How to Eat Healthy Without Dieting – a Beginner’s Guide

Health benefits - Tuna salad omega 3-fatty acids
Health benefits – Tuna salad omega 3-fatty acids

Are you someone that hasn’t given much thought to what you eat?

Did the Doctor suggest you start to eat a healthy diet? Or maybe weight loss is a goal?

Making lifestyle changes can be challenging and it can be overwhelming to figure out where to start. Being ready to make a healthy change is the first step. If you are reading this article, you have likely met that initial step. Congrats!

Once you have decided a change is needed, you will need to find a regimen that works best for you.

Some diets can be very restrictive and eliminate entire groups of food, making long-term success less likely.

Healthy eating doesn’t require such restrictions —rather it focuses on healthier food choices and proper portions —something that is sustainable.

This article reviews the basics of nutrition, healthy eating, and offers simple tips for making appropriate changes.

What Is a Healthy Diet?

An unhealthy diet is a risk factor for becoming overweight or obese and the development of several chronic diseases.

About half of Americans have one or more chronic diseases. This includes high blood pressure (hypertension), high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and coronary heart disease.

All of which, are related to being overweight or obese.

Excess weight, poor food health, and lack of physical activity are risk factors that can be modified (1).

A poor quality diet and lack of physical activity are also linked to an increased risk of some cancers and osteoporosis (1).

The good news is that lifestyle changes including eating healthy, being active, and maintaining a healthy weight can lessen your risk of chronic conditions or diseases (2, 3).

What Is a Healthy Diet?

The best kind of diet is often publicly debated – should it be low carb or low fat?

Yet most health professionals suggest that a healthy diet is one that helps achieve and maintain a healthy weight, provides enough nutrients, and reduces disease risk (1).

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest that a healthy diet is achieved by:

  • Including a variety of whole fruits and vegetables 
  • Making whole grains at least half of your grain choices
  • Using fat-free or low-fat dairy food products
  • Limiting saturated and trans fats
  • Limiting sodium
  • Limiting sugar
  • And consuming alcohol in moderation (1).

How Do You Eat Healthy?

There are many diets aimed at how to eat healthfully and lose weight. You will want to be sure that you can find a regimen about healthy food that is reasonable for your lifestyle and sustainable over the long term.

Too many diets result in weight loss in the short term, but the weight is often gained back in the long term when the eating habits are not a sustainable regimen.

Nutrition 101

Before getting started with healthy eating, a little background information in nutrition may be helpful.

What Is a Calorie?

Calorie is the term used to quantify how much energy you get from a particular food. Macronutrients in your diet provide calories but the amounts vary.

The term, calorie, is also used to quantify how much energy your body uses during work. Your body is burning calories by doing activity whether it be exercising, cooking, gardening, or even sleeping. The amount of calories used will vary depending on the type of activity.

When the amount of calories you eat is greater than the calories used, you will gain weight. When the amount of calories used is greater than the amount you eat, weight loss will result.  

If you are maintaining your weight, the calories you eat are balanced with the calories used.

Macronutrients

The main macronutrients in foods are carbohydrates (4 calories/gram), fat (9 calories/gram), and protein (4 calories/gram). Alcohol also provides fewer calories (7 calories/gram) than fat but with very little nutritional benefit.

Carbohydrate sources (carbs) include whole grains, breads, cereals, pastas, and rice. Sugar is considered a carb. Fruits (fruit sugar – fructose) and milk (milk sugar – lactose) are also a source of carbs.

Fat comes from oils, butters, salad dressings, etc. There is also fat in oily fish, fatty meats, and dairy products.

Protein is mostly found in meat, chicken, fish, shellfish, and eggs. There are plant-based foods that provide protein such as lentils, beans, nuts, and nut butters.

Many foods are a combination of the macronutrients. For example:

  • beans provide both protein and carbohydrate 
  • meat provides both protein and fat
  • milk offers both protein and carbohydrate

Micronutrients

Micronutrients are additional nutrients that our body needs but they are not a source of calories. These vitamins and minerals have important roles throughout the body.

Some of the important micronutrients are:

  • Vitamin D – it is important for calcium absorption, bone health, and immunity. Foods that provide vitamin D include mushrooms, salmon, tuna, milk, yogurt, and fortified orange juice.
  • Vitamin A – important for vision, cell health, organ function, and immunity. Sources include sweet potato, spinach, carrots, milk, cereals, cantaloupe, and bell peppers.
  • Vitamin C – serves as an antioxidant, is important for wound healing and immunity, and helps with iron absorption, as well as, production of collagen. Foods that provide vitamin C include tomato juice, bell peppers, orange juice, strawberries, grapefruit, and broccoli.
  • B vitamins – are needed to regulate metabolism and for energy production. Sources include breakfast cereals, pasta, rice, nuts, nut butters, and egg.
  • Folate – prevents neural tube birth defects and may protect against heart disease. Foods that provide folate include fortified cereals, spinach, beans, orange juice, and avocado.
  • Calcium – builds and supports the bone structure. Sources include milk, yogurt, tofu, soymilk, fortified orange juice, and cheese.
  • Iron – is part of hemoglobin, which is responsible for carrying oxygen throughout your body. Foods that are good sources of iron include beef, chicken, pork, fortified cereals, leafy greens like spinach, kale, swiss chard.
  • Potassium – helps to maintain normal blood pressure. Sources include banana, orange, spinach, potato, dates (4).

How Do I Use This Information?

The best way to use this information is to find an eating pattern that works for you. The DASH diet or Mediterranean diet, are both food healthy eating patterns. Additionally, more plant-based eating patterns can work (5).

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests implementing their guidelines through use of MyPlate.

MyPlate

MyPlate is a visual guide used to serve as a reminder of healthy eating in accordance with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The visual guides portion size and suggests that half of your dinner plate should be filled with vegetables and fruit. The other half includes your protein source (3 oz of meat, chicken, or fish) and a carbohydrate source (1 cup of brown rice, oats, or other grain) (1).

What Foods Should You Include?

A healthy eating regimen will include foods to eat like:

  • a variety of vegetables in the form of salads, roasted veggies, or mixed in with sauces and soups
  • whole fruits such as banana, apple, orange or berries
  • grains, mostly from whole grains, not refined carbs such as white bread
  • natural dairy including milk, yogurt, cheese
  • a variety of lean meats, chicken, fish, eggs, beans, nuts and seeds, and soy products (tofu or tempeh)
  • sources of unsaturated fats (olive oil, sunflower oil, avocado) (6, 7).

What Foods Should You Avoid?

In order to be successful with a healthy, wholesome food regimen, the following unhealthy foods should be avoided or used in limited amounts:

  • Saturated fat – found in red meats, sausage, bacon, or whole-fat dairy products. Saturated fat is also found in butter, coconut oil, and palm oil. Intake of saturated fats is linked to heart disease. Replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fat is associated with reduced risk of CVD events and CVD related deaths (6).
  • Trans fat – found in products like margarine and other processed foods. Trans fats have been linked to cardiac disease (6) and since many products are now trans fat-free
  • Added sugars – found in desserts and other sweetened products like cereals, flavored yogurts, ice cream, and sweetened beverages (juices, teas, and sodas). Higher intakes of refined carbs have been trending with a higher incidence of diabetes. (8)
  • Sodium – found in many ready-made foods like takeout foods, canned soups, snack foods, and processed deli meats
  • Alcohol – should be consumed in moderation (1 drink per day for women; 2 drinks per day for men)

Portion Size

We tend to be a country of portion distortion. For an example, just look at the options for Big Gulp cups the next time you are in a 7-11.

To guide your portion sizes, these rules can help offer perspective:

  • 1 cup of vegetables or fruit is about the size of your fist
  • 1 cup of cereal, pasta, rice, beans or other grains is about the size of your fist
  • 3 ounces of meat, chicken or fish is about the size of the palm of your hand
  • 1 ounce of cheese is about the size of your thumb
  • 1 teaspoon of butter, mayonnaise, salad dressing, or oil is about the size of your fingertip (4)

Exercise

Physical activity is important to your overall health and wellbeing. Especially if you are trying to lose weight and need to be in a negative calorie balance.

Including physical activity in your regimen is important to lowering body fat and maintaining muscle (9).

The activity doesn’t need to be high intensity but should be an aerobic activity (1).

If you are hoping to increase your physical activity level, find an activity that is fun for you. Walking, swimming or bike-riding are all physical activity. It is also helpful to recruit a friend to join you.

It is recommended that adults do at least 2 ½ hours of physical activity or exercise every week. This should be spread out over the week. For example, 30 minutes of activity over 5 days (1).

The Final Word

The first step to begin eating healthy is to be ready to make changes. There are several ways to chose food for health or to lose weight.

Using MyPlate can be a good starting point to plan what foods to eat. A healthy eating plan includes more plant-based foods, vegetables, and fruits. At the same time, it avoids unhealthy foods like excess meat, junk food, refined sugar, and saturated fat. Familiarity with proper portion sizes will help you eat fewer calories and maintain a healthy weight.

Combining the ability to eat healthy foods with physical activity can help maintain a healthy weight and prevent risk factors for chronic diseases.

The thought of making healthy changes can be daunting but starting with small changes is a step in the right direction. Setting small measurable goals is an effective strategy to hold yourself accountable.

  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8thedition. December 2015. Available at http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/. Accessed May 14, 2020.
  2. Blumenthal JA, Babyak MA, Hinerliter A, et al. Effects of the DASH diet alone and in combination with exercise and weight loss on blood pressure and cardiovascular biomarkers in men and women with high blood pressure. Arch Intern Med. 2010;170(2):126-135.
  3. Diabetes Prevention Program Research Group. Reduction in the incidence of type 2 diabetes with lifestyle intervention or metformin. N Engl J Med. 2002;346:393-403.
  4. Vitamins and Minerals. In: Duyff, RL. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Complete Food & Nutrition Guide. 5thed. 2017. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, New York, NY. Pgs 408-442.
  5. Kahleova H, Levin S, and Barnard N. Cardio-metabolic benefits of plant-based diets. Nutrients. 2017;9:848-861?
  6. Hu FB, Stampfer MJ, Manson JE, et al. Dietary fat intake and the risk of coronary heart disease in women. N Engl J Med. 1997;337:1491-9.
  7. Estruch R, Ros E, Salas-Salvado J, et al. Primary prevention of cardiovascular disease with a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil or nuts. N Engl J Med. 2018;378:25-39?
  8. Gross LS, Li L, Ford ES, and Liu S. Increased consumption of refined carbohydrates and the epidemic of type 2 diabetes in the United States: an ecologic assessment. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004;79:774-9.
  9. Hernandez-Reyes A, Camara-Martos F, Molina-Luque R, Romero-Saldana M, Molina-Recio G, and Moreno-Rojas R. Changes in body composition with a hypocaloric diet combined with sedentary, moderate and high-intense physical activity: a randomized controlled trial. BMC Women’s Health. 2019;19:167-179.
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