Trying to eat healthy without understanding the rules is like trying to take a cross-country journey without a map – you’ll take a lot of wrong turns and may never actually reach your destination. By using the following nutritional guidelines as your road map to healthy eating, you’ll find yourself losing weight, burning fat and reaching your fitness destination a lot faster.

1. Always eat breakfast. Your metabolism slows as you sleep, but as soon as you wake up, it starts calling for fuel. If you don’t feed it, your body doesn’t burn stored fat, but rather will turn to it’s own muscle mass as a source of fuel. Then when you do finally eat again, the body will store that meal as fat instead of burning it for energy. You have accidentally triggered your body’s starvation defenses, and it’s going to make sure you don’t starve yourself.

The way to keep your body happy and your metabolism active is to feed it a healthy breakfast 7 days a week. No skipping breakfast on weekends either!

2. Eat every 3-4 hours. To metabolize calories efficiently, it is important to supply your body with a small amount of the right types of food on a regular basis. If you go more than a few hours without eating, your metabolism slows back down and then your next meal is automatically registered as overload to your system. That meal won’t be properly digested and your low blood sugar levels will leave you feeling drowsy and craving sugary carbohydrates.

3. Always eat protein and carbs together. First of all, remember that there is a difference between complex carbohydrates and simple carbohydrates. Complex carbs, like vegetables and brown rice, provide energy over a long period of time, as it takes longer for them to be digested. Simple carbs, like potatoes and white rice, turn to sugar almost immediately, causing a sharp increase in insulin production, which is the enemy of a healthy metabolism.

Carbohydrates provide vital energy to the body, which can’t be replaced by eating protein alone. If you don’t eat a carbohydrate, your body starts to burn protein. So make sure each of your small meals includes a bit of lean protein, such as a baked chicken breast, AND a small amount of complex carbohydrates, such as vegetables or brown rice.

4. Increase your fiber intake. Replacing simple carbs with healthier complex carbs, will go a long toward meeting your daily requirements for fiber. Be sure to pass up starchy carbohydrates, like white bread, in favor of whole grains. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and when possible, wash and eat them with the skins intact. For the most fiber content, vegetables are best eaten raw, but when you must cook them, do it lightly to maintain their fiber content. Cooking with legumes instead of meat will help add fiber to your diet without reducing your protein intake.

5. Trim the fat. If you are cooking with olive oil, eating nuts as snacks, and adding a chunk of avocado to your salad, you will are eating all of the fat your body needs to keep you feeling full and your hair and nails healthy. You can reduce the amount of fat in your daily meals by replacing beef with chicken or fish. When you do eat beef, trim the excess fat from the steak and buy ground beef with no more than 85% fat content.

6. Eat more vegetables. Contrary to popular American beliefs, it is not necessary to eat meat at every meal. And it certainly isn’t healthy. (Read our review of the Dean Ornish diet plan for information on his heart-healthy vegetarian lifestyle.) But if meat is an important part of your diet, then at least do yourself the favor of reducing your meat portion to 3 ounces per serving. Then load up the remainder of your plate with vegetables. They provide large amounts of vitamins, antioxidants, water and fiber without adding cholesterol or fat to your diet. Keep in mind that the more colorful the veggie, the healthier it is. Dark green and orange are the colors to add to your plate!

7. Eat your vitamins. If you are skipping meals or relying on convenience foods for the bulk of your calories, there is a good chance you have gotten into the habit of popping vitamin pills instead of taking the time to eat properly. When you are adding fruits and vegetables to most of your meals, you won’t need to take an extra vitamin pill to supplement your nutritional needs. Vitamins pills don’t add the fiber, water or trace minerals that you get when you eat your veggies.

8. Drink water and more water. This is a common refrain among nutritionists and weight loss experts: drink at least 64 ounces of water each day. Don’t like it? Don’t worry, the more water you drink the more your body will crave it. You will be soon be addicted to water and will happily chug it all day long.

9. Reduce sugar, salt, alcohol and caffeine. If you have been dieting, but are still struggling to lose weight, the number one suspect has to be sugar. Take a couple of days and track each and every gram of sugar you consume. Did you know there is 1 gram of sugar in your piece of ham? Another gram in the cream for your coffee? And a whopping 21 grams of sugar in low fat milk? Most Americans easily consume over 50 grams of sugar per day. The fastest way to lose weight is to cut sugar grams to 15 grams per day.

It can be done by tracking sugar consumption and then choosing healthier daily eating habits.

Salt, caffeine and alcohol all contribute unwanted health issues ranging from high blood pressure, to irritability, to diseases such as liver, heart and brain damage. If you can live them without them, you’ll live a lot longer.

10. Skip the magazine diets. Sure, it can be tempting to “lose 10 pounds in 10 days”, but the diets that promote quick and easy weight loss usually do so with a cost. More often than not, you are starving your body, which causes a loss of muscle mass, and then makes it harder to maintain a healthy metabolism. The result is often quick weight loss, followed by rapid weight gain once your body invokes its starvation defense and starts storing fat for the future.

So instead of dieting, think of healthy nutrition as an eating plan for life. By following the healthy eating guidelines outlined above, you can lose weight and live a healthy lifestyle that never requires you to “diet” again!