Having a well-balanced diet can seem fairly complicated. There's so much information out there that it's hard to tell what's right, what's wrong, and what falls somewhere in that murky place in between. Once you start parsing through all of the noise out there about what people should and shouldn't eat, however, you'll find that staying nutritious is surprisingly simple! Here are four things to keep in mind if you're looking to revamp your diet during March (or any other time of year):
1. Set Aside Trends and Myths
It seems like every day a new article comes out claiming X is the new "superfood" and Y is sure to cause our certain demise. Here's the reality: For every story out there that promises acai berries or quinoa is the answer to all nutritional woes, there's another that states that same item is no better than anything else. At the end of the day, good nutrition is a lot more about having a healthy balance of food types than it is about eating one particular food over another. Pay attention to what makes your body feel good, and turn your meal-planning efforts toward that. If you enjoy the latest "superfood", feel free to incorporate it into your diet, but don't convince yourself it's going to be any better for you than the standard nutrient-dense items like spinach, salmon, or grapefruit.
"Fact-check advice before you follow it."
Moreover, don't take what your co-worker heard from his or her "friend's cousin's fiance who's totally a nutritionist" at face value. Even if that info has a kernel of truth, it's worth it to research for yourself to see what, exactly, that kernel is. For example, many people think that cooking vegetables breaks down all of their nutrients. That's not the case – though some nutrients can break down with heat, cooking can also make it easier for your body to absorb different nutrients.
2. Focus on the Right Numbers
Plenty of people track calories, and there's nothing wrong with that. However, focusing on other elements of your diet, such as vitamin intake and macronutrients, can have a huge impact on your overall health. When you focus exclusively on calories, you're only looking at one small part of the healthfulness puzzle. After all, you could eat a reasonable number of calories every day, but if those calories are all in the form of steak and bacon, you're not doing yourself any favors. When you take other information into account, you can create a meal plan that ensures you're eating a well-balanced diet.
You can, for example, focus on your macronutrients: fat, protein, and carbohydrates. A healthy balance of these three nutrients is a diet made up of 45-65 percent carbs, 20-30 percent fat, and 10-35 percent protein. Depending on your health goals, you may want to land on one or the other end of these ranges, but for the average person, anything within these will leave you with a well-balanced diet.
Another great nutrient to focus on is fiber. Many people don't get enough fiber in their diets, which can lead to digestive issues, lethargy, and general poor health. The USDA recommends about 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories you eat each day. To boost this, make sure you eat a mix of both soluble and insoluble fiber. Both of these are fairly easy to find in thin-skinned fruits and vegetables: Just make sure you eat the skin as well as what's inside.
3. Forget Food Guilt
There's a lot of rhetoric out there that encourages you to feel guilty about eating certain foods. Try to fight that – unless you have a medical condition that requires you to avoid certain foods, there's no particular dish that should make you feel guilty for eating it. Snacks, sweets, even flat-out junk food isn't going to devastate your health if part of an otherwise healthy diet and lifestyle. Basically, unless the only thing you ever eat is chocolate cake, you do not have to feel bad about eating chocolate cake.
Even if you only eat cake, however, "guilty" isn't a particularly productive way to feel about that. Instead of shaming yourself into eating healthier, get excited about how healthy you'd be if you focused on nutrition. Eat more nutritionally dense foods because they make you feel good and give you energy, and avoid feeling badly about yourself if you eat something "unhealthy."
Some people even find they're healthier overall if they actively include snacks and treats in their diet. For example, you can decide that you're going to have one serving of chocolate a day. You're not cheating or indulging – it's just what you eat. This lets you have an active hand in what you're taking in, and ensures you still get to have sweets or snacks just for the sake of treating yourself.
4. Take It Slow, Keep It Simple
If you're not currently eating the way you'd like to be, don't try to change your diet all at once. Sudden changes are more likely to lead to giving up than anything else. Although you may feel like jumping to salads for lunch every day or banning "soda" from your vocabulary will make you healthier, even positive changes won't make much of a difference if you're not able to stick with them.
"Small adjustments are more likely to turn into habits."
Instead of changing everything at once, make small adjustments. For example, consider adding a teaspoon less sugar or one fewer creamers to your coffee. Don't just think in terms of taking things out of your diet, either – you can significantly boost your fiber and vitamin intake by adding one extra veggie to your diet each day. These little tweaks to your routine might not feel like much, but that's the whole point. If you can slide healthier choices into your lifestyle without feeling like you're upending your habits, you'll start to build new ones.
Moreover, keep things simple. Base what you do with your food on what you enjoy cooking and eating. Not a fan of green smoothies? Don't make them. Do you think chopping and rinsing your own salad is a pain? Buy the bag mix. Give yourself shortcuts where you can, and focus on making choices that leave you both happy and healthy. Eating a nutritious diet doesn't have to be a huge undertaking.