Maintaining a healthy diet is one of the best things you can do for your overall health and your immune function. But with all the conflicting dietary advice available, how do you know what’s truly healthy? Should you follow a paleo or keto diet? Is it enough to simply try to eat healthy most of the time and enjoy your favorite foods in moderation?
Unfortunately, when most people try the “everything in moderation” approach, they end up including too many unhealthy foods in every meal. Some nutrition experts recommend an 80/20 approach, where 80 percent of the foods you eat are healthy, and the remaining 20 percent of your diet can be whatever you want. However, people are often bad at counting calories or assessing how much they really eat, and that 20 percent can easily expand to make up more of your diet.
To keep unhealthy foods in check, it may be better to aim for a 90/10 breakdown and limit indulgences to 10 percent of your diet, or two meals a week. Knowing that you’re able to eat some of your favorite treats twice a week can make it easier to stick to a healthy diet the rest of the time, because you won’t feel so deprived. No foods are completely off-limits; you’re just choosing to limit them or eat them only on a Friday night.
So what should you eat for the rest of the time? Follow these guidelines for choosing healthy foods.
1. Focus on Whole Foods
Many packaged foods in the grocery store make lofty health claims, but the best foods for your health are those that don’t even have labels: fresh fruits and vegetables. As much as possible, eat whole foods, which are foods as close to their original form as possible, with little or no processing or added ingredients.
Even if you think you’re getting enough fruits and vegetables, you may be falling short. Studies show that less than 10 percent of adults are getting the recommended amount of fresh fruits and vegetables in their diet. Aim for at least one plant food in every meal—preferably more than one. Instead of a roll and one vegetable with dinner, ditch the roll and add another vegetable.
2. Choose a Variety of Colors
Whole foods get many of their benefits from phytonutrients, the same compounds that give them their vibrant colors. When adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet, it’s best to aim for a variety, as different phytonutrients have different benefits.
Red foods such as tomatoes, watermelon, and pink grapefruit contain lycopene, an antioxidant that helps protect against certain types of cancer. Orange foods such as carrots and sweet potatoes are a good source of beta carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A. Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts contain sulforaphane, a compound that boosts the immune system.
Make a point of exploring the different foods available in your store’s produce section, and experiment with different ways to prepare them. You may discover a new favorite!
3. Eat to Reduce Inflammation
The standard American diet is full of foods that are linked to chronic systemic inflammation, which is an underlying factor in major diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes.
Avoid or limit your intake of inflammatory foods such as processed meat, dairy, sugar, soda, fried foods, excessive alcohol, trans fats, foods with added sugars, and refined carbohydrates such as white bread, white rice, pastries, pasta, and breakfast cereals.
Aim for more anti-inflammatory foods such as tomatoes, leafy greens, olive oil, berries, nuts, fatty fish, and green tea.
Overcoming Barriers to Healthy Eating
Depending on the current state of your diet, the guidelines above could be a drastic change, but don’t let that scare you. You may find it easier to make one change at a time, whether that’s giving up soda or trading in your afternoon cookie for a piece of fruit.
You can also look for ways to swap out some of the foods you are currently eating with healthier alternatives. Riced cauliflower can be used in place of rice, and spaghetti squash or zucchini noodles make a great pasta substitute. Serving new foods in familiar ways can make it easier to stick to a new diet plan.
Guidelines for Grocery Shopping
When buying groceries, try to stick as much as possible to the outer aisles, where you’ll usually find produce, meat, and frozen foods. Instead of browsing through the inner aisles, which are mostly full of processed foods, only venture in for staples such as olive oil.
When you do buy packaged foods, make a habit of reading ingredients. As a general rule, choose foods with fewer ingredients and ingredients that you recognize. Avoid foods with lengthy ingredient lists or anything you can’t pronounce.
ScriptSave WellRx Grocery Guidance app can help you find alternatives to the foods you buy most often and determine which foods on the shelf are truly good for you. Simply scan the barcode on your food package to reveal its WellRx Health Index and discover “better for you” alternatives. You can also create a list of your favorite grocery items and find foods that support your nutrition goals. Download it on the App Store or Google Play today.
Karen Eisenbraun is a Certified Holistic Nutrition Consultant. She holds an English degree from Knox College and has written extensively about topics related to holistic health, clinical nutrition, and weight management.