By Steph Eckelkamp
Eating well and improving your diet doesn’t have to be extreme. In fact, transitioning to a healthier diet is often the result of small but strategic changes implemented over time. It may not be as sexy or trendy as going keto or trying out intermittent fasting, but, soon enough, these tiny tweaks will make you feel downright awesome. After all, when you fuel your body with everything it needs to thrive on a cellular level, the side effects include everything from smooth digestion to improved mood to fewer cravings. What’s not to love about that?
Whatever the current state of your diet, here are 10 easy changes you can make right now. Keep in mind, you don’t need to do them all at once—go at your own sustainable pace!
1. Snack on magnesium-rich nuts and seeds.
Nuts and seeds are basically nature’s perfect snack. They’ve got skin-protecting vitamin E, inflammation-fighting monounsaturated fats, digestion-optimizing fiber, filling protein, and they’re rich in minerals like hard-to-find magnesium—which half the U.S. population fails to get enough of. In fact, an ounce of pumpkin seeds contains about 39% of the recommended daily intake (RDI) for magnesium, and an ounce of almonds packs 20%. Magnesium plays an important role in supporting a stable mood, quelling anxiety, balancing blood sugar, easing PMS symptoms, and more—so a healthy trail mix or some apple slices dunked in almond butter can go a long way in helping you feel your best.
2. Space out your protein intake.
Protein fills you up, balances blood sugar, and is crucial for muscle growth and maintenance—so without it, you’d feel pretty weak and cranky. But cramming 60 grams into your morning smoothie isn’t the most efficient way to get your daily dose. To really reap the rewards, don’t just focus on “getting enough.” Instead, evenly spread out your protein intake throughout the day—about 20-30 grams at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Why? This is about the max amount of protein your body can use at one time (give or take a little, depending on your activity levels), so it will keep you steadily fueled without overdoing it.
3. Aim for 1-2 servings of fish per week.
One of the simplest ways to improve your diet is to eat more fish. Just a couple servings per week is linked to benefits like improved brain health, heart health, and even mood. That’s because fish is loaded with nutrients, including minerals such as magnesium, zinc, iron, iodine, potassium, and calcium; B vitamins; vitamin D; and those coveted omega-3 fatty acids. If you haven’t made fish a halibut…err, habit yet, start here for tips and recipes. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not hard to cook!
4. Add probiotic-rich fermented foods.
The trillions of bacteria in your gut affect everything from your digestion to your mood to your sleep and your skin. By taking care of your gut microbiome, you’re basically taking care of the rest of your body! One of the tastiest ways to do this is by eating more fermented foods, like yogurt, kefir, kimchi, raw fermented pickles, sauerkraut, and kombucha. These are all natural sources of gut-friendly probiotics, plus other beneficial nutrients that you won’t find in probiotic supplements. Pro tip: Add kimchi or sauerkraut to your salads, breakfast sandwiches, or avocado toast for a zesty punch, or pour kefir onto your oats instead of milk!
5. Mix up your veggies.
Eating a variety of vegetables and other plant foods is crucial for the health of your gut, possibly even more so than loading up on probiotics. Research shows that people who ate 30+ different types of plant foods (including anything from fruits and veggies to nuts and seeds to whole grains) per week had far healthier, more diverse gut microbiomes than people eating less than 10 types of plants per week. Why? The bacteria in your gut don’t all feed on the same thing! The unique fibers found in different plant foods all foster the growth of different bacterial strains. Smoothies and salads are a great way to up your plant count and boost gut health.
6. Eat more good fats.
If you’re skimping on fat, stop that right now! Science has proven fat to be absolutely crucial for mental and cognitive functioning (after all, the brain is about 60% fat), hormone production, satiety, and nutrient absorption. Of course, the key is picking the right fats. In addition to fats from whole foods like salmon and avocados, minimally processed oils such as EVOO, avocado oil, and walnut oil can also be incredibly nourishing. These oils come from healthy foods to begin with, and they are easily extracted from their food sources with minimal heat and processing, which preserves their potent antioxidant compounds. On the other hand, you’ll want to scale back on ultra processed fats like vegetable oil, soybean oil, and corn oil—since they’ve largely been stripped of the good stuff.
7. If you eat grains, go whole grain.
Grains and carbs aren’t the problem—it’s refined grains and refined carbs that really have the potential to mess with your health and spike blood sugar when eaten in excess. Here’s why: When a grain is refined, it’s stripped of its most nutritious components (the bran and the germ), leaving it with about half or even less of its original levels of B vitamins, fiber, protein, antioxidants, and other nutrients. Needless to say, swapping your favorite refined grain products for whole grain substitutes can go a long way to boost nutrient intake and stabilize blood sugar. Whole grains like quinoa, amaranth, brown rice, buckwheat, barley, and oats are your best bet, but whole grain breads and pastas are also more nutritious than their refined counterparts.
8. Get your sweet fix from dark chocolate and berries.
No sustainable diet forgoes all sweets! But swapping out at least some of the cookies and ice cream for nutrient-dense indulgences like dark chocolate and berries could do your health wonders. That’s because these treats are top sources of polyphenol compounds— micronutrients with powerful antioxidant properties. In fact, research shows that the cocoa polyphenols present in dark chocolate have anti-inflammatory and blood pressure-lowering properties; while berry polyphenols have been linked to reduced gut inflammation and protection against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
9. Don’t forget to hydrate.
Drink. More. Water. Dehydration not only leaves you thirsty, but it can also fake you into thinking you’re hungry, increase irritability, and mess with concentration—just about the worst combo. Water, herbal teas, and flavored seltzers are all good picks to replenish your parched palate. Even better, swap out those sugar-sweetened drinks for one of these beverages.
10. Slow down and actually chew your food.
Optimizing your diet isn’t just about what you eat, it’s about how you eat. Consider this: Getting into a calm mindset, and eating and chewing slowly and mindfully, activates your parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) nervous system. This increases secretion of various digestive enzymes, which helps you break down food, absorb nutrients, and avoid bloating.
On the other hand, if you’re eating while sending emails and working on three different work projects at once, your sympathetic (“fight or flight”) nervous system has taken over, which can have the opposite effect by diverting blood flow away from the GI tract. So yes, you should definitely take that lunch break!