Healthy eating looks a little different to all of us—and considering we all have different bodies and lifestyles, that’s totally okay. But regardless of your personal preferences, dietary restrictions, or health concerns, are there some across-the-board nutrition rules you should follow? Absolutely.
Trends and gimmicks aside, here are the five laws of healthy eating top dietitians agree will help you stay true to your health and wellness goals long-term.
1. Enjoy Food Without Guilt
Any long-term healthy lifestyle depends on your ability to enjoy the foods you love in a balanced way that never leaves you feeling deprived. “Food should be savored, not feared,” says Keri Gans, R.D.N., author of The Small Change Diet. “No one is saying you can’t eat fries, pizza, and burgers—but maybe sometimes you bake the fries, top the pizza with lots of veggies, or take your burger bun-less.”
To find this balance, most dietitians recommend following the 80:20 rule: 80 percent of the time, you go for the better-for-you foods, and 20 percent of the time you choose whatever your heart desires most.
2. Keep Healthy Food Around At All Times
That said, sticking to healthy eating 80 percent of the time is a lot easier when you have the good stuff on-hand. Think about it: When is it that we find ourselves noshing on greasy drive-thru food or inhaling a Dunkin’ muffin? When we’re starving and desperate for grub, but don’t have any quality options handy.
The solution: Always (always!) have healthy snacks on you. “I keep what I like to call ‘emergency snacks’ everywhere,” says Kelly Jones, M.S., RD., C.S.S.D., L.D.N. “Whole-food bars (like RXBARs) and roasted beans (like edamame or broad beans) are my go-to’s because they provide fiber and protein to hold me over; I have them in my purse, my car, my gym bag, and my work bag.”
3. Fiber, Fiber, Fiber
The more we learn about fiber, the more we realize how crucial it is to our health. A diet rich in fiber helps control blood sugar, decrease cholesterol levels, and improve digestion, says Gans—research has connected higher intake with weight loss and a lower risk of all-cause mortality. The National Institutes of Health recommends women eat 25 grams of fiber a day and men eat 38—but most Americans only reach a measly 15.
Every single snack and meal you eat should offer some fiber, says Gans. Some of the highest-fiber foods out there include lentils, avocados, chickpeas, chia seeds, nuts, and berries—but you’ll score some fiber from all sorts of fruits, veggies, and whole grains.
4. Focus On Protein At Breakfast
Starting the morning with protein helps ensure you last until lunchtime without falling victim to the munchies and makes healthy eating easier throughout the rest of the day. In fact, high-protein breakfasts have been associated with slowed digestion and reduced levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin.
“Many people turn to oatmeal or cereal at breakfast, which can be carb-heavy and lacking in protein,” says Natalie Rizzo, M.S., R.D., who recommends incorporating at least 15 to 20 grams of protein into your morning meal.
Rizzo’s go-to’s include smoothies made with Greek yogurt, hard-boiled eggs with toast, veggie omelets, or even protein bars. “For a quick protein-rich breakfast option on-the-go, I love the new Chobani ‘hint of flavor’ yogurts, which provide 12 grams of protein for just nine grams of sugar,” she says.
5. Don’t Fear Fat
Fat gets a bad rap because it has more calories per gram than carbohydrates and protein (nine calories for fat versus just four for carbs and protein), but that doesn’t mean you should avoid it.
As a matter of fact, research shows that eating healthy fats—think nuts, fatty fish, olive oil, and chia seeds—decreases our production of the hunger hormone ghrelin and prevents blood sugar spikes, so we don’t overeat and feel satisfied for longer after snacks and meals, Rizzo explains. In addition to supporting a healthy weight, fats also help us absorb nutrients, build cell structures, and manage inflammation.
Rizzo loves snacking on guacamole or subbing smashed avocado in for mayo. According to a recent study, adding half an avocado to lunch can increase satiety by 40 percent in the following hours, without affecting blood sugar.
Pin this helpful infographic to keep healthy eating top-of-mind: