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How to make small healthy changes to your diet without dieting

How to make small healthy changes to your diet without dieting

While fad diets might lead to fast and dramatic weight loss, they're often unsustainable in the long term. Instead, it's healthier to make small, healthy changes to the way you eat to create positive, long-lasting habits.

Whether it's keto, juicing or intermittent fasting, there's no shortage of novelty diet programmes promising to help you lose weight fast. But are they effective?

"Fad and extreme diets do not work in the longer term. They may make you lose weight to begin with, but then the weight goes back on as soon as you start to eat normally again," says Jennifer Low, registered dietitian and British Dietetic Association spokesperson.

"They also are often low in a lot of essential nutrients and will leave you feeling drained and exhausted, and often will cause your metabolic rate to fall, meaning you will burn less energy," she adds.

"Extreme dietary restriction means that you have to switch off from listening to your body - our bodies are really good at telling us what we need. And no, they don't always say we need chocolate; often they will crave vegetables as well. We all need to relearn to tune in and listen to ourselves."

Sudden or extreme diets also don't change your relationship with food in a positive way, meaning you're less likely to stick to any dietary alterations you make. Smaller changes are far more sustainable, meaning that you will be able to continue these healthy habits into the future.

So what can you do to make long-lasting changes to the way you eat without resorting to fad diets?

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Add good things in

For many of us, our default is to cut back on things we consider to be bad, such as chocolate or crisps. However, thinking about what you can add to your diet - and not what you need to take away - can be a more positive change.

"At this time of year it's easy to think 'I won't allow myself anything that's not good for me', but that puts you in a deprivation mindset and you are likely to crave the very foods that you are not allowing yourself," says Low.

"If you can think about what healthy additions you can make to your diet, most people find they then naturally eat more healthily and can have the less healthy foods in moderation."

Drink more water

"Make small changes that you think you could stick to. For example, trying to drink more water during the day to try to reach eight glasses a day, or eating an extra piece of fruit a day," says Chloe Hall, a registered dietitian and member of the British Dietetic Association. "The important thing is that you are making the changes realistic and sustainable."

Increasing the amount of water you drink is a simple way to improve your diet and health. Not only will staying properly hydrated reduce the risk of headaches, it can also help reduce sugar cravings and aid weight maintenance. Research has shown that having water before a meal may fill you up more and therefore promote weight loss by causing you to eat less at the meal1.

Staying hydrated is also good for our mental well-being too, with research suggesting that even mild dehydration can impair memory and mood2,3.

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Try healthy alternatives

If you tend to reach for chocolate or sweets, try more nutritious alternatives instead. You can make your own sweets using foods like oats and dried fruit, or switch to dark chocolate. Eating well doesn't mean cutting out snacks - far from it. In fact, it's better to snack when you need to throughout the day, but with more balanced options to even out your energy levels.

"Try snacks that contain protein that may keep you fuller for longer and stop you reaching for another snack, such as a small handful of seeds or unsalted nuts, a couple of wholegrain oatcakes with low-fat cream cheese or hummus," says Hall.

Eating a variety of nutrient-rich snacks such as nuts further increases the chance of getting all the vitamins, minerals and micro-nutrients you need. For instance:

  • Almonds are higher fibre than any other nut and most dense in vitamin E.

  • Brazil nuts (in moderation) are an excellent source of selenium.

  • Cashews are high in zinc, magnesium and iron.

  • Walnuts are a great source of manganese, as well as inflammation-fighting omega-3 fatty acids.

Make sure you eat regular, balanced meals throughout the day too. "No skipping meals, as this will often cause you to overeat the next time you allow yourself to," she adds.

Eat less salt

Thinking about the salt content of your food can make a big difference to your health. Too much salt can raise your blood pressure and increase your chances of heart disease, obesity, kidney disease, Meniere's disease, osteoporosis and gastric cancer4.

According to the World Health Organization, the average adult eats over 10 g of salt a day - more than double the recommended daily intake of 5 g1.

But these small changes can significantly reduce how much you consume. Bear in mind as well that the more you get used to using less salt, the less you will crave it.

Many food labels also use a traffic light system, in which high levels of salt may be indicated by a red label.

  • Choose low-salt products - food labels use the traffic light system with low levels are indicated by green, moderate by amber, and high by red.

  • Eat mostly fresh, unprocessed foods - ultra-processed foods tend to contain a lot.

  • Reduce the amount you add to cooked meals - you can do this gradually.

  • Swap salt as a flavouring for herbs and spices - there are so many to play with.

  • Limit your ready-made sauces, dressings and instant products.

  • Remove the saltshaker/container from your table at mealtimes.

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Make high-fibre swaps

We hear a lot about the health risks of high-carb foods - but for most people, it's refined carbs - both sugary and starchy - which should be avoided or minimised. White versions of sugar and flour, often found in nutrient-poor ultra-processed foods, have been linked with a host of negative health outcomes.

If you have diabetes, this is particularly important. Both starchy and sugary carbohydrates are converted into sugar, raising your blood sugar. Refined carbs are low in fibre, so absorb quickly into your system, causing spikes in blood sugar.

Swapping your usual foods for higher-fibre alternatives is an easy change with big benefits. There is strong evidence that eating plenty of fibre is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer. It also makes us feel fuller, helps digestion and prevents constipation.

High-fibre foods include wholegrain bread, wholegrain pasta and wholegrain cereals, as well as oats, barley and rye, fruit, vegetables, peas, beans, pulses, nuts, seeds and potatoes with skin.

"Increase the fibre in your diet by switching to brown pasta and rice and wholegrain breads," says Low. "Increase your portions of fruit and veg in a day, aiming for two more than you would normally have to begin with and increase to five portions a day, or more."

It can help to increase the variety of fruits and veg you choose too, which can also make meals more interesting. "Try to aim to have 30 different types in a week if you can, as it's great for gut health to keep your fruit and veg varied."

Cook more

Everyone has days when they just can't muster the energy to cook and end up ordering a takeaway. And while there's nothing wrong with ordering in every so often, getting into a routine of home cooking is one of the best ways to eat a more balanced diet.

"Start small and choose an achievable goal for you, which could be cooking a healthy dinner from scratch a few times a week," says certified health coach Sophie Pirouet. "Before the week, choose the days you'll cook, and the recipes, and get the ingredients you need in.

"Taking a bit of time to plan each week will make sure you're ready to go when the time comes, especially if you're feeling tired at the end of the day and opting for Deliveroo might feel easier."

Eat from a smaller plate

Following a healthy diet is also about eating the right amount. If you're carrying excess weight, it's worth looking at your portion sizes and how they measure up against the recommendations laid out by the British Nutrition Foundation in their helpful guide.

You might be worried about hunger when you cut down your meal size, but if you do this gradually and eat enough protein with each meal, you should still feel satisfied - and over time your appetite will adapt.

One of the best and most simple tricks is to use a smaller plate when you first cut down. This way, you'll be eating less but your plate will still look full. This has a psychological impact that's proven to help people reduce the amount they eat.

  1. Dennis et al: Water consumption increases weight loss during a hypocaloric diet intervention in middle-aged and older adults.

  2. Reibl et al: The hydration equation: update on water balance and cognitive performance.

  3. Pross et al: Influence of progressive fluid restriction on mood and physiological markers of dehydration in women.

  4. WHO: Sodium reduction.

Article history

The information on this page is peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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