The latest nutritional science points toward a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, paired with healthy sources of protein and fats. A largely plant-based diet with protein from fish, skinless poultry, nuts, legumes, and small amounts of lean meats opens the door to good health.
Equally important is to choose foods in forms that are as close as possible to the way they came from nature. A cherry, for example, is a better choice than a cherry fruit bar. Whole-grain bread trumps white bread.
While it may seem like a lot of extra effort to eat more healthfully, it doesn't have to be. You only need to keep in mind three simple steps: eat more plant-based foods, fewer animal-based foods, and only as much food as your body needs. Here are some ways to do this:
Focus on unprocessed or minimally processed foods.
By doing so, you'll naturally consume foods that have the amounts and combinations of fiber and nutrients that nature intended. Many factory-made foods, in contrast, are stripped of natural fiber and nutrients and filled with ingredients made to stimulate appetite and keep you eating more. Processed meats, in particular, are linked with heart disease and cancer. Unprocessed foods have no added sugar, fat, or salt. Most also have more fiber.
To get a broader range of disease-fighting nutrients, think beyond whole-grain pasta and broccoli. Try new grains, vegetables, and fruits. Bulgur and quinoa are good grain alternatives. Novel kinds of beans, fruits, and vegetables abound. You can experiment with new recipes that rely less on meat and make use of different ingredients and herbs and spices for flavor sources.
Mix it up.
A good rule of thumb for each day is to try to get three servings of fruit, three to four servings of vegetables, some lean protein, some whole grains, healthy oils, some nonfat or low-fat dairy, and a serving of nuts or legumes. At each meal, look at your plate: about one-half should be fruits and vegetables, one-quarter lean proteins (fish, poultry, beans, or tofu), and one-quarter whole grains.
Drink enough liquids.
Because many foods contain water, most people get sufficient liquid each day without making a special effort. But it can be helpful throughout the day to drink water or another no-calorie liquid as an alternative to snacking or to wash down meals. Plus, as you increase your fiber content with whole-grain foods, water helps ferry it smoothly through your digestive tract and protects you from constipation. Drinking 4 to 6 cups of water a day is a reasonable and healthful goal.
Keep protein portions small.
For proteins like meat and chicken, 3 ounces for lunch and slightly more for dinner is a good goal. Keep in mind that 4 ounces of meat is the size of a deck of cards.
Aim for at least two servings of fish each week.
However, avoid large, predatory deep ocean fish (such as swordfish, shark, king mackerel, and bluefin tuna) because of their higher mercury content.
If you snack, plan ahead for healthy snacks to minimize the risk of impulsively eating unhealthy foods. Stay away from sugary drinks and their empty calories.