Eating healthy doesn't seem like it should be hard. But if you have bad eating habits already in place, it can be challenging to change them. The key is taking baby steps.
If you can change a handful of eating behaviors one step at a time — and make sure they stick — you're more likely to see long-term success in eating a healthier, more balanced diet.
Research has shown establishing a new habit takes an average of 66 days, give or take, depending on the person and on the difficulty of the new habit. One way to begin transforming your nutritional habits for the long term is to pick one habit and practice it until it's so habitual you don't think about it.
Nutrition experts will often make broad recommendations, such as "eat more vegetables" or "cut your calories" or "cook with less oil."
But these broad suggestions can feel overwhelming and are less helpful if you are trying to take things one step at a time and institute changes that will last.
Another path is to choose very specific goals and work on each one, for two months or however long it takes, until they are natural. Then move on to your next goal. Here are four to get you started.
1. Replace two calorie-drinks a day with two glasses of water.
In the long-term, you should make it a goal to drink as few of your calories as possible. You only have a limited number of daily calories if you want to maintain or lose weight, so why waste them on soda and juice when you can enjoy heartier meals instead?
Regardless of what you think about "soft drink bans" like the contentious one in New York City, research does show soft drink intake is linked to obesity, so cutting drink calories is a good place to start.
But cutting out all soft drinks, sports drinks and juices at once is a dramatic change. Therefore, start small: replace two drinks a day with water. Water is the best thing you can drink, so you're killing two birds with one stone: decreasing calories and increasing water intake.
Once this becomes a habit, try replacing more of your Cokes, Gatorades and orange juices with water.
Eve Pearson, a registered dietician and owner of Nutriworks CNC in Fort Worth, Texas, suggested a similar gradual compromise for other sweet drinks you might enjoy.
"If you like to drink sweet tea everyday start to reduce the amount of sugar by mixing one quarter unsweetened tea with three quarters of sweet tea in every glass you drink," Pearson said. "Your taste buds will adjust to the new taste; then, you can reduce from there."
2. Eat breakfast. Or a more substantial one.
A 2011 survey revealed 31 million Americans skip breakfast. That's a lot of people skipping the "most important meal of the day," as many nutritionists call your morning nourishment. Why is it so important to eat breakfast? For one thing, it jumpstarts your metabolism.
A weak or sluggish metabolism doesn't burn calories as efficiently, so if everything else is equal, a person who eats breakfast will probably burn more calories on the same one mile jog than a person who skipped the morning meal.
"Other studies show that people who eat breakfast have an easier time with their weight loss goals because they eat less calories over the course of a day," added Pearson.
If you do eat breakfast, do you eat a good one? A substantial breakfast that will start you off well should include protein and carbohydrates — not just carbs, which is all a piece of toast, a banana, a bagel or even a bowl of cereal is going to offer.
Add peanut butter, Greek yogurt, an egg (or egg white) or some low-fat, low-sodium meat like turkey bacon to your breakfast to get the extra protein and, yes, some fat, which is essential to your nutrition as well.
3. Eat two extra servings of vegetables each day.
It's nearly impossible to eat too many vegetables. Most people don't eat the two to three cups of vegetables recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Yet colorful veggies are an important source of some of the most important nutrients your body needs.
So look for ways to add just two veggies a day. That might mean one at lunch and one at dinner. Ask friends for recipes to try new vegetables or try new things at the salad bar.
"Or, just double the portion you're already eating for a quick way to add more veggies," said Pearson. "If you're already eating broccoli, add more broccoli! With children, studies show if you offer more than one vegetable for a meal, they're likely to eat more veggies."
4. Switch out one high-calorie snack for a piece of fruit each day.
Nothing is wrong with having snacks throughout the day, especially if you have small meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner. But don't let the calorie count of your snacks outweigh the larger meals. A salad bar lunch is great but won't help as much if your late afternoon snack is a candy bar.
Therefore, keep a stash of fresh fruit available at work and at home. Apples, pears, bananas and easy-to-peel clementines keep well at room temperature for several days so you don't have to remember to bring something to work daily or worry about food rotting in your desk.
Bring a container of berries or even keep a bag of dried fruits on hand so you're satisfying your sweet tooth with something healthier than processed sugar.
Once you incorporate these tips into your daily routines, or if you already have, you can take things a step further by adding more healthy behaviors that require a bit more conscientiousness. Tops among these is knowing what a serving size is and tracking your food intake.
A serving size for most foods is generally about a half a cup. Some items, such as nuts, have smaller serving sizes, and a serving of leafy greens is about a cup (or a "fistful).
Why track your food? You may be surprised at what you find. It's often the little items, such as the M&Ms from the office candy dish or the free samples snagged while food shopping that add up and put you just barely over your calorie limits.
Logging your food is easy with a smart phone app or various online sites that will track the total number of calories, fat grams, protein grams, carbohydrates and fiber you take in.
This information is valuable if you decide to try to lose weight because you can provide a health care practitioner with information to tailor a diet plan for your needs.
Another tip is to gradually increase your vegetable intake while decreasing your intake of simple carbohydrates and processed foods. Simple carbs include processed items like bread, pasta and rice.
These carbs are not bad by themselves (though the whole wheat and brown versions tend to be better), but they should be eaten in moderation with a diet that's rich with protein, vegetables and healthy unsaturated fats.
What are processed foods? The majority of items that come in a box or can. The more you can eat foods from the perimeter of the food store rather than the internal aisles, the healthier your diet generally will be.
The perimeter is where fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy are kept, and these items should form the foundation of your diet.
Look for ways to replace high-calorie items with low-calorie ones. One way to do this is to saute your meats and vegetables in a low-sodium chicken or beef stock instead of oil, a move that could cut out as much as 100 extra calories a day.
Trying to change your entire diet all at once is difficult. But taking baby steps and only moving on to the next step once the previous one is a habit may help you succeed in becoming a healthier eater.