‘Eating healthy’ means something a little different to everyone. But no matter what your lifestyle looks like, there are a few across-the-board no-no’s you should avoid in order to make a nourishing diet stick. Here are five mistakes nutritionists see people make time and time again—and how to correct them.
1. Deeming Certain Foods Off-Limits
“The biggest mistake that I see people make when trying to eat healthy is eliminating things entirely from their diet,” says Anne Mauney, M.P.H., R.D., blogger at fANNEtastic food. Sure, you can avoid specific foods—or even entire food groups—for a while, but doing so sets you up for failure in the long run because deeming anything off limits automatically makes it more appealing.
It also creates guilt around food, which can lead you to overeat once you do give in to your craving. “I call it the screw it mentality—when you eat something you’re not ‘supposed’ to have and say, ‘screw it, I’ve already failed and started eating this, so now I’d better eat a ton of it because I’m never having it again,’” Mauney says.
Instead of focusing on what you have to eliminate from your diet, think about what you can add instead. These should be things that can improve your health, like adding protein to your breakfast or veggies to your lunch, or drinking more water throughout the day. “When you frame eating healthy in a positive versus a negative manner, it’s much more sustainable long-term,” Mauney says.
2. Going All-Out On Grains
Quinoa, amaranth, and other ancient grains are all the rage right now because they contain more protein than many other grains. But just because they fit into a healthy diet doesn’t mean they should be at center stage, says Ariane Hundt, M.S., a clinical nutrition coach in New York City.
“We’ve been told by the government’s dietary guidelines to eat lots of grains, but the truth is that humans survived for thousands of years without them and we were healthier for it,” she says.
“Loading up on lots of quinoa, rice, bread, and grains will not only slow fat loss, but can also cause various digestive system issues and immune system challenges,” Hundt explains. Anti-nutrients found in grains, like gluten and gliadin, can damage the lining of your gut. Eventually, they can contribute to leaky gut syndrome, in which the integrity of the gut is compromised and undesired substances can leak into the bloodstream, create inflammation, and turn the immune system against itself, she says.
Plus, today’s grains are quite different than the grains of a few decades ago. “They’re now much more loaded with pesticides and herbicides, which can disrupt our endocrine system and hormonal balance,” Hundt adds. They also promote a greater blood sugar spike and insulin response, which promotes fat storage.
You don’t have to avoid grains altogether; just consider them more of a treat, and stick to whole grains in their original form as much as possible.
3. Swearing Off Frozen Foods
Just because fresh, in-season foods are good for you doesn’t mean you should only eat fresh foods, says Brigitte Zeitlin, M.P.H., R.D., owner of BZ Nutrition.
That’s why Zeitlin suggests making the most of the frozen foods aisle—especially if you’re trying to save some cash, since frozen foods are often less expensive. “Save your fresh produce dollars for the veggies you want to eat raw, like [those] in your salads,” Zeitlin says. Use frozen fruits in smoothies to give them a thicker consistency, and add frozen veggies to stir-frys, egg scrambles, and cauliflower fried rice for quick, nutritious meals.
Whether fresh or frozen, Zeitlin recommends splurging on organic for produce on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list, which lists the fruits and vegetables most likely to be contaminated by pesticides.
4. Going Overboard On Bars
While meal replacement bars and protein bars designed to fuel your adventures and workouts can be good grab-and-go options, they’re not necessarily the best snack for when you’re sitting at your desk, says Zeitlin.
Our bodies feel way more satisfied when we eat actual real foods, so “more often than not, bars leave us looking for more,” she says.
Zeitlin’s rule of thumb: Save the bars for when you need something quick, and look for one that contains five grams of sugar—or less—and lists ingredients you can easily identify and pronounce. (Good options: Bhu Fit Paleo Double Dark Chocolate Chip bar and No Cow Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip bar.)
5. Snacking On Too Much Fruit
As soon as you decide to jump on the healthy eating wagon, what do you turn to? Fruits and veggies. Though many of us struggle to get all of our daily vegetables in, most of us have no problem going to town on the sweeter stuff.
Maybe you start the day by blending a banana into your smoothie, then have yogurt and berries as a mid-morning snack, an apple and nut butter with lunch, and a grilled peach for dessert. While none of these options is necessarily bad on its own, eating them all in one day is another story. “Fruit contains fructose, a type of sugar that bypasses your blood stream and heads right to your liver, where it’s readily converted into fat,” Hundt says. In fact, if you eat 120 calories of fructose (about one cup of dried fruit), your body converts about 40 of those calories into fat, she says. Eat 120 calories of veggies, though, and only one of those calories becomes fat.
Another issue with fructose: It doesn’t signal your brain that you’ve eaten something, so you probably won’t feel full after just one serving of fruit and are more likely to overeat, Hundt says.
If you’re really jonesing for some natural sweetness, go ahead and have a serving of fruit (see mistake number one). Try to stick to two servings a day and opt for low-fructose varieties, such as berries, watermelon, kiwi, and grapefruit.