How to Start Eating Healthy: Dietitian Offers Practical Steps for Beginners
Medically Reviewed by Ana Reisdorf, MS, RD
Last Updated on November 23, 2021
Curious about how to start eating healthy? The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, an evidence-based handbook for healthy eating, can help you get started. Here is a detailed beginner’s guide.
Healthy eating is an essential component to staying strong and avoiding chronic diseases.
Good nutrition offers vitamins and minerals needed for every cell to function and thrive, the protein, healthy fats and carbohydrates needed for energy, functional fiber required to keep our microbiome well-fed, and so much more.
To help people get started on a healthier lifestyle, every five years, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) organize a team of experts to revise detailed, science-backed dietary recommendations called the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). (1)
The following is a concise guide based on the latest DGA for 2020–2025 to help you put a healthier lifestyle into practice.
The DGAs begin by recommending a healthy dietary pattern for a lifetime.
From fetal life during pregnancy to older adulthood, good nutrition over the lifespan results in a lower risk for chronic disease. (2)
The earlier these healthy habits are adopted, the better our chance of living a long, healthy life.
Unfortunately, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) stats show that American adults and children are not meeting several recommendations. (3)
We’re undershooting fruit, vegetable, and whole grain intake and choosing fast food and sugary drinks too frequently.
These mistakes prevent people from meeting their full physical and mental health potential.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020–2025 states that “a healthy dietary pattern consists of nutrient-dense forms of foods and beverages across all food groups in recommended amounts and within calorie limits.”
But what does this mean? First, some terms used in this definition may need a little explanation.
Nutrient-dense is a way of saying that each bite is packed with essential nutrients while minimizing unnecessary things like added sugars, sodium, or fat.
Often, these are whole, minimally processed foods found as close as possible to their original form.
Selecting nutrient-dense foods increases opportunities to get all the macronutrients and micronutrients the human body needs and makes calories count toward health instead of against it.
While the word “diet” implies a way of eating with a shorter-term goal in mind, a dietary pattern represents a lifespan approach to health.
The DGAs recommend a pattern that is plant-based and which includes a wide variety of foods that will provide a robust selection of nutrients.
Because some people like guidance, good examples of dietary patterns that aren’t too restrictive are the Mediterranean approach or the DASH eating plan.
Patterns like these can be adapted to different cultures and personal food preferences, and their health benefits are backed by decades of medical research.
A calorie, short for kilocalorie, is a measuring unit of food energy.
Nutrition experts agree that estimated calorie calculations are just a guide and that actual calorie needs are very individual and change daily.
The Food and Drug Administration has created a handy chart which is a great starting point for estimating calorie needs. (4)
If your weight or nutrition goals are not being met using the calories provided in this chart, you can increase or decrease your calories. Calories should always be personalized to the individual.
Keep in mind that all calories are not the same. Eating 2,000 calories worth of nutrient-poor donuts is inferior to eating the same number of calories from nutrient-dense foods.
One of life’s greatest pleasures is the enjoyment of food. People all over the world have this in common and have come together to share meals since the beginning of human existence.
However, the type of foods and ways they’re prepared may be unique to a family’s culture and traditions.
In addition, not all foods are accessible to everyone because of regional or budget restrictions.
Choosing a dietary pattern that allows for personal and cultural preferences and which fits budget restrictions is vital for lifelong adherence.
Ask yourself, “What do I love to eat that includes nutrient-dense foods, and how can I make less nutrient-dense favorites healthier?”
For example, perhaps you enjoy teriyaki stir-fry. You can boost the nutrient density of stir-fry by increasing the amount and variety of vegetables in your dish.
The same dish can be further improved by using a lower sodium teriyaki sauce and a healthier cooking oil like canola, avocado, or olive oil.
Keep an open mind to finding new ways to try healthy foods you may not have enjoyed in the past.
For example, you may think you don’t enjoy brown rice because you only think about rice as a base of your stir-fry.
But consider that you might like it in a new recipe like rice pilaf made with broth and chopped nuts.
Incorporate Cultural Traditions
Foods from any culture can be prepared healthfully and still be tasty using traditional herbs and spices, along with nutrient-dense choices and substitutions.
For example, Hispanic dishes like refried beans can be made with traditional chili and cumin, but consider using heart-healthy avocado oil instead of lard in the cooking process.
Likewise, switching from flour to corn tortillas in your favorite taco recipe will increase your fiber and whole grain intake.
In addition, consider adding extra veggies like shredded cabbage and tomatoes or salsa to top your taco, which will add a wealth of nutrients to the dish.
Healthy eating doesn’t have to be expensive. Instead, the USDA recommends reducing grocery costs by planning, comparing, and preparing. (5)
Plan your meals each week by making menus and grocery lists based on your family favorites and sales advertised on your grocery store websites.
Plan to shop when you’re not too pressed for time. Discuss the plan with family members before entering the store with them so that they understand that you’re not going to buy extras.
Compare prices on your local grocery stores’ websites to see where your more expensive items like meats and vegetables might be on sale.
Many stores have loyalty incentive apps that send digital coupons for foods based on what you’re often buying.
While you shop, compare the prices of brands. Store brands usually offer the best deals.
Prepare healthy snacks like chopped vegetables and fruit yourself instead of more expensive pre-cut produce.
Preparing double recipes and freezing the extra saves time on future meals and allows you to buy in bulk which may be cheaper.
Other budget tips include:
- Pulses like beans, dried peas, lentils, and peanut butter are inexpensive, healthy sources of protein.
- Frozen produce is as healthy as fresh and often less expensive.
- Seasonal fruits and vegetables are often budget-friendly. (6)
- Consider food waste, and plan to freeze leftovers or use them for meals the following day.
Eating healthy is essential, but so is keeping meals pleasurable with cultural and personal preferences and staying within your budget.
It’s possible to include all of these aspects in your dietary pattern.
Nutrients can be broken down into two major groups: macronutrients and micronutrients.
Understanding why they’re important and how to get the right amount can help you get started on your healthy eating journey.
The three macronutrients – carbohydrates, protein, and fats – are the calorie-rich food components we need in larger amounts to keep us fueled and functioning.
- Carbohydrates or carbs are the body’s most convenient source of energy, providing 4 calories per gram.
- Protein can provide energy at 4 calories per gram but is also needed in every cell of the body for building and repairing.
- Fat is the most energy-dense food source offering 9 calories per gram. They’re also needed to make hormones and to cover the surface of every cell.
“Counting macros,” or calculating how many calories should come from each of the three macronutrients each day, has been used by dietitians for decades and has become a popular diet trend.
Though everyone’s macro percentage requirements are unique, most needs can be met by getting:
- 45–65% of calories from carbohydrates
- 25–35% of calories from proteins
- 10–30% of calories from fat
Some popular health apps like MyFitnessPal can help keep track of daily macronutrient intake.
Micronutrients are the calorie-free vitamins and minerals we also need in tiny amounts to keep the body healthy, like what you might find in a typical multivitamin.
However, whole foods offer many more micronutrients than any human-made pill can.
Categorizing foods into different groups is a tool used to encourage variety.
It’s okay to focus on getting a variety of food over a week instead of stressing over hitting recommendations daily.
No vegetable is a poor choice, but vegetables with deep, rich colors indicate high nutrient content. Opt for eating a wide variety of dark green, red, and orange veggies during your week – each hue represents different vitamins.
Choose whole fruit over juices that have removed valuable fiber and other nutrients. Like vegetables, choosing a wide variety of colors will increase the variety of nutrients.
At least half of the grains consumed should be whole grains like old-fashioned rolled oats or 100% whole wheat bread. Refined grains like white bread are more processed, removing the fiber and other nutritious parts of the grain.
Protein can be used for energy, but the essential amino acids we get from protein foods are needed for repairing and building tissues. High protein foods include beans, peas, lentils, dairy, seafood, lean meats, poultry, nuts, and seeds.
Dairy products offer a convenient way to get various nutrients that might otherwise be missed, including calcium, potassium, and B-vitamins.
If you choose vegetarian milk alternatives, always make a nutrition label comparison. Many drinks marketed as dairy replacements do not come close in nutrient content. Fortified soy beverage is usually the closest alternative.
Oils and Fats
Fat is a dense energy source needed for cell and hormone structure. Oils, which are liquid at room temperature, are considered more heart-healthy than saturated fats like butter or lard.
Our bodies can manufacture some of the fats we need, but we need to get omega fatty acids from foods like oily fish.
Weekly Food Group Serving Goals
|Food Group||Serving Goals||Nutrient-Dense Examples|
|Vegetables||5/Day||Kale, Broccoli, Peppers, Squash, Spinach, Sweet Potatoes|
|Fruit||4/Day||Berries, apples, avocados, mangos, pineapple|
|Whole Grains||6/Day||Rolled oats, 100% whole wheat bread, brown rice, corn|
|Protein (meat, poultry, or eggs)||8–9/week||Lean meats, chicken or turkey breast, eggs|
|Protein (fish)||3/week||Sardines, salmon, anchovies|
|Protein (nuts, seeds, legumes)||5/week||Mixed nuts, nut butters, beans, peas, lentils|
|Low-Fat Dairy||3/Day||Low-fat milk, cottage cheese, yogurt, soy beverage|
|Oils||3/Day||Olive oil, canola oil, fatty fish like sardines and salmon|
For serving sizes, see the America Heart Association’s recommendations. (7)
Keeping in mind that foods should be pleasurable for people, DGAs didn’t completely omit enjoyable foods and beverages that are less nutrient-dense.
The overall recommendation is that 85% of calories come from nutrient-dense categories, which leaves 15% for foods with added sugars, salt, or even alcohol if desired.
Because alcohol is a toxin that has been linked to health problems when overconsumed, a limit of one drink daily for women and two for men has been established by the Center for Disease Control. (8)
Some forms of alcohol, like red wine, may offer health benefits when consumed in minimal moderation, but the benefits don’t outweigh the risks in many cases.
While many people know that they should limit sugar, salt, fat, and alcohol, it may be a challenge to help yourself reduce them.
Some tips include:
- Avoid the grocery aisles that stock the foods you are trying to reduce.
- Keep these items off your grocery list and stick with your list.
- Eat a healthy snack before you shop so empty calories are less tempting.
- Keep your home free of empty-calorie temptations and replace them with healthy foods you enjoy.
- Avoid using the kids as an excuse to have treats in the house. These foods are not good for them either.
- Consider finding non-food ways to reward yourself for accomplishments.
- Remember that it’s okay to indulge but plan your treats within reason. Be sure to savor and enjoy every bite or sip!
Now that you’ve learned about recommendations of the 2020–2025 Dietary Guideline for Americans, here are some tips for getting started on your healthier journey:
Follow a healthy dietary pattern for a lifetime and start it today. The sooner you begin your new habits, the more benefits your body will get from the changes.
For people who like extra guidance, examples of healthy dietary patterns are the Mediterranean, DASH, vegetarian, and vegan eating plans. (The links to these plans are detailed beginner guides complete with meal plans to help people get started.)
Customize the dietary plan you choose to meet your cultural and personal preferences.
If you have a tight food budget, follow the tips above for saving money on your grocery bill. The USDA also provides recommendations for budget-friendly shopping. In addition, for those struggling to buy food, nutrition programs like SNAP and WIC may be able to help. (9)
Focus on meeting your food group’s needs by eating nutrient-dense foods. Both macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are essential for optimal health.
For those who don’t like crunching numbers and rigidly following the calculations, simply following a healthy dietary pattern naturally provides these nutrients in generous amounts.
Indulge in added sugar, salt, fat, and alcohol sparingly. It’s helpful to keep them out of the house, so you’re not tempted to eat them more often than you plan.
For additional guidance that focuses on your specific health conditions and goals, find a registered dietitian to work with in your area.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I start eating healthy?
Some people find success by starting their healthy changes gradually.
First, evaluate what you may need to improve. For example, if you know you don’t eat enough fruit and vegetables, you can try adding one daily serving each week until you meet recommendations.
How can I stick with my new eating plan once I get started?
Accountability is often helpful when it comes to staying motivated with healthy changes. Find friends or family members who want to make changes alongside you. You can then help each other stay on the right track.
Asking for support from people who live with you is also vital, even if they aren’t ready to make healthy changes themselves.
Your healthcare professionals also want to help. Finding a registered dietitian near you may provide the guidance and motivation you need to continue your dietary pattern for a lifetime.
How can I learn to like vegetables?
Dietary preferences often change over time. Foods you didn’t like just a few years ago maybe something you may enjoy now, so it may be time to try them again.
It also may be a matter of how the vegetables have been prepared in the past. Images of mushy canned peas on school lunch trays may turn you away, but you may find that you love them frozen right from the bag or fresh in a pasta salad.
Or you may not like raw spinach, but maybe steamed with your favorite vinegar would be something you find delicious.
Tasty dips and sauces are another way to make veggies more enjoyable. Keep veggies chopped and easily accessible in the fridge with your favorite dressing or hummus to snack on while cooking.
What are the healthiest fruits and vegetables?
All fruits and vegetables have nutritional value, and they all offer their unique nutrients. Eating a wide variety of produce is a great way to ensure you get essential vitamins and minerals.
Focus on the colors of the produce. The deeper and richer the color, the more nutrient-dense they tend to be. For example, dark green spinach is higher in nutrient value than lighter green iceberg lettuce.
How can I encourage my partner to eat healthy with me?
Deciding to make healthy choices is a very personal decision that adults must make on their own.
While we can set an example and let our partners know that we want them to stay well, forcing change when someone isn’t ready often backfires and leads to resentment.
Simply stating that you care and that you’ll be happy to provide support when they are ready may be encouraging.
Also, make sure that they understand that you’ll need their support to maintain your new lifestyle in the meantime.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans offer evidence-based nutrition information.
Using this information is a way to get started with healthy eating when people don’t know where to begin.
By making an effort to follow DGA recommendations throughout their lifespans based on their own cultural and personal preferences, people can reduce the risk of diseases and increase their chances of living longer, healthier lives while still enjoying their meals.
At WellnessVerge, we only use reputable sources, including peer-reviewed medical journals and well-respected academic institutions.
- Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020 - 2025:
- Healthy diet:
- Do You Know How Many Calories You Need?:
- Healthy Eating on a Budget:
- Seasonal Produce Guide:
- Suggested Servings from Each Food Group:
- Alcohol Use and Your Health:
- Tips for Every Aisle: