10 Small But Impactful Nutrition Changes That Can Benefit Your Health, According to Dietitians
- Changing your diet doesn't have to involve any intense restrictions or big lifestyle changes.
- It is instead best to incorporate smaller, progressive adjustments that you'll actually stick to.
- Changes like keeping hydrated, ditching soda, and eating more protein can be majorly beneficial to your diet.
If you're interested in starting a new diet or changing up your nutrition, consider implementing a few smaller, progressive changes rather than jumping into a full-on restrictive diet. Not only will the incremental adjustments allow you to try a few different options, but you'll have a better idea of what specifically works best for you, too.
"One small modification to your diet can really make a difference in your overall health," says dietitian, Bonnie Taub-Dix. "Stack small changes together that you can live with and, over time, you'll consistently improve your well-being to a greater degree than doing a complete diet overhaul."
Taub-Dix also says that looking at your nutrition this way is a far better approach than undergoing any dramatic dietary changes, which often leads most people to revert back to old habits.
For help narrowing down the most impactful nutritional changes you can make to your diet, I spoke to four dietitians who shared insight into how to ditch the diet mindset, why you should stop vilifying carbs and fat, and why breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
1. Ditch the diet mindset
First things first, it's time to ditch fad diets and food trends.
"For long-term health, you need to find a nutrition and eating routine that's sustainable for you," says registered dietitian, Jesse Feder.
One of the biggest reasons people stop eating healthy is because they try to follow a fad diet they can't adhere to long term, either because it leaves them hungry, is too complicated, or doesn't work with their schedule, he says.
Feder instead suggests committing to one small, nutritional change at a time rather than jumping from one diet to the next. Once that change is part of your everyday routine, add another until eventually, you've transformed your relationship with food for the better.
2. Don't skip breakfast
Eating a quality breakfast in the morning is a great way to "jump-start your day," says Taub-Dix.
"Eating breakfast fuels your body with the nutrients it needs to think and move to the best of your abilities," says Taub-Dix.
Further, eating breakfast helps reduce your likelihood of overeating or nutrient-poor eating later on in the day, according to registered dietitian, Maggie Michalczyk.
"What often happens when we don't eat breakfast is we get so famished that by lunch, we reach for what is easier rather than what is healthiest," she says.
But morning meals aren't created equal. While a breakfast replete with simple carbohydrates (think: cereals and waffles) may give you a short burst of energy followed by a crash, a breakfast that contains protein, fats, and fiber keeps you energized, full, and satiated all morning, says Michalczyk.
"One option would be eggs with toast and a side of fruit," she says. Another could be a bowl of cottage cheese with fruit and nut butter, says Taub-Dix.
3. Eat more protein
Building and maintaining muscle isn't just for powerlifters and professional athletes as muscle mass is essential for daily functions and supports healthy blood pressure, body fat levels, and bone density.
While building muscle at the gym requires lifting weights, building muscle in the kitchen requires protein.
"Low protein intake can result in muscle wasting, as well as generalized weakness, fatigue, mood changes, slow wound healing, and insatiability," says Michalczyk. Meanwhile, adequate protein intake can support exercise recovery, muscle maintenance, structural soundness, hair and nail strength, and overall health, she says.
The best way to guarantee you're getting enough protein is to measure and track your foods. But as a general reference, you want to aim for 0.7g of protein per pound of body weight which studies show is the ideal amount for losing weight and building muscle.
4. Stop vilifying carbs and fat
While most people would benefit from adding more protein to their diet, that doesn't mean other macronutrients like carbohydrates and healthy fats should be eliminated.
"The human body requires carbohydrates and fats to live," says Feder. "We need them as an energy source in order for our brain, organs, and body to function."
Rather than completely cutting these out, as many fad diets like the keto diet suggest, Feder says it's most important to eat high-quality carbs and fats.
"When choosing carbohydrates, you want to aim for whole grain, complex carbohydrates like quinoa, brown rice, barley, buckwheat, and whole grain bread," he says. These digest slower than simple carbohydrates and therefore keep you fuller longer, while also supporting stable blood sugar levels, he says.
"For fats, aim to consume monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats like nuts, seeds, fatty fish, avocado, and olive oil," he says. These healthy-fat-rich foods may give you energy, as well as reduce inflammation in your body, improve cholesterol levels, reduce blood pressure, and prevent other cardiovascular diseases, he says.
5. Put pop in the dump
Ditching a soda habit can be one of the most impactful nutrition changes you can make. Not only can doing so aid in weight loss, but it may also benefit your skin and teeth and reduce sugar cravings.
"Consuming soda causes an increase in excess calories with little to no nutrient benefit," says registered dietitian, Keri Gans. Some studies have found a link between soda drinking and weight gain while other research found an association between soft drink consumption and deaths from digestive and cardiovascular diseases.
Rather than replacing soda with another sugar-filled beverage, Michalczyk recommends opting for low-sugar options like water, seltzer, coffee, or tea. Water may not sound enticing but "swapping soda with water is a small change that can have a major impact on your overall health and energy levels," she says.
6. Drink more water
Drinking water won't solve every ailment but it is a vital component of any healthy diet.
"Being properly hydrated supports bowel function, maintains a healthy blood pressure, prevents dry skin, promotes optimal muscle performance, boosts metabolic function, and keeps your organs functioning properly," says Feder.
Adequate water intake may also ward off headaches, brain fog, generalized fatigue, and loss of focus, he says. It can even help with overeating.
"Many people mistake thirst cues as hunger cues, and end up eating more food than their body needs or wants," he says. Indeed, one study found that a whopping 37% of people mistake thirst for hunger. Feder adds that "in many instances, simply drinking more water can help individuals eat better proportions."
According to NASEM, women should aim for around 91 fluid ounces of water per day while men should drink roughly 125.
7. Condiment carefully
While salad dressings and condiments can help give your meals a flavorful boost, Michalczyk suggests always reading the nutrition labels to get an idea of their profile.
Many contain inflammatory oils like vegetable oils, soybean oils, canola oils, and corn oil, she says, which can increase systemic inflammation in the body and may increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
"Many also contain a tremendous amount of added sugars and salts, which work against most individuals' health goals," she says. "When shopping, look for the simplest ingredient list."
Ideally, this means it should contain no more than six total ingredients and while some added sugar is normal, try to pick a dressing with under three total grams of sugar per serving, she says
8. Play chef
Seamless and UberEats may be your go-to for fast food but your kitchen should be your go-to for healthy food. "Cooking at home makes it easier to eat healthy than eating out," Michalczyk says.
When you cook at home, you're able to measure out how many calorie-dense ingredients like butter, olive oil, and ghee you're actually using; you lose out on that luxury when you eat out, she says.
One study found that cooking dinner frequently at home is associated with the consumption of a healthier diet whether or not one is trying to lose weight.
9. Track your food intake
Macronutrient tracking can be a great way to get a sense of what you're actually eating, Feder says.
"It can be tedious but just a few weeks of macronutrient counting can give you lifelong nutritional knowledge about what's actually in your food," he says, noting that most people underestimate how many calories they're eating but overestimate how much protein they're eating.
Macronutrients — which include carbohydrates, protein, and fat — are something we all need some of to function optimally, though the exact amounts one needs varies based on factors like body chemistry, activity level, fitness goals, and body composition. App-based and online macronutrient predictors like MyFitnessPal, MyMacros+, and MyPlate, however, provide general recommendations.
Keep in mind that while macronutrient counting may provide useful info about what you're consuming, Michalczyk says it can be triggering for individuals who struggle with their relationship to food.
10. Learn your internal hunger cues
Everyone's hunger cues are different. While some people may experience a growling stomach or reduced focus at work, others may have their hands and feet go cold, or they may even get the shakes.
"Different people have different internal hunger cues, and learning to recognize your own is an important part of eating the foods that best support your overall health," says Michalczyk. Plus, it enables you to delete macro- and calorie-tracking apps from your phone so you're not shackled to the information they provide, she says.
Many people — for instance, those who are often on some form of a diet — have a long history of ignoring their hunger cues. If this is you, Michalczyk says it can be helpful to work with a disordered eating specialist or dietitian who can give you tips and tools for tuning back into your body.
The best way to level up your nutrition habits is by adding one small, sustainable change at a time — like the ten outlined above. This way, you can learn what works best and may have a better chance at having some of these nutritional changes stick around since none are generally considered part of an extreme diet.
Consider changes like making sure to eat a healthy breakfast each morning or increasing your protein intake. Ditching sugary drinks like soda in favor of water and cooking at home more often can also help improve your overall nutrition.
Even learning how to track your food intake to account for total daily calories and protein can be a useful way to better understand your daily diet and to make effective changes.
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer-inclusive, health-informed, pleasure-inclusive, sex-positive journalist and educator who creates written, infographic, audio and video content at the intersection of LGBTQ+ issues, sexual health, wellness, and pleasure.A self-motivated, SEO-savvy journalist, Gabrielle Kassel has written over 1,500 articles about issues on sex, sexuality, and fitness for brands like Healthline, Greatist, Well + Good, Health, Shape, Women's Health, Men's Health, Cosmopolitan, and more. She's also the co-host of Bad in Bed: The Queer Sex (Education) podcast, where she and fellow queer sex journalist Bobby Box talk about all things strap-on sex, anal, bisexuality, and pleasure products. She also films video explainers, pens captions, and hosts Q&As all with the intent of support folks on their sex (re)education journey. Known for my contagious energy, smile, and goofy, disarming demeanor, she helps remove the barriers around taboos, giving folks the space they need to explore, safely.