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“No man can be wise on an empty stomach.” - George Eliot
The foundation of a healthy diet:
It’s not hard to figure out how to eat a healthy diet; it just requires a little planning. Fortunately, there are some valuable tools available to give you the guidance you need to eat healthy. These tools are neither fad diets nor miracle cures. Rather, they are tried and true principles and guidelines that can help you develop your own individualized diet plan.
Powerful Tools for Healthy Eating:
Two useful tools are the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the Food Pyramid. Both were developed by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services. The two tools work together. The Pyramid is a graphic illustration showing different food groups and the Dietary Guidelines provides further guidance for selecting health-promoting proportions from each group.
One way to view these tools is to think of the Dietary Guidelines as building blocks and the Pyramid as the balanced and powerful structure that results when the blocks are all assembled together.
If you want to improve your diet, simply follow the plan below, step-by-step:
- Step 1 - Set your health or weight goals.
- Step 2 - Review dietary guidelines. See Dietary Guidelines, below.
- Step 3 - Calculate your personal caloric requirements.
- Step 4 - Factor in your individual goals, concerns or current health problems.
- Step 5 - Learn about serving sizes.
- Step 6 - Calculate your daily servings for each food group. See Food Pyramid.
- Step 7 - Read food labels in the store, adapting each label to your caloric requirement. See Food Labels.
- Step 9 - Try new, healthful foods you’ve never eaten before.
The USDA Dietary Guidelines:
In summary, eat a variety of foods, balance eating with physical activity, eat plenty of grains, fruits and vegetables, and be moderate in your consumption of sugar, salt, sodium, and alcohol.
#1 - Eat a Variety of Foods
To maintain good health, the human body needs more than forty nutrients. Eating a variety of foods greatly increases the chances you are getting all the nutrients you need.
Different foods provide different special nutrients:
- The cruciferous vegetables, which include broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage, contain unique phytochemicals associated with lower risks of some diseases.
- Tomatoes and tomato products contain potent antioxidants.
- Leafy, dark-green vegetables provide potassium, vitamin C, beta-carotene, calcium, iron and fiber.
- Unrefined grains provide fiber.
- Milk products contain bone-strengthening calcium.
You are less likely to have trouble with food allergies if you vary your diet and reduce the amounts you consume of any single food product which may be giving you problems. Eating a variety of foods also keeps your taste buds stimulated and makes your meals more interesting.
Keep trying new foods to avoid getting into a dietary rut. You may want to consciously think about rotating your foods. It’s easy, if you just think about having different colored fruits and vegetables on different days or at different meals and plan to regularly rotate your protein and grain sources.
The following is an example of a diet rotation chart:
|Monday||Tofu||Bulghur wheat, Oatmeal, Bran muffin, Wheat bread||Broccoli, Tomatoes, Salad greens, Green beans||Melon, Apple|
|Tuesday||Lentils||Ten-grain cereal, Couscous, Brown rice, Wheat bread||Carrots, Cauliflower, Chard, Red pepper||Cherries, Apricots|
|Wednesday||Fish||Barley cereal, Wild rice, Polenta, Whole grain pita||Sea vegetables, Asparagus, Winter squash, Mushrooms||Grapefruit, Bananas|
|Thursday||White beans||Buckwheat pancakes, Corn bread, Whole grain bagel, Wheat bread||Spinach, Onions, Carrots, Beets||Blueberries, Strawberries|
|Friday||Chicken||Quinoa, Rye bread, Oat muffins, Whole grain crackers||Salad greens, Cucumber, Radish, Carrot, Green beans||Peaches, Grapes|
|Saturday||Fish||Corn, Oatmeal, Wheat bread||Sweet potato, Chard, Eggplant||Apple, Blackberries|
|Sunday||Red meat||Rice cereal, Oatmeal hotcakes, Squaw bread||Cabbage, Artichoke, Salad greens, Tomatoes, Radish, Cucumber||Oranges, Prunes|
The five food groups in the USDA Food Pyramid give you a concrete way to select foods from different food groups to assure variety and rotation. See Food Pyramid for more detailed information.
Here is a quick view of the recommended servings from each food group, based on a 1,500 calorie diet:
|Food Group||Foods in this Group||Recommended Servings Per Day|
|Grains||Breads, cereals, pasta, rice||6–11|
|Vegetables||Whole vegetables, vegetable juices||3–5|
|Fruits||Whole fruits, fruit juices||2–4|
|Dairy||Milk, yogurt, cheese||2–3|
|Meat / Protein||Meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, nuts||2–3|
Each of the foods in the five food groups is made up of one or more macronutrients, each of which serves a different function in our bodies. The macronutrients are: protein, carbohydrates, and fats.
Macro means big. Macronutrient refers to general categories of food. Micro means tiny. Micronutrients are essential nutrients we need in tiny quantities: vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. All three macronutrients are vital to our health. Optimal health depends on maintaining a good balance between macro and micro.
Protein builds and replaces tissues, carries nutrients and oxygen through the bloodstream and to cells, maintains fluid balance, and helps maintain the hormonal chemistry that keeps the body going. Approximately one-fifth of your body weight is made up of protein. There are two types of protein:
- Complete protein contains all essential amino acids. Sources of complete protein are seafood, soy products, eggs, milk, meat, and fowl.
- Complementary protein requires two food sources to provide all essential amino acids. For example, beans and rice.
Carbohydrates are the chief and preferred energy source for the body. There are three kinds of carbohydrates:
- Complex carbohydrates are found in whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes. The body breaks them down slowly, so they provide a controlled, even energy source. Complex carbohydrates contain high levels of vitamins and minerals, which prevent disease and serve thousands of functions in our bodies. They are also excellent sources of fiber, which promotes healthy digestion, lowers blood cholesterol level, and decreases risks of certain cancers.
- Simple carbohydrates are found in honey, molasses, fruits, and fruit juices. Fruit juice is a rich source of vitamins, but simple carbohydrates may cause your blood sugar level to rise and fall rapidly. To reduce this effect, consume them with complex carbohydrates or protein.
- Refined carbohydrates are found in table sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and other sweeteners. They contain few nutrients and may also cause blood sugar to rise and fall rapidly.
#2 - Balance the Food You Eat with Physical Activity and Maintain or Improve Your Weight
If you consume more calories than you use during the normal operation of your body you will store extra calories as body fat. This is the cause of weight gain. If you spend more energy than you consume, you begin burning your stored fat and you lose weight. Obesity is considered a risk factor for many diseases, including diabetes and heart disease, so balancing the diet with exercise is an important health goal. A few benefits of regular activity include disease prevention, weight control, body fitness.
- Reduces risks of coronary artery disease, hypertension, colon cancer and adult diabetes
- Increases HDL (“good” cholesterol) over LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and reduces triglycerides and total cholesterol
- Strengthens heart, lungs, muscular, immune and circulatory systems
Weight control and body composition:
- Raises metabolic rate
- Helps control appetite
- Increases ability to lose weight when necessary
- Helps maintain optimal body composition
- Increases endurance
- Enhances your ability to stay active and healthy when older
- Improves muscle strength and bone density and bone strength
Exercise Profile of Americans
In 1996, the Surgeon General of the United States published a comprehensive report detailing the health benefits of activity and exercise, as well as warning of the risks of inactivity.
The Surgeon General’s report noted the following:
- On average, 60% of Americans are not regularly active.
- 25% of the adult population is not active at all.
- Nearly half of children 12–21 years old are not regularly active; adolescence is a time of dramatic falloff in sports and recreation participation.
#3 - Choose a Diet with Plenty of Grain Products, Vegetables, and Fruits
This is one of the easiest and most immediate ways to improve the diet. When you choose grains, vegetables, and fruits, you are choosing foods packed with plenty of vitamins and minerals, complex carbohydrates and dietary fiber. What’s more, plant foods are also rich in phytochemicals, which are believed to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer. Plants also contain antioxidants, which help to neutralize free radicals in the body (free radicals are incomplete pieces of molecules that can damage cells when they link together and oxidize). As a bonus, these foods have very little fat and no cholesterol so they help to reduce the risk of coronary artery disease. When these foods dominate the center of your plate, their bulk helps you to feel full and satisfied.
Dietary fiber is the indigestible part of fruits and vegetables. Fiber is not an energy source but has many valuable functions: Fiber aids digestion and protects the health of your colon. Fiber can relieve both constipation and diarrhea. It may take one to two months on a high fiber diet to achieve regular relief of digestive problems. Fiber stimulates increased output of enzymes secreted by the stomach and pancreas, thus improving absorption of nutrients. Fiber slows the rate at which your stomach empties, increasing feelings of “fullness.” Thus, it reduces hunger, lowers blood sugar levels, and increases insulin effectiveness. Fiber decreases cholesterol and the risk of heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers. An intake of 25–35 grams a day is needed for disease prevention. As an example, one-half cup of wheat bran contains 13 grams, three-fourths cup of kidney beans contains 14 grams, one cup of cooked Bulghur contains 8 grams, and one raw carrot contains 2 grams.
#4 - Choose a Diet Low in Fat, Saturated Fat, and Cholesterol
Excessive fat in the diet contributes to health problems. This does not mean fat should be avoided altogether. Fat is an essential part of an overall diet plan. The dietary guidelines suggest fat consumption be limited to a total of 30% of calories. Some people, for specific health reasons, may choose to set their fat consumption level to 10–20%. In addition, the guidelines suggest that no more than 10% of total calories should come from saturated fat. There is an easy way to calculate fat intake.
- To calculate the percentage of fat in the foods you eat, simply multiply the grams of fat by 9 (the number of calories in one gram of fat) and divide that number into the total number of calories. The result is the number of calories from fat.
- For instance, a 1,500 calorie diet allows 150 calories from saturated fat; a 2,500 calories diet allows 250. Below you will see a definition of the different types of fats.
Fats are not all the same
Fats all contain some essential elements, but there are some important differences between them. Below is a brief explanation. For more detailed information, go to Fats and Oils.
- Monounsaturated fats are found in high quantities in olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, peanuts, pecans, almonds, and avocados. These are generally considered the healthiest kind of fats. Many studies suggest diets higher in this form of fat are much better for you than diets high in saturated fats.
- Polyunsaturated fats are found in high quantities in most vegetable oils. They will tend to lower your total cholesterol but may also lower the good HDL cholesterol as well. Some polyunsaturated fats contain omega-6, an essential fatty acid found in higher quantities in seeds, grains, nuts, and vegetables. Some examples are safflower oil, sunflower oil, pumpkin seed oil, soybean oil, walnut oil, wheat germ oil, sesame seed oil, rice bran oil, evening primrose oil, borage oil, and black currant seed oil.
- Omega-3 fatty acids are found in beans, greens, seeds, flaxseed oil and fish, (especially cold water fish, such as salmon, trout, mackerel and sardines). Diets high in these fatty acids are associated with decreased risk for heart disease and other health problems.
- Saturated fats are found in meats, palm and coconut oils, butter, lard, cocoa butter, eggs, whole cheeses and whole milk, most ice creams, and many processed foods. They are usually solid at room temperature. As mentioned earlier, the USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting total consumption of saturated fat to 10% of caloric intake. Saturated fats are associated with a variety of health problems, especially increased risk of heart attacks, stroke, and other blood vessel diseases. The Surgeon General’s 1988 Report on Nutrition and Health notes that excessive saturated fat consumption is the major dietary contributor to high cholesterol.
- Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats are fats that have been artificially altered to make liquid oils into more solid form. Examples include margarine and shortening. Many prepared foods contain “partially hydrogenated” substances. The chemical process of transforming these fats radically alters their molecular structure, making them difficult for the body to metabolize. Not only do they raise LDL (the “bad” cholesterol), they actually lower HDL (“good cholesterol”). For this reason, they should be consumed in moderation.
Moderation...A Good Dietary Principle
Moderation means the following:
- Moderation means eating a medium amount – not too much, not too little.
- Moderation means not getting carried away trying to do the right thing. Fiber is good, but that doesn’t mean eating 10 oat bran muffins a day is a good idea.
- Moderation means avoiding fads and quick dietary fixes.
- Moderation means not getting stuck on just a few foods.
- Moderation means beginning to change your eating habits at a reasonable pace.
- Moderation should be used when consuming sugar, salt, fat, and alcohol.
#5 - Choose a Diet Moderate in Sugars
Moderation in the diet is particularly important in regard to sugars. Although sugars provide energy, they contribute little else to the diet. They are, more or less, empty calories. They are also known to contribute to tooth decay, unless an aggressive oral hygiene regimen is practiced in conjunction with their use.
#6 - Choose a Diet Moderate in Salt and Sodium
Sodium is a mineral that helps to regulate the infusion of water in and out of the body’s cells. Most people do not have a problem with moderate sodium use. Some people, however, find that sodium raises their blood pressure. The amount of recommended sodium is clearly listed on the “Nutrition Facts” label on foods. The amount for the “daily value” is 2,400 milligrams per day, which is about one level teaspoon of table salt.
Salt also occurs naturally in a number of foods, such as cheese, ocean fish and shellfish. Salt is very commonly present in prepared snack foods, such as pretzels and chips.
#7 - If You Drink Alcoholic Beverages, do so in Moderation
The dietary guidelines define moderate drinking as one drink per day for a woman and two drinks per day for a man. There is a different drink equivalency for each type of alcohol. Hard liquor, such as bourbon or scotch (80-proof), has a drink equivalency of one ounce, while beer is 12 ounces and wine is five ounces.
Like sugar, distilled alcohol provides calories (seven calories per gram, which is only two calories per gram less than fat), or energy, with no food value. Beer, wine, and cider provide a small amount of nutrients. Alcohol is directly absorbed by the cells and requires no digestion.
Under certain conditions some individuals should not drink at all. These conditions include during pregnancy, when alcoholism or liver disease is present, when taking certain prescription drugs or over-the-counter medications and when driving or operating machinery. If you have questions about alcohol consumption, consult your personal physician.
Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 4th ed. (Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1995)
Weil, Andrew Spontaneous Healing. New York: Alfred A. Knoph. 1995.
Wittenberg, Margaret M. Good Food: The Comprehensive Food and Nutrition Resources. Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press. 1995.
Last Review: 08-05-2014
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Information expires June 2016.