Developing healthy eating habits isn’t as confusing or as restrictive as many people imagine. The essential steps are to eat mostly foods derived from plants—vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes (beans, peas, lentils)—and limit highly processed foods. Here are our guidelines for building a healthy diet.

Consume a variety of foods:


Not all the nutrients and other substances in foods that contribute to good health have been identified, so eating a wide assortment of foods helps ensure that you get all of the disease-fighting potential that foods offer.

In addition, this will limit your exposure to any pesticides or toxic substances that may be present in a particular food.

Keep an eye on portions:


Sure, you can eat all the broccoli and spinach you want, but for higher-calorie foods, portion control is the key.

In restaurants, choose an appetizer instead of an entree or split a dish with a friend. Don’t order anything that’s been “supersized.”

Eat plenty of produce:


Aim for 2½ cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit a day, for a 2,000-calorie diet. If you consume more calories, aim for more; if you eat fewer than 2,000 calories, you can eat less.

Get more whole grains:


At least half your grains should be whole grains, such as whole wheat, barley and oats. Whole grains retain the bran and germ and thus all (or nearly all) of the nutrients and fiber of the grain.

Look for a product labeled “100% whole wheat” or “100% whole grain.

Enjoy more fish and nuts:


Nuts, fatty fish, avocados and vegetable oils supply healthy unsaturated fats. Recent research suggests these foods, though high in calories, tend not to promote weight gain because they are satisfying. Still, it’s best to eat them in place of other high-calorie foods.

Don’t worry about cholesterol:


Though a 300-milligram daily cap on cholesterol intake has long been advised, there’s abundant evidence that cholesterol in food has little, if any, effect on blood cholesterol in most people.

Thus, many experts no longer recommend limiting dietary cholesterol (found only in animal foods, notably eggs and shrimp). Rather, the best way for most people to lower their blood cholesterol is to reduce their intake of saturated fats (as in meats) and trans fats (from partially hydrogenated oils in processed foods).