Since 1980, the government-issued Dietary Guidelines for Americans have been the de facto bible of healthy eating. They’re updated every five years based on an ever evolving body of nutrition research, but despite constant headlines proclaiming breakthroughs in diet science, they haven’t changed all that much in the past four decades. Nutrition science is always moving forward, sure, but the basic principles of healthy eating hold steady.
While some people are coming around to the idea that fad diets don’t work, that so-called superfoods aren’t magic, and that healthy eating looks different for everyone, it’s easy to get confused about what advice to follow—and what diet habits to avoid. Here’s what you need to know about how to eat well, without obsessing over details or feeling guilty about food.
Prioritize Unprocessed Foods
The key recommendations of the most recent guidelines are to eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, lean proteins, nuts, and seeds, and to limit saturated fats, trans fats, added sugars, and sodium. Food activist and author Michael Pollan famously simplified these principles even further: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
“Whole foods have stood the test of time and have repeatedly been shown to be healthy,” says Shivam Joshi, an internal-medicine physician at the New York University School of Medicine whose research focuses on nutrition. “They improve cholesterol and blood-sugar levels and reduce the risk of several chronic diseases.” When foods are processed, he says, they’re generally stripped of important micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), as well as fiber. At the same time, sugar, salt, and fat are often added to make processed foods taste better and go down easier, he says. So these foods are less nutritious, and we tend to eat them in larger quantities.
This isn’t to say that processed foods need to be avoided at all costs. “Make processed foods the exception, not the rule,” says Kristen Gradney, a registered dietitian in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Abandon Diets and Labels
A fad diet or weight-loss program might yield some early results, but science overwhelmingly shows that diets just don’t work long-term. A 2013 review in Social and Personality Psychology Compass looked at several comprehensive weight-loss studies and found that most people regain lost weight within a few years; in fact, a 2011 review in Nutrition Journal found that dieting can actually lead to weight gain.
What’s more, diets typically come at a mental, financial, and social cost. “Diets are usually labor-intensive and take a lot of money and/or a lot of time,” Gradney says. This isn’t sustainable and doesn’t leave people with the skills they need to actually eat healthfully. She recommends steering clear of any program that promises quick or easy weight loss, requires a “magic” product, or comes with a complicated set of guidelines or steps that must be strictly followed.
Even when it comes to plant-based diets, like vegetarianism and veganism, it probably isn’t necessary to be so extreme. Joshi himself is a vegan, but he doesn’t prescribe veganism or vegetarianism to his patients. Instead, he tells them to eat mostly unprocessed, plant-based foods and to eat animal foods sparingly. “No research has really been able to show that going full-on vegan is better,” he says.
Just because traditional diets don’t work doesn’t mean there’s no way to improve your relationship with food or no value in learning to eat in a way that makes you feel better. Since dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch published Intuitive Eating in 1995, many others have adopted the approach for their clients and themselves. The idea is to get in tune with your body’s particular wants and needs when it comes to food, and then use them to eat in a way that feels good to you. Even among dietitians who don’t practice intuitive eating, many focus on implementing healthy behaviors—drinking more water, eating more fruits and vegetables, not always using food to cope with stress and emotions—instead of prescribing diets.
Let Go of Food Guilt
Even the simple mandate to eat mostly whole foods can leave you feeling guilty if you slip up. It’s easy to think of nutrient-dense whole foods as good and processed foods as bad, but moralizing food comes with its own set of risks. “That way of thinking leads you to internalize: I’m eating a bad food, therefore I’m bad,” Tribole previously told Outside. “It’s a really black-or-white way of thinking, but actually, health and nutrition exists on a gradient.” A truly healthy person is someone who is flexible and realizes that no one food can make or break their health—and that eating habits shouldn’t shape their sense of self.
Eating well is about long-term habits, not individual food choices. This also goes for things like cooking from scratch, shopping local and organic, and meal-prepping healthy food staples—all of them can contribute to healthy eating, but you shouldn’t feel guilty for not doing them if they don’t work with your budget, schedule, or preferences.
Approach Supplements and Superfoods with Skepticism
“There are cases when supplementation is appropriate,” Joshi says. For example, someone with a proven iron deficiency will likely be prescribed an iron supplement by their doctor, along with advice about eating more iron-rich foods if possible. “Apart from that, most people are overdoing it with supplementation,” he says. Before you decide to supplement your diet with a vitamin or mineral, check with your doctor to make sure it’s something you actually need.
Gradney explains that nutrients fall into two categories, water-soluble and fat-soluble. There’s not a significant risk of overdosing on water-soluble nutrients, like vitamin C and the B vitamins, since our body gets rid of whatever we can’t use. But fat-soluble nutrients, like vitamin E and vitamin D, get stored in fat tissues, so eating them (and thus storing them) in excess can negatively impact key bodily functions.
As for superfood supplements? Skip them. “People are so quick to supplement with ashwagandha or turmeric or whatever snake oil is the supplement du jour,” Joshi says. Often these are harmless, and sometimes there’s even a placebo effect. “But I have seen people with adverse outcomes, generally in the kidney or liver. It’s always a risk, because we just don’t know what’s in these things.” You’re better off eating more fruits and vegetables, says Gradney, because they’re known to be “high in antioxidants, biologically accessible, and full of great nutrients without additives.”
Do What Works for You
Here’s the thing about dietary guidelines: they outline a way of eating that has been shown to yield the best health outcomes for the largest number of people. They serve as general advice, not personalized nutrition mandates. Ultimately, you are the only one who knows how different foods and ways of eating make you feel. Honor that. Use your own personal experience to guide what healthy eating looks like for you. Gradney recommends paying attention to which foods or eating patterns make you feel your best, physically and mentally. If something works for you (and doesn’t stress you out or make you obsess about food), do it. Make sure you’re eating fruits and vegetables, drinking water, and moving your body every day, she says—otherwise, there’s plenty of flexibility in healthy eating.