have far less nutrition — in fact, experts now tend to group refined grains with sugars. Just watch out for foods labeled “whole grain” or “multigrain” — they can still be mostly refined flour. “Just because it’s brown doesn’t make it good,” says nutritionist Brill. Instead, look for breads labeled “100 percent whole grain” or “100 percent whole wheat” — the whole grain should be listed first in the ingredient list.
3. Fats are fine (mostly)
Experts now say there’s no good reason to limit fats, especially healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds.
But not all fat is OK. The main one to avoid is trans fat from hydrogenated oils like margarine that are solid at room temperature (there’s a little in meat and dairy too). In fact, trans fat is no longer considered safe and the FDA has asked manufacturers to remove most trans fats from foods by 2018. Meantime, check the labels on chips, doughnuts, and other fried and processed foods for “partially hydrogenated” anything.
4. Stay on a consistent schedule (but don’t eat if you’re not hungry)
Whether you eat only three meals a day, or three with snacks in between, it’s important to stick to a routine. Don’t skip meals. Fasting all day and binging in the evening can lead to difficulty maintaining a healthy weight, says Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard University.
Likewise, eat only when you’re hungry. Listen to your body. Does it really want food, or something else – water, maybe, or a quick stretch break? Liz Applegate, a professor of sports nutrition at the University of California, Davis, suggests keeping a food log to determine your eating patterns. Ask yourself, “What do I consistently do?” Read: Don’t beat yourself up over the occasional late-night ice cream run with your girlfriends or kids.
5. Slow down and enjoy your food
Sure, hitting your local juice bar for a protein-fortified smoothie after work might make for a cheap, convenient dinner. But when we eat on the run, we’re often choosing foods that are more processed and chowing down more than we realize. If you love food shopping, bring a friend to the farmers market, or take a recipe with you to the grocery store. Grow herbs on your window sill. Invite friends for a home-cooked dinner. Conversation slows down eating, so you don’t stuff yourself. And eating at the table – rather than on the run – helps digestion, nutritionist Rosneau says.
6. Get enough sleep (about 7 to 9 hours each night)
Research links poor sleep with obesity. Indeed, a recent study found that sleep-deprived participants ate around 560 more calories each day. Lack of sleep can push the endocrine system into stress mode, making you more susceptible to overeating or emotional eating, says Linda Houtkooper, a nutritional sciences professor at the University of Arizona. Studies also show that lack of sleep makes high-calorie foods more appealing while weakening self-control.
7. Look at the big picture
Nutrition as a field has shifted from focusing on single nutrients to appreciating the whole diet. Load up on whole foods, rather than supplements or energy bars. Eat balanced meals that include whole grains, lean proteins, and fruits and vegetables, says sports nutrition professor Applegate. Our diet also affects the bacteria dwelling in our digestive tracts. Yogurt, miso soup, and other foods rich in probiotics – “good” bacteria – can help keep your gut healthy. Those who don’t enjoy or can’t eat these foods could take a probiotic supplement, although they may want to consult with their doctor or a dietitian first.
So next time you find yourself stumped at the grocery store, remember these two things:
- Whole foods and whole grains
- Not so much processed food or sugar
It’s not that hard — you’ve got this!
Melissa Pandika is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.