No matter your background or food preferences, if you are working to build a healthy lifestyle, you can implement these five simple steps to better nutrition right now!
According to the American Psychology Association’s annual stress survey, nearly 40% of Americans gained weight. The average results? A whooping 29 pounds of pandemic weight gained!
This means, now more than ever, people are paying attention to their health. During the pandemic, Americans are now trying to take charge of their nutrition and lifestyle for better nutrition.
What does better nutrition really mean?
The definition is a little tricky and there is no one-size-fits-all with nutrition! Everyone has different dietary requirements and different goals when it comes to health and wellness.
So, what makes up a nutritious diet for you?
While everyone has unique needs, the majority of people will benefit from adopting these basic nutrition habits into their lifestyle.
A healthy diet should make you feel your best: your diet should give you plenty of energy, a regulated appetite, and decreased cravings when you are adding or subtracting things on your plate! Also, the changes that you make should feel sustainable – like you can keep doing them forever!
Consider a typical weight loss diet: you restrict your food intake, feel cranky and tired, and maybe lose weight during the process. However, almost all diets are short-lived. Which means, many people actually gain the weight back (and then some) after restrictive diets.
If you are ready to stop dieting once and for all, check out these simple steps for better nutrition!
Step 1: Prioritize Protein for Better Nutrition
Our first step to better nutrition is prioritizing protein!
Protein tend to get a big rep in the nutrition space because this macronutrient is quite powerful at its job: keeping you full, assisting in weight loss, and building lean muscle mass! If that’s not a winning combo, I don’t know what is!
Ever notice on the days when you grab carb-only foods for breakfast, you end up feeling sluggish and tired way before lunch time? That’s probably because you lacked a protein source!
Protein is one of the macronutrients that takes the longest to digest. Longer digestion means more time in our stomach keeping us full between meals! Protein is a superstar at keeping our appetite regulated throughout the day by increasing feelings of fullness and satisfaction throughout the day!
Some examples of protein include animal products like chicken, pork, fish, beef, and turkey. There are many vegetarian-based protein sources as well like yogurt, eggs, peanut butter, and beans. A combination of both animal-based sources and vegetarian-based sources of protein will likely work well to help meet your protein needs!
In general, for weight loss goals, your protein needs increase to help keep you full and prevent losing muscle mass during a period of calorie restriction.
If your goal is weight loss, don’t skimp on protein. Work with a dietitian to figure out your unique protein requirements!
While increasing protein is great, you’ll want to include it as part of a balanced meal or snack. You can prioritize protein by adding it to meals and snacks without necessarily taking anything else away.
Consider increasing your protein by using the “nutrition by addition” philosophy, and see how you feel!
Step 2: Swap Your Sweets for Healthy Nutrition
It’s no secret that sugar causes poor health outcomes for many of us. Sugar is in a lot of obvious options like soda, candy, and dessert. Sugar is also sneakily found in foods that are health-conscious options too!
Consider swapping the sweet stuff to take the next step for better nutrition!
You might find sneaky sugars in your cereal, yogurt, snack bars, and condiments! Once you start paying attention, you can even find extra sugars hidden in food products that look like healthy foods!
The US Dietary Guidelines recommend keeping extra calories from the sweet stuff to a minimum: roughly consuming 100 calories or less per day from added sugar! For women, the guidelines recommend 24 g of added sugar or less per day and for men, it’s 36 g of sugar or less per day.
That’d roughly 8 grams of added sugar per meal for women and 12 grams per meal for men!
To put these numbers in perspective, that’s equivalent to 2-3 tablespoons of ketchup, a small serving of cereal, a standard protein bar, or a couple tablespoons of your favorite salad dressing! If you are doing more than these servings per meal, you are likely exceeding the dietary guidelines for sugar at your meals!
Sugar negatively affects our health and our waistline: excess sugar in the diet has been linked to increased inflammation, diabetes, weight gain, and heart disease.
Reducing sugar is a challenge, but we are here to help!
Consider some simple swaps for added sugar in your diet:
- Make your salad dressings at home with oil, vinegar, and herbs
- Swap cold cereals for oatmeal in the mornings
- Choose plain, Greek yogurt and add your own fruit to sweeten it
- Swap sweet beverages for hot tea, sparkling water, or the diet version to wean yourself off
- Use natural sweeteners like allulose, stevia, and monk fruit to replace added sugar when cooking
- Portion size condiments like ketchup, marinades, and dressings to decrease added sugars
Another simple way to start decreasing your sugar intake is to create awareness by reading nutrition labels! Let’s walk through how to read nutrition facts on your favorite products!
Step 3: Check the Labels for Better Nutrition
Next step, read the box for better nutrition!
Here’s a secret: most people feel confused by nutrition labels! When you first flip that package around, it’s normal to feel a sense of overwhelm at all the numbers, percentage points, and ingredient lists!
Simplify reading nutrition labels by focusing on a couple things to get started. Especially when comparing two products, you will want to keep it simple by honing in on one or two nutrition facts to make your decision easier.
As a general rule for health, you want to focus on products that are low in calories, balanced in nutrients, low in added sugars, and have a small ingredient list.
Let’s break these down:
- Low in calories: Calories are relative! How many calories you need varies dramatically from person to person and even changes day to day. However, if you are trying to choose between two products that seem comparable, go with the lower calorie option for your health!
- Balanced in nutrients: What does balance look like? You can find true balance when you have a mixture of the macronutrients at your meal or snack: protein, carbs, and healthy fats. While looking at the vitamins and minerals list can be informative, it might be a distraction from picking a truly balanced option that will keep you full!
- Low in Added Sugars: New labels have a fun new feature under the ‘Total Carbohydrate’ section. These labels show both the sugar content and the added sugar content. This makes it so much easier for you to differentiate between foods that naturally have some sugar – like yogurt or tomato sauce – from foods that have extra sweet stuff added during processing. As a general rule, choose products with single digit grams of sugar!
- Small ingredient list: Ingredient lists can tell us a whole lot about the quality of the product! Products with shorter ingredient lists tend to be higher quality due to choosing whole ingredients. You’ll want to steer away from products that have mile-long ingredient lists or ingredients that contain unfamiliar words.
Step 4: Add More Color for Your Health
Step up your nutrition game with fresh fruits and veggies!
Sometimes, it’s best to think about what we can add to our plates instead of what we must take away. Adding colorful fruits and veggies to your plate is a brilliant way to increase your nutrition at any given meal!
Colorful foods are chock full of vitamins and minerals. In fact, each color correlates with a different nutrient! For example, orange correlates with vitamin C and carotene, green correlates with an increase in magnesium and vitamin K, and blue/purple fruits and veggies have vitamin C and anthocyanin.
Increasing your colors on your plates guarantees better health and can improve everything from increasing fullness to improving inflammation. Fruit and veggies have tons of nutrition by providing vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
These nutrients help:
- Fight cancerous cells in our body
- Neutralize oxidized cells
- Promote anti-inflammatory processes
- Keep us full longer
- Assists with sustained weight loss
- Improve digestion
- Benefits blood pressure
Antioxidants are compounds that help reduce inflammation and help fight cancer cells! Oxidation – a process that damages cells – can increase inflammation. Antioxidants from colorful foods actually repair this damage!
Fruits and veggies are also a potent source of fiber in our diets. Eating enough fiber – especially soluble fiber – can improve digestion and help keep you full longer between meals.
Research shows that colorful plates help with healthy weight loss and maintaining weight loss. Due to keeping us full longer, these foods are powerful appetite regulators!
Lastly, blood pressure also benefits from these colorful options. Fruits and veggies are naturally high in potassium, an electrolyte that helps regulate blood pressure naturally!
In fact, the DASH diet found that increased amounts of colorful foods in the diet are associated with dramatically lower blood pressure and may decrease your need for hypertension medication.
Step 5: Count the Carbs for Better Nutrition
Carbohydrates have a confusing reputation! Sometimes they are vilified, and other times they are regarded as vital to a healthy diet!
In reality, it is a nuanced answer: carbs aren’t all bad, but quality matters.
Carbs are a quick source of energy. This means they are digested fast and absorbed into our bloodstream as blood sugar. This blood sugar gets put to use right away.
So, what counts as a carb? Carbohydrates are actually quite broad: they include everything from sugar to pasta to green peas! Carbs are in quite a few types of foods.
Carbohydrate sources include:
- Fruits: All fruit has a naturally occurring carb – fructose!
- Grains: These carbs come from wheat, rice, oats, and other whole grains. Most of these products are morphed into breads, pasta, cereals, and crackers!
- Starchy veggies: Most vegetables don’t have enough carbs to be considered starchy, but potatoes, corn, beans, lentils, and peas certainly qualify!
- Dairy: Milk and yogurt are the main sources of carbs from dairy products.
- Sweets: Ranging from juice to dessert, these hyper-sweet foods are sure to have carbs!
The best carbs for our health are called complex carbs. These are starches that have a high fiber content because they have not been processed to remove their outer layers of fiber from the grain’s bran. These carbs are foods like whole grains, fruits, and starchy veggies.
Not only do complex carbs have more fiber, they also are less processed and contain their natural vitamins and minerals – part of what makes them so healthy for us! In other words, focus on complex carbs to step up your nutrition game.
Since carbs give us quick energy, it’s important to choose high-fiber options and pair them with other macronutrients to balance them out. Pairing carbs with a protein source, healthy fats, and lots of colors can help slow down digestion, keep you full longer, and can improve your health!
We need carbs for balanced meals, but remember to choose whole grains and starchy veggies as often as possible.
If you are wondering if you need to cut carbs from your diet, take a look our take on whether or not that is necessary!
Hopefully these simple steps to better nutrition habits got you thinking about what parts of your diet could use a boost! When in doubt, keep it simple.
Focus on just one new step to implement at a time! Don’t overwhelm yourself with too many nutrition goals.
Find balance by prioritizing protein, adding color, and counting your carbs!