Nutrient intake does not always match nutrient need. Many people eat too many calories, too much fat, sugar, and sodium, and not enough of the vitamins and minerals the body needs to function properly. Eating a healthy diet can help minimize the risk of developing nutrition-related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and obesity.
When thinking about how to eat well, there are three basic ideas to keep in mind: balance, variety, and moderation.
Balanced intake includes items from all of the food groups. The USDA's MyPlate program can help you determine the proper balance of food groups to suit your individual needs.
- Whole grains provide fiber, iron, and B vitamins (niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, and B6).
- Vegetables provide fiber, potassium, folate, and vitamins A, E, C, and K.
- Fruits provide fiber, potassium, folate, and vitamin C.
- Fats and oils contain essential fatty acids and vitamin E.
- Dairy products provide calcium, vitamin D, and potassium.
- Meat, beans, eggs, fish and other proteins provide B vitamins, vitamin E, iron, zinc, and magnesium.
Variety means choosing different types of foods within each food group. If you eat the same foods repeatedly, you may be overloading on certain nutrients and missing out on others.
No one food can provide the nutrition needed to optimize health. Choosing a variety of foods helps ensure what you eat provides you with all of the nutrients you need. Opting for broccoli as your sole vegetable every day will provide you with much-needed folate, but you will be missing out on the vitamin A a vegetable such as carrots provides.
Variety in your diet also keeps things interesting. If you eat the same meals every day you will eventually become bored and may stray from your healthy eating pattern. To add variety to your diet:
- Choose fruits and vegetables from across the spectrum of color. Different colors indicate different nutrients, so a naturally colorful diet will ensure you are meeting your body's nutrient needs.
- Try new fruits and vegetables depending on what is in season. Fruits and vegetables are at their peak of nutrition when they are locally in-season. By selecting local, seasonal produce you'll get the best tasting and most nutritious fruits and vegetables.
- Eat fresh. Canned and processed foods tend to be bankrupt nutritionally or lower in vitamins and minerals than their fresh counterparts.
- Minimize processed foods, which tend to be low in nutrients and high in additives and chemicals.
- Make a healthy recipe using new foods, or jazz up an old favorite by adding new foods to an existing dish.
- Eat raw fruits and vegetables whenever possible. The contain phytochemicals and enzymes essential for health, which aren't present in supplements or processed foods.
Moderation comes into play in a healthy diet because there are no "good" or "bad" foods. As you have already seen, all of the food groups are important because of the different nutrients they provide. In addition, if you deprive yourself of your favorite foods, you will most likely want them even more and end up eating more than you should.
- Focus on moderating intake instead of eliminating foods.
- Balance a lunch of a cheeseburger with a dinner of a grilled chicken salad with some fat-free or low-fat dressing.
- Watch portion size. Remember that a serving of meat should be three ounces, which is about the size of a deck of cards; a serving of regular mayonnaise is one teaspoon, and a serving of milk is eight ounces or one cup. One of the most common mistakes people make when trying to eat properly is overestimating portion sizes.
- Watch portion sizes in restaurants as most dishes can serve two to three people. Ask for a "to go" box with your meal and put part of your meal in it before you begin to eat.
- Serve foods on a smaller plate, which can help you moderate portion size.
- Consider investing in a kitchen scale, which can help you choose the right sized portions.
If you eat a healthy and varied diet, you may not need supplements. However, some doctors recommend taking a multi-vitamin supplement to balance out possible nutritional deficiencies. Check with your doctor about supplements.
Is It Difficult to Eat a Healthy Diet?
Eating balanced, wholesome meals and snacks does not have to be difficult. It takes planning like having an apple on hand instead of a candy bar when you need a quick snack on the run.
- Pay attention to what you're eating.
- Keep a food journal, which may help you monitor food choices and portion size. You may find that if you have to write it down, you'd rather choose a healthy food over a less nutritious food. Most importantly, stick with it!
Nutrition.gov is the National Agricultural Libraries' main online resource for providing citizens with the latest news and information about nutrition. You can access this site at any time to learn about balanced diets, essential nutrients, and even the details regarding tricky food labels. A solid nutritional education is vital to making educated nutritional decisions.
Before you know it, eating more healthfully will become second nature and your mind and body will thank you.