Nutrition experts dole out a ton of advice about how to eat well—and, most importantly, not lose your mind doing it. But there are some tips that stand the test of time, and that experts themselves follow. (Because yes, they’re human, too.) Here are 10 habits they live by—and that will change the way you eat.
Don’t give anything up
Eat all the foods you enjoy—but the key is to do it in smaller quantities, says Elisa Zied, RDN, who has lost and kept off more than 30 pounds since her highest weight in high school. In fact, she says it’s the number one change she made that’s helped her maintain her smaller frame. “I didn’t want to feel deprived as I had in previous attempts to lose weight,” she says. The worst thing you can do is be too strict, then rebound by overeating because you’re not satisfied.
Always have a plan
It’s easy to get sucked into the lure of the restaurant menu when you’re hungry and everything looks good. You don’t have to order the plain grilled chicken breast with steamed veggies—that would be boring. Order what you’d like, but balance the meal out with the rest of the day, says Zied. If you know you’re going out for a steak and potatoes dinner, go easy on the meat and starch at lunch. Make sure you’re also fitting in healthy fare like whole grains, fruit, veggies, and nuts and seeds in the other meals and snacks that day. That way a hunk of steak won’t derail your diet and you’ll leave happy.
Forget calorie counting
Ditching the habit and instead focus on good-for-you foods, says Frank Lipman, MD, integrative and functional medicine physician, founder of Eleven Eleven Wellness Center and author of The New Health Rules. Instead of how many calories, ask yourself where the food came from and if it’s nutritious. “Healthy, nutrient-rich foods will keep hunger at bay, help maintain stable blood sugar levels, minimize cravings, and help your brain signal your belly when you’re full,” he says. In other words, you don’t have to go through all the trouble of counting.
Don’t eat boring food
Nutritionists are always saying to eat more vegetables, so cook them in a way that takes them from ho-hum to yum. “I even think that steamed veggies can be very boring!” says Ilyse Schapiro, a greater New York City-area registered dietitian. Always incorporate high-flavor add-ons to jazz up veggies, like sautéing with olive oil and garlic, or spraying them with olive oil before throwing them in an oven with salt, pepper, and garlic powder. That way, you don’t equate “healthy” with “tasteless,” a mindset that will knock you off the veggie bandwagon fast. Another tip: buy a spiralizer and make zucchini noodles. Topped off with a rich tomato sauce, you’ll feel like you’re eating pasta.
Prep and store
Even more important than shopping for healthy foods: actually eating them. When you get home from the store or farmer’s market, bounty of fruits and veggies in tow, wash and chop them right away and store in a pretty glass container in your fridge. “Studies show that spending more time on food prep is linked to better eating habits,” says Dr. Lipman. It’s all about convenience—if they’re ready for you, you’ll grab them in a pinch. If not? It’s chips and dip time. You can also do this with other foods, like making a batch of quinoa for the week or roasting a bunch of veggies to throw together for quick lunches.
Eat lunch like a king
You’ve heard to make breakfast the biggest meal of your day, but you may not be that hungry when you wake up. In fact, “your biggest meal should be around noon when your digestion is at its peak and you can feed your body when it actually needs fuel,” says Dr. Lipman. That means you don’t need a huge meal at dinner only to sit and catch up on True Detective and then go to bed. But “big” doesn’t mean burger and fry big. At lunch, emphasize protein and greens, like a hearty bowl of lentil soup and kale salad. Another bonus: after dinner you won’t have the feeling you need to unbutton your pants.
Drop the food guilt
It’s trendy to think “food should be fuel” or that food is something that helps you lose (or, ahem, gain) weight. But thinking only in terms of number on the scale takes away a huge part of what eating is about: pleasure. “If you think of eating as something enjoyable and something you do without guilt or without judging yourself, and you stay active, you’re less likely to overeat, have a better diet, and maintain any weight loss for the long haul,” says Zied. It’s true: feeling guilty about your food choices can undermine weight loss—and even pack on the pounds—while a celebratory mindset gives you more control over your diet and can thwart weight gain, found a 2014 study in the journal Appetite.
Eat the rainbow
Greens, oranges, reds, purples, yellows…you get the picture. Eating the rainbow will supply your body with a range of disease-fighting phytonutrients, and will naturally fill you up to help you cut back on unhealthy foods, says Dr. Lipman. Plus, most adults struggle with getting the recommended five servings a day (though some say seven servings). A worldwide study in 2014 found 58 to 88% of adults don’t hit that mark. Aiming for a diverse intake of produce from all colors of the rainbow will help you boost your intake. In another study, adults who were offered a variety of vegetables ate more of them without increasing the calories at the meal, found a 2012 study.
Know where your snacks are
Sure, you don’t know what you’ll be in the mood for later, and will you even be hungry? Yes, probably. After all, increased snacking is one reason behind the rise in calorie intake over the past few decades, according to a 2011 study in PLOS ONE. “When you leave your office to go find something, that’s when bad choices are made,” says Schapiro. “That’s when a hot pretzel, bag of candy, or donut can look very appealing.” Make sure your desk (or fridge) is stocked with an emergency stash of snacks, like Greek yogurt, individual packs of nuts, dried fruit, and nitrate-free jerky.
Follow the 80/20 rule…kind of
There are two ways you can think about 80/20 eating. One: eat healthy 80% of the time and save 20% for splurges. That’s great because it stresses how eating is not about perfection, and as we mentioned earlier, how it can be pleasurable, too. However, what does that really look like? That might mean having a 150-calorie treat daily, like Schapiro does, or saving it all up for a big meal out on the weekend. Make it work for you rather than stressing out about percentages.
Another spin on the 80/20 rule, says Dr. Lipman: stopping eating when you’re 80% full. That means slowing down and checking in periodically throughout the meal about what your body is saying. Does the food no longer taste great? Are you getting that “I don’t really need any more feeling”? Thinking 80/20 as you eat can help slow you down and be more mindful. Being in tune with your body prevents overeating, he says.