Confused by food labels or the dizzying amount of nutrition advice you read online and over social media? One food and health survey found that eight out of 10 Americans notice conflicting information about what to eat, which can make it feel overwhelming to figure it out. When it comes to food and nutrition principles, sometimes basic is best. Here are eight underrated tips that can help you get healthier.
1. Eat a mix of food groups
Your body functions best when it gets a mix of foods at meals and snacks. Rather than, say, filling up on a big bowl of pasta, your meal will keep you fuller for longer and provide a broader range of nutrients if you have a smaller bowl of noodles along with some produce, protein and fat — whether stirred into the noodles or eaten alongside them.
By helping you control hunger, this strategy can aid in managing your weight and provide a steady stream of energy so you remain alert and productive between meals.
Aim for this healthy mix most times you sit down to eat:
- Non-starchy veggies (half a plate is ideal)
- Protein (such as seafood, poultry or pulses)
- Healthy fats (like extra-virgin olive oil, avocados and nuts)
- A starch — preferably fruit, whole grains or starchy veggies (like roasted sweet or regular potatoes)
2. Become portion aware
The following cues will help you become more aware of healthy portion sizes. Soon, you’ll be able to eyeball the difference between four cups of pasta and one cup. If you’re served an oversized amount, you can adjust as you see fit.
- 1/2 cup is about the size of a teacup. Use this measurement for starchy foods, like starchy veggies and whole grains.
- 1 cup is the size of a baseball. This measurement is useful for fruits, non-starchy veggies and larger portions of grains.
- 1 ounce equates to the amount that would fill a mint tin. Use this visual as a portion reminder for nuts and seeds.
- Two tablespoons is about the size of a golf ball. Use this measurement for nut butters, oils and salad dressings.
- 4 ounces is about the length and width of a cell phone. It’s a useful reminder to guide portions for fish, poultry and meat.
3. Drink enough water
When you don’t meet your water needs, it can have a negative impact on your mood, alertness, memory and energy levels, not to mention other bodily functions, like passing stool. While other beverages contribute to your fluid needs, naturally calorie- and sugar-free water is the best choice. Yet in one study, nearly 44% of respondents reported drinking less than four cups per day, and 7% didn’t report any daily water intake. Water needs vary, but an easy rule of thumb is to divide your weight (in pounds) by two, which equates (in ounces) to about what you should be drinking.
4. Get clear on carbs
Though many people avoid carbs, the truth is, as a food group, they’re underrated. Carbs include not only bagels, cookies and bread, but also pulses, fruits, veggies and whole grains. Some dairy foods, like milk and yogurt, also supply carbs. A 2018 study published in the journal, Lancet, found that over a median follow-up period of 25 years, both very high and very low carb eating patterns were linked with a higher risk of death, whereas the least risk was observed among those eating about 50% of calories from carbohydrates. Including these whole (or minimally processed), nutrient- and fiber-filled carbs is in line with advice from the Mediterranean Diet and the DASH diet, both of which are consistently considered by health professionals to be the healthiest diets.
5. Learn how to use the hunger scale
Getting a handle on hunger levels can help you decide when and how much to eat — and when to stop eating. Before you eat, ask yourself how hungry you are. Is the urge to eat strong or slight? In general, try to eat before the urge becomes intense and try to stop when you’re full, but still feel like you have a little room in your belly.
Using this the hunger scale can help prevent overeating. It also trains you to eat in accordance with your own physical hunger instead of yielding to environmental or emotional factors.
6. Employ a mindful minute before eating
A mindfulness practice is a way of tuning into the present moment. This can be done anywhere, for any length of time, and even for most time-starved people, taking a minute to ground yourself before a meal is a realistic plan. Here’s how it relates to eating: Developing mindfulness can help you eat more intentionally and less impulsively. Mindful eating has been also been shown to reduce food cravings and help eaters practice portion control.
To practice, set your phone timer for 60 seconds. Close your eyes or pick a point to focus on and then inhale and exhale slowly, noticing where you feel the breath (for instance, as it enters your nostrils or as your chest expands). There are also numerous apps and videos to guide you.
7. Put your food on a plate — or in a bowls
Plating your food promotes a mindful eating experience and it also encourages you to eat more slowly because you can put your utensils or food down to chew thoroughly between bites. This may help you eat less. One study found that compared with fast eaters, slow eaters were less likely to be obese, and that changing eating speed from fast to slow could lead to lower BMI and waist measurements. Eating slowly is also linked to more meal enjoyment and improved digestion.
8. Set reasonable goals around eating habits you want to encourage
Let’s say you want to eat more veggies. This is a vague goal compared to a more specific one, like trying to eat two cups of veggies every day. However, if you’re currently eating hardly any veggies, two cups might seem overwhelming. When you set super-high goals and then don’t hit them, it’s easy to fall into self-blame mode.
A reasonable goal should feel like a stretch, but shouldn’t be so tough that it makes you anxious. Sticking with the veggie example, a “stretch” goal could be to eat 1/2 cup of vegetables four times a week. Studies show that setting stretch goals helps you develop problem-solving skills that enable you to manage setbacks. With that, you gain more confidence in your ability to follow through — a mindset that helps you create sustainable behavior changes.