Your eating habits have a lot to do with your overall health. The types of food you eat can either prevent or speed up certain diseases. Eating healthy doesn’t always mean counting your calories but it does mean being able to differentiate between good and bad choices.

Step 1: Eat Healthy Fats. A huge misconception is that eating fat makes you fat. The actuality is that eating excessive calories makes you fat. Eating too many calories, whether they come from fats, carbs or proteins will cause unwanted weight gain. You shouldn’t cut all fats out of your diet but you should try and get rid of some of the unhealthy ones.

Fats can be broken down into three groups: unsaturated, saturated and trans fats. Unsaturated fats are the healthy kind. Eating them can reduce your risk factors for cardiovascular disease by lowering bad cholesterol levels and increasing the good ones. Sources include vegetables oils (particularly olive and canola oils), avocados, nuts and seafood.

Saturated and trans fats are the unhealthy kind (especially trans fats). Both can increase your levels of bad cholesterol and trans fat can even decrease your good ones. Sources of unhealthy fats include meat, dairy products and foods containing hydrogenated vegetable oils.

While you do need to minimize your intake of bad fats, completely removing all fats from your diet is a bad idea. Fats should account for about 30% of your daily intake (with saturated fats contributing 10%).

Step 2: Eat Healthy Carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy and just like fats, will not make you fat unless you eat an excessive amount. Low carb diets that promote this sort of calorie restriction will harm rather than improve your health.

Carbs can also be split up into healthy and unhealthy groups. Simple carbs, the bad kind, are digested quickly, giving your body a huge influx of energy in a short period of time and lead to overeating. Simple carbs do very little to fill you up which forces you to eat more. Sources of simple carbs include foods that have very limited nutritional value (empty calories) including soda, candy, refined flours, fruit juices and other food whose main ingredient is sugar or high fructose corn syrup.

Complex carbs are digested very slowly. They fill you up which leads to a lower calorie intake, aiding in weight loss. Complex carbs are found in foods that are high in nutrients such as 100% whole wheat products, vegetables, fruit, brown rice, beans and legumes. Carbs should account for 50-60% of your overall daily intake.

Step 3: Eat Healthy Proteins. Proteins are the building blocks of tissues in the body including muscles. When you workout, you cause tiny tears in your muscle tissue that your body repairs during the recovery process. This repair and recovery is what makes you stronger, faster and more muscular. Unfortunately, since a good source of protein is found in meat and animal products, some sources of are loaded with saturated fats (the unhealthy kind).

Healthier sources of protein include meat products that are lean and low in fat such as chicken, turkey, some cuts of beef, seafood, egg whites and low fat dairy. Vegetables and non-animal sources of protein are also low in fat and include soy, nuts, beans and legumes. If you’re trying to gain muscle, protein supplements can also give a boost to your calorie intake. Keep in mind that simply eating more protein does not guarantee that you’ll gain muscle rather than fat. Eating too much protein will lead to unwanted fat gain. Protein should account for 15-20% of your overall calorie intake.

Step 4: Eat Fiber. Fiber has many positive health benefits, but its intake has been well below adequate levels due to the popularity of processed and junk foods. Foods that are high in fiber don’t have a nice texture; if you aren’t used to eating them, they don’t taste very good. This has lead to refined fours in which a lot of the fiber is stripped out in foods such as bread, pasta, cereal and oatmeal.

Fiber can help lower your cholesterol level, aid in weight loss and prevent certain types of cancer. Sources of fiber include vegetables, fruits, 100% whole wheat products, dark chocolate, brown rice, beans and legumes. Foods that are heavily processed generally have less fiber than foods that are raw or cooked at home.

Step 5: Cook Your Own Food. Eating ready made foods, junk foods or restaurant foods over the long run is bad on your wallet and health. The people (or companies) that make these foods sacrifice nutrition for taste. Cooking your own food will allow you to have both.

Generally, the more processing a food goes through, the unhealthier it becomes. By cooking your own food, you can include fresh vegetables, 100% whole wheats, lean proteins and other healthy ingredients. Heavily processed, convenience foods use cheap ingredients which are neither healthy nor fresh to keep costs down and shelf life up. Learning to cook will help you save money and improve your overall health.

Step 6: Take a Multivitamin. Your body has specific needs for each one of the vitamins and minerals. No matter how good your diet might be, it’s nearly impossible to get 100% of your daily needs through food every day. A multivitamin can help you plug the holes in your diet. A multivitamin is not a blank check to justify eating junk. The nutrients found in food are far superior to those found in a supplement. Use a multivitamin to supplement your healthy diet, not replace it.

Step 7: Eat the Right Amount of Calories. Though the types of calories you eat has a huge bearing on your overall health, the number of calories you eat can also affect it. Your calorie balance (the relationship between calories burned and eaten) will determine whether you gain, lose or maintain weight. Eating too much will lead to unwanted weight gain which increases your risk factors for cardiovascular disease, strokes and diabetes. Use the calorie calculator to estimate your daily calorie needs.

Step 8: Give Yourself a Cheat Day. Eating healthy 24/7 can get tiring. You’re always cooking, counting your calories and trying to eat enough fruits & vegetables. After awhile, you need a break. A healthy lifestyle is more than just a temporary diet, it’s a way of life. If there’s an unhealthy food that you love, don’t live without it. Instead, eat it in moderation. If you completely cut out foods that you absolutely can’t live without, your healthy lifestyle will eventually collapse. A cheat day will allow you to enjoy these foods once in awhile and still be healthy. Cheat days are like pressure release valves and can help you stay healthy.

The Bottom Line

Starting a healthy lifestyle doesn’t happen overnight. Make these changes slowly and over a long period of time rather than overnight. By cementing small changes into your life, you’re much more likely to succeed and improve your overall health permanently rather than lose a few pounds and quit.

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