From lustrous skin to loads of energy, the benefits of healthy eating cannot be overstated. But those who want to start eating smarter are often bombarded with confusing, even conflicting messages. Carbs, no carbs, or just complex carbs? Paleo or Mediterranean? Atkins or The Zone? High fat or no fat? Is sugar really as bad for us as some experts would like us to believe? Who are these truly healthy eaters, anyway—and what’s their secret?
The secret to healthy eating is not much of a secret at all—nor is it a diet as much as it is a series of choices that accumulate to enhance overall wellness.
Here are 6 things healthy eaters do differently—and why you may want to follow in their footsteps:
1. They choose their fats wisely
Fats got a bad rap in the ‘90s, nearly twenty years after Congress changed U.S. dietary guidelines to encourage people to start thinking twice about their butter and cheese consumption. In response, non and low-fat products started flying off the shelves, while the collective consciousness grew to believe that fats were bad and carbs were the key to better health and a slimmer physique.
A glance at the statistics, however, shows that the trend had a serious backlash. The average American’s girth grew in size, in part because those popular “lite” foods were jam packed with chemicals and sugar.
People who focus on eating healthy recognize that good fats—the kind found in avocados, nuts, and olive oil—are vital to health (and, yes, the circumference of their waists). They obtain omega-3s—which can naturally support overall health—through the consumption of walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and flax, hemp, and fish oil.
Healthy eaters also look for ways to trim saturated fats, which are found in butter and animal products. Rather than reaching for fried chicken, for example, they seek out skinless pieces of poultry. They purchase the lowest fat meat available, like 98% fat-free organic ground turkey or lean cuts of beef. And on the whole, they shun hydrogenated fats, which are found in margarine and processed snack foods like chips.
It’s smart thinking, indeed: Saturated fats can contribute to increased inflammation and heart disease, while hydrogenated fats contain trans-fatty acids that may raise “bad” cholesterol.
2. They eat salads (as in everyday)
Salads have long been a mainstay of traditional diets for a reason. Without dressing, they’re naturally low in calories and full of fiber, which not only naturally aids digestion but also offers a sense of fullness.
But we’ve come a long way since the days of iceberg wedges and slices of anemic tomatoes: Healthy eaters today are well aware of the benefits to be found in filling their salad bowls with an array of fresh produce. Many followers of a clean-eating diet aim to eat a daily salad that includes at least five different colors in it, meaning they pack their plates with everything from orange carrots and purple beets to yellow peppers and green kale. This is far less about aesthetics (although there is something beautiful about seeing a rainbow before you) than it is about knowing that different colors represent different nutrients. White fruits and vegetables, for example—apples, cauliflower, pears—are high in dietary fiber and antioxidant flavonoids. Red fruits and veggies, on the other hand (think: kidney beans, strawberries, and tomatoes) are rich in lycopene, a carotenoid that is a powerful antioxidant.
3. They munch on broccoli sprouts
The myriad benefits of broccoli are often touted, including its impressive levels of vitamin A and beta-carotene. But without proper prep—not to mention a little sprucing up—broccoli can get old quick.
Nevertheless, healthy eaters heed to broccoli’s incredible advantages but also mix it up by reaching for broccoli sprouts as well as mature crops. Available at farmers’ markets and health food stores (or grown at home), broccoli sprouts resemble alfalfa sprouts but taste more robust. Moreover, they’re loaded with sulforaphane—a potent antioxidant that naturally supports anti-inflammation and can help your liver detoxify environmental toxins. In fact, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that broccoli sprouts contain up to 50 times the concentration of these nutrients compared to mature broccoli plants. Toss them into a salad, throw them into a sandwich or stir fry, or snack on them with a dash of salt.
4. They stay hydrated
One of the biggest components of a healthy eater’s lifestyle is staying hydrated with water. They’re onto something vital: Water—which creates and sustains life—is what makes your internal world work, from the cells of your body to the blood that courses through your veins. Healthy eaters work to receive enough of this crucial substance—as in at least half of their body weight in ounces each day—to keep their forms functioning at peak levels.
5. They seek—and eat—superfoods
“Superfoods” are often bandied about, and while it might sound great—who wouldn’t want their foods to have superpowers?—many often admit that they aren’t quite sure what this term actually means.
Superfoods differ from their counterparts in that they possess superb nutritional profiles and notably higher levels of vitamins, minerals, proteins, and antioxidants. These plant-based powerhouses are a healthy eater’s ideal, as they organically support health in a variety of ways. Acai, for example—which makes up those delicious bowls often seen at juice bars—offer excellent amounts of vitamins C and E, as well as beneficial fatty acids, antioxidants, and fiber. Other top superfood options? Blueberries, pumpkin seeds, mangosteen, kale, quinoa, chia—and yes, that ultra-nutritious broccoli.
6. They have a healthy relationship with food
Healthy eaters understand on a deep, intuitive level that what they select to put into their bodies helps to support their energy, happiness, mental clarity, longevity, and protection against disease. To this end, they strive for principle over pleasure, often reaching for the healthier choice—foods that boast stronger, long-term benefits—rather than eats that might satisfy a temporary craving. At the same time, healthy eaters gain an appreciation and preference for wholesome foods that make them feel good. And what could possibly taste better than that?