If you want to improve your overall health, one of the simplest, quickest, and most effective changes you can make is to improve the quality of your diet.
"Eating a healthful diet can help you feel energetic, lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, and boost your immune functioning — these effects are almost immediate," says Maria Adams, MS, MPH, RD, a registered dietitian in Marblehead, Mass. "Other long-term benefits include reducing your risk of certain cancers, avoiding obesity, and reducing your risk of diabetes.”
The Basics of a Healthy Diet
Improving the quality of your diet isn’t complicated. Take the needed steps to incorporate the following strategies. Of course, the sooner you start, the healthier you’ll feel, but you can go at your own pace:
- Learn the basic principles of good nutrition. Adams says that people should first focus on consuming a diet that is based on whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. It is also important to include some low-fat dairy products, fish, lean meats, and healthful oils into your diet. Limit the amount of less-than-healthful foods you consume. "Try to keep foods that don't fit neatly into any these categories, such as processed snack foods and sweets, to a minimum," says Adams.
- Make gradual changes. You don't have to overhaul your diet all at once. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, taking small, gradual steps over time to improve your diet and lifestyle can do wonders for your overall health.
- Focus on variety. You should get a good mix of foods from the basic food groups — grains, vegetables, fruits, oils, milk, and meat and beans.
- Eat the right number of servings for you. You can personalize the number of servings you need from each food group according to your age, gender, weight, height, and physical activity level with the USDA's MyPyramid Plan. This is an easy way to find out how much of each food group you should eat daily.
- Think moderation. It is not necessary to deprive yourself of the foods you love, even if they aren't the most healthful. Instead, just limit foods that contain more added sugars and solid fats, and make sure the majority of the foods you eat are the healthful ones.
- Limit processed foods. Adams suggests that people reduce their intake of processed foods, and instead focus on consuming more whole foods. "For example, almonds and an apple would be a better snack choice than a breakfast bar, which while rich in fortified nutrients also contains a lot of preservatives and often less fiber," says Adams who recommends staying away from foods that have lengthy ingredients labels, especially when you can't pronounce or have never heard of some of the ingredients.
- Minimize white foods. Adams says that people should eat fewer "whites" — white bread, white pasta, and white rice — and instead select more whole-grain foods — whole wheat breads and pasta and brown rice, which are naturally more complete in nutrients and contain more fiber.
- Load up on fruits and vegetables. "Try to include fruits and vegetables with every meal — yes, even breakfast," Adams says, but adds that because juice tends to be high in calories and less satisfying than whole fruit, you should limit juice drinking to eight ounces per day.
The general concepts of healthful eating are the same for everyone: Aim to consume a good mix of foods from each of the different food groups. You’ll feel great today and for many tomorrows to come.
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