In the world of nutrition, most experts agree: There’s no such thing as “good” or “bad” foods. Moderation and consistency over perfection is key to establishing a healthy relationship with food and reaching your goals.
But it is possible to have some bad habits surrounding the way you eat — whether you’ve grown accustomed to dinner dates with Netflix, you’re a midnight snacker, or you’re simply not making enough time for meals throughout your workday. Fortunately, creating positive habits (and, in turn, an even healthier diet) isn’t as hard as you think.
Registered dieticians share the common mistakes they see their clients making and how to put together a solid nutritional routine to instill healthy habits for life.
It may seem obvious, but you aren’t going to cook at home if you don’t have anything to make. Getting groceries is a huge pain point for many people, and so they tend to avoid it. But sometimes to build the habit all you need to do is shift your schedule slightly so you can go when it’s less crowded, or find a new store that offers a more pleasant experience. Since grocery shopping is essential to be healthy, it’s worth investing some effort into making sure it’s something you will actually do.
The fix: To make trips to the store more efficient, plan your meals ahead of time and write down a list of exactly what you need. Don’t forget to shop the middle of the grocery store, too, for pantry items (see #2).
While keeping a stocked pantry is related to grocery shopping, it serves a slightly different purpose so it’s worth mentioning separately. If the only fresh item you have is an onion, a stocked pantry is enough to get dinner on the table and help you cut back on takeout. Chances are, though, you also have a zucchini, an aging crown of broccoli and a few eggs. It doesn’t take much to turn those things into a delicious meal.
The fix: Stock your pantry with healthy picks like dried grains, beans and lentils, canned tomatoes, dried herbs, coconut milk, tuna, salmon, sardines and even pasta. Extend this logic to your freezer and keep a supply of frozen veggies, lean meats and leftovers and it’s even easier.
It might surprise you that only 9% percent of Americans meet their veggie requirements every day. Under-consuming these powerful plant-foods is a serious disservice to your health. “Vegetables offer a myriad of benefits from anti-inflammatory and immune-protecting antioxidants, to gut-healthy fiber, as well as various micronutrients ranging from vitamin A to zinc,” says Lisa Moskovitz, RD. Putting more veggies on your plate can also help crowd out less nutritious choices to support your weight-loss goals.
The fix: Start every day with vegetables: savory oats, scrambles and breakfast burritos are all great options. “Many people don’t eat their first veggie until dinner time — and then it’s just a small portion on the side of their plate, if that,” says Sharon Palmer, RDN. By fitting vegetables in early on — and then with every meal and snack (hummus with veggies, snow peas with tahini, a side salad, stir-fry, veggie pasta dishes, tacos) — you build them into your day from the start, naturally allowing you to fit more in (and making eating them a tasty habit).
If you’ve ever had an out-of-season tomato, you know it’s bland flavor can’t hold a candle to a juicy, melt-in-your mouth ripe summer tomato. Discovering seasonal vegetables can be life-changing and help veggie-haters add more to their plates.
The fix: Try shopping at your local farmers market. Not only is in-season produce tastier, it’s often more nutritious since veggies lose nutrients the longer they sit on shelves or travel. It’s worth spending extra time and money to find good produce if you want to have any chance of actually eating it.
It’s common to eat while mindlessly scrolling through social media, checking your email or watching a TV show. The problem is “it’s very easy to overeat when you eat in front of a screen,” says Ilyse Schapiro, RD, a New York and Connecticut-based dietitian. “When we’re distracted while eating, it takes longer for our bodies to register we’re full. We also don’t taste the food as well because we are more focused on what’s on the screen than on our plate.”
The fix: Make mealtime something you look forward to. Leave the screens off and instead sit down with a loved one to share a meal or try lighting candles to spice up your table setting. Pro tip: Enjoy your food more by chewing slowly and embracing the flavors, suggests Schapiro. This can help keep you present, which can ultimately prevent you from overeating. Your shows will still be there.
Skipping meals isn’t doing much for your productivity — it can leave you feeling sluggish, moody, hungry and even slow your metabolism, says Schapiro. “Your body is literally playing catch up.”
The fix: Schedule your meals like you would meetings — breakfast within 60–90 minutes of waking up and then meals to follow every 3–4 hours, suggests Shapiro. If you’re prone to skipping them, placing meals (even if it’s just a reminder to eat lunch) in your calendar much like you would can’t-miss events ensures they’ll always have a place in your day-to-day schedule. Another great strategy: Dedicate one weekend day to meal prepping. You can start slowly and prep the meal you’re most likely to skip, such as breakfast, and go from there.
It’s easy for hydration to fall by the wayside when you’re busy with work, exercising, parenting and eating healthy. However, if you’re dehydrated, your body can confuse thirst for hunger, leading you to overeat (not to mention dehydration can leave you feeling dizzy, tired, confused and can cause headaches), says Schapiro.
The fix: Invest in a water bottle you like (preferably one that keeps your drinks cold all day long). Not only are they better for the environment, but having a visual cue can also encourage you to keep sipping. If you’re bored of plain water, seltzer is just as hydrating (so long as the bubbles don’t bother you). You can also add lemon or other fruits to infuse extra flavor, helping you keep up with your goals. To make sure you’re hitting your hydration goals, consider tracking your hydration with an app like MyFitnessPal.
While takeout food can be convenient and enjoyable, over-relying on it can make it difficult to feel your healthiest, says Moskovitz. “Not only are portions typically larger when restaurant-sourced, but the amount of oil, butter, salt and added sugar in the meal can be significantly higher than what you would prepare at home.”
The fix: Befriend your freezer and start meal prepping to cut back on takeout meals. “It might sound like a lot of work but it’ll keep you from feeling like you need to cook all the time or dialing up your local pizza place,” says Moskovitz. When your freezer is packed with frozen fruit, veggies, lean meats and leftovers, you’ll always have options to choose from, too. “Making larger quantities you can portion out for a few days will keep things stress-free and help you on your wellness journey.” Then, cut takeout to two or three times a week, make sure your picks have plenty of protein and vegetables in them (don’t be afraid to ask for swaps), and if you have extras, save them for leftovers or to mix in with your meal prep.
It’s not easy to admit, but how many times have you decided not to cook just because the kitchen was a mess? Mustering up the desire to cook after a long day is hard enough without having another huge, unpleasant task in front of you that needs to be taken care of first. And chances are nobody in your household is any more excited to do it than you are.
If you aren’t careful, a messy kitchen can become the unconscious reason for days of unhealthy food choices. That means cleaning the kitchen is one of those things that you need to make yourself (or someone) do before it’s time to cook again.
The fix: Learn to clean as you cook, so by the time the meal is over, there are only a few remaining dishes to clear, and the task isn’t so daunting. It gets done the same night, and the next day you’re rested and ready to start again.
The mantra “eat less and move more” is touted as the end-all-be-all for getting health and losing weight. The truth is, it’s much more nuanced, and factors like stress, hormones and genetics all play a role. There are dozens of subconscious reasons for food choices. One we haven’t mentioned yet is being really hungry, which is what happens when your body needs fuel.
If you over-exercise, your hunger levels can lead you to reach for large portions of calorie-dense foods to feel satiated. Over time, this can lead to weight gain. Unless you’re training to compete at a serious level, there’s no good reason to push yourself to extremes when working out.
The fix: Being active is enough for good health, and it should be whatever type of exercise you enjoy. If you’re doing it for pleasure instead of punishment, you won’t use it as an excuse to “reward” yourself with a super burrito.
Skimping on sleep not only leaves you feeling tired and in a brain fog the next day, but it can also negatively affect your waistline. A recent study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found people (particularly women) with worse sleep quality (or a lack of sleep) ate more — including more foods with added sugar — throughout the day than those who slept well. Sleep deprivation can mess with hormones responsible for regulating hunger levels, leading you to overdo it the next day.
The fix: Take your sleep seriously and aim for at least 7–9 hours a night. Paying attention to your sleep environment (a cool room, no blue light from electronics) and what you eat or drink before sleep can make a big difference. Try this pre-bedtime routine to help you wind down at night and get quality zzz’s.
Originally published September 2015, updated with additional reporting by Cassie Shortsleeve