Eating healthy isn’t always easy, but committing to a healthy diet can be one of the smartest decisions you ever make. Why? Not only can eating well make you look and feel better, it can also save you money on future health costs.
But even if you intend to “eat healthy,” knowing exactly what that means can be challenging. “Following a healthy diet includes choosing plenty of lean meats, eggs, vegetables, fruit, whole grain and dairy products,” says Debra Nessel, a registered dietitian with Torrance Memorial Medical Center in Torrance, California.
Eating well also means leaving out or only rarely consuming foods that are high in added sugar, saturated fat and sodium. That includes most fast food, full-calorie sodas, processed snacks like chips and crackers, and anything with more milligrams of sodium than there are calories in a serving.
If you need some help getting motivated, here are the top reasons to sneak a few more nutrient-packed foods into your diet.
1. Increase productivity
Like a car, your brain needs quality fuel to run efficiently. When it comes to your job, working more efficiently can help you earn more, since high achievers are usually first in line for promotions and raises. Nessel says her clients frequently experience increased focus shortly after improving their diets.
How much can eating healthy help? One 2012 study published by Population Health Management found that eating an unhealthy diet puts you at a 66% increased risk of productivity loss. Another study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that an unhealthy diet represented the highest risk for low productivity out of 19 possible risk factors, including lack of exercise, chronic pain and financial instability.
2. Save money on life insurance
Health insurance premiums can no longer be based on health factors, since everyone is required to have health coverage. However, life insurance is elective, and those premiums are indeed partially based on how healthy you are.
If you’re shopping for life insurance, you could be required to hand over your medical records or be subjected to a health exam so the life insurance company can assess how healthy you are. You could face double the life insurance cost in premiums or be denied for coverage altogether if you’re obese. Simply switching to a healthier diet and dropping a few pounds before you apply for a policy could significantly lower your costs.
3. Enhance mood
What you eat has an impact on your brain, including the parts that regulate mood. Although there’s no single food that acts as a proven antidepressant, maintaining stable blood sugar through regular, proper nutrition will help you feel better overall on most days. Foods rich in vitamins and minerals, such as fruits, whole grains and vegetables, have been associated with an overall lower risk of depression, as have foods rich in omega-3 fats, such as nuts, salmon and other fatty fish.
True happiness isn’t just about the absence of depression; it also includes general well-being. “I frequently hear clients rave about their increased energy, more stable moods, better sleep, decreased joint pain” and greater ability to focus their thoughts after switching to a healthier eating pattern, Nessel says.
Eating healthy can reduce stress too. When your body is in a chronic state of stress, it breaks down protein to prepare for battle, but certain foods have the ability to moderate the body’s level of cortisol, the stress hormone. Some studies have found that consuming foods with omega-3 fatty acids and magnesium may help reduce cortisol levels. Eating a protein-rich diet, including fish and dairy, can help replenish protein stores and keep cortisol levels low.
4. Regulate weight
Most people know this one, but it still deserves a place on this list since more than half of Americans are overweight or obese, and obesity contributes to nearly 1 in 5 American deaths. Even if it’s only by 5-10%, reducing your body weight can lower blood pressure, improve cholesterol levels and decrease the risk of Type 2 diabetes, according to the Obesity Action Coalition.
Simple healthy choices such as replacing soda with water, choosing veggies instead of chips, and ordering a side salad in place of fries not only will help you lose weight, it also can help you save money. The average obese person spends $2,741 more on health care per year than a normal-weight counterpart, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of Health Economics that looked at data from 2000-2005.
5. Be healthier
Not everybody who is thin is healthy, and not everyone who is overweight is unhealthy, but eating right can improve health for even thin people who are junk food junkies. You can think of junk food as anything that’s high in calories and low in micronutrients like vitamins and minerals. This includes potato chips, greasy foods like french fries, and soda.
If you miss out on too much of the vitamins and minerals that your body needs, you could put yourself at risk for early death. A 2014 study published in the British Medical Journal found that eating at least five servings of fruit and vegetables per day was associated with lower risk of dying from any health-related cause.
6. Live longer
The same diseases that make you feel bad and cost a lot of money may also lower your life expectancy. A diet of fruit and vegetables, in combination with exercise, was associated with extended life expectancy for women in their 70s, according to a study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
Other studies have shown similar associations between a long life and calorie restriction or consumption of a Mediterranean diet, which includes lots of fruits, vegetables, and omega-3 fats from fish and olive oil. No matter how you cut it, a healthy diet can play an important role in how long you’ll live.
Tips for eating healthy
If switching to a healthy diet were easy, everyone would do it. So what should you do if you’re having a hard time choosing the right foods and sticking to a healthful eating pattern?
“Small changes over time result in big payoffs,” Nessel says. That means setting small, attainable goals each day that will translate into long-term results. Here are some of her tips:
Stay hydrated. This will help you reduce cravings and feel fuller.
Don’t skip meals. Eat at about the same time each day, if you can.
Get active. Just increasing activity a little bit may create a mindset to eat better too.
Preplan around cravings. If you always get hungry for salt at 3 p.m. or sugar after dinner, have a healthier alternative ready to go.
Forgive yourself when you slip up. Beating yourself up after a slip-up tends to unravel all of your goals; picking back up as though you didn’t make a misstep is a better option.
Keep in mind that good choices, like eating a healthy diet, happen one at a time. A few small changes in the right direction can help improve your life now, and they may fatten your wallet too.
Written by Lacie Glover, staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @LacieWrites.