There’s a lot of advice out there on how to eat healthy, and if we’re being honest, it can sometimes feel like too much to think about. Especially when you’re hungry (AKA always). Remember when you were a kid and eating was as simple as open, chew, enjoy? Yes, those were simpler times. Now, knowing how to eat healthy doesn’t seem quite as straightforward. Between the diet fads, gourmet trends, and a rotating roster of superfoods, eating well has gotten, well, complicated.
In actuality, however, eating healthy doesn’t have to be convoluted. What’s important is that you stick to the basics, which is easy to do with these 20 commonsense tips. They’ll show you how to eat healthy in a way that’s easy to understand and actually kind of fun.
1. Get on board with the Mediterranean diet.
Eat like a tourist in Greece. The sunset over your office park isn’t as stunning as the one over an Aegean beach, but a plate of grilled fish and fresh vegetables and a glass of wine is as delicious in Athens, Georgia, as it is in Athens, Greece. All the heart-healthy fats, minerals, and antioxidants in Mediterranean foods like hummus, olive oil, and feta can help lower your risk for heart disease, says Susan Mitchell, Ph.D., coauthor of Fat Is Not Your Fate (Fireside).
2. Check the nutrition label before you buy.
“The front is all advertising,” says Michelle K. Berman, R.D., of Fairfax, Virginia. Flip it around for the real story. The more ingredients, the more likely it has visited a few processing plants where something artificial was mixed in, says Lydia Zepeda, Ph.D., professor of consumer science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Plus, checking the label is a great way to find out if there are unnecessary ingredients in something seemingly healthy. Because, no, bread does not need added sugar.
3. Eat whole foods—that is, foods that you could actually grow.
A potato comes from the ground, an egg from a hen. But where did that Pop-tart come from? “Unprocessed, whole foods will give you the most benefits,” Berman says. Processing takes out nutrients such as antioxidants and fiber. What’s worse is that a lot of processed foods tend to sneak in things that aren’t really necessary like extra sodium and sugar. There’s nothing wrong with indulging the occasional processed food craving (sometimes a bag of potato chips is too hard to resist!). But if you’re trying to shop healthier altogether, be on the lookout for products that have been minimally processed.
4. Eat crunchy foods.
Snacks that offer a big, satisfying crunch when you bite into them—we mean apples, celery, snap peas and nuts, not chips—keep your mouth busy longer than food you slurp. “The more you chew, the slower you eat and the more time your body has to register fullness,” Mitchell says.
5. Eat more mindfully.
When you sit down to a meal, try to savor every bite. Especially the first few, because those are the bites you’re going to enjoy most. “There is a toning down of taste buds after the first few bites,” says Linda Bacon, Ph.D., professor of nutrition at City College of San Francisco. That’s not the only reason to take it slow while eating. It takes your brain about 20 minutes to realize your stomach is full. If you’re throwing back food like there’s no tomorrow, odds are you’re going to accidentally eat past the full and wind up totally stuffed.
6. Drink more water.
“Staying well-hydrated helps your body function properly, and it also helps make sure you don’t overeat,” Pam Bede, M.S., R.D. with Abbott’s EAS Sports Nutrition, tells SELF. But it’s not just that staying hydrated keeps you from overeating. According to Maxine Yeung, M.S., R.D., owner of The Wellness Whisk, sometimes you may feel hungry when, in fact, you’re actually thirsty. Basically, no harm can come from drinking a glass of water.
7. Don’t skip meals.
Brigitte Zeitlin, M.P.H., R.D., C.D.N., founder of the New York-based BZ Nutrition, tells SELF, “Eating regularly throughout the day keeps your metabolism running at full speed, prevents dips in your energy, keeps you alert and focused, and [can help keep] your weight steady by preventing overeating at later meals.” She and other experts recommend eating every three to four hours. If you don’t, there are a number of unpleasant symptoms you may encounter.
Without the energy you get from things like carbohydrates, your blood sugar levels will likely dip which may lead you to feel sluggish and fatigued. And if you let yourself get to hungry, Rachele Pojednic, Ph.D., assistant professor in the nutrition department at Simmons College and professor at the Harvard Extension School, tells SELF that appetite-inducing hormones like ghrelin may even cause you to become shaky or sweaty.
8. Snack more often.
In between meals, go ahead and have a snack. “When you go too long in between meals without eating, it is difficult to go into your next meal in control and avoid overeating,” Julia Levine Axelbaum, R.D., L.D., Bariatric Dietitian at NewStart Clinic, tells SELF. Of course, you’ll want to be thoughtful about the kind of snacks you opt for. She explains that those that are high in protein, fiber, and complex carbohydrates will give you the energy you need to get through the day and keep you satiated from one meal to the next. On the other hand, those that are high in refined carbs and sugar will give you a sudden blood sugar spike that will eventually cause you to crash and feel even more tired.
9. Keep healthy snacks handy.
The easiest way to make sure your inter-meal nibbling stays on track is to have healthy snacks on hand for when hunger strikes. You can keep these nonperishable goodies in your desk drawers, or these energy-boosting nibbles in your gym bag. Simply keeping a bowl of fresh fruit on your kitchen counter will bring your snacking to the next healthy level.
10. Remove the constant temptation of the snack cupboard.
“Resolving to never eat a sweet again takes a lot of effort and can create a feeling of deprivation,” Patricia Bannan, M.S., R.D.N., author of Eat Right When The Time Is Right, tells SELF. “A more realistic resolution would be to create an environment in which you can consume fewer sweetswithout having to rely solely on your willpower.” If all you have to do is walk to your pantry, you’ll grab a bag and attack it. But let’s say you must put on your shoes, find your keys and drive to the store. Laziness will triumph. (Yes, sometimes sloth is a good thing!)
11. But definitely treat yourself from time to time.
Having a treat now and then is a great way to make sure your healthy eating plan stays on track. Now, you might be thinking, how can eating a piece of cake or a donut help my eating habits? By not making anything completely off limits, registered dietitians explain that you’re less likely to wind up feeling deprived—which means you’re also less likely to find yourself in a binge-eating episode.
12. When fresh fruit isn’t an option, go for the frozen stuff.
Purchasing organic local produce is better for both the environment and your health, but when the nearest farm is hours away, don’t default to a package of Oreos. “Frozen, canned and fresh fruit all have comparable amounts of nutrients,” says Christine M. Bruhm, Ph.D., director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California at Davis.
13. Don’t bother with “low-fat” or “diet” versions of foods you love.
When you’re craving Chunky Monkey, no amount of fat-free ice treat will make up for it. “Diet foods leave you feeling hungry and cheated,” says Paul McKenna, Ph.D., author of I Can Make You Thin (Sterling). Splurge on one scoop of the real deal and savor it. “You’ll be satisfied physically and psychologically,” McKenna says.
14. Choose real fruit over “fruit flavor.”
Seeing flavor on a label is a sign the food was stripped of its real taste and a fabricated one swapped in, Bacon says. Natural only means the additive came from a plant or an animal, which may not be as healthy as it sounds. “Scientists create flavors using bacteria and call them ‘natural,'” she says. Would you buy Bacteri-Os?
15. Actually eat dinner at a table.
As much sitting as we do, we rarely stay put during dinner. The less distracted and stressed you are when you dine, the more efficiently your body absorbs nutrients. Turn off the tube, step away from your desk and park the car before you dig in.
16. Watch out for beverages with lots of added sugar.
Brimming with vitamins! Bursting with energy! Store shelves are exploding with colorful, cleverly named drinks that sound healthy but are actually just sweetened water. Don’t let the labels fool you, Berman says. If it’s not plain H2O or regular coffee or tea, it’s a treat. For a healthier sip, try lemon or mint iced tea or sparkling water with a splash of juice.
17. Don’t assume all smoothies are healthy.
“A smoothie with only fruits and fruit juice is essentially dessert!” Rebecca Lewis, in-house R.D. at HelloFresh, tell SELF. Smoothies can definitely be a healthy meal option, provided you’re using vegetables in addition to those fruits, and high-protein, high-fiber ingredients like almond milk and chia seeds. Unfortunately a lot of smoothies (especially store-bought varieties) tend to pack in sugar. In fact, a small size at common smoothie stores like Jamba Juice can often contain more than 50 grams of sugar. To be sure you don’t end up with a total gut bomb, consider making smoothies yourself. Or double check the ingredient list at your favorite shops and supermarkets.
18. Choose meat that hasn’t been processed.
You don’t have to hunt and skin your supper, but if your chicken has been molded into a nugget, who knows what you’re really chewing. And when you choose meat that’s been processed into sausage, strips or slices, you’re downing sodium and preservatives instead of healthy nutrients, says Adam Drewnowski, Ph.D., director of the nutritional sciences program at the University of Washington at Seattle. Stick to unfussed-with cuts straight from the butcher.
19. When grabbing a bite on the go, choose simple snacks.
If all you have time for is a quick snack from the gas station or drugstore, know that you do have options, and if you know what you’re looking for, it will be easier to find. When we asked registered dietitians to recommend snacks to buy at the drugstore, they tended to go for things like nuts and seeds that pack plenty of flavor (hi, wasabi chickpeas), plenty of protein, and not a whole lot else.
20. Cook at home more.
Sure, you could inhale supper straight out of a bucket, but for a healthy meal, you need to invest at least a few minutes in chopping, rinsing or grilling. The result is worth the effort, Mitchell says. “When you prepare dishes yourself, you can see exactly which ingredients are going into it and make conscious choices about what you truly want to eat,” she says.