5 Basic Rules of Healthy Eating: The Dietitian’s Guide
By: Amanda A. Kostro Miller, RD, LDN
When you do a quick Internet search for “healthy eating tips,” you may find millions of hits. Some sources will tell you to do “low carb” or “plant-based,” but is that really the best answer for you? How do you know if the information is accurate, practical and evidence-based? Look no further! In this article, we will lay out the dietitian-approved basic rules of healthy eating.
Use this information as a guide to navigate through your weight loss journey. These recommendations have been tried and true in nutrition practice. What’s even better is that most of these rules can be applied to any diet!
5 Basic Rules of Healthy Eating
Small, slow behavior changes are the most sustainable. If you jump into doing all 5 of these tips, then you may feel overwhelmed and give up prematurely. To make these changes last, try to adopt 1-2 of these tips at a time. Choose a few, master them and then move on to your next change. It may take a few weeks (or months) to master each change, so don’t be discouraged!
Healthy Eating Rule #1: Hydration is Your Golden Ticket
If you’re not getting enough water, then you may want to start right here! Hydration is essential to life and it may help you reach several health and fitness goals:
- Weight Loss: Plain water is zero calories and can fill you up. This is the perfect concoction for weight loss since it can help you control your calorie intake and prevent premature hunger. When you are hungry between meals, drink a large glass of water, wait 20 minutes and then reassess your hunger.
- Enhances Physical Activity: Everyone should strive to engage in physical activity. Staying hydrated will help you feel better and do better during physical activity. So, if you want to really hit hard at the gym, make sure you stay hydrated before, during and after your session.
- Kidney Function: Your kidneys work to regulate fluid and waste excretion, so help your kidneys out by giving them plenty of fluid to work with. For an overall healthy person, happy kidneys excrete pale yellow urine, so check next time you go.
- Gut Motility: Getting enough water is also essential for a healthy gut. In fact, your colon uses water to create soft, formed stools that are easy to pass. If you don’t have enough water, however, then you may become constipated and blocked up. No one likes to feel backed up!
- Blood Pressure Management: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), high blood pressure affects 1 in 3 American adults (1). If you have high blood pressure, you may have been advised by your doctor to decrease your sodium intake. Water works to optimize sodium levels to keep your blood pressure in check. However, water is not the only thing you have to focus on for blood pressure control. A high sodium intake can cause too much water to be retained, thus increasing your blood pressure. To avoid this, reduce your overall sodium intake while staying well-hydrated.
How can I stay hydrated?
Some people do great with staying hydrated, whereas others really struggle (like myself, the dietitian)! If you tend to struggle with getting enough water, here are several tips to make it easier:
- Flavor your water: Use lemon wedges, lime, lemon juice, berries, cucumber slices or zero-calorie, zero sugar flavoring drops.
- Set a reminder to drink: Whether it’s 3 alarms per day or 30, whatever will make you drink more is the one that works best for you! Another option is to make a rule for yourself to “drink every hour on the hour” while you are awake.
- Use a water bottle with time-based tick marks: You can buy these types of bottles commercially or you can create your own. Time-based water bottles are marked from top to bottom with water goals that you should hit during the day. Think of it as a game to consistently reach your water goals!
Healthy Eating Rule #2: Vegetables, Vegetables, Vegetables!
If you’re looking to find foods that give you the most “bang for your buck” in terms of weight loss, then eat your vegetables! Vegetables are often low in calories, high in nutrients and high in fiber, so they’re super healthy and can help you control your calories. Try to make ½ of your plate vegetables.
How can I get more vegetables?
Try out some of these ideas for adding more vegetables into the diet:
- Have a side salad
- Keep plain, frozen vegetables on hand at all times to add into any recipe
- Get veggies at breakfast by adding them to a smoothie
- Eat raw veggies and dip as a snack
Healthy Eating Rule #3: Not all Fruit is Created Equal
When it comes to fruit, fresh fruit and plain frozen fruit are the most nutritious. Fresh and frozen fruit have a high water content, lots of vitamins and fiber. Also, they tend to be lower in calories, so use them as low calorie snacks or a healthy dessert. In order to get a great nutrient profile, try to eat a variety of different fruits like bananas, dark berries, melons, citrus and apples.
What’s the problem with canned or dried fruit?
We can also get fruit that is canned or dried, but it does not have the same nutrient profile as fresh or plain frozen fruit. Canned fruit tends to have way more sugar and far less fiber than fresh fruit. Most canned fruit is packaged in juice or syrup, increasing the sugar content. If you must eat canned fruit, look for canned fruit that is canned in water or 100% fruit juice.
For those who like to add dried fruit to salads, grain bowls or desserts, make sure you control the portion size. Dried fruit many have added sweeteners or it may naturally have lots of sugar because you can eat a lot of dried fruit in a single portion. For example, you may be able to eat 10 dried apricots from the bag, but do you think you could eat 10 fresh apricots? Make sure you watch your portion sizes of dried fruit!
Healthy Eating Rule #4: Not all Protein is Created Equal
Protein helps with muscle replenishment and hormone regulation, but more protein is not necessarily better. Strive to make about a quarter of your meal come from a protein source (about ¼ of the plate). We get protein from many different sources:
- Seafood and fish
- Milk, yogurt and cheese
- Beans and legumes
- High protein grains (i.e. quinoa)
- Nut and nut butter
- Commercial protein powder and supplements
What are the best protein sources?
When thinking about the best protein sources for weight loss and overall health, not all protein is created equal. Strive to get lean proteins, which are lower in unhealthy saturated fat. Lean protein sources include chicken, eggs, shrimp, beans, legumes, grains and lowfat/nonfat milk, yogurt and cheese.
Healthy Eating Rule #5: Keep your Alcohol Intake in Check
A healthy, sustainable diet can include all foods and drinks, even alcohol. However, make sure you keep it in check! The CDC classifies moderate drinking as 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men (2). However, if you usually save all your alcohol intake for the weekend, listen up. There are no “rollover days” for drinking alcohol. So, if you don’t have any drinks during the week and have several drinks on the weekend, you are not following the healthy guidelines. Remember, when it comes to alcohol intake, you use it or lose it.
What if I just want to “let myself go” and have a drink?
You may feel that you eat healthy during the week and that you deserve to “let loose.” While it’s okay to have a drink, keep in mind how alcohol affects other aspects of a healthy lifestyle:
- Bye-bye healthy eating: Late night pizza after the bar? Sure, it seems like a good idea in the moment, but it can throw off your healthy eating game if it happens every weekend!
- Monday morning bloat: If you frequently weight yourself, make sure you weigh yourself both during the week and on the weekend. Those who binge drink on the weekend may notice weight fluctuations as your body tries to adjust from your “weekend diet” to your “workweek diet.”
- Hangovers ruin everything: The worst part about drinking is the hangover. Not only do hangovers feel bad, but who wants to work out or eat a salad with a hangover?
The Ultimate Goal: A Healthy Lifestyle
Once you have implemented several, if not all, of these healthy eating habits, the ultimate goal is to make them second nature and continue them for the rest of your life. Scared of the commitment? There will be ups and downs in any long-term relationship, but it is important to always remember why you want to stay healthy and achieve your health goals.