How do you get started on healthy eating?
Healthy eating starts with learning new ways to eat, such as adding more fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and cutting back on foods that have a lot of fat, salt, and sugar.
A change to healthier eating also includes learning about balance, variety, and moderation.
- Aim for balance. Most days, eat from each food group—grains, protein foods, vegetables and fruits, and dairy. Listen to your body. Eat when you're hungry. Stop when you feel satisfied.
- Look for variety. Be adventurous. Choose different foods in each food group. For example, don't reach for an apple every time you choose a fruit. Eating a variety of foods each day will help you get all the nutrients you need.
- Practice moderation. Don't have too much or too little of one thing. All foods, if eaten in moderation, can be part of healthy eating. Even sweets can be okay.
Why pay attention to what you eat?
Healthy eating is one of the best things you can do to prevent and control many health problems, such as:
- Heart disease.
- High blood pressure.
- Type 2 diabetes.
- Some types of cancer.
Is healthy eating the same as going on a diet?
Healthy eating is not a diet. It means making changes you can live with and enjoy for the rest of your life.
Diets are temporary. Because you give up so much when you diet, you may be hungry and think about food all the time. And after you stop dieting, you also may overeat to make up for what you missed.
Eating a healthy, balanced variety of foods is far more satisfying. And if you match that with more physical activity, you are more likely to get to a healthy weight—and stay there—than if you diet.
How do you make healthy eating a habit?
First, think about your reasons for healthier eating. Do you want to improve your health? Do you want to feel better? Are you trying to set an example for your kids?
Next, think about some small changes you can make. Pick ones you can keep doing.
- Don't try to change everything at once.
- Set an easy goal you can reach, like having a salad and a piece of fruit each day.
- Make a long-term goal too, such as having one vegetarian dinner a week.
Where can you get support?
Having support from others can be a huge help. The more support you have, the easier it will be to make changes. Ask family and friends to practice healthy eating with you. Have them help you make meals, and share healthy, delicious recipes and cooking tips.
If you need more help, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian. Look online for groups that support healthy eating and share success stories.
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
- Healthy Eating: Cutting Unhealthy Fats From Your Diet
- Healthy Eating: Eating Less Sodium
- Healthy Eating: Getting Support When Changing Your Eating Habits
- Healthy Eating: Making Healthy Choices When You Eat Out
- Healthy Eating: Making Healthy Choices When You Shop
- Healthy Eating: Overcoming Barriers to Change
- Healthy Eating: Recognizing Your Hunger Signals
- Stress Management: Managing Your Time
Healthy eating is about balance, variety, and moderation.
Having a well-balanced diet means that you eat enough, but not too much, and that food gives you the nutrients you need to stay healthy.
You can get more information from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These guidelines provide tips for eating well to stay healthy and lower your risk of diseases such as heart attack and stroke.
Calories, the energy in food, are another part of balance. The more active you are, the more calories you need. When you are less active, you need fewer calories.
How many calories you need each day also depends on your age, whether you are male or female, and activity level.footnote 1 Some life situations, such as being pregnant or breastfeeding, can also influence calorie needs. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest:
- Less active women and older adults need 1,600 to 2,000 calories each day.
- Active women and less active men need 2,000 to 2,400 calories each day.
- Active men need 2,400 to 3,000 calories each day.
But knowing how many calories you need each day is just one part of healthy eating. Eating when you're hungry and knowing when you're full are also important.
Listening to your body
Young children are good at listening to their bodies. They eat when they're hungry. They stop when they're full.
But adults may ignore these signals. They may keep eating after they're full, or they may eat because they're bored or upset. If you ignore your body's signals for a long time (such as by dieting or overeating) you may lose your ability to notice them. You get out of practice. Other factors may influence what you eat.
Your body uses these signals to tell you when and how much to eat:
- Hunger makes you want to eat. Your body tells your brain that your stomach is empty and your blood sugar is low. This makes your stomach growl and gives you hunger pangs. You can ignore hunger for a while, but then you reach a point where you will think only of food.
- Fullness is the feeling of being satisfied. Your stomach tells your brain that you're full, and you won't be hungry for a few hours.
- Appetite is the desire for the taste of food and the pleasure we get from food. It's usually linked to the sight, smell, or thought of food. Appetite can override hunger and fullness, such as when you keep eating after you're full.
Eating a variety of foods can help you get all the nutrients you need. Your body needs protein, carbohydrate, and fats for energy. They keep your heart beating, your brain active, and your muscles working.
Along with giving you nutrients, healthy foods also can give you pleasure. They can taste great and be good for you at the same time.
Good sources of nutrients are:
- Unsaturated fats like olive and canola oil, nuts, and fish.
- Carbohydrate from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes (peas, beans, and lentils), and low-fat milk products.
- Lean protein such as all types of fish, poultry without skin, low-fat milk products, and legumes.
To work well, your body also needs vitamins, minerals, and water.
In addition to nutrients, foods also contain other things that are important for good health. These include:
- Fiber, which comes from plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts. Fiber may help control blood sugar and cholesterol. It keeps your intestines healthy and prevents constipation.
- Phytochemicals, which also come from plants and may protect against cancer.
- Antioxidants, which also are in fruits and vegetables. They protect your body from damage caused by free radicals.
Moderation is your key to healthy, balanced eating. If your favorite foods are high in fat, salt, sugar, or calories, limit how often you eat them. Eat smaller servings, or look for healthy substitutes.
And yes, you can have desserts and treats now and then. All foods, if eaten in moderation, can be a part of healthy eating.
For more information, see:
Dealing With Barriers to Healthy Eating
Barriers are things that get in the way of making a change and staying with it. Changing your eating habits takes time and practice. It's normal to feel like you've slipped a little on your goals once in a while. But it's important to stay on track and keep trying.
There are many things, such as emotional eating or easy access to fast food, that can make it hard to change how you eat.
Finding your barriers and learning how to get around them can help you reach your healthy-eating goals.
For more information, see:
- Healthy Eating: Overcoming Barriers to Change.
- What Influences How You Eat?
Emotional eating means that you eat too much or too often for reasons other than hunger. You may eat because you're sad, depressed, stressed, or lonely. Or you may use food as a reward. Food can be soothing and distract you from what's really bothering you.
If you are an emotional eater, you may not listen to your body's natural signals. You may eat more than you need or want.
To find out what causes you to eat this way, keep an eating journal for a week or two. Write down everything you eat, plus the time of day and what you were feeling right before you ate. This will help you identify things that trigger emotional eating.
You may want to talk to a counselor for more help in understanding your emotions and eating habits.
Get more tips on dealing with emotions and eating.
Easy access to less healthy food
It can be hard to eat healthy foods when fast food, vending-machine snacks, and processed foods are so easy to find. The good news is that there usually are healthy choices, even at fast-food restaurants.
Here are a few tips:
- Learn which restaurants offer healthier choices. For example, choose fast-food restaurants that allow you to order a side salad instead of fries with your meal.
- Have healthy snacks ready for when you get hungry. Keep healthy snacks with you at work or school, in your car, and at home. If you have a healthy snack easily available, you'll be less likely to pick a candy bar or bag of chips from a vending machine instead.
Lack of time
Lack of time is a common barrier to healthy eating. You may tell yourself that you're too busy or that you have more important things to do than shop for and make healthy meals.
But healthy eating doesn't have to take a lot of time. You can make a healthy meal just as quickly as an unhealthy one. You just need to plan, have the right foods on hand, and learn how to cook some quick and healthy meals.
- Ask friends or coworkers who eat healthfully how they find time.
- Get family members to help you chop vegetables or make a salad.
- Find a cookbook or recipes for quick, healthy meals.
- Take a cooking class with a friend or loved one.
For more information, see:
Sometimes a food that seems like a good choice may not be so healthy. A "low-fat" cookie may have less fat, but it may have as much sugar and as many calories as a regular cookie. Potato chips that are "cholesterol-free" may still have a lot of fat, calories, and salt.
Use the Nutrition Facts label on packaged, canned, and frozen foods to help you make healthy choices. The label lists the nutrients, including the fat, salt, and sugar in each serving, and it tells you how many servings are in the package.
Find out more about health claims on food labels.
If you want to learn more, talk with your doctor or meet with a registered dietitian.
Making Change a Habit
Making any kind of change in the way you live your daily life is like being on a path. The path leads to success. Here are the first steps on that path:
- Have your own reason for healthier eating. Do it because you want to, not because someone else wants you to. You are more likely to have success.
- Set goals. Include long-term goals as well as short-term goals that you can measure easily.
- Think about what might get in your way, and prepare for slip-ups.
- Get support from your family, your doctor, your friends—and from yourself.
- Keep track of your progress. It can help motivate you to do more and help encourage you when you feel discouraged.
1. Have your own reason for healthier eating.
Your reason for healthy eating is really important. Don't do it just because your spouse, friend, or someone else wants you to. What makes you want to change how you eat?
- Want to feel better and have more energy?
- Want to improve your health?
- Want to prevent or treat health problems, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes?
- Have another reason for wanting to do this?
Whatever your reason, you may already know what areas you want to work on. Maybe you want to cut back on high-fat snacks or eat more high-fiber foods.
If you aren't sure where to start, keeping a food diary can help. For a week or two, write down everything you eat. It will help you see which foods you need to eat more of and which foods you're eating too much of. Then compare what you are eating to the food-serving recommendations from the USDA food guide.
2. Set goals you can reach.
Ask yourself if you feel ready to begin taking steps toward big goals. If you're not ready yet, try to pick a date when you will start making small changes. Any healthy change—no matter how small—is a good start.
When you are clear about your reasons for wanting to make a change, it's time to set your goals.
- Long-term goals: These are goals that you want to reach in 6 to 12 months. A long-term goal might be to eat 7 servings of fruits and vegetables every day.
- Short-term goals: You may not be ready for 7 servings a day just yet. What are the short-term goals that will help you get there? Your first small goal might be to eat 1 serving of fruit at breakfast each day. As soon as you've reached that goal, you can set a new one by adding a serving of fruits or vegetables to your lunch or dinner. Or you could try eating a piece of fruit as a snack every day.
- Updated goals: It will help you stay motivated if you track your progress and update your goals as you move forward.
Tips for setting goals
- Focus on small goals. This will help you reach larger goals over time. With smaller goals, you'll have success more often, which will help you stay with it.
- Write down your goals. This will help you remember, and you'll have a clearer idea of what you want to achieve. Make a personal action plan where you can record your goals. Hang up your plan where you will see it often. It will remind you of what you're trying to do.
- Make your goals specific. Specific goals help you measure your progress and adjust your plan. For example, setting a goal to eat 2 servings of vegetables each day is better than a general goal to "eat more vegetables."
- Focus on one goal at a time. By doing this, you're less likely to feel overwhelmed and then give up.
- As soon as you reach a goal, set a new one.
One Woman's Story:
"I didn't try to completely redo my whole diet. I focused on things that seemed reasonable at the time."— Dawn
3. Prepare for slip-ups.
It's perfectly normal to try to change a habit, go along fine for a while, and then have a setback. Lots of people try and try again before they reach their goals.
What are the things that might cause a setback for you? If you've tried to make lifestyle changes before, think about what helped you and what got in your way.
By thinking about these barriers now, you'll be better prepared to deal with them if they happen.
"It takes a lot of time to prepare vegetables."
"Fruits and vegetables are expensive."
"I eat out a lot at restaurants."
Use your personal action plan to write down your barriers and backup plans.
One Man's Story:
"I know the things that I like to eat, like baked goods, cookies, and stuff like that. I know that I'm never going to stop liking those."— Jeremy
4. Get support
The more support you have for eating healthier, the easier it is to make the change.
Tips for getting support
- Get a partner. It will motivate you to know that your partner is doing the same thing and may be counting on you to help him or her succeed. That person can also remind you how far you've come.
- Get friends and family involved. Don't be afraid to tell them that their encouragement makes a big difference to you.
- Give yourself positive reinforcement. When you feel like giving up, don't waste energy feeling bad about yourself. Remember your reason for wanting to change, think about the progress you've made, and give yourself a pep talk and a pat on the back.
You can use your personal action plan to organize your support system.
One Woman's Story:
"It does help to have partners and buddies that are going through this."— Loralie
5. Keep track of your progress.
Keeping track of your progress helps you see how far you've come. It can help motivate you to do more and help encourage you when you get off track.
- Use a notebook, journal, or calendar to keep track of the healthy things you do. Look this over when you begin to doubt yourself or feel discouraged.
- Pay attention to how you feel. Can you notice any difference when you are eating better?
- Notice whether your desire for certain foods changes. As you change how you eat, you'll learn to like new foods. You may lose your taste for some of the foods you ate before.
- If you follow a specific healthy eating plan because of a health problem, look over any lab tests or other health measurements you might have. You may notice improvements.
- If you have diabetes, blood sugar tests will tell you if healthier eating is helping you manage your diabetes.
- If you have high cholesterol, a blood test can measure if healthy eating is improving your cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
- If you have high blood pressure, frequent checks will let you know if it is improving.
- Every time you meet a goal, reward yourself. See a movie, buy a new book, or do something else you love.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Agriculture (2015). 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans 8th ed. http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/. Accessed January 12, 2016.
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Current as of: September 8, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Rhonda O'Brien MS, RD, CDE - Certified Diabetes Educator
Current as of: September 8, 2021