Nutrition may seem like a complex subject, but the basics of consuming a healthy diet are fairly simple: Balance the calories, eat a variety of foods, and consume less-healthy foods only in moderation. Additionally, everyone should strive to be physically active. To make these points more clear, and to provide specific guidance in these areas, several national health agencies have suggested guidelines for healthy diets. For instance, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its latest version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans in 2005.
Among its key points of advice:
- Consume adequate nutrients within energy needs: Choose foods that limit the intake of saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, added sugars, salt, and alcohol.
- Balance energy intake with energy expended.
- Engage in regular physical activity.
- Consume sufficient amounts of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains while staying within energy needs.
- Consume less than 10% of energy intake from saturated fats and less than 300 mg per day of cholesterol; consume as little trans fat as possible.
- Choose fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, and whole grains often; choose and prepare foods and beverages with little added sugars or caloric sweeteners.
- Consume less than 1 tsp of salt per day.
- If you choose to drink alcohol, do so only in moderation.
- Take proper food safety precautions.
Eat More Fruits, Vegetables, and Whole Grains
Choosing unprocessed foods that are modest in calories and low in fat and sodium is the best way to create a healthy diet. This means doing much of your grocery store shopping in the produce aisle (and perhaps stopping by the meat or seafood counter) and buying whole-grain bread and cereal products.
When you eat out with friends or dine with your family, try to keep your portions of fatty meats and high-sugar desserts small, and load up on the undressed fruits and vegetables. Similarly, when you’re in need of a mid morning or late after-noon snack, reach for a banana, whole-grain crackers, or air-popped popcorn rather than a bag of chips or chocolate bar. Once you’ve adopted these healthy eating strategies, you’re likely to see the benefits quickly. You will have more energy and feel less lethargic in the after-noon, and you may even lose weight. Over the long term, you will have a lower risk for many chronic diseases and conditions.
Watch Your Intake of Calories, Sugar, Alcohol, Fat, and Sodium
With the rise in rates of overweight and obesity in the United States, it’s clear that the balance of “calories in” versus “calories out” has become an issue for many individuals. Several factors are increasing calorie consumption. For example, one factor is that people consume a lot of simple sugar, often in the form of sucrose (table sugar) or high fructose corn syrup (a commercial sweetener).
The problem with simple sugars is that they often contain many
calories but few micronutrients (which is why they’re called “empty
calories”). An estimated half of the dietary carbohydrate intake of the
average U.S. citizen is in the form of simple sugars. Sucrose and high
fructose corn syrup are used to make cakes, candies, and ice cream, as
well as to sweeten beverages, cereals, and other foods. The amount of
sugar in sweets
adds a tremendous amount of calories to the diet. This leads to obesity, which contributes to many health problems (e.g., diabetes).
Sugar in sweets also leads to tooth decay. Although brushing your teeth after eating sweets can prevent this problem, it will not solve the other problems of overconsumption of sugar. One way to trim your sucrose intake is to use sugar substitutes instead of sugar to sweeten some foods or beverages. Artificial sweeteners such as saccharin (Sweet’N Low), aspartame (Equal), or sucralose (Splenda) add sweetness with little or no calories. Alcohol can be another breaker of a healthy diet if it’s consumed in excess. Like table sugar, alcohol provides empty calories.
Chronic alcohol consumption also tends to deplete the body’s stores of some vitamins, possibly leading to severe deficiencies. Drinking too much alcohol can displace other, healthier foods in the diet by making you too full to eat or causing you to forget to eat. Finally, alcohol significantly increases your risk of accidents and injury.
When it comes to drinking alcohol, the best plan is to avoid it or, if you do drink, to do so only in moderation. Another factor behind the rise in overweight and obesity in the United States is the high amount of fat in many people’s diets. Foods high in fat not only tend to be rich in cholesterol, but also contain over twice as many calories per gram than carbohydrate or protein (9 calories/gram versus 4 calories/gram).
Limiting fat in the diet helps limit calories and also reduces the risk of heart disease. Both saturated and unsaturated fats are linked to heart disease, obesity, and certain cancers. The box on this page provides guidelines to help you cut your dietary fat intake. Eating less dietary cholesterol will help lower your blood cholesterol, which will in turn lower your risk of heart disease. Research has shown that a 1% reduction in dietary cholesterol results in a 2% reduction in risk.
Additionally, many foods that are high in cholesterol are also high in fat (and therefore, calories). Although salt (sodium chloride) is a necessary micronutrient, the body’s daily requirement is small (less than 1/4 of a teaspoon). For very active people who perspire a great deal, this need may increase to over 1 1/2 teaspoons per day. How-ever, most people consume much more sodium than they need, and this increased intake is putting them at increased risk for high blood pres-sure (hypertension). You might be surprised just how much salt is in many of your foods.For example, Figure 7.5 illustrates the “hidden” salt in an average pizza.
As mentioned, consuming too much sodium can be a complicating factor for people with high blood pressure. In countries where salt is not added to foods, either during cooking or at the table, high blood pressure is virtually unknown. Even if you don’t already have high blood pressure, you should limit salt in your diet to only the minimal daily requirements.
Now that we have presented the guidelines for a healthy diet, let’s put these principles into practice and construct a day’s healthy diet. As we discuss the steps for choosing the right foods which presents a sample of a healthful 1-day diet for a college-aged woman weighing 110 pounds and with light daily activities. Her projected daily caloric need is approximately 1690 calories. For your use of this diet plan, adjust the quantities accordingly. Breakfast A healthy breakfast might include a grapefruit, whole-grain cereal, low-fat milk, and a banana.
This meal would provide two fruits, one bread/cereal, and one dairy product to start the day. The breakfast is low in fat, cholesterol, and sodium. A large part of her daily protein need is met, as well as over 40% of her calcium and iron needs. The fruits alone provide almost all of the recommended vitamin A and C intake for the day. Snack A morning snack adds some energy and helps to suppress the appetite before lunch. You might choose a second dairy product for the day (in this example, low-fat yogurt) that provides 130 calories of energy and lots of calcium.
Lunch For lunch, a turkey sandwich (made with low-sodium turkey) on whole-wheat bread and a handful of baby carrots will provide one serving of meat, two more servings of breads/cereals, and one vegetable. This lunch provides a low-calorie meal with lots of protein, vitamin A, and iron. Snack A piece of cheese pizza as an afternoon snack will add a third dairy and fourth bread/cereal serving.
Be careful in ordering pizza, because some toppings (meats and
additional cheese) can add lots of fat, sodium, and calories to your
diet. In contrast, vegetable toppings such as peppers, onions, and
mushrooms can provide valuable nutrients without the fat, sodium, and
calories. Dinner You might finish the day by adding a secand serving of
meat and two more vegetables, to make a total of five. A peach for
dessert will provide lots of vitamin A. The salmon contains protein and
plenty of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. The broccoli adds vitamins A
and C and calcium. The lima beans add vitamin A and iron.
Watch for Special Dietary Considerations Some people have special dietary considerations that affect their needs for certain nutrients.Strict vegetarians, for example, need to monitor their intake of protein, calcium, and some vitamins, and children and pregnant women need to be sure to consume enough iron to help with growth.
Vitamins: B12, D, and Folate
Though most people will not need vitamin supplements if they are eating a healthy diet, people who have increased nutrient needs or special circumstances may benefit from enriched or fortified foods, a multivitamin, or other vitamin supplement. For example, strict vegetarians (vegans), who eat no animal foods, need to be sure to get enough vitamin B12 (which is found primarily in animal products) through fortified foods, such as breakfast cereals, or by taking a supplement.
Vegetarians who do not get 15 to 30 minutes of exposure to sunlight every few days may also need to take a vitamin D supplement. Pregnant women need to be sure to consume enough folic acid, usually through a supplement, to reduce the risk of birth defects in their growing babies. And some older individuals, who may have depressed appetites or may not be able to cook or consume meals easily, may be advised to take a multivitamin to ensure that they meet their needs.