Here's a shocker: The world of "health" and "nutrition" is a complicated one. From celebrities promoting detox teas that "flush out your system" (literally) to fad diets that were originally made for epileptic children (lookin' at you, Keto!), it's a lot! Especially if you decide you want to make healthy eating a priority.
But, like, what even is healthy eating? Truth is, we live in a world where one food group is public enemy #1 for decades until a new brand or diet comes out and says you should *only* eat that one thing. What the eff?
But listen, "eating healthy" is about more than just food, says registered dietitian and intuitive eating specialist Laura Iu.
So, no, buying six bags of leafy greens, following a specific eating plan, and never consuming a hot dog again is NOT healthy eating, explains Kylie Sakaida, RD, of Cedars-Sinai hospital in California.
So, uh, where does that leave us? Well, honestly, it's different for everybody. But Iu encourages clients to ask themselves this: What would taking care of myself through food look and feel like? Answer that question as truthfully as you can, then follow the expert-sourced healthy eating advice below and you'll be on the right path.
Ask yourself what you can add to your go-to meals.
Good news! A healthy diet does NOT mean eliminating all of your favorite foods. That's arguably a lot more unhealthy than eating whatever is classified as "junk," says both Iu and Sakaida.
Think about it like this: If you want to try eating more vegetables, aim for adding some extra servings to your favorite meals every so often instead of forcing yourself to eat three or more servings of broccoli daily (can you picture that?! yikes).
"So let's say you're making an omelet, throw in some spinach and onions," explains Sakaida. "If you're looking to incorporate more fruit, apples and peanut butter is the most delicious combo that will also leave you full."
But don't worry, you don't need to rewrite the recipes for all of your favorite go-to dishes, explains Sakaida. "Start off small," she says. "Try out maybe one new recipe a week to experiment with new ways to incorporate more whole foods and balanced meals into your diet."
A personal favorite? Adding peas and pancetta (that last ingredient is healthy for the soul) to a bowl of boxed mac and cheese. Preferably Annie's Shells & White Cheddar, but you do you.
Make sure you're eating all of the things.
"Your diet should include carbohydrates, proteins, and fats," Iu explains. They'll help ya feel full, satiated, and energized throughout the day. Aka, you'll be a functioning human, which is always a good thing.
In case you need a refresher, you can find carbohydrates in rice, noodles, fruit, bread, and many, many other delicious things. Protein is plentiful in charcuterie boards, nuts, chicken nuggets, and the black beans in your burrito. You'll find fat in olive oil, avocado, mayo, butter, and Greek yogurt. The options are basically endless!
You don't have to drop everything and eat "clean."
ICYMI, there are a lot of ~wellness~ brands and influencers out here making people feel guilty for eating processed foods. But categorizing things like cereal and potato chips as "bad" and kale and bananas as "good" is problematic, says Iu. It implies that we need to be rigid about what we eat, she adds.
"All foods have nutritional value," explains Iu. "You're not going to develop a nutritional deficiency just because you don't eat the supposed right kind." Yes, even highly processed white bread has nutritional value. Buy the Wonderbread if you like it.
Whether you top your pasta with tomato sauce from a jar or one you made from scratch with organic tomatoes, you're still getting fiber and vitamins from those tomatoes when you slurp up a nood. So don't be so hard on yourself.
Eat regularly and eat enough.
Skipping meals when you're hungry as a means to "eat healthier" isn't it, says Sakaida. Following a fad diet like intermittent fasting or skipping meals to make up for all the good stuff you ate on vacation last week is basically starving yourself. In turn, your body can retaliate by breaking down your muscle as an energy source and slowing down your metabolism to conserve energy.
The definition of eating enough differs from person to person, says Iu. But the important thing is that you're listening to your body's hunger cues. That might mean eating three meals a day with snacks every couple of hours or not eating breakfast until 11 because your body isn't hungry yet.
While Iu says it might take some time to learn your hunger cues—especially if you've never thought about it before or you've taught yourself to ignore them—checking in with how you're feeling emotionally and physically can help.
Focus on feeling full.
Thanks to food ads and diet culture, we've been taught that capping your daily calorie intake is healthy, but that's just not true, explains Sakaida. "Limiting your calories can take a huge toll on your mental health and lead to disordered eating patterns."
In the end, you want to feel satiated. This could mean going for a second breakfast serving if you're still hungry (the hobbits were on to something), or adding more avocado, rice, or chicken to a salad.
Become friends with the freezer section.
Forget what you've heard about frozen foods, explains Iu. "The reality is that frozen spinach still provides the same nutritional benefits as a fresh batch." Hear that?
And that's amazing since frozen meals can be a lifesaver those days you just can't bring yourself to pull out a pan. But Sakaida cautions that some might not be super filling thanks to the set portion sizes. Consider adding some frozen (or canned or fresh! literally whatever you have in your kitchen!) greens or other extras on top of the premade meal to feel nice and full. It's also a good idea to keep an eye on the sodium levels since too much could contribute to high blood pressure or heart disease, per the CDC.
Prep your meals*
*If you want to.
Ever since Pinterest and 30-second food videos were introduced, the art of meal prepping kinda took over the world. But just because every food vlogger and your Aunt Linda swear by it, it doesn’t mean you need to spend your entire Sunday cooking 21 meals and labeling each Tupperware. Instead, just use meal-prepping strategies to plan your meals for the week, says Sakaida.
Say you want to try out a new fish and veggies recipe you saw online for Tuesday night and you also know that Pasta Wednesdays are aligned with you spiritually. Just make double the amount of veggies for the first dish and then throw the extras in your pasta the next day. Or make a big ol' batch of rice on Sunday night and incorporate that into as many meals as you can until it’s gone! Look at you, meal prep queen!
Don't forget to pat yourself on the back for making a teeny dent in the food waste cycle.
Eat foods that taste yummy.
Seriously! If you don't like broccoli, don't eat broccoli. At the end of the day, you want to fill up on food that you like or are craving (remember when we talked about listening to your hunger cues?). Load up that chicken breast with your favorite herbs and spices and fats before dumping it on some linguine. (My Italian ancestors are crying, but we're not here for the authenticity.)
Sometimes foods like cheese and jam on sourdough bread are calling your name—and you should eat them when they do. Taking those out entirely and swapping in "healthy" things that you actually hate (like zoodles), isn't actually healthy, per Iu. The more you eat foods that you enjoy, the easier it will be to maintain that balanced diet.
Challenge the way you've been taught to approach healthy eating.
Hey, a huge thing to remember is that having a healthy diet and mindset is not about perfection—it's about making it work for you in the long term, explains Sakaida. "Take on what you feel is the most doable for you because that’s going to set you up for success." Yes, even if that's buying a bag of frozen spinach from the freezer section and mixing it into your takeout leftovers.
Another thing to pay attention to while on the road to sustainability: How you're feeling emotionally. "Thoughts carry so much power," says Iu. So start a dialogue with your mind and your body by regularly checking in to make sure you feel taken care of, she adds. Healthy eating is most certainly not linear, but listening to your body will keep you headed in the right direction overall.
KNOW MORE ABOUT YOUR FOOD:
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.
Cosmopolitan Philippines is now on Quento! Click here to download the app and enjoy more articles and videos from Cosmo and your favorite websites!