How to Start Eating Healthy: Basic Diet Tools & Principles

    
Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD
Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD

Looking to make a change in your diet but not quite sure how? Here are the basics of healthy eating including science-backed nutrition recommendations and a step-by-step guide to get started.

Healthy Eating Basics

We eat food for two main reasons: energy and nutrition. 

We need energy to fuel our bodies for daily function and movement, and the sole source of energy in the diet is calories. In our food and beverages, macronutrients or "macros" supply all the calories we eat. 

We also need essential nutrients to function properly, and we get these in the form of vitamins and minerals - also called micronutrients

Because all of us need a different amount of energy and certain nutrients in our diets, what is considered healthy eating can often look different for each of us. That being said, the basic principles of a healthy diet can still be applied to most. 

Calorie Control

Understanding calorie needs is not just important for fueling your body, but also plays a crucial role in weight management. 

Weight management ultimately boils down to calorie control. So whether you are looking to lose weight, gain weight, or maintain your current weight, the amount of calories you eat is the most important factor to pay attention to. 

It sounds simple: if you eat more food than you need you will gain weight, and vice versa. But most people don't understand how many calories they should be eating a day. Or how to track their daily intake.

You can use an online calorie calculator to estimate your daily needs. Or you can use a food tracking app to find out your daily energy needs and track your intake all in one place.

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Macronutrients

Macros are all of your calories organized into three different food groups:

The word "macro" means large - thus macronutrients, are nutrients your body needs in large amounts. 

Each macro provides a certain amount of calories per gram and plays a different role in your health and nutrition. 

Protein and carbohydrates have roughly four calories per gram and fat has about nine calories per gram. 

Figuring out how many macros you need can depend on your individual health and fitness needs. But finding the right balance can help you manage your energy levels, mood, appetite, and body composition. 

Counting your macro intake is an easy way to manage your daily calorie intake and help balance your overall nutrition. Using a macro friendly app is a great way to get started!

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Micronutrients

While paying attention to your macronutrient intake will help you manage your calories and balance your diet, the quality of your food choices also matter. 

Micronutrients are nutrients your body needs in small amounts - aka vitamins and minerals. They do not provide calories, but are essential for good health and wellbeing. They also play a supportive role in managing your energy, mood, and appetite.

Looking at micronutrient content of a food or beverage is an easy way to identify how nutritious or "healthy" an option is. The more nutrients a food has, the more nutritious. 

To take this a step further, the more nutrients a food has per calorie, the more nutrient dense it is. Foods that tend to contain little calories and high amounts of micronutrients - like fruits and vegetables are nutrient dense foods.

Other nutritious food groups include whole grains and lean proteins. 

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Meal Planning

Once you understand the basic principles of health eating, the next step is to put it all together into a healthy diet plan. An easy way to tackle this is through meal prep or meal/menu planning. 

Planning your meals ahead of time will not only help keep you on track, but allows you to have more control of the foods you eat, including the portions and ingredients. 

Plus, you're less likely to get caught hungry without healthy options on hand. 

Here are the key steps you'll need to get started: 

  • Step 1 - Figure out your daily calorie and nutrition needs
  • Step 2 - Plan your eating schedule or how many times you want to eat a day
  • Step 3 - Plan meals and snacks to help you achieve your nutrition goals, using simple recipes or pre-cooked options
  • Step 4 - Log your daily food intake to make sure you are staying on track. 

Meal planning can feel overwhelming at first, especially if you are not a great cook. To help simplify it a bit, start with one meal a week - like breakfast or dinner, and work up to more. You can also prep options in advance to cut down on cooking time. 

You can also use this approach when going out to eat by checking out the restaurants menu online and pre-selecting options that fit your diet. 

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Building Healthy Habits

Don't just set goals to improve your health, establish habits and routines that will get you there. 

Focusing only an outcome, like losing weight, decreasing blood pressure, or managing blood sugar, can make change feel even more stressful. Instead, let the outcome be a by-product of the healthy habits you build to get you there and learn to enjoy the process. 

This starts with the right mindset and comes together with small changes that fit your unique needs. 

Mindset 

Change is hard, even when we know exactly what to do to make it happen. It's human nature to go towards what is more comfortable (aka not changing a thing). Not to mention a lot of diets can make us feel too deprived and restricted, which doesn't set us up for long term success.  

Find what is motivating you to make this change and keep your "why" close by for when you need it. Then believe in yourself and remind yourself of the following when you need it: 

  • No matter what happens, try to be patient and kind to yourself. Change does not happen overnight. 
  • Don't go into this with an all-or-nothing approach. Keep it simple and realistic. You will have moments when you don't stick to your plan perfectly and that's okay. 
  • Try not to be discouraged if your progress ebbs and flows. Your progress will not always make sense. This is part of the process. 
  • Don't compare yourself to others. Find the way that works for you and makes you feel good from the inside out. 

Goal Setting

Instead of setting big goals that can feel overwhelming and far away, make smaller more achievable goals that will help get you there. Even the littlest things can add up to big change when you are consistent.

For example, instead of:  "I will lose 50 pounds by next year", try something like... "I will stop drinking soda and start drinking water instead." 

Even though your big goal may stay the same, its the small changes that are going to pave the path to success. Small goals also make change seem easier and are also you key to learning how to enjoy the process.

Keep trying simple habit changes until you find the ones that stick and work best for you. 

While you're at it, make sure your goals are measurable and specific using SMART goal setting

Tracking and Support

The last step to changing your eating habits is tracking your results. How will you know if you are being successful and sticking to your goals if you aren't measuring your progress regularly? 

Tracking apps are a great way to hold yourself accountable when it comes to daily nutrition and fitness goals. Plus, many apps will also allow you to track your weight and other specific habits/goals.

You can also get more support and advice by turning to others who are working on similar goals or who have already been on their own health journey for some time now. Get connected with like-minded individuals on Facebook groups or through other community channels. 

Want more advice on dieting, weight loss, meal prep and more? Check out Trifecta's Fintess and Nutrition blog for more resources. 

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