5 easy ways to make your diet healthier

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published April 20, 2021

Key Takeaways

In the quest for a healthier diet, the prospect of overhauling and monitoring every single food choice may seem daunting. Fortunately, taking such drastic steps is usually unnecessary.

Instead, you can start improving your diet with small changes that yield a big difference, said Isabel Maples, MEd, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, in an interview with MDLinx.

“Make eating healthier one step at a time, instead of making a major overhaul,” she said. “For example, if the goal is to eat more whole grains, change food choices little by little. Start by adding just one more whole grain serving than you’re including now. You could start with whole wheat sandwich breads, corn tortillas, or whole-grain pasta. You can swap out white rice for brown, wild, or colored rice. Or, try a new-to-you grain, like farro, sorghum, barley, or bulgur.” 

In addition to simple substitutions like these, Maples recommends the following tips for improving your diet. 

Switch up your proteins

Although most Americans consume enough protein, improvements in overall nutrition can be achieved by mixing up protein sources, including the addition of seafood, according to Maples.

“Swapping more fish and shellfish into meals means more omega-3 fats and less saturated fat, which could help keep blood flowing to nourish the heart and the brain,” she said. “Reach for dairy foods more often, especially low-fat milk, cheese, and yogurt. Dairy foods are rich in three of the four nutrients that Americans are most likely to miss out on—potassium, calcium, and vitamin D. Don’t discount the protein contribution, too, from plant foods (eg, beans, peas, lentils, nuts/seeds, soy, quinoa, and other whole grains). These foods can boost fiber and key nutrients like magnesium and vitamin E. For an inexpensive meal, consider eggs which are also rich in phytonutrients like lutein and zeaxanthin, which can help protect eyesight.”

And while Americans undoubtedly like their red meat, there are plenty of healthy protein alternatives to round out a healthy diet.

Aim for variety

Maples stresses that variety can make a diet healthier. A simple place to start may be with your choice of fruits, as they require little preparation.

“Different types of fruits offer a mix of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Try new fruits seasonally. Make most of your fruit choices whole fruit, instead of juice, to maximize fiber. Keep frozen, canned, or dried fruits on hand when fresh fruits aren’t in season,” she said.

“At least every once in a while, try less familiar fruits like papaya, figs, guava, star fruit, ugli, and prickly fruit. Cut up large fruit, like a melon or pineapple, so it’s ready to eat. Pack dried apricots or dates in your desk. Blend frozen or fresh fruit into a smoothie,” she added.

But don’t discount more run-of-the-mill fruit staples. For example, while citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruits, lemons, and limes may not seem exotic, they are packed with health-boosting bioactive ingredients including essential oils, alkaloids, flavonoids, limonoids, coumarins, carotenoids, and phenolic acids. Here’s a look at several studies examining the anti-inflammatory, anticancer, neuroprotective, metabolic, and cardioprotective properties associated with citrus fruits.

Make time for breakfast

More recently, intermittent fasting has become all the rage. But aside from this strategy, for most people, breakfast is still incredibly important.

“According to research,” said Maples, “a regular morning meal is positive nutrition, linked to better overall health, better diet quality, a healthier body weight, and more. If you find yourself snacking too much at night, the first improvement may be to start eating breakfast. Is breakfast the most important meal of the day? Not necessarily—it’s hard to say that one meal is more important than another—but breakfast can provide fuel, fluids, and focus.”

Meanwhile, researchers continue to explore the value of daily breakfast consumption and its effect on energy levels and weight loss. Learn more about these studies here.  

Limit the extras

Life is meant to be enjoyed. Every once in a while, it’s OK to indulge your sweet tooth. But, the key is moderation, according to Maples.

“There’s room in most diets for a small amount of sugar and saturated fat … bacon added to a sandwich or salad … a cookie or sugar in breakfast cereal,” she said. “Foods high in sugar and saturated fat can taste good but too much of a good thing is linked with health risks. To keep these ‘extras’ to a minimum (less than 10% of calories), make tradeoffs. Skip the butter and sour cream on a baked potato to enjoy a small dish of ice cream. Top pancakes with sliced peaches instead of syrup to save for sugar in hot tea. Make pizza with reduced-fat mozzarella cheese to save fat for a cookie later.”

Prepare your own meals

Many take-out options are notoriously unhealthy. To wrest control of your diet, a good idea is to prepare your own meals. By controlling the ingredients and their amounts, healthier choices abound.

“Mixed dishes (including pizza) account for 44% of the sodium most Americans consume,” said Maples.

To lower sodium, Maples recommends the following steps:

  • Prepare food from scratch at home, so you are in control of the sodium content.

  • Choose fresh, frozen (without sauce), or no-salt-added canned vegetables. Choose fresh meat, poultry, and fish rather than processed meat or poultry. 

  • Limit sauces, mixes, or instant products like flavored rice, instant noodles, and ready-made pasta. 

  • Add herbs, spices, and citrus juice in cooking, to help cut back on salt without sacrificing flavor.

Finally, try to focus on eating foods that leave you feeling fuller longer so that you don’t over-consume. The best way to do that is to aim for low-energy dense foods—ie, foods that don’t pack a lot of calories into each bite—such as fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products, and lean proteins, to name a few. 

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter