As a registered dietitian, people ask me all the time what to do to be healthy. Since I started practicing 20 years ago, I've seen all kinds of diet trends and patterns—some good, some bad—but most healthy habits remain the same.
So when I teamed up with Women's Health to write The Women's Health Big Book Of Smoothies & Soups, we decided to join forces and give you our very best eat-right advice. Read on for our top tips—all backed by real research—for optimizing health. Even better, they're completely realistic, so you'll actually be able to stick with them and feel great every day.
Nearly all experts stress the importance of eating frequently to keep your metabolism and energy up and to avoid becoming so ravenous that you overeat when you finally do sit down to a meal. The "three meals plus two snacks a day" approach appears to be the best one for weight loss and weight maintenance. In a study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, researchers found that people who were at a healthy weight and those who had lost weight both regularly ate two snacks a day.
Probably the biggest benefit of eating often comes from the effect it has on blood sugar (glucose) levels and, therefore, insulin production. When glucose and insulin are in balance, your appetite is on an even keel. That not only helps reduce hunger but also simply makes you feel better. I know from personal experience that having small meals throughout the day (instead of three squares) keeps me energized. Some experts think that eating at regular intervals leads to less fat storage, too, because your body learns to recognize that food will be available relatively soon. And psychologically, knowing that your next meal isn't far away helps you cope with the biggest fear of people trying to lose weight: the fear of being hungry.
Pair carbs with protein or fat:
Carbs are not evil. They're essential fuel, and they're your body's preferred energy source. On top of that, foods that are classified as mostly carbs—whole grains, fruits, vegetables—come packed with vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that are important for disease prevention. They can also be high in fibre, which helps keep you feeling full and satisfied.
However, when you eat carbs by themselves, your body converts them into glucose faster than it would if you were eating something that slowed digestion (such as protein or fat) at the same time. An elevated glucose level causes a spike in insulin, which leads to a crash in blood sugar, which then results in extreme hunger.
When you do choose carbs, make them complex carbs whenever possible. That means whole grains instead of white refined ones for bread, pasta, and rice. That's because refined carbs, like white flour and sugar, are chemically closer to glucose, and therefore they break down quickly.
Don’t fear fat:
According to a survey from the International Food Information Council, just 20 percent of people think that all fats are equal when it comes to health, but 67 percent try to cut as far back on all fats as they can. That's a mistake because how much fat you eat doesn't really have an impact on your weight or your risk for disease. It's the type of fat and the total calories you take in that really matter.
There are four general categories of fat: polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, saturated, and trans. With the exception of trans fat (which should be avoided, period), your body needs all of them. Fat is a major component of every cell in your body. It helps you absorb fat-soluble nutrients from low-fat foods, keeps your skin and hair healthy, and makes your brain work more efficiently. Some types of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats also protect against disease and control inflammation. Saturated fat raises cholesterol levels and also increases your odds of developing insulin resistance (which can lead to diabetes), but you still need some of it in your diet. Cholesterol, which is primarily made from saturated fat, is an important building block for hormones.
Here's another important point to keep in mind: Fat makes food taste good. On the one hand, that can cause you to overeat, but on the other, it can help you eat more vegetables and other healthy foods that you should be getting in your diet. I'm pretty sure that even the most strident vegetable lover would admit that a little olive oil, Parmesan cheese, toasted nuts, or even—wait for it—butter on top of steamed asparagus likely makes the asparagus more flavorful.
Never skip breakfast:
Skip the morning meal and chances are good that you'll end up consuming more calories overall simply because you are hungrier. Think about it: If you finish dinner at 7:00 p.m. and don't eat again until noon the next day, you have gone without food for 17 hours. You think you're helping yourself drop pounds because you're cutting out calories, but you're actually causing your body to store more fat because it doesn't know when the next influx of energy is coming. In addition, eating breakfast has been associated with lower blood glucose and cholesterol levels, and skipping it is linked to constipation and menstrual pain. There are a lot of studies about what's best to eat at breakfast, but they're inconclusive, so our advice is to just eat something, preferably a carb-fat or carb-protein combo.
Never eat standing up:
At one point or another, we have all stood in front of the refrigerator with the door open, eating leftovers or ice cream right out of the container. And even if you aren't guilty of this little healthy eating blooper, I'll bet you've eaten a meal while doing something else—like watching TV or answering e-mail—that diverts your attention from what you're putting in your mouth. It's a habit that many of our experts have broken, because when you don't concentrate on your food as you're eating it, it doesn't quite register in your body. In a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers had one group of participants eat a meal while playing computer solitaire and another group eat without any distractions. The solitaire group had a hard time remembering what they ate, and they felt less full. What's more, they ate twice as much when cookies were offered half an hour later.
No matter how busy you are, you can afford to take 15 minutes to sit down and eat your meal. Focus on the food on your plate, and really notice the aromas, flavours, and textures. Eating your meal slowly helps too. Japanese researchers found that fast eaters have triple the risk of being obese as those who take their time.
Eat a pound of produce a day:
That's what the World Health Organisation recommends, and it's what most of our health pros do. It's not difficult. A large apple, for instance, can easily be one-third of a pound. Tomato sauce counts. So do beans and lentils.
Studies show that people with a high intake of fruits and vegetables weigh less. They also get fibre, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that protect against cancer and heart disease. "Eat the rainbow" has become a bit of a cliché, but it's the best way to think about how to eat a balanced diet. The compounds that give plants their pigments—green, purple, blue, red, orange, yellow—aren't just pretty. They're powerful antioxidants, and you want to eat a variety of them. Even white vegetables are good for you: Every ounce of them you eat each day reduces your stroke risk by 9 percent.
Have one meatless day a week:
Meatless Mondays, semi-vegetarian, vegivore, vegan until 6 o'clock, flexitarian—these are just some of the words used to describe a way of eating that emphasizes plant foods but doesn't totally eschew dairy, meat, poultry, or fish. Maybe the best way to think about it is to consider yourself a vegetarian most of the time. In fact, one survey found that two out of three people who describe themselves as vegetarians actually eat this way. Most of the people in the Mediterranean (Italy, Greece, and Spain) follow this kind of diet, and study after study has shown that they have lower risks of chronic diseases and early mortality.
Desugar your diet:
Evidence that added sugar plays a role not just in weight gain but also in heart disease, diabetes, cancer—and even wrinkles!—is steadily mounting. The average person eats 22 teaspoons, or 88 grams, of sugar a day. That's 352 calories' worth. The American Heart Association recommends a maximum daily intake of just 5 teaspoons for women and 6 teaspoons for men, which means that if you have one soda, you've already exceeded your limit.
Most of the sugar people eat isn't added to food by the teaspoon, though—it's in processed and packaged products. And separating added sugar from naturally occurring sugar in fruits, some vegetables, dairy products, and whole grains isn't easy. The amount of sugar listed on food labels is the combination of both natural and added sugars in one serving of the food. Sugar has many names—high-fructose corn syrup, glucose, sucrose, honey, maple syrup, barley malt, beet sugar, cane juice, and cane sugar, to name a few--so reading the ingredients list can help. The best way to keep your added sugar intake low is to eat real foods.
This originally appeared on Women’s Health US.