It’s impossible to eat healthy food all the time. The grind of daily practice can make that sugary snack in the vending machine appealing. The occasional indulgence is a part of life. The problem, however, is when the occasional indulgence becomes an unhealthy dietary habit, according to two registered dietitians we spoke with from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
And negative dietary habits are remarkably common, notes the CDC. Case in point: fewer than 1 in 10 adults or adolescents consume enough fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, six in 10 young people and five in 10 adults drink a sugar-sweetened beverage each day. Overall, US diets are high in sodium, sugars, and saturated fats.
It’s safe to say that in-depth nutrition expertise may not be in every physician’s professional wheelhouse. But there are some basic principles that can help patients and medical professionals alike.
Here are seven bad dietary habits to consider breaking now.
Stop skipping meals
With a busy schedule, it’s tempting to save time by skipping breakfast or lunch. Regularly, skipping meals, however, can upend your diet, according to Isabel Maples, MEd, RDN, a spokesperson with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“If you’re watching your weight, it can be tempting to skip meals, especially if you’re not very hungry at certain times of the day,” she said. “Currently, the popularity of intermittent fasting is also encouraging us to limit eating to fewer hours of the day. But, skipping meals can lead to disordered, chaotic eating. If COVID-eating taught us anything, it’s that too much unscheduled eating doesn’t work well.” Indeed, more than 8 in 10 Americans changed their food habits since the pandemic began, according to a national survey—and snacking was one of the habits we embraced.
Going too long without regular meals can mean overeating later. Instead, fuel yourself earlier in the day to help curb after-dinner snacking.
“If you like to skip meals so you can snack instead, eat the snack foods that you want, but put them at your scheduled meals. Once the pattern of scheduled meals becomes a habit, you can work on improving the nutrition quality of the foods you choose (if you want to improve). Overall, regularly scheduled meals (and snacks, as needed) can help boost the nutrition quality of food choices.”
Avoid guzzling sugar-sweetened beverages
No doubt that sugar-sweetened beverages are delicious. When drinking them becomes a bona fide pastime, however, health trouble ensues.
According to Maples, “Americans eat and drink too much sugar. That causes problems including: 1) Too many calories, and 2) Sugar crowding out other, more nutritious food choices.
The average American consumes 17 teaspoons of sugar every day, she noted. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (MyPlate) suggests improving nutrition by cutting sugar down to 12.5 teaspoons of sugar on average. (10% of total calories or 200 calories a day.) The American Heart Association recommends cutting that to 6 teaspoons of sugar a day.
Two key areas where Americans get too much sugar are sugar-sweetened soft drinks and sweetened coffees and teas. “It’s easy to get a whole day’s worth of extra sugar in just one beverage,” Maples said. “There’s research that also suggests that the calories from sugar-sweetened beverages don’t seem to register with our brains. Normally, when we overeat one day, the body adjusts our hunger level and we aren’t as hungry the next day. However, that mechanism of adjusting the calories we need doesn’t seem to work with sugar-sweetened beverages.”
Still not convinced you need to cut back on sugar? Read What sugar does to the brain, at MDLinx.
Grazing may be fine for cows, but not for humans. Grazing can induce “food amnesia,” according to Maples. “You may think you’ve hardly eaten anything all day but the calories can add up.”
Most people choose food with lower nutritional quality when they graze, she said. And this type of eating also tends to encourage tooth decay. Instead, planning regular scheduled meals (and snacks if needed) can lead to better nutrition. "At each meal, eat mindfully," she said. "Eat till you are satisfied. But then don’t eat again until the next scheduled meal or snack.”
If you find that you consistently can’t go from one meal to the next without getting ravenous, plan a scheduled snack between the meals, she said. “Between your regular meals and snacks, if you get a craving for a certain food, tell yourself that you can have that food but not now; instead, wait until the next meal or snack, then choose that food if you still want it.”
If you absolutely cannot resist snacking, at least consider nibbling on healthy options. Read more at MDLinx.
Don’t eschew fruits and vegetables
Adults should eat two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables each day, but that is not routinely happening.
“We know that fruits and vegetables are nutrient-dense, and high in dietary fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals,” said Roxana Ehsani, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN. “Start by adding fruits and veggies into meals and snacks you already love and enjoy eating. For example, if you love to have oatmeal in the morning, add some fruit on top, or if you’d prefer eggs, add some veggies into those eggs or have them on the side. Or, if you love to have sandwiches or wraps, don’t forget to shove a few veggies in there like greens, tomatoes, cucumbers or any other veggie you have. If you’re making mac and cheese, a casserole, a soup or a stew, add broccoli, cauliflower, or some chopped up peppers into the dishes,” she said.
And while we're singing the praises of fruits and vegetables, remember, they are also among the best foods for your gut health, according to research. Learn more on MDLinx.
‘Fresh’ isn’t the only produce option
A mountain of leafy veggies rising above the rim of a salad bowl is appealing but not the only way to get your nutritional needs met. Many people mistakenly think that eating fresh is the only option with fruits and vegetables, noted Ehsani.
“Fresh, frozen, canned, and dried produce is just as nutritious as fresh," she said. "Frozen bags of either fruits or veggies are great to keep in your freezer: They are convenient, don’t go bad as quickly as fresh, and typically are pre-cut and ready to eat. Frozen is packed at the time of peak freshness so it still retains its flavor and nutrients.”
Canned produce is a healthy option, too—just rinse away the solution the fruit or veggies are canned in, to remove salt, fruit juice or syrup. Dried produce is great to pack with you when you are on the go, traveling, or don’t have access to a kitchen, she added.
Don't skimp on water
Although it may sound like a lot, it is a good idea to drink 8 cups of water a day. Indeed, many people have trouble downing 4 cups of water, noted Ehsani.
“If you struggle to drink enough water throughout the day, set an alarm that goes off on your phone or calendar notification on your work calendar. Oftentimes, we think we are hungry, when in reality we are thirsty,” she stated.
On the flip side, it’s possible to drink too much water. Learn more at MDLinx.
Foods are not good or bad
With respect to foods, try to avoid assigning “moral value” to your dietary choices, Ehsani said.
“It’s important to not classify food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or to call yourself a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person based on your food choices. All foods can and should fit into a healthy eating pattern,” Ehsani said. “When we start classifying food as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ it creates an unhealthy relationship with food and our own bodies. We no longer pay attention to our hunger cues or fullness cues and just pay attention to outside voices or the newest trendy diet to tell us what to eat. It causes us to not trust ourselves around food and takes away the pleasurable experience that is eating."
To learn more about healthy diets, check out Common nutrition myths debunked by science, on MDLinx.