19 Healthy Eating Rules Nutritionists Ignore All the Time

Updated: Nov. 10, 2020

Turns out breakfast may not be the most important meal of the day. And that's just one of many healthy eating food rules you can break.

Oatmeal porridge with berries and honey on wooden table
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Food rules for healthy eating

When you hear someone talk about healthy eating, you may start to think of fruits and vegetables, salad bowls, and green juice. However, there is more to healthy eating than just the foods you eat—the quantity, the quality, and when you eat food can play a role in your diet.

There are plenty of myths and misconceptions surrounding healthy eating—so much so that it can be difficult to get a handle on the dos and don’ts. To get some clarity, we spoke with food experts and asked them what food rules they themselves choose to ignore. If they can do it, so can you.

woman looking at diet coke can
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You have to count calories to lose weight

A lot of people swear by the “calories in, calories out” method of weight loss, but if this rule were true, deprivation diets would work, says Rebecca Cafiero, an integrative nutritionist, Palo Alto, California. “My motto is don’t count calories, count nutrition. I’d rather learn to eat the right foods if that means not having to spend all my time tracking calories and macros in My Fitness Pal,” she says.

woman drinking water from glass
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You must drink 8 cups of water a day to stay hydrated

Setting an arbitrary number of how much water you should drink every day is silly, Cafiero says. The problem is that it doesn’t take into account the weather, your diet, your individual body’s needs, or a host of other factors that influence hydration.

Instead, she says to focus on how you’re feeling and how things are working out in the bathroom. “Water, via urine, is your body’s way to eliminate toxins,” she says. “Would you rather that waste be carried out on a slow moving stream or a fast moving river?” For the record, she drinks way more than eight cups a day.


White sugar is really bad for you

“One of the nutrition rules I’ve set for myself is to eliminate refined sugar, but it’s a rule I break pretty often,” says Laurie Smith, a nutritionist at Jack City Fitness, in Boise, Indiana. “Why? I’m an addict!” At the end of the day, we’re all human and sometimes you just need a cookie. “Usually, I try to tame the sugar beast by using natural sweeteners like honey or stevia, but that doesn’t always work,” she adds. Obviously, moderation is key.

woman eating an orange at home
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Never skip meals

Ever get so into something that keeps you so busy you forget a meal or two? No worries, nutritionists do it too.

“There are times that I am so busy with life and work and kids that I forget to eat a meal,” says Sarah Remmer, RD, child and family nutrition expert in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. “Then I end up being overly hungry and subsequently overeat later. It happens!” If this happens to you, she says to simply remind yourself to do better the next meal and not beat yourself up or feel guilty.

woman eating burger at restaurant
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Fast food is strictly forbidden

It’s a myth that nutrition pros always eat a certain way, says Remmer. While healthy eating is the goal most of the time, they are just as tempted by that value meal with fries and a soda as you are, especially when they’re tired.

“Although I try to make sure that most of the food I eat is made from whole food ingredients and not overly processed, there are definitely times that I eat processed foods out of convenience,” she says. Her tip? Choose the healthiest of the convenience food options available.

Kidney beans on a Spoon with blurred cans in the background

Avoid all packaged foods like the plague

A popular nutrition rule is to shop the perimeter of the store—produce, dairy, meat—and avoid all the packaged stuff in the center. Nonsense says New York City-based RDN, and culinary nutrition expert Jessica Levinson.

“I break that one all the time,” she says. “There are so many packaged foods like canned beans, canned fish, crushed tomatoes, and broth that are nutrient-rich and make eating healthy so much easier and convenient.” Not to mention, they’re budget-friendly.

Woman having popcorn while enjoying a movie

Never eat in front of the TV

Eating in front of your TV, computer, or phone can distract you from your hunger signals, causing you to eat more. Yet even the best nutrition pros succumb sometimes.

“Sometimes I just need to veg out with a bowl of popcorn!” Levinson says. That said, she recommends being smart about your snacking by portioning out what you’ll eat (as in, put the popcorn in a bowl; don’t eat it straight from the bag) and start with a fresh fruit or veggie before moving on to snack foods and treats.

basket of bread in restaurant
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Skip the bread basket

Carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap recently in the nutrition world, especially simple carbs… like warm, delicious, fluffy, white bread. But you don’t have to pass on every bread basket, says Erin Akey, certified nutritionist and kids nutrition expert in Mobile, Alabama.

“While too much bread is definitely not a good thing due to the fact that it is usually empty calories, I do love a really good artisan bread with a really nice cheese or tapenade,” she says. She just has one bread rule: Don’t waste the calories on any old bread; make sure you get the good stuff.

Fried breaded chicken wings on plate over black background
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Avoid fried foods at all costs

Fried foods are a no-no on pretty much every diet, but there’s a reason they’re the cause of so many cravings, especially when they remind you of your childhood or culture, says Johane M. Filemon, Georgia-based RDN of Wonderfully Nutritious.

“I am a registered dietitian, it’s true, but I am also an island girl and fried plantains are one of my weaknesses,” she says. “We should limit our intake of fried foods, but it is okay to allow ourselves to enjoy some foods that make us happy every now and again. Again, moderation is the ticket.”

Friends eating dinner
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Eat every three hours to keep your metabolism going strong

You’ve likely heard the “rule” that it’s better to eat five or six mini-meals a day to keep your metabolism running fast. That’s not only ridiculous, but it’s not realistic for most people, Filemon says.

“I’m a mom of three with a busy nutrition practice. Sitting down to eat six meals a day just isn’t going to happen in my life right now,” she says. “Really, ‘meals’ are relative to each person, and your metabolism won’t slow down if you eat fewer meals.”

woman looking at fridge
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No late-night snacking

Not eating after a certain point—say, after dinner or 6 p.m.—is a common rule for losing weight. But this is one rule made to be broken, says Joel Palau, RD, of My Swift Body, in Hollywood, Florida.

“I eat past 6 p.m. every day because I prefer to work out in the evenings and I need to fuel my body after a tough workout,” he says. Ultimately, what’s more important than how late you eat is how many calories you ate throughout the day and the quality of those calories, he adds.

Italian pasta in wooden bowl

Pass on pasta

Pasta is often one of the first things to go when trying to health-up your pantry, which is too bad, Palau says. You can have your favorite spaghetti bolognese or fettuccine pomodoro and still eat healthfully.

“Carbs are the body’s preferred energy source,” he says. “I consume bread, rice, and pasta year-round and they are some of my favorite foods.” The trick, he adds, is to skip the processed junk and go for freshly made noodles in moderation.

Jars of coconut oil for cooking
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Coconut oil is a super food and you should eat it on everything

Coconut oil is everywhere these days, from face creams to hair treatments and, of course, in many, many foods. It’s gotten to the point where many people consider coconut oil their preferred source of fat and think nothing of adding it to nearly everything they eat.

Not Mindy Haar, RD and assistant dean of undergraduate affairs at New York Institute of Technology. “At the end of the day, coconut oil is still a saturated fat,” she says. (Not to mention highly caloric.) “I think olive oil, a monounsaturated fat, is a much better choice.”

Whole wheat bread cut on slices
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Ditch all wheat products and stay away from gluten

The backlash against wheat, once considered a staple crop for humanity, has been sharp and severe in recent years. For people with celiac disease, eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, can trigger an immune reaction in the small intestine. But unless you’re among the one in every 100 Americans who have celiac disease, there is no reason for you to avoid whole grain wheat products, Haar says. They’re high in fiber and full of nutrients.

close up of artificial sweetener packs on table in restaurant
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Skip the artificial sweeteners

Zero-calorie sugar substitutes, like the kind often found in diet sodas, claim to let you have your cake and eat it too. But science has shown that these processed products may be doing more harm than good, increasing your cravings for sweets and causing you to overeat later. And yet, they can still be really tasty, says Pam Sherman, nutrition expert and personal trainer, Roseville, California.

“I found this amazing no-calorie, sugar-free caramel syrup. The ingredient list is awful and full of words I don’t know and cannot pronounce,” she says. “However, adding this to hot cocoa is unbelievable! So creamy and delicious.”

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Fight those PMS cravings

Many (many) women struggle to stick to their diets the week or so before their period. Thanks to hormones, cravings are high and willpower is low. Instead of fighting it, Sherman says she just gives in. “Yes, sugar and junk food are awful for our bodies; they are inflammatory, can lead to eating more sugar, cause energy crashes, really mess up your sleep and the list goes on and on,” she says.

Normally, she tries to steer clear of the sweet stuff, but when it comes to premenstrual syndrome (PMS)? “I indulge. I have a little of what I’m is craving. If not, it can lead to a full-on binge.”

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Fatty foods will give you a heart attack

“Unfortunately, fat has gotten a bad rap from the media and scientific literature as a major cause of cardiovascular issues,” says Alex Robles, MD, physician, personal trainer, and founder of White Coat Trainer, a company that helps people improve their exercise levels and nutrition. “What people fail to realize is that the science behind those links is based on very poor quality fats. Fat is a very important nutrient that we need to consume significant amounts of. I don’t fear fat and I eat plenty of it!”

His favorite fatty foods are nuts, nut butters, avocados, olive oil, seeds, and even dark chocolate.

eat pizza late night
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Pizza is a diet buster

For Robles, focusing on eating healthy 80 to 90 percent of the time means that he eats what he likes the rest of the time. His favorite splurge? Really great pizza. “Having whatever I want 10 percent of the time does not have any significant impact on my fitness routine, my body composition, nor my energy levels,” he says.

Breakfast plate

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day

For several decades, dieters have been told that they should always eat breakfast, and it should ideally be the biggest meal of the day. But when it comes to omelets and oatmeal, Christa Biegler, RD, Rapid City, South Dakota, could take or leave it—and she often leaves it.

She says she doesn’t sweat missing her morning meal, however, as intermittent fasting can have amazing health benefits.