You already know that a healthy diet is important overall, but it’s especially important when you’re trying to lose weight. There are a lot of diet trends out there and it may be unclear what a real nutritious diet looks like.
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Whether you’re simply looking to form good diet habits or specifically looking for a healthy diet for weight loss, dietitian Anna Kippen, MS, RDN, LD, offers some basic tips to keep in mind the next time you shop for groceries or order a meal at your favorite restaurant.
1. Don’t go for deprivation over smarter eating
“Just as overeating can spoil your weight loss efforts, so can starving yourself with a rice-cake-and-diet-soda diet,” Kippen says.
Deprivation or yo-yo dieting can in fact eventually slow down your metabolism and increase your risk of chronic disease.
Repeatedly gaining and losing weight — called weight cycling — is a common outcome of yo-yo dieting. Weight cycling may be linked to chronic inflammation and can increase your risk of chronic disease.
Whether you’re trying to lose weight or maintain it, don’t deprive yourself of food. You can reduce the amount of food you eat a little if if you choose quality over quantity and follow these next tips.
2. Look beyond the number of calories
Eating for a healthy, vigorous life involves more than merely adding up daily calories or points.
“Food is so much more than numbers,” Kippen says. “Your body needs to maintain a certain calorie balance over time to achieve a healthy weight, but that adequate number of calories doesn’t guarantee your body is also getting an adequate amount of nutrition.”
Choose foods based on their nutrient density — meaning foods with valuable calories, packed with plenty of vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein and healthy fats.
Nutrient-rich foods provide the information your cells need to function and may help prevent disease. Best of all, they also make you feel more satisfied!
3. Don’t substitute veggie-based foods for veggies
Don’t fall for the veggie chips, crackers or pasta gaining a presence outside the produce section of your grocery store. At the end of the day, most veggie chips, for example, are a blend of vegetable powder (also called “flour”) with added starch and are comparable to tortilla chips.
If every so often you’re craving veggie chips that will satiate your need for a crunchy snack without regret, check the ingredients first. Try good quality veggie chips made from one or two ingredients only. The actual vegetable and a little salt listed is best, and there are great dehydrated options that don’t have the extra calories or starch of other chips out there.
“I personally love carrot chips and beet chips because they’re full of flavor and are very satisfying” Kippen says.
Now head to the produce section — and buy real veggies. They provide a rich source of vitamins A, C, potassium, magnesium and fiber (which helps you feel full!) that you won’t find in processed chips. Eating fresh vegetables doesn’t have to be a pain, either.
“Load up on mini vegetables to save on time and effort — baby carrots or mini peppers are great options,” Kippen says. “Just rinse and they’re ready to go. And unlike chips, they’ll keep you full and contribute little to no calories.”
For optimal health, you should incorporate non-starchy vegetables into every meal of your day. Add spinach to a breakfast smoothie or salads to your lunch. For dinner, try cauliflower rice, spaghetti squash or zucchini pasta.
4. Choose whole fruit instead of juice
Fruit drinks are one of the major sources of added sugar in the American diet. They’re higher in sugar than whole fruit, cause a spike in blood sugar and trigger secretion of insulin, the fat-storing hormone. This blood sugar spike is shortly followed by a crash that can lead to exhaustion, brain fog, hunger and sugar cravings.
Fruit juice is also stripped of the fiber found in whole fruits. Fiber is one of four “shortfall nutrients” inadequately consumed in the standard American diet (SAD) and is crucial for a healthy gut and heart.
Instead of fruit juice focus on eating whole fruits such as berries, kiwis and apples.
“A note of caution though, just make sure you don’t overdo your fruit intake,” Kippen says. “While fruit has healthy vitamins, minerals and fiber it does also contain carbs that can spike your blood sugar if you overdo it. Eating a few big slices of watermelon in the summer may end up having more of an impact on your blood sugar than that small piece of chocolate you wanted in the first place,” she says.
5. Limit sugar consumption
Excess sugar intake is a major driver of obesity, type II diabetes and other chronic diseases. One study has linked excess added sugar to an increased risk for death from heart disease.
The problem is that sugar is everywhere in the food supply — often hiding on the ingredient list, in many forms.
Choose foods in their most basic form to help reduce your sugar intake. This means choosing steel cut oats over instant oatmeal packs, for example.
Making a habit of reading labels is a great way to make sure you’re getting the most out of what you put in your shopping cart. There are plain instant oatmeal options for example that don’t contain sugar, which is always the best way to go.
Kippen says, “Ideally you only want to see words your grandma would be familiar with. There are some tricky words that actually mean “sugar” to look out for and avoid, like brown rice syrup or cane juice. Skip these and go for foods with simple ingredients.”
6. Avoid reduced-fat products
To set the record straight, consuming foods that are high in fat does not translate to more body fat in all situations. In reality, fats are a major source of fuel for your body. They help you absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, and carotenoids. They can also help to increase satiety and keep you full longer.
These healthy properties of fat are often lost during the processing of many “reduced fat” foods, which are not necessarily lower in calories and are often higher in sugar. There are some reduced fat options that are very healthy. Low fat and fat free milk, for example, are wonderful options that do not contain added sugars.
The most important rule again is to read the ingredients list. Many reduced fat dressings will likely have all kinds of unhealthy ingredients added. Even many reduced fat strawberry vinaigrettes can contain added ingredients you don’t want.
“When you’re dressing your veggies, opt for extra virgin olive oil and apple cider vinegar,” Kippen suggests.
The key is to choose foods rich in healthy fats, like extra virgin olive oil, almonds, chia seeds and sardines.
“These tips should help you whether you’re dining in or eating out,” Kippen emphasizes. “And when you’re buying groceries remember to choose the least processed foods with the fewest ingredients.”