How to Overhaul Your Diet

What habits should you change first to rebuild a healthy diet?

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
5-minute read
Episode #211

How to Overhaul Your Diet

Stephanie writes, “If you need to overhaul your diet, are there some principles that are more of a priority? What’s the best order to tackle the changes needed to rebuild a healthy diet?”

I love this question because it shows that—even if her diet needs a total overhaul—Stephanie understands three very important things: 1) building a healthy diet is an ongoing process, not just a decision; 2) trying to change everything at once is likely to backfire, and 3) some things are more important than others. It’s also a great topic for us to explore.

Of course, it’s a little hard to know what sorts of changes Stephanie should make first without knowing what her current diet is like. But if it looks anything like the typical American diet, the very first thing I’d suggest would be:

1. Eliminate (or drastically reduce) sodas, flavored waters, juice and sports drinks. Why? You know I try to avoid focusing on individual foods, food groups, or nutrients as The Problem or The Solution. But if pressed to identify one thing about the typical American diet that is doing more damage than any other one thing, I think I would have to single out our consumption of refined sugar.

See also: Why Is Sugar Bad?

Most Americans are consuming about twice the maximum recommended amount of sugar--and half of that is coming from sweetened beverages. In other words, eliminate this one category of foods and we’d take care of our sugar problem in a single swipe! Moreover, you lose nothing by eliminating them. They don’t make you feel any fuller than you do drinking just water and they offer no nutritional benefit whatsoever. (And yes, I’m including the ones with vitamins in them. Please.)

I will make an exception for sports drinks but only for folks who are engaging in intense exercise for more than 60 minutes at a time or exercising in extremely hot or dry conditions. These guys really can benefit from the sugar and sodium in sports drinks. But most sports drinks are consumed recreationally and in that setting they are the same as any other sugar-sweetenedbeverage: just empty calories.

See also: What to Eat Before, During, and After Your Workout

My second priority for your dietary overhaul would be:

2. Eat more fruits and vegetables. Why? Fresh fruits and vegetables are the most nutrient-dense foods in the diet, providing more nutrition for the calories than any other kind of food—plus valuable compounds that you just can’t get from other food groups. Even better, they tend to displace other, less healthy foods from the diet. When you commit to eating at least 5 servings of vegetables and 2-4 servings of fruit every day, you’d be surprised how much less room there is in your life for other snacks and junk food.

See also: How to Get More Vegetables Into Your Diet

Besides, when you’re trying to make lasting changes to your diet, I think it’s a lot more effective (not to mention more fun) to focus your attention on the things you should be eating more of than on the things you’re trying to avoid or reduce.

See also: Shift Your Focus to Make Dieting Easier

The next thing I’d suggest you tackle is:

3. Eat less processed and prepared foods. For most of us, this would require a big shift indeed. Americans currently consume about 1/3 of their calories away from home, either in restaurants, fast food joints, or as take-out. And of the meals we eat at home, a great majority comes out of boxes, packets, and cans. Preparing more food from scratch is a painless and powerful way to cut salt, fat, and calories from your diet.

You don’t have to be a great chef or spend hours a day on complicated recipes. Some of the best recipes I know (such as most of the ones you’ll find in my book Secrets for a Healthy Diet) involve fewer than half a dozen ingredients and take less than 30 minutes to prepare.

That said, there is no denying the convenience of packaged foods, especially when schedules are tight. For that reason, I dedicated an entire chapter of my book to packaged and prepared foods and how to make the best choices, which you can read for free here.

And if you eat out a lot, review my episode on how to make better choices in restaurants

If you are eating a typical American diet, these three simple changes would be nothing short of transformational. If you’ve already got these covered, the next two steps I’d suggest would be:

4. Avoid hydrogenated fats and deep-fried foods. Hydrogenated oils, which are often found in packaged and processed foods, are a source of harmful trans fats. And most 

deep-fried foods – especially those from restaurants and fast-food places—also contain harmful compounds that form when vegetable oils are heated. Although there’s certainly a place for things like butter and coconut oil in a healthy diet, I suggest making olive oil your primary source of fat.

And, finally:

5. Limit refined grains but eat all grains in moderation. For more on this please see my episode on The Truth About Whole Grains.

What About All the Rest?

That’s it? What about pesticides and hormones and BPA and acrylamide and high fructose corn syrup and phytates and all the hundreds of other things that might be standing between you and dietary perfection? Hey, if you’ve got the big stuff taken care of and you still have energy to tackle the little stuff, be my guest. You’ll find resources here on all of these topics and more. But if you haven’t taken care of the big stuff yet, I think focusing on the little stuff is sort of a waste of energy.

See also: Are Your Nutritional Priorities in the Right Order?

You be the Diva: How Would You Answer Stephanie’s Question?

While I was thinking about how I would answer Stephanie’s question, I threw it out to the community on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page and asked how they would answer this question. Several of your ideas were right in line with what I was thinking. There were also tons helpful tips and suggestions on how to stick to those priorities once you decide what they are. If you’d like to see all the great advice posted by other listeners, or add your own, you can find that discussion here.

Speaking of Facebook, we recently discovered that Facebook has changed their algorithm to hide posts from pages (such as the Nutrition Diva page) from your newsfeed. If you’ve been missing my Facebook posts, here’s instructions on how to take control of your Newsfeed.

Keep in Touch

Thanks, Stephanie, for your great question! If you have a suggestion for a future show topic, send an email to nutrition@quickanddirtytips.com. You can also post comments and questions on my Nutrition Diva Facebook Page.  I answer a lot of listener questions in my free weekly newsletter, so if you’ve sent a question my way, be sure you’re signed up to receive that.

Cola, Fruit and Vegetable Heart, Takeout Box and French Fries images from Shutterstock

About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.