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The Complete Beginner's Guide to Healthy Eating (According to a Dietician)

Detrick Snyder
Fit African-American woman eating a salad
Diets come and go, but the commonalities of the ones that work stays remarkably consistent: moderation, real foods, healthy behaviors that help make it stick.

The foods that promote health and foods that don’t can be different from person to person. The only “best diet” is the one that works for you, the one that you enjoy sticking to. 

Doing the work to find the right strategies for you means that you’ll never have to “go on a diet” again.

No matter how you eat now, these evidence-based tips are the common denominator for almost all healthy eating patterns.

Why Should You Eat Healthy?

Most people don’t know just how impactful their diet is for their health. Even if you feel generally well, an optimized diet can take you from good to great relatively quickly.

Do you know someone close to you whose ailing health gets in the way of their life?

What about mysterious symptoms that just won’t go away?

Feeling tired from when you wake up to when you turn off the lights at night?

If there was a pill to help you build muscle and minimize fat at any age, to help keep your blood sugar, pressure, and cholesterol in check, to help you wake up every day refreshed and energized, it would fly off the shelves.

There is no magic pill, but every major chronic disease is related to what you eat. Researchers estimate that more than 1 out of every 5 deaths are related to poor nutrition.

Making the healthy choice the easy choice is bound to produce better health; this guide will walk through the essentials.

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Calories and Energy Balance Explained

Calories are units of energy. Those calories can be broken down into ATP, the way your cells use to make energy, or can be stored as fat. 

Your calorie balance — how many calories you eat and how many calories your body burns — determines whether you’re using that energy or storing it. 

When your calorie balance is tipped to the negative, you lose weight to satisfy the energy demands of your body.  A surplus of calories, on the other hand, leads to weight gain.

Unfortunately, our bodies are extremely effective at storing fat. The two studies show that the average American’s weight gain is driven by a surplus of just 190 to 220 calories per day.

Being effective at storing fat may have been an essential trait for prehistoric humans, but in our modern world, it has backfired to make unintentional weight gain all too easy.

Understanding Macronutrients

Protein, fat, and carbohydrates are the three main macronutrients. 

Gram for gram, these macronutrients are not equal. One gram of carbohydrates has 4 calories, 1 gram of protein has 4 calories, and 1 gram of fat has 9 calories. 

Besides their calorie differences, fats, carbs, and proteins affect your body differently. 

For example, your body burns calories in the digestion process, called the thermic effect of food, “TEF” for short.  Protein has the highest TEF; about 10% of calories from protein are burned just in the digestion process. Carbs are a little lower, and fat has almost no TEF.

Each macronutrient also has a different effect on your hunger and fullness hormones, the way fat tissue is stored and the way muscle tissue is built, and even whether food tastes irresistible or just so-so.

The unhealthy foods that we often overeat have been designed to take advantage of this. One reason processed foods are so tasty is due to their high content of simple carbohydrates and saturated fat, especially when combined with salt and low micronutrient content.

Understanding Micronutrients

If you think of your cells as engines that burn calories from macronutrients, then it’s the micronutrients that oil your calorie-burning motor.

Micronutrients include vitamins, minerals, and essential nutrients that keep your body working smoothly. B vitamins are particularly important for the way they help you to burn calories.

Vitamin B1, thiamine, is essential for burning carbohydrates for energy. Vitamin B2, riboflavin, is the fat-burning vitamin: one study shows that you may need twice as much as the recommended daily amount when you’re exercising and losing weight! 

Organ meats, nutritional yeast, eggs, and almonds are your best sources of these B-vitamins.

Without enough micronutrients, it’s as if you’re driving a car with old, dirty oil. It’s going to result in a slow motor — i.e. slow metabolism — which makes burning fat more difficult.

The Importance of Whole Foods

Look at the difference in nutrition between processed foods and whole foods, and you’ll see that whole foods almost always have more nutrients than their processed counterparts.

In fact, the vitamins that your white flour and cornmeal lost in processing are added back in to prevent nutrient deficiencies.

The nutrients in whole foods help you feel more full on the same amount of calories, provide antioxidants to fight inflammation, and have a positive effect on your gut, your brain, and metabolism. 

Processed foods, on the other hand, are unequivocally linked with poor metabolic outcomes like weight gain and most chronic diseases.

Processed foods aren’t completely bad. They can be an essential source of vitamins for people who can’t access fresh foods. 

And, they can be part of a healthy diet as an occasional treat, so don’t think that you’ll never be able to eat dessert again!

Which foods should I eat?

Any food in its whole form is going to be a step in the right direction when it comes to health.

An apple doesn’t have an ingredients list, you inherently know that it isn’t a processed food. 

Whether that’s an apple or an orange instead of sweets, nuts and fruit instead of a vending machine snack, or whole-grain bulgur instead of white flour, any food in its natural form is fair game on a basic healthy diet.

Foods that are slightly processed are ok, too. Drying, fermenting, grinding, freezing, and canning are essential ways to store food with only minor nutrient loss. Just make sure there aren’t any added sugars!

Which foods should I avoid?

Generally, foods that you don’t recognize in whole form or on an ingredients list are going to be more likely to be overly processed.

Other times, a typical ingredient comes in processed form, which usually means it’s lost some of its nutritional value.

Apple juice is hardly more than sugar water because the fiber and unique plant chemicals have been removed. White flour loses its nutritional content when it is dehulled, bleached, ground, and stored.

Things like deli meat, white bread, chips and crackers, sugar-sweetened drinks, baked goods, sweets, and desserts are all examples of “ultra-processed” foods. 

These make up an astounding 58% of the standard American diet, which helps to explain why our metabolic health is in such dire straits.

Why Portion Control is Important

Putting it all together, whole foods make portion control easier and processed foods make it all too easy to eat too much.

From a calorie perspective, that’s unhealthy, but from a nutrient perspective, it’s even worse.

Whole foods have more water, more micronutrients, and more fiber, adding up to you filling up faster. Your servings look larger, yet they provide fewer calories and more healthy nutrients.

If you take the same amount of calories in fruit or vegetable and compare it to the calories in a candy bar, the difference is obvious. 

Two medium apples have the same number of calories as a single “mini” candy bar. It takes 28 cups of spinach to match that! You can imagine which will fill you up faster!

Whether you’re eating at a sit-down restaurant or getting a quick bite at the drive-thru, be especially careful of the portion size when you’re eating out. At most restaurants it’s all too easy to eat far too many calories, so cut the order in half and take the rest to go!

Making seemingly small decisions like this every day can add up to a huge difference in your weight and your health over time.

How to Tailor Your Diet to Your Goals

It usually doesn’t take a radical shift in your lifestyle to start producing results. Oftentimes, small and consistent changes in your current diet can produce long-term effects on your health. 

Sometimes a dramatic change can even backfire when it becomes unsustainable in the long run. “Crash diets” may lead to rapid results, but those benefits rebound as soon as you fall off the wagon.

If your goal is weight loss, research shows that getting rid of the processed foods in your diet will do wonders.

If your goal is lowering blood triglycerides and blood sugar, a low-carb diet may be the best bet according to a number of studies.

Plant-based oils have many beneficial effects. If you want higher HDL “good” cholesterol, replace the sugars and refined carbs you eat with plant-based oils like avocado, olive, and canola. If you want to lower LDL “bad” cholesterol, replace saturated fats like butter and animal fat with plant-based oils.

For lowering blood pressure, eat less salt and salty foods (like pre-packaged items), and eat more fruits and vegetables rich in potassium, like apricots and spinach.

Talking with a nutritionist, dietitian, or health coach can help you navigate what key changes you should make to achieve your health goals.

How to Stick to a Healthy Eating Habit?

A study that looked at the best tactics across studies showed that the most effective ways to stick with healthy habits are to get social support, set measurable goals, and to track your progress.

Set specific, measurable goals that you can achieve in a timely manner to get the ball rolling on your health.

There are a number of weight loss programs that combine the social element with the coaching aspect to help you achieve better health. 

Otherwise, share your experience with a group of people with similar goals or even just friends or family in order to keep you accountable when the temptations are hard to resist.

Tracking your progress towards a specific goal may be the most effective tactic for keeping motivation up in the long run. Keeping a food and activity log can help you identify positive and negative patterns while reminding you of your goals and your progress so far.

Sticking with healthy eating habits becomes second nature after you’ve had enough experience. Take the first step toward better health and you will never turn back!

Combine Good Nutrition With Other Healthy Habits

Engineer your surroundings to foster better health.

Daily physical activity and exercise play a huge role in how many calories you burn both during your workout and long after. 

Parking further away, taking the stairs, taking regular walking breaks, getting a standing desk, buying weights, and getting a gym pass all represent an investment in your health. 

Muscle mass naturally burns more calories at rest than fat mass and produces better metabolic health (insulin sensitivity, for example), better cholesterol, and improved markers of inflammation.

Eating healthy can help jumpstart other healthy behavior changes, too. You’ll have more energy to do the things you want to, and when one element of your health improves, it’s hard to resist getting better in other ways.

Takeaways

Achieving better health comes down to finding the healthy diet that works best for you, and then setting up your surroundings so that you can maintain your success. 

These are the takeaways you should implement to get started on transforming your health:

  • Cut out the processed foods and choose whole foods, especially fruits and vegetables, to maximize the value from every bite.
  • Calorie for calorie, whole foods provide more nutrients, more water, and fiber, and contribute to feeling full for longer than processed foods do.
  • Change your diet one thing at a time in order to create lasting changes that you can stick with for the rest of your life.
  • The best tactics according to dozens of studies are to set measurable goals that you can achieve, track your progress, and get social support, in person or with our list of top weight loss programs.
  • Once you get the ball rolling, don’t let it stop! Pair healthy eating with healthy physical activity, healthy social interactions, and you’ll have a healthy outlook on life.
Detrick Snyder
Detrick Snyder is a Denver-based dietitian and consultant who loves developing best-in-class content for companies on a mission to promote better health. Detrick brings expertise in clinical research, public health, and evidence-based food-as-medicine practices so that you get the most relevant and accurate content possible.

The information on this site is based on research, but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new diet plan, we recommend consulting with a physician or other professional healthcare provider. Results may vary based on various health factors, individual weight loss plans and adherence to the meal plan.