by Sharon Palmer, R.D.

To feel your best -- with plenty of energy, a healthy weight and optimal mental and physical function -- you may need to make changes in your diet. Diet and healthy lifestyle habits are powerful weapons in the fight against devastating diseases.

"You can lower your risk of chronic disease by 80 percent through healthy living," notes David Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center. Katz, who spoke at the 2012 Food for Your Whole Life Symposium in New York, reported that research over the past 20 years indicates that forks (diet), along with feet (physical activity) and fingers (that don't hold cigarettes) are the master levers of medical destiny. Good use of forks, feet and fingers can help eliminate chronic problems such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

With that in mind, here are the top, science-based nutrition habits you should foster to protect your health:

1. Choose healthy carbs

Target unrefined carbs, such as whole grains, unsweetened fruits, and vegetables, and limit refined carbs, such as refined grains and flours.

"It's pretty clear that refined carbohydrates add empty calories, which contribute to obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Which source of carbohydrates we choose can make a tremendous impact," said Walter Willett, M.D., Dr. P.H., nutrition chair at Harvard School of Public Health, at the same symposium. Instead of breads, bagels and cookies made with white flour and sugar, fill your plate with nutrient-rich whole grains, such as whole wheat and quinoa; unsweetened fruits, like berries and bananas; and lots of multi-colored vegetables, such as green leafy vegetables, tomatoes and broccoli.

2. Put legumes on the menu every week

Enjoy legumes, such as beans, peas and lentils, as a replacement for meat at least one day a week and as a side dish at least three times a week, suggests Victoria Shanta Retelny, R.D., L.D.N., dietitian and author of "The Essential Guide to Healthy Healing Foods."

Legumes are a near "perfect" food; a one-half cup serving provides at least 20 percent DV (Percent Daily Value, based on 2,000 calories per day) for fiber, folate and manganese; 10 percent DV for protein, potassium, iron, magnesium and copper; and 6-8 percent DV for selenium and zinc. These nutritious yet economical gems have been linked to lower blood cholesterol levels and body weight, and reduced risk of heart disease, hypertension and some types of cancers.

3. Eat smaller portions

If there's one lesson to be learned, it's simply to eat less food. Our portions -- in restaurants, supermarkets, and at home -- have increased dramatically over the past few decades, directly feeding into the obesity epidemic and its health fallout. Eliza Zied, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., dietitian and writer, reports that learning to eat smaller portions will allow you to eat a wider variety of foods without feeling deprived.

"Really savor your food when you eat. Pay attention to it, don't be distracted," she stresses. In order to get in touch with portion sizes, measure out one-half cup of pasta, rice or cooked grains and remember that a three-ounce serving of meat or chicken should be the size of a deck of cards.

4. Eat fish at least twice a week in place of red meat

Dietary patterns that include more fish are linked with lower rates of diseases, including heart disease, cancer and diabetes, while those high in red meat, such as beef, pork and lamb -- and especially processed meats like ham, hot dogs and bacon -- are linked with higher rates of these diseases.

"Eat cold-water, fatty fish like salmon, halibut, tuna or sardines at least twice a week, for a total of 12 ounces per week," suggests Retelny.

5. Include a fruit or vegetable every time you eat

This rule even applies to breakfast and snacks, according to Bethany Thayer, M.S., R.D., director of the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

"This increases the likelihood that you'll get the fruits and vegetables you need during the day. It also helps provide bulk and nutrients to help keep you feeling full and well-fueled," she adds. For extra credit, double up on those vegetables at lunch and dinner -- have a soup or salad and a serving of fresh or cooked vegetables.

6. Eat a healthy food, before you indulge

Before you're tempted by a treat, whether it's cookies or chips, turn to something healthy, such as nuts or fruit, suggests Zied.

"Eating something healthful before you indulge in a treat may fill you up and satisfy you, and help you meet your quota for fruit or get the healthy fats from nuts; and it may actually help you eat less of the treat you're craving."

7. Drink eight glasses of water every day

Not only will you hydrate your body with life-giving fluids needed for maintaining your body functions, you'll also stay away from sugary beverages, including sodas and sports drinks, which have been linked with obesity.

"Keep a water bottle handy and track how much you consume," suggests Jessica Crandall, R.D., C.D.E., dietitian at Sodexo Wellness and Nutrition and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

8. Add nuts and seeds to your daily diet plan

Munch on a handful (about 1 1/2 ounces) of nuts, such as walnuts, almonds, pecans or peanuts, or add seeds (about two tablespoons), such as flaxseed, chia, hemp, sesame or sunflower seeds to your diet every day, suggests Retelny.

Nuts and seeds provide heart-healthy fats, fiber and a host of vitamins and minerals. As a bonus, some nuts and seeds, such as walnuts, ground flaxseed, chia and hemp, are rich in omega-3s, linked with heart health benefits.

9. Meet your fiber goal every day

Fiber is rife with health opportunity; it's been linked with lower risk of heart disease, certain types of cancer, diabetes and obesity. Yet only 5 percent of Americans meet their fiber goal: 25 grams per day for women and 38 grams for men.

"Think fiber everyday by choosing whole grains breads, cereals and pasta, as well as fruit, veggies, beans, nuts and tofu," says Retelny.

10. Stop eating at least 2 hours before going to bed

"Food provides calories and calories provide energy. You can't expect to get a good night's rest if you've just loaded your body up with energy. Give your body time to digest the food before bed. You'll be amazed at how much better you sleep. And when you are well rested, you're much better able to keep your exercise and nutrition resolutions," says Crandall.


Top 10, Science-Based Nutrition & Healthy Eating Habits