Posted by Susan Bowerman, M.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training

Making healthy food choices means taking a close look at your current eating habits, and making small changes that add up to new habits and better nutrition.

Why is it so hard to make healthy food choices? It’s not as if you don’t know which foods are healthy and which ones aren’t. But sometimes it’s difficult to make the right food choices when you’re constantly faced with temptation or don’t have a plan.

Not only do you have to make food choices every time you eat a meal or a snack, you’re actually making food choices all day long. Every time you see, smell or think about food—which happens a lot more than you might think—you’ve got choices to make.

The trick to making better food choices is learning how to “trade up”—nutritionally speaking. Look at the foods you’re currently eating and see if you can find some healthier choices to make instead. If your dietary patterns are generally good, and if you’re eating regular meals and snacks and including a variety of foods, then it’s just a matter of plugging in some healthier choices in place of those that aren’t doing you much good.

The first step in improving your diet is to take a good, hard look at your current eating habits. Write down everything you eat for a couple of days. You can’t make changes if you don’t realistically know what you’re working with or where your trouble spots are.

Once you’ve done that, look your food diary over without judging yourself. Just be objective. Look over your eating patterns and the food choices you’re making, and simply acknowledge that there are some things that you probably want to do differently. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to give yourself a pat on the back for the things you’re doing right.

Cut Back on the Highest Calorie Foods

The next step is to work towards cutting back on the highest calorie foods that you usually eat. Start with the high fat and high sugar foods first. Once you’ve identified the biggest offenders, use the healthy food chart below to help you find healthier swaps. As these healthier food choices get incorporated into your routine, you’ll gradually improve the nutrient quality of your diet, cut calories, and probably find that your meals are more filling and satisfying.

Know What You’re Eating

Once you’ve kept your food diary for a while, you’ll have a good sense for what foods you’re eating. But you also want to learn what’s in the foods that you’re eating. When you shop, take time to read labels. Look at ingredients and the nutrition facts so you can evaluate calories, fat and sugar content in the foods that you buy.

Keep it Simple

One good strategy for making better food choices is to lean toward foods that haven’t had a lot done to them. The closer a food is to its natural state or the less processed it is, the more nutritional value it tends to have. You’ll also be getting less fat, sugar and salt.

Be Realistic

If you’re craving ice cream, trying to satisfy the craving with a handful of celery sticks probably isn’t going to work. Perhaps a carton of Greek-style yogurt with some berries would work for you, or a sliced up frozen banana.

Plan Ahead

It’s easier to make better choices when you plan ahead. When you have a plan for what you’re going to eat for meals and snacks, you’re more committed to eating the healthier choices.

Keep your focus on replacing bad habits with better ones and know that every little bit adds up. As you continue to make better choices, they’ll become new habits, and over time your better choices will be the foods you crave.

Healthy Swaps, Healthier Food Choices

Instead of… Try this…
Refined flour breads, cereals, flour tortillas 100% whole grain bread, cereal, corn tortillas
Sodas, fruit juices Plain or sparkling water with lemon, lime or a few pieces of fresh fruit
White rice, noodles, potatoes Brown rice, quinoa, millet, whole grain pasta, soba noodles, sweet potatoes—or omit altogether and double up on veggies
Cakes, cookies, pies, pastry, ice cream Fresh fruit, frozen fruit (cherries, bananas, mango have a satisfying, chewy texture), nonfat yogurt with fruit
Snack chips, crackers Edamame, raw vegetables with hummus, brown rice cakes, nuts or soy nuts
Mayonnaise, salad dressings, sauces, gravies, sour cream Mustard, mashed avocado, low-fat salad dressings, salsa, lemon juice, plain nonfat yogurt
High calorie coffee drinks Nonfat latte or cappuccino, herbal tea, hot protein shake
Fatty meats, sausages, etc. Lean meats, poultry breast, seafood, soy meat substitutes