Healthy, Science-Backed Eating Hacks That Will Transform Your Diet

According to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, most people can eat healthier. At least 75% of Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, and most exceed their daily sugar requirement. But switching your diet from “okay” to “healthy” is a struggle.

Scientists and dietitians have proposed several habits that can transform your diet. Some are as simple as switching your cooking oil and drinking water during meals. Read on and check out these science-backed hacks.

Don’t Settle For Boring Vegetables

Chopped onions, garlic, and yellow bell peppers cook with bay leaves and vegetable oil.
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Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images

Unfortunately, many people think that vegetables taste boring or bland. The association of “healthy foods are boring” turns many people away from a healthy diet. McKel Kooienga, a registered dietitian and nutritionist, says that vegetables only taste bland when you don’t cook or season them correctly.

The right seasoning can transform even the most repulsive vegetables. Have fun with salt, pepper, lemon juice, garlic, and spice blends. Don’t settle for one method of cooking, either. If you don’t like steamed vegetables, try baking or sauteing them instead.

Health-ify Your Junk Food

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Antony Dickson/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

Many people struggle to give up junk food. After all, research in The Journal of Nutrition notes that sugar can cause an addiction. If you can’t surrender pizza or burgers, find ways to make them healthier, says registered dietitian Melissa Mendez.

Add vegetables to mac n cheese or ramen. Replace burger buns and pasta noodles with whole wheat versions. Pair ice cream with fruit, and limit your portion sizes. These tips will help you to transition from a junk food diet to a healthier, more balanced diet.

Feeling Guilty?

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In March 2019, a poll reported that 1/3 of Americans feel guilty about the food they eat. These emotions could interfere with dieting. According to research in Appetite, people who feel guilty about food are more likely to eat unhealthy snacks throughout the day. Meanwhile, people who enjoy healthy eating are more likely to stick to a nutritious diet.

Registered dietitian Elisa Zied has noticed the difference that eating confidently makes. People who love eating healthy are more likely to exercise, drop weight, enjoy a balanced diet, and not overeat.

Stop Trying To Swap Out Sugar

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Tom Kelley/Getty Images

Many people swap out white sugar with “healthier” versions, including agave, coconut sugar, maple syrup, and artificial sweeteners. But registered dietitian Lauren Harris-Pincus says that these changes hardly matter. “You may benefit from scant amounts of a few extra vitamins or minerals in certain sweeteners, but make no mistake. They’re all added sugars.”

So what should you do instead? Switch to natural sugars in fruit, says New York dietitian Natalie Rizzo. The fiber in fruit helps your body digest sugar, and they are just as sweet as sweet iced tea.

Switch Your Cooking Oil

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Nora Tam/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

For decades, experts have debated over the healthiest cooking oils. Alice Lichtenstein, a nutrition professor at Tufts University, boils down the debate to one tip: replace saturated fats with healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Doing so will relieve your cholesterol levels and help you lose weight.

Vegetable oils, including soybean and corn oil, are your least healthy option. Replace these with extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil, which can handle higher heat. Contrary to popular belief, canola oil is healthy as long as it’s “cold-pressed” or unprocessed.

Get Enough Sleep To Reduce Cravings

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When people are tired, they are more likely to eat more and crave junk food. In 2019, scientists from the University of Cape Town analyzed seven studies about the lack of sleep. People who didn’t sleep enough had more salt and sugar cravings than those who were well-rested.

Even worse, sugar cravings can ruin your sleep. A study from the American Heart Association stated that people who eat sugary, high-calorie foods don’t sleep well. This results in a cycle of cravings to bad sleep to more cravings.

Trick Yourself Into Eating Vegetables

A man pours a green smoothie into a glass.
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Steffi Loos/Getty Images

Have you ever seen parents trick their kids into eating vegetables? Well, adults can do that to themselves. There are plenty of methods of sneaking veggies into your meals without tasting them, says SELF‘s registered dietitian Jessica Jones.

Swap mac n cheese, rice, or pizza crusts for cauliflower varieties. Buy veggie noodles for pasta. By chopping broccoli finely, you can toss it into tomato sauce without tasting it. You also won’t detect a bit of spinach in a smoothie. Get creative–every bit of extra vitamins helps.

Yes, You Can Drink Water While Eating

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ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images

A health myth claims that you shouldn’t drink water while eating because it disrupts digestive enzymes. But this isn’t true. Drinking water during and before meals has many health benefits. It can help you feel fuller, according to a study in Clinical Nutrition Research.

During a 2003 study, researchers found that drinking water while eating can boost your metabolism. It helps the body break down calories, which can help people who aim to lose weight. If you feel uncomfortable drinking while eating, have a glass of water ten minutes before your meal.

Follow The 80/20 Rule

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GEORGES GOBET/AFP via Getty Images

The 80/20 rule encourages people to eat healthy while allowing for some splurges. According to the rule, aim for 80% healthy foods and 20% less healthy foods per week. “Nutrition professionals back this approach, as it’s feasible for all, allows for a variety of foods, and avoids deprivation,” says registered dietitian Chrissy Carroll.

Do not interpret this as having six healthy days and one binge day. That approach could make you gain weight, says weight-loss expert Dr. Matthew Weiner. Instead, allow yourself to have a sweet or salty snack once every day or so.

Never Shop While Hungry

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ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images

Grocery shopping while hungry is never a good idea. A 2018 study in JAMA found that hungry shoppers tend to spend more money on higher-calorie foods. Hungry participants bought almost twice as many high-calorie as content shoppers. It makes sense; the hungrier you are, the more likely you’ll crave sweet or salty foods.

Even if you aren’t shopping for food, you may spend more money while you’re hungry. Researchers from the University of Minnesota stated that hungry shoppers might buy up to 70% more items, even if they don’t purchase food.

Stash Healthy Snacks Ahead Of Time

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Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

A survey from Mondelez International found that 59% of adults prefer snacking to meals. Snacks can either work for or against you. According to a 2012 study, unhealthy snacking is a major cause of weight gain. Prevent sugary snacking by planning your snacks ahead of time.

Pack snacks of nuts, fruit, yogurt, or a healthy protein bar. Nutritionists at Dietetic Directions recommend eating when you’re moderately hungry. If you wait until you’re starving, you are more likely to grab a sugary snack or binge eat.

Your Largest Meals Should Be Breakfast Or Lunch

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Since the 1960s, many Americans have reserved their largest meal for dinnertime. But research says that this could lead to weight gain. In 2013, researchers pinpointed the best mealtimes in the journal Obesity. People who ate most during breakfast or lunch were more likely to lose weight and stabilize blood sugar levels.

Registered dietitian Albert Matheny says the most calorie-heavy meal should come before physical activity. Many people exercise after eating lunch or dinner, which helps their body break down food. Eating a lot right before bed could inhibit your digestion.

Cook Colorful Meals

Rainbow chard is tied together and displayed for sale.
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Fill your plate with plenty of colors: purple potatoes, orange carrots, green spinach, blueberries, etc. According to clinical dietitian Jennifer Ventrelle, colorful vegetables are more likely to be high in fiber and antioxidants.

Harvard Health dietitian Katherine D. McManus recommends eating 4.5 servings of colorful produce per day. In general, one serving of chopped vegetables equals half a cup, so this is manageable. To keep your meals healthy, limit starchy vegetables, and don’t drown them in sauce or dressing. Remember that fresh is always best.

Meal Prep Helps, According To Science

A man chops and stores his vegetables to use throughout the week.
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When people meal prep, they cut and store food to prepare meals for the entire week. Many people don’t do this because of time, but meal preppers are far more likely to eat healthily. According to a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the more time you spend on meal prep, the better you’ll eat throughout the week.

The founder of Fit Men Cook, Kevin Curry, recommends working on one meal at a time. For example, start by preparing only your lunches for a few weeks. When you get used to that, add in dinners and breakfast.

Eat Breakfast

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In 2017, a survey reported that only 34% of Americans eat breakfast regularly. Although you can have a healthy diet while skipping breakfast, most nutritionists recommend eating it. Registered dietitian Sharon Collison told Time that breakfast-skippers tend to eat more–and crave more–later in the day. Plus, breakfast-eaters are more physically active than those who skip it.

A scientific review in The BMJ found no correlation between skipping breakfast and weight gain. That said, eating breakfast has many other health benefits. Dietician Sarah Elder explains that breakfast helps the body repair after night and stabilizes blood sugar levels.

If You Avoid Anything, Drop Sugary Drinks

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If you want to replace any unhealthy foods, start with sugary drinks. Soda, lemonade, sweet iced tea, and juice are “empty calories”–drinks that add no nutritional benefit. According to Diabetes Care, sugary drinks consistently lead to type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

Virginia tech researcher Kiyah J. Duffey says that replacing one sugary drink can make all the difference. During her study, participants who switched to water lowered their calorie intake from 17% to 11%. Consider flavored water, sparkling water, or unsweetened tea instead of sugary beverages.

Plan Your Meals Ahead Of Time

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When you plan your week’s meals, you won’t resort to takeout or junk food as often. In 2017, a study proved that meal planners have healthier diets and lower rates of obesity. Even people who planned a few of their meals ate healthier than those who didn’t.

Contrary to popular belief, healthy eating isn’t necessarily expensive. In 2019, research in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior concluded that low-income families of four could afford to buy healthy food per USDA guidelines. It just takes a bit of budgeting and planning.

To Feel Fuller, Eat More Fiber

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If you frequently feel hungry, incorporate more fiber into your diet. Researchers know that high-fiber foods help people to feel fuller for longer. High-fat foods, even those with healthy fats, do not increase satiety, according to the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Why does fiber help? According to a 2014 study, fiber releases a molecule called acetate. When acetate enters the bloodstream, it tells the brain to stop eating. Cooking high-fiber meals could help you eat less and learn to balance your portion sizes.

Ignore Fad Or Crash Diets

Weight loss capsules are pictured.
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In 2007, UCLA researchers reported that diets don’t work for two-thirds of people. However, their wording wasn’t quite right. The researchers focused on fad diets, not balanced, long-term eating habits. Edye Wagner, a nutrition expert at Northwestern Medicine, says that crash diets are not sustainable long-term.

How can you identify a fad diet? The diet may rely heavily on one ingredient (grapefruit, apple cider vinegar, etc.). Others may require juicing or fasting for a limited time. Crash diets are often short, ranging from a couple of days to weeks. The healthiest diets in the world are sustainable and balanced.

Don’t Fear Frozen Foods

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Don’t be afraid to buy frozen; there are plenty of healthy frozen foods that can save you time and money. For instance, registered dietitian Carol Aguirre recommends frozen meals from Amy’s Kitchen or Dr. Prager. Dietitian and nutritionist Deborah Malkoff-Cohen always keeps frozen vegetables on hand.

Frozen fruits and vegetables contain the same nutrients as fresh ones. In some cases, they have more nutrients because they are frozen at peak ripeness. Keeping healthy freezer meals will prevent you from resorting to takeout when you have nothing planned for dinner.