Instead of rushing into a diet, here are five simple rules for healthy eating – The Irish Times

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This article was meant to be an overview of the most popular diets for 2024. You know the ones – Mediterranean, Paleo, Keto, Dash (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) and the most talked about newcomer on the block – intermittent fasting.

And while some diets such as Dash (low in red meat, salt, added sugars and fat with an emphasis on fruit and vegetables and lean protein) are backed up by scientific studies to support their use for medical reasons, many diets force people to change their eating habits so drastically that they can’t keep it up.

One 2020 review of popular diets in the British Medical Journal found that while many restrictive diets resulted in modest weight loss after six months, the weight loss diminished at 12 months.

Interestingly, many Irish dieticians advise people to say no to dieting. So, read on to devise your bespoke simple rules for healthy eating instead.

The first thing to keep in mind is that, although you might have gained a few pounds over the Christmas period, January is just about the worst month to deprive yourself of nutritious food as cold dark mornings and back-to-work blues will tempt even the most determined dieters into tasty treats to lift their mood.

Dietician Sarah Keogh of Eatwell advises people to avoid big changes to their eating habits and crash diets. “Try picking two areas of food to really work on,” says Keogh. “You might decide to get more fruit and vegetables into your diet. You might decide now is the time to make sure you are getting enough calcium and vitamin D in your diet. Make a plan, buy the foods and do one or two things at a time. Once you have one good habit bedded down, you can move on to the next one.”


If you are already eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, check that you have good sources of protein with each meal. Protein foods leave you feeling fuller and less likely to reach for sweet treats afterwards. Drinking plenty of water or herbal teas throughout the day is also a great way to avoid unnecessary grazing between meals.

Following this approach to eating is more sustainable than dieting, according to Keogh, and while it might result in a slower weight loss, it can lead to a healthier and more balanced long-term eating plan.

Watching your portion size is another excellent way to reduce your food intake at meal times and opting for smaller plates helps you adjust to smaller portion sizes. And at the risk of repeating the most well-known nutritional advice, remember that your plate should be filled with roughly one-quarter protein foods, one quarter carbohydrates food and the other half with vegetables and/or salads.

Keogh warns against cutting out whole food groups in the rush to lose weight “Cutting out whole food groups always means you are missing out on more than you think because food groups have more than their main nutrient. For example, carbohydrates have fibre, antioxidants, minerals and B vitamins,” explains Keogh.

Another important aspect of healthy eating is paying attention to the sensation of hunger or fullness. Did you know that it takes about 20 minutes for your brain to send a signal to your stomach to let you know that you’re full?

“Taking time over meals, avoiding distractions (eg, don’t eat while watching the television or when on social media) and chewing well gives us both time to savour what we are eating, but also detect when we are satisfied or may need to eat more,” explains Aveen Bannon, dietician at the Dublin Nutrition Centre.


Eating meals as a family also helps children establish healthy eating habits for later life. Bannon says it’s important to focus on the positive aspects of eating, enjoying the taste of your food and how it benefits your overall health. “Avoid dieting or discussing diets around children and avoid labelling foods as good or bad.”

Louise Reynolds, dietician with the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute, agrees that family mealtimes allow parents to lead the way and model healthy eating practices. “When your child sees you eating lots of different foods, they are more likely to do the same. Also think about smaller plates for younger children to help with portion size.”


Healthy eating is also of utmost importance for people returning to gym workouts or team sports after the Christmas break.

Prof Sharon Madigan, nutritionist at Sport Ireland Institute, advises people against restricting food intakes especially on training days. “Look at the days you are training and aim to have your larger meal earlier in the day and refuel after the session. This avoids fatigue setting in towards the end of the week. When we are tired, we are less resilient and this is often when the fast-food options slip in.”


Not having biscuits, crisps, fizzy drinks or ice cream in your house is another sure way of avoiding unhealthy treats when your defences are down.

Finally, nutritional therapist Elsa Jones (who is giving a free online talk on mindful eating on elsajonesnutrition.ie on January 17th) encourages people to set up positive personalised intentions which will inspire them to look after themselves in a meaningful way. “I advise people to tune inwards and look at how to balance their health with their tastebuds and overall wellbeing to make nourishing food choices,” explains Jones.

“Many people feel overwhelmed, out of control and shameful about their food choices after Christmas. But rather than go into a restrictive phase, it’s worth looking at what’s important for you. Pause before each meal and consider how you want to feel as you eat and after you eat. This helps you to eat with purpose and intention,” she adds.

So, considering all the above, how about establishing your personal five simple rules for healthy eating instead of rushing into a January diet?

Here’s a sample five simple rules that I try my best to follow.

  1. Eat three nutritious meals a day, following the protein, carbohydrates and vegetables/salad rule mentioned above.
  2. Avoid snacks between meals.
  3. Have nothing more to eat after the evening meal and drink water or tea instead.
  4. Avoid processed foods as much as possible, opting for fresh produce, wholefoods and cooked-from-scratch meals.
  5. No alcohol on weekdays. And, remember not to ruin your approach by binging on treats and drinking too much alcohol at the weekend.

Healthy eating tips

  1. Ditch the diet and set yourself up for eating three healthy meals and two wholefood snacks a day. Drink alcohol in moderation and limit your caffeine intake. Opt for water and herbal teas throughout the day instead.
  2. Include plant (beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, tofu, tempeh and quinoa) or animal protein (meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy) in each meal. Protein foods make you feel fuller and thus help prevent sugar cravings.
  3. Choose slow-release carbohydrate foods (oats, pearl barley, brown rice, bulgur wheat, wholewheat pasta, wholegrain bread, sweet potatoes, whole fruits and vegetables) over fast-release carbohydrates (breakfast bars, bagels, biscuits, cake, fruit juices, dried fruit, muffins, refined cereals, while bread, white flour foods, white pasta, white rice) which also keep you fuller for longer, boost digestion and help you get your daily dose of vitamins, minerals and fibre.
  4. Eat oily fish (salmon, trout, sardines, mackerel, tuna) two to three times a week and eat moderate amounts of naturally occurring saturated fats. And steer clear of low-fat options as they are often laced with sugar to make them more palatable.
  5. Eat between five and eight portions of different coloured fruit and vegetables every day, from dark leafy greens to brightly coloured peppers and citrus fruits.

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