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The New Way to Eat: 12 Essential Tips for Happy, Healthy Meals

Hint: It’s a lot like the old way to eat, but bolstered by decades of research. We’re talking about going back to a time before meals were broken into carbs and calories, when food was a source of energy, sustenance, and pleasure that that kept your body going strong for a lifetime. These principles put the focus back on whole, seasonal foods -- and put happiness into every bite.

1. Expand your food horizons

The first “rule” of eating is not to rule anything out completely, be it dairy, fat, or sweets. Instead, go for a wide variety of whole foods that you truly love, prepared in delicious ways. “The happiest, healthiest people in the world don’t diet,” says Darya Rose, a neuroscientist and author of “Foodist” (HarperOne, 2013). “Nothing is off-limits to them, so they eat in a life-affirming way.” Similarly, rather than counting calories at each meal, Kathie Madonna Swift, an integrative clinical nutritionist and coauthor of “The Swift Diet” (Avery, 2014), suggests filling your plate with nutritious, colorful foods. “At least half of the circle should be vegetables, a quarter protein, and the other quarter a starchy vegetable or grain, like quinoa or barley. In the middle, add in healthy fats like nuts and seeds.”

2. Get satisfaction

Time and time again, studies have shown that when we eat what we want and slow down, turn off screens, and pay attention to tastes, smells, and textures, we feel sated long before overdoing it. Mindful eating feeds us emotionally, too, Swift says. “Time is a precious commodity, but we’ve got to rethink the conversation around food and bring soul nourishment, not just nutrition, back into it.” When you eat, take a break and break bread with a friend, coworker, or family.

3. Be smart about starch

Here’s a reason to rejoice: It turns out that eliminating carbs from your diet is actually a crime against nature. “Last year, researchers from the University of Oregon found a seventh taste bud on the tip of the tongue that’s a receptor for starch,” says John McDougall, an internist and author of “The Healthiest Diet on the Planet” (HarperOne, 2016). Your body craves it for a reason: Carbs are full of fiber and satisfying. “Historically, it was the primary source of food for all large, successful populations; they ate rice, potatoes, and wheat, among others,” McDougall says. Adds Buettner, “The longest-lived women are Okinawans, and about 60 percent of what they’ve consumed for about a third of their lives is sweet potatoes, a superfood.” So incorporate good, old-fashioned rice (bonus points for the brown kind, which has a lower glycemic index) or potatoes (but hold the fries) into meals, along with more exotic varieties, such as black rice (shown to have anti-inflammatory properties) or amaranth (rich in iron, calcium, and all the amino acids).

4. Let things simmer

Slow food is superpowered food. “When you cook vegetables gradually, their flavors are fully released,” says Buettner. Better yet, “water-cooking methods -- steaming, making soups and stews -- preserve nutrients and don’t create glycation; when meat is cooked quickly at a high temperature, it produces toxins that increase inflammation in the body,” says Swift. So plug in a slow cooker, and if you grill often, marinate meat in an acid like vinegar or lime juice first: “It blunts production of some damaging molecules.”

5. See seafood differently

Fish is the original smart food. “It’s full of B12 and nutrients related to brain health,” says Swift. But given concerns like high mercury levels in larger species and overfished oceans, veer away from big guys like tuna and swordfish, and think smaller, as in whole sardines, anchovies, herring, or these simply roasted Spanish mackerel. (When in doubt, check your choices against the Marine Stewardship Council website: For convenience, try tinned varieties, too.

6. Wine is fine

If you uncork a bottle of vino now and then, there are some compelling reasons to continue. “The trick is to have it with a plant-based meal, because wine triples the uptake of certain nutrients, increasing the absorption of lavonoids,” says Buettner, who also found in his research that centenarians drink a glass or so a day, usually with friends. A dark-red varietal like Petite Sirah, Tannat, or Sagrantino is also high in the antioxidant anthocyanin.

7. Go for full-fat

If you don’t do well with dairy, skip it altogether (but you may want to take a daily calcium supplement). If you’re a fan, enjoy it at its richest and creamiest. “Look for milk from pastured cows that eat grass, and choose whole-milk products, whether cheese or yo- gurt,” says Swift. “The fat can be a source of valuable nutrients.” Rose goes further: “Science shows that cutting out the fat in dairy is not beneficial to us, and it takes a lot of processing [to remove it],” she says. “Plus, full-fat is more satisfying.” Do as the Mediterranean do, and think of cheese not as a food group but as more of a condiment that intensifies a dish, as with shaved pecorino on pasta, or crumbled feta on a Greek salad.

8. Fill up on fiber

Yes, vegetables are brimming with antioxidants and vitamins. But the main reason to pile on fresh produce, says Swift, “is fiber. Ancestrally, we got 70 grams and up a day; today we get maybe 15.” The reality is that we need 25 to 38 grams a day. Fiber aids digestion and helps lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and inflammation. Go for local varieties when possible, and remember: “Foods that grow together taste good together,” she says. Which explains why tomatoes, eggplant, and basil make an amazing meal.

9. Finish strong

Before serving a simple side like this, add something that packs a wallop of satisfying flavor. Sprinkle on crunchy sea salt -- if you cook at home, it’s a lot harder to OD on sodium just by seasoning to taste. McDougall uses sugar as an accent, too: “Sixteen calories’ worth on your oatmeal is nothing,” he says. Shower food with one herb today, a different one tomorrow. “Diversity is key,” says Swift. “Parsley, cilantro, and basil all help detox the body.” Another tasty trick, says Rose, is to “add an acid, like lemon or vinegar.”

10. Eat sweets with intention

When it comes to dessert, zero-tolerance policies don’t work. “When we’re restricted, we have psychological mechanisms that tell us to rebound and overdo it,” says Rose. The solution? Just eat it! But do so mindfully, and occasionally. You want to indulge by design (a smallish slice of this chocolate tart, for instance), not in dessert in disguise. Case in point: “A fruity yogurt can have 22 grams of sugar, while an Original Glazed Krispy Kreme donut has 10,” says Rose. “You can be getting the equivalent of two donuts’ worth of sugar while thinking you’re eating healthfully.” And there’s a wonderful side effect to eating honest-to-goodness treats less frequently, Swift says. We stop craving them: “I can’t tell you how many people I’ve worked with who, once they’ve gone off really sweet sweets, say, ‘My gosh, this fruit tastes so sweet to me!’ Whereas before, it wouldn’t have done the trick.” Swift suggests enjoying dessert twice a week.

11. Take the spice route

“Turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, cloves -- they’re good for your brain and gut, and anti-inflammatory,” says Swift. They’re also full of antioxidants, delicious, and easy to incorporate into every dish, from morning oatmeal to soup to stir-fries. Turmeric in particular, which contains the anti-carcinogenic compound curcumin, has been heating up studies lately. If possible, look for fresh turmeric root, which you can grate like ginger and sprinkle lightly onto sweet and savory dishes.

12. Lock it in for life

To eat well forever, not just for the moment, “focus on real food, and build habits around it,” Rose says. “Probably the most important one is to cook for yourself.” The next step is to figure out simple, good-for-you weekday meals that you enjoy enough to eat on the regular, and keep the fixings on hand. “If you nail breakfast and lunch daily, that’s a huge win,” says Rose. “Then if you cook dinner three or four nights a week and are fairly active, you’ll be healthier. It’s really hard to eat enough on a Saturday to undo all of that.”