Modifying your diet to "eat healthfully" doesn't require dramatic changes. In fact, it may only call for some minor tweaks. Certain small changes serve up huge, lifelong benefits that can help you lose weight, ward off disease, and feel more upbeat and energetic all day long.
"It's all about self-care," says Beth Reardon of Duke Integrative Medicine and Caring.com's senior food and nutrition editor. "You have to ask, 'Am I worth a little extra effort to think about what I'm putting in my body?' You -- and the body that you rely on -- deserve nothing less."
Start with these six simple diet game-changers:
1. Add more fat -- healthy fat -- to your diet.
Why? Many adults, especially baby boomers, have been brainwashed into thinking fats equal calories and should be avoided. But the body needs fat to function. (After all, 60 percent of the brain is fat.) Not all fat is alike, and not all fat calories -- researchers increasingly believe -- are alike either. "The body metabolizes some fats better than others," Reardon says.
Healthy fats include those found in many nuts, seeds, avocado, extra-virgin olive oil, and canola oil. "Eating nuts and avocados doesn't make you fat -- but not eating them might," Reardon says. Unlike calories from saturated (bad) fats, healthy fat calories are essential to the body's metabolism. They keep you performing well, and they satisfy hunger better.
How? Use extra-virgin olive oil and canola for much of your cooking. Don't be shy about adding a small amount of olive oil, with flavored vinegar, if it makes it taste better and encourages you to eat more salad. (Another bonus: This type of dressing delivers less sodium and sugar than processed bottled dressings.) Mash avocado and spread it on your sandwich in place of mayonnaise. Snack on raw almonds, pumpkin seeds, pistachios, and walnuts -- four kinds of nuts and seeds with great lipid-lowering ability -- or add them as toppings or ingredients to cereal, vegetable dishes, or foods.
Tip: Buy a flaxseed grinder (or coffee grinder) and add freshly-ground flaxseed to anything from cereal and baked goods to vegetables and smoothies. Flax is a rich source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids as well as antioxidants and fiber, and it's been shown to reduce "bad" LDL cholesterol. Because whole flaxseed tends to be less well used by the body, grinding the seeds before use provides more benefit.
2. Instead of sugary beverages, drink more water and green tea.
Why? Water is sugar-free, junk-free, and guilt-free. Juice and soda, in contrast, contain unproductive calories (150 calories per cup of grape juice, 150 in a regular 12-ounce can of soda) made up mostly of sugar and few nutrients.
Don't fool yourself with diet sodas and sugar-free juices, either. They may have few or no calories, but the artificial sweeteners in them work in the body the same way sugary drinks do: They cause the brain to signal to the pancreas that "sweets are coming!" This causes the pancreas to start pumping insulin. Insulin, in turn, triggers carbohydrate cravings and fatigue. "It's a cheating game," says Reardon, "that backfires on us."
Drinks like soda and juice are also habit-forming. The brain tends to associate them with certain foods (chips, fries, hamburgers) or with expecting to eat at certain times. What's more, liquid calories take up stomach space, making us less likely to eat more satisfying and nutrient-rich foods, so overall nutrition suffers.
Water is less filling and hydrates the body, flushing out toxins, transporting nutrients, and keeping tissues such as the nose and mouth moist and better able to defend against viruses.
How? Aim for 48 ounces of water a day (that's six eight-ounce glasses), plus two to four cups of antioxidant-rich green or white tea (as a better-for-you coffee replacement). To build the water-drinking habit, pour glasses of water when you set the table, and set out a carafe for easy refills. Get in the habit of carrying a portable water bottle with you throughout the day. Whenever you would ordinarily reach for another drink, pour water instead. Reach for water whenever you're thirsty and after activity that makes you sweat.
Tip: "I drop a flavored white- or green-tea bag, like mandarin orange, into my water bottle as a quick, amazing-tasting alternative to hot brewed tea," Reardon says. "You get the antioxidant benefits of tea without the additives, calories, or artificial flavorings of mixes like Propel or Crystal Lite." The polyphenols in green tea also have mild metabolism-boosting properties.
3. Sample an alternative whole grain once a week.
Why? Whole grains are a critical part of a plant-based diet because they provide essential B vitamins and fiber. But Americans tend to be overly dependent on simple grains, usually white wheat, as well as white rice and white potatoes. "We tend to fall into habits and serve what our mothers did, but there's a huge world of whole grain variety out there," Reardon says.
Greater grain variety exposes the body to more nutrients and makes it easier to hit the targeted 45 grams per day of fiber adults need. (Most Americans eat a paltry 15 grams a day.) Another potential plus to weaning from wheat: undiagnosed celiac disease, a wheat intolerance caused by the body's inability to absorb gluten. The rates of celiac disease have increased 400 percent since the 1950s, according to a 2009 Mayo Clinic study in the journal Gastroenterology. And for every case diagnosed, there are thought to be 30 others not yet detected.
How? Start once a week by swapping out your usual white potatoes, white rice, or white bread with a serving of a new-to-you wheat alternative. Quinoa (pronounced "keen-wa," it cooks like rice), for example, which is a grain-like plant, contains up to 50 percent more protein than many grains, as well as higher fat, calcium, and B vitamins. Other options include millet, barley, spelt, amaranth, wheat berries, buckwheat, and wild rice. Even food superstores, like Target, often now stock these wheat alternatives.
Tip: If you're nervous about cooking an unfamiliar grain, look for semiprepared mixes or ready-made dishes. (Reardon's local Whole Foods sells a quinoa mixed with pumpkin, pomegranate, and pine nuts, for example.) "Packaged mixes are higher in sodium but a good alternative if you're paralyzed by fear of failure," she says.
4. Eat breakfast -- and not just any old breakfast. A solid one!
Why? Many people postpone the first meal of the day as long as possible because they're convinced that once they start eating, they can't stop. "The reason they can't stop once they get going isn't that they've eaten but what they've eaten," Reardon says. "If you just grab a bagel or a piece of fruit, it's a simple carb that's burned quickly, and you're soon ravenous with a need to feed a glucose low." This sets you up for a roller-coaster of blood-sugar highs and lows all day.
By eating a more complex breakfast soon after you get up, however, your body actually remains sated longer -- and you'll ultimately eat less.
How? Break your overnight fast within an hour of awakening with a balance of four items: a slow-burning whole grain (oatmeal, muesli, whole-grain English muffin, whole-grain cereal), some protein (yogurt, low-fat milk, tofu with scrambled eggs, nut butter, fish, lean meat), healthy fat (almond butter, cashew butter, nuts, ground flaxseed, canola oil -- found in some cereals), and a fruit/vegetable (raisins, frozen berries, grapefruit half, grilled vegetables, banana).
Avoid two food categories that contain most "classic" American breakfast foods:
Simple carbs (frozen waffle, pastry, muffins, sugary cereal, pancakes made with white flour, breakfast bars)
Fatty foods high in saturated fats (fried eggs and bacon, cheesy omelets, bagels with cream cheese, fast-food breakfast sandwiches)
Tip: For an easy, sustaining, one-bowl solution, microwave plain oatmeal (not flavored) and low-fat milk with walnuts or almonds and dried fruit (apricots, dates, raisins, etc.). Add ground flaxseed and top with fresh berries, a little cinnamon, and you're good to go. Even better: Make a batch to get you through a few days; refrigerate and heat up individual servings day by day.
5. Sub the sandwich.
Why? "Most American are inclined to think of lunch as two pieces of bread and a filling," Reardon says. Too often, this bread is a simple-carb, processed white wheat -- and the filling tends to be fatty meats and cheeses. Net result: a midday waste of calories. Better: Move away from the stereotype sandwich for lunch.
How? Most other cultures don't rely on sandwiches for lunch, Reardon says. Instead, they eat what we traditionally consider "breakfast food" (whole-grain cereal with yogurt and fruit, eggs) or "dinner food" (fish, brown rice with veggies, soup, yesterday's leftovers).
No microwave available to heat up a meal? Pack a salad topped with canned salmon, chickpeas, tuna, or deli turkey. Roll up veggies and low-fat cheese in a whole-grain tortilla. Munch fruit and nuts.
Tip: Go to a recipe finder such as epicurious.com to experiment with new dishes built around whole grains, soy protein (tempeh and tofu, for example), or squashes or other vegetables. Pay attention to the recipe reviews to find ones that match your tastes and prep-time preferences. Making enough to brown-bag for lunch saves money -- and spares the stressing over "what will I eat?" that too often leads to quick, calorie-stuffed, nutrient-hungry choices.