Maintaining a healthy diet that helps keep you well is a matter of developing better eating habits that fit your lifestyle, many registered dieticians agree.
Diets that limit certain food categories - whether carbohydrates, proteins or fats - aren’t practical and can harm your health in the long run. “It’s best to avoid extreme diet choices that you’ll drop after a short time. Taking smaller steps toward a better diet over time tends to lead to long-term success,” says Melanie Rubery MS, RD.
For example, if you aren’t in the habit of chopping up vegetables, not inclined to do so and have a busy lifestyle, buying raw vegetables that require a lot of preparation time might not work well for you. Bagged salad, baby carrots and/or other pre-chopped veggies might be better options. “You want to opt for what is practical for you,” Rubery says.
Rubery is the owner of Healthy Life and Nutrition, which provides online nutrition counseling by registered dieticians. She also has developed a website and app, Nutripilot, that provides tools for developing and maintaining a healthy diet. Nutripilot simplifies diet choices by designating foods “green, yellow or red” as with a traffic signal’s “stop, be cautious or go.” In determining a food’s signal color, nutritional aspects including calorie density, fiber, water, salt and fat are all considered. “You want to avoid the red foods, eat a limited amount of the yellow and build your diet primarily based on the green foods,” Rubery says.
Much of Rubery’s background is in diabetes prevention and management, weight management, and gastrointestinal disorders. While many of her clients want to lose weight for health and/or cosmetic reasons, her focus remains on the foundation of a healthy diet. “I tell people not to worry about counting calories. If they eat a nutritious diet, they will lose excess pounds and stabilize at a healthy weight,” she says.
One of the problems with primarily focusing on calories is that individuals may stay within the suggested amount for weight maintenance or loss, but not get the vitamins and other nutrients they need for overall wellness. Trying to compensate by taking vitamins has limited effectiveness because of all the numerous micronutrients not included in vitamin pills. “If you’re eating empty calories for the most part, it’s not doing you good from a health standpoint,” Rubery says.
One of her key recommendations is to eat at least five vegetables and fruits each day. She also recommends opting for whole grains, unless you are gluten sensitive. Occasional, small servings of nuts can also be helpful in maintaining a healthy diet. “You need a wide variety of healthy foods with a spectrum of vitamins and minerals that promote disease prevention,” Rubery says. “The average person is undernourished.”
She is especially concerned about young people in today’s society who rarely get the recommended quantities vegetables and fruits they need every day and aren’t learning about the value of good nutrition. “We are surrounded by fast foods and processed foods. For some young people that’s all their diet consists of. That’s why we are seeing a significant increase in diet-related health problems in children,” Rubery says.
To reverse this trend adults need to be better role models, choosing foods not solely based on taste, but primarily on nutritional value. “Healthy foods can be delicious. Simple recipes can be used to help introduce more fruits and vegetables to your diet,” Rubery says.
She recommends trying to incorporate at least one fruit or vegetable into breakfast, the most important meal of the day. “If you can get in at least one, that goes a long way in starting the day right, helping you more easily consume at least five vegetables and fruits by day’s end,” Rubery says.
While detox diets, including fasting, are popular these days, Rubery believes that for the most part they are unnecessary. “The body is constantly detoxing itself through natural means,” Rubery says. “You have to be especially careful about fasting because you lose needed electrolytes.”
Rather than deeply restricting food choices to detox, Rubery recommends taking in adequate amounts of fiber, at least 25 to 35 grams a day, and water. Fiber not only helps detox the body, but also gives one a sense of fullness and more satisfaction at meals. In addition, it’s been shown to help lower blood pressure and blood glucose levels. “Unless you’re eating those five vegetables and fruits, it’s doubtful you’re getting near enough fiber,” she says.