Eating habits often begin in childhood. Some are healthy, like grabbing your water bottle when you leave the house and layering lettuce and tomato on a sandwich. Some are not so healthy, like drinking soda throughout the day.
You might not think about those established habits — until you have a reason to. Sometimes a test result showing high cholesterol, blood pressure or blood sugar inspires change. Even without a diagnosis, it’s always a good time to adopt healthier eating habits. Making diet changes can help reduce the risk of chronic disease. Diet is linked to heart disease, type 2 diabetes and 13 kinds of cancer.
The majority of Americans don’t eat a healthy diet, according to the American Heart Association. Of course, it’s not all by choice. Systems are in place that make it easier and cheaper to grab a fast-food meal on the way home than it is to buy and prep ingredients for dinner. If you work two jobs, have kids who are picky eaters or don’t live near a grocery store, eating nutrient-rich foods can be even more challenging.
Making changes to diet habits isn’t always as easy as social media influencers might make it sound either. Research shows that the more often a person eats high-sugar or high-fat foods, the more they develop a taste for them. That makes habits even harder to break.
Here are some tips from Mayo Clinic experts for adding some healthy eating habits.
Learn the basics of a healthy diet
The diet you follow should fit your tastes, lifestyle and budget. It shouldn’t be so restrictive that you can’t follow it indefinitely. Here are some basics for a healthy diet:
- Eat more vegetables and fruits. Most Americans don’t get the recommended five or more servings per day, so look for opportunities to add more fresh, frozen, or canned fruits and vegetables. When comparing canned options, look for low-sodium vegetables and fruit packed in juice or water rather than syrup.
- Pick whole grains. When you look at the ingredients list on foods like bread and cereal, look for the words “whole wheat” or “whole grain.” An easy guideline is to pick the one with the most grams of fiber per serving. You also can include brown rice, quinoa, millet and oats in your diet.
- Limit unhealthy fats. Saturated fats are mostly found in animal products like meat, cheese and butter. To help with healthy blood pressure levels, try to keep your intake of saturated fats to 13 grams per day. Avoid trans fats as much as possible.
- Choose low-fat protein. Try to use fewer red and processed meats like bacon, sausage, and breaded chicken. Instead, choose eggs, beans, turkey, chicken, fish, lean beef and low-fat dairy.
- Reduce salt intake. Healthy adults should try to limit their sodium to 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day, which is about a teaspoon of salt.
Make a plan
It might help to track your food for a few days. Use an app or write down what you ate and when. You could make notes about your mood or your hunger level when you ate. You might notice that you:
- Snack while cooking.
- Keep eating even if you’re full so you don’t waste food.
- Eat while distracted, such as while scrolling social media.
- Always crave something sweet after dinner.
- Get tempted by the menu of pastry offerings when you stop for coffee.
With this information, you can start looking for patterns you want to break. Some of the following tips might work for you.
Start with an easy one. It’s hard to change everything at once, so start with the healthy habit that would be easiest for you. It might be adding a vegetable to dinner or using brown rice instead of white.
Make an impact. If you’re trying to reduce your sugar intake, for example, start with the biggest sources of sugar, like desserts and sweetened beverages. Don’t worry so much about the sugar in your condiments or salad dressings.
Add instead of subtract. Rather than making cuts, think about what you can add. You might have a serving of fruit with breakfast or enjoy a walk after lunch. Focus on what you can have. That might leave less time in your day or room in your belly for habits you want to break.
Cut your portion sizes. You can enjoy your favorite foods and still cut your sugar or saturated fat intake. Try switching to a small soda, sharing dessert with a friend or using less butter on your toast.
Drink water. Sometimes thirst is mistaken for hunger. Sipping water throughout the day helps keep you full and hydrated.
Sit at the table to eat. Stepping away from your desk or phone will allow you to focus on your food and internal cues for hunger or fullness.
Find a replacement. If you eat out of habit, can you find a different habit? Consider having fruit for dessert. Or go for a walk until the craving subsides. Cravings come like waves. If you ride them out, they will pass.
Relax. People don‘t always make the healthiest choices when tired or stressed. Sometimes improving your diet comes from prioritizing sleep or stress management.
Remember why. Think about why forming healthier habits is important to you. Maybe you want more energy to finish projects around the house or to keep up on the company softball team. Consider setting a picture of your healthy-habit motivation as the lock screen of your phone or writing a note to yourself.
Ask for support. Tell your loved ones about your goals and what you’re doing. Ask them to support your efforts. You might even inspire them to make their own healthy changes.
Accept imperfections. Having a doughnut in the breakroom or an extra slice of pizza at dinner doesn’t mean all progress is lost. No side order of guilt needed.
A dietitian can help
You don’t have to make diet changes on your own. Ask your health care team for a referral to a dietitian. The dietitian can help you find solutions that work for your lifestyle and budget. You also can find professional and community support with the Mayo Clinic Diet.
The Mayo Clinic Diet, Third Edition
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