Is fat bad? Are grains our nemesis? Is salt a killer? Every time we think there's a definitive, one-size-fits-all answer, the prevailing wisdom shifts. Experts proffer this advice: Use common sense. “Studies make it clear that a diet based on whole, unprocessed, and preferably organic plant foods is the ticket to long-term health,” says Steven G. Pratt, MD, co-author of SuperFoods Health Style (William Morrow, 2006). With that in mind, consider these powerful food truths for a lifetime of healthy eating.

Rethink carbs

For years, Americans looked to the grain-heavy food pyramid for nutrition guidance. Although the USDA revised the chart in 2005, we've continued to feast on refined bread, pasta, and rice to our detriment. But listen up: It's not just white carbs that do more harm than good. “Even ‘whole’ grains have a negative effect on blood-glucose levels if they're not high in fiber,” says Shari Lieberman, PhD, CNS, co-author of The Real Vitamin and Mineral Book (Avery, 2007). “If you're talking about a special high-fiber bread with 6 grams of fiber per slice, that's one thing. But most commercial wheat breads only have 1 or 2 grams of fiber a slice.” Consuming low-fiber carbs is a recipe for blood-sugar spikes, which over time can cause insulin imbalance, inflammation, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, Lieberman says.

First line of defense: Swap most grains for fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Compare the paltry fiber in a slice of whole-wheat bread to that in a cup of raspberries (8 grams) or kidney beans (a spectacular 14 grams). When you do eat grains, choose those with 4 grams of fiber or more per serving, such as brown rice or barley. Make pasta primavera with a third of the noodles (use high-fiber pasta) and double the vegetables; in burritos, use a 2 to 1 ratio of beans to brown rice. Or try slathering garlicky tomato sauce over braised chard instead of pasta. Serve spicy, fragrant lentil curry over sautéed spinach instead of rice. “There's nothing in grains that you can't get in vegetables and legumes,” says Lieberman. “Many people in my practice have given up grains altogether, and they feel a heck of a lot better.”

Embrace beans

Loaded with fiber and disease-fighting phytochemicals, “beans are one of the best vegetarian protein sources on the planet,” says Pratt. “Unlike animal proteins, they help prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer, two of the most common diseases that kill people. They also stabilize blood sugar and help reduce insulin resistance, which protects against diabetes.” It's incredibly easy (not to mention economical) to soak and cook dried beans. Also stock up on salt- and fat-free canned cannellini, garbanzo, great Northern, black, and pinto beans. Make a habit of adding them, whole or puréed, to everything: soups, salads, eggs, sandwiches, pasta sauces, gratins, stir-fries … you get the idea.

Sleuth out salt

We're saturated with salt. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than 2,300 mg of sodium daily, but the average American consumes at least three times that — putting the body at risk for high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, and kidney disease. The results of a large international study, published in 2007, suggest that a 15 percent reduction in salt intake could save an estimated 8.5 million lives over a 10-year period.

The FDA is considering setting limits on the amount of salt added to processed foods, a shift precipitated in part by pressure from consumer groups and the AHA. Right now, an innocent-looking cup of spaghetti sauce contains a scary 1,054 mg. Fast food is another big offender. But even a “healthy” alternative, like a 6-inch submarine sandwich with lean turkey, no cheese, and extra vegetables on whole-wheat bread, contains a massive 1,651 mg of sodium.

Research shows that after eight to 12 weeks of scaling back, taste buds prefer less salt, so get started today. Avoid cured and brined meats, and rinse salty foods, including olives, feta cheese, and canned fish to remove roughly 30 percent of the sodium. Instead of reaching for the shaker, season foods liberally with herbs and spices. Garlic is a good pick; or try lemon zest, turmeric, curry or chili powder, cumin, rosemary, and sage. And compare nutrition labels — sodium amounts vary drastically, even within a category of food, such as salad dressings.

Continue Reading on Next page: Sugar, Fat, home cooking

Don't be so sweet

Sugar overload is another red flag. According to the USDA, the average American eats about 30 teaspoons of sweeteners per day — that's nearly four times the daily recommended limit of 8 teaspoons, which is roughly the amount in just one can of soda. Sugar, like refined grains, causes insulin spikes, which prompts inflammation and all its associated ills. That goes for honey, maple syrup, and unrefined cane sweeteners, too. And even if you eschew candy and soda, check your pantry. Sugar (in many guises) lurks in soup, bread, crackers, canned vegetables, salsa, peanut butter, pasta sauce, and more.

As with sodium, the goal is to retrain your palate. Most recipes taste absolutely fine with one-fourth to one-half less sugar; kick up flavor with sweet spices like cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. Stock up on berries, apples, and other low-glycemic natural treats. And use low-glycemic agave nectar or xylitol instead of sugar; or try stevia, a natural sweetener that doesn't impact blood sugar.

Befriend fat

We're still recovering from more than 20 years of the low-fat fad, which forced us into the carb-heavy diet and forbade foods like olives, nuts, and avocados. Finally, the scene has shifted. Most people regularly enjoy good-fat plant foods, few recoil in horror from olive and canola oils, and almost everyone — even, finally, our government — realizes that trans fats are detrimental to our health.

Now for more big fat news: Certain saturated fats aren't the heinous health offenders we once thought. Some health experts even admit there's no conclusive evidence that naturally occurring saturated fats, which have been part of the human diet for thousands of years, cause cardiovascular disease or anything else. For example, coconut oil, a saturated fat, is actually healthier than the polyunsaturated fats found in sunflower, safflower, sesame, corn, soy, and peanut oils, which contain pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, says Lieberman. “Pure, nonhydrogenated, organic, cold-pressed coconut oil is a rich source of lauric acid,” she says, “which is anti-inflammatory and antiviral.” Overall, extra-virgin olive oil and coconut oil are great choices. As with all things, of course, use in moderation.

Cook at home

People are busier than ever, eating out often and dining on gigantic restaurant portions heavy on calories, saturated fats, trans fats, salt, and sugar. According to Margo Wootan, DSc, nutrition policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Americans eat out about four meals a week. Plus, women who eat out more than five times a week consume an average of 300 more calories per day. It's not uncommon for a restaurant entrée to weigh in at more than 1,000 calories, and some can top 2,000 calories for a single dish, says Wootan.

The solution is simple: Shop for, prepare, and eat fresh, whole foods at home. That means skipping ersatz selections like processed foods and trans fats; cooking with healthy oils; minimizing or eliminating sugar; shaking on spices instead of salt; and going heavy on vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, and seeds. Savor the joy of making a real meal in the company of family and friends.

Lisa Turner is a food and nutrition writer. She devours vegetables, olive oil, and the words of Michael Pollan.

A Week of Healthy Meals

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
Tofu Breakfast Burrito*
Yogurt with dried cherries, mixed berries, and chopped almonds
Cherry-Cinnamon Baked Oatmeal
Kefir or yogurt, banana, and blueberry smoothie, topped with crushed walnuts
Omelet Primavera*
Mixed greens and baby spinach salad with at least five vegetables, black olives, and chopped walnuts; canned wild alaskan salmon mixed with canola mayonnaise, minced onion, and celery
Arugula and White Bean Salad with Rosemary Dressing*
Chickpea and Roasted Pepper Salad
Warm Mâche Salad with Steamed Vegetables and goat Cheese*
havarti and avocado Sandwich*, made with high-fiber bread; mixed greens salad with olives and nuts
Mediterranean Chickpea Stew
Eggplant Ratatouille with Kale and Beans
Spicy Seared Tofu with Kumquat Sauce*
Slow-Baked Salmon with Red Wine and honey*
Jamaican Jerk Tempeh*
*Recipe available online
Δ Make ahead