Principles of Healthy Eating

Perhaps you’ve made a new year’s resolution to start eating more healthfully, or you just feel it is time to change your dietary habits to promote a healthier lifestyle as well as for weight management. Where do you begin?

Start with, and keep in mind, these five principles for healthy eating, and you will always be on the right track.


Focus on Vegetables and Fruits

Various vegetables and fruits in a reusable bag

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Study after study has shown that the more whole fruits and vegetables you eat, the lower your risk for many chronic diseases, including cancer, obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease—including heart disease and stroke.

Fruits and vegetables constitute low-calorie foods. A report by the World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that there is convincing evidence that eating fruits and vegetables decreases the risk of obesity. Compared to high-calorie foods such as processed foods high in sugar and fat, fruits and vegetables are less likely to contribute to obesity or overweight.

And, because they contain higher amounts of dietary fiber and other nutrients, they are associated with a lower risk for diabetes and insulin resistance. For the same reasons, they also make people feel full with fewer calories, thus helping to prevent weight gain.

Additionally, research has shown that eating three to five servings of fruits and vegetables per day can decrease your risk of stroke, and eating more than five servings per day may decrease that risk even more. In an incremental fashion, the more fruits and vegetables you eat, the lower your risk. A very good return on your investment.


Avoid Processed Meats

A person preparing a hot dog on a bun with a hand and tongs

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The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a part of the WHO, has published a report on cancer-causing processed meats, stating that such meats can cause colorectal cancer. They have also stated that red meat in general “probably” causes cancers such as colon, pancreatic, and prostate cancer.

Given that obesity is a risk factor for a number of different cancers, it is helpful to do all you can to decrease your risk.

Examples of processed meats to avoid: hot dogs, sausage, beef jerky, bacon, corned beef, ham, packaged deli meats, canned meat, and canned meat-based preparations and sauces.


Cut Back on Added Sugars

Person holding a jar with a nutritional label near shelves with more food items

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It has been reported that the average American consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar a day. Given that the American Heart Association recommends that the intake of added sugar not exceed 6 teaspoons daily for women and 9 teaspoons daily for men.

Major sources of added sugar to avoid include sugared beverages, such as sodas and energy or sports drinks; grain desserts like pies, cookies, and cakes; fruit drinks (which are seldom 100% fruit juice), candy, and dairy desserts like ice cream.


Drink More Water

Woman drinking water
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The many health benefits of drinking water are often overlooked. But don't underestimate the importance of what may be the healthiest beverage of all.

Water has no calories. Zero. What it does have plenty of: health benefits. Researchers have found that drinking a glass of water 30 minutes before you have a meal can make you feel fuller and thus more likely to eat less, thereby reducing calorie intake.

Staying hydrated throughout the day can make you more alert, help you think more clearly, and make you feel less fatigued.

All of that can lead to making better dietary choices as well. As an added bonus, drinking enough water throughout the day can help in the prevention of recurrent kidney stones and can also prevent constipation.


Eat Less Salt

Close-up of a salt shaker
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Obesity causes high blood pressure (hypertension), so it is helpful to know what you can do to manage your blood pressure. And that includes cutting back on dietary sodium intake.

With the advent of processed foods, the average American sodium intake skyrocketed. In fact, it has been estimated that the average sodium intake per person in the United States is 3,478 milligrams per day. This is at least 1,000 milligrams per day more than what many well-respected scientific and professional health organizations, such as the American Heart Association and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, recommend for maximum daily intake.

Which foods are the saltiest? The answer might surprise you. While you may think that most of your salt intake comes from your home salt shaker, in reality, most Americans get the majority of their sodium from packaged, highly processed, and restaurant foods.

Here are some of the worst offenders:

  • Snack foods, such as chips, crackers, and pretzels
  • Canned foods, like canned beans and soups
  • Pickled foods
  • Cheese
  • Processed meats, like ham, bacon, corned beef, hot dogs, sausages, and luncheon/deli meats
  • Frozen dinners
  • Processed or packaged fish that has been pre-breaded, pre-fried, smoked, or canned in brine
  • Ketchup, mayonnaise, sauces, and salad dressings
  • Most restaurant and fast-food meals

By cutting back on the foods listed above and cooking at home whenever possible, you will automatically lower your average daily sodium intake.


Choose Whole Grains and Healthy Fats

Brown rice on a plate with asparagus and cilantro

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Choosing whole grains over processed ones is another important part of a healthy diet. Choose brown rice over white rice, for example, or substitute grains like farro and bulgur; breads should have "whole wheat" as their first ingredient.

Additionally, healthy fats like olive oil are preferable over butter and corn oil.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Boeing H, Bechthold A, Bub A, et al. Critical review: vegetables and fruit in the prevention of chronic diseasesEur J Nutr. 2012;51(6):637–663. doi:10.1007/s00394-012-0380-y

  2. He FJ, Nowson CA, MacGregor GA. Fruit and vegetable consumption and stroke: meta-analysis of cohort studies. Lancet. 2006;367(9507):320–326.doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(06)68069-0

  3. IARC. Red meat and processed meat.

  4. American Heart Association. Added sugars.

  5. American Heart Association. Why Should I Limit Sodium?

Additional Reading

By Yasmine S. Ali, MD, MSCI
Yasmine Ali, MD, is board-certified in cardiology. She is an assistant clinical professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and an award-winning physician writer.