Powerful Tools For Healthy
EatingU.S. Departments of
Agriculture and Health and Human Services
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
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
- Step 2 - Review dietary guidelines.
See Dietary Guidelines, below.
- Step 3 - Calculate your personal
- Step 4 - Factor in your individual
goals, concerns or current health problems.
- Step 5 - Learn about serving
- Step 6 - Calculate your daily
servings for each food group.
- Step 7 - Read food labels in the
store, adapting each label to your caloric requirement.
- Step 8 - Keep track of what you are
- Step 9 - Try new, healthful foods
youve never eaten before.
The USDA Dietary
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
- Milk products contain
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
Keep trying new foods to avoid getting into
a dietary rut. You may want to consciously think about rotating your foods.
Its 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
| Bulghur wheat, Oatmeal, Bran
muffin, Wheat bread
|Broccoli, Tomatoes, Salad greens,
| Melon, Apple
| Ten-grain cereal, Couscous, Brown
rice, Wheat bread
|Carrots, Cauliflower, Chard, Red
|Barley cereal, Wild rice, Polenta,
Whole grain pita
| Sea vegetables, Asparagus, Winter
| Grapefruit, Bananas
| White beans
| Buckwheat pancakes, Corn bread,
Whole grain bagel, Wheat bread
| Spinach, Onions, Carrots, Beets
| Blueberries, Strawberries
| Quinoa, Rye bread, Oat muffins,
Whole grain crackers
|Salad greens, Cucumber, Radish,
Carrot, Green beans
| Peaches, Grapes
|Corn, Oatmeal, Wheat bread
| Sweet potato, Chard, Eggplant
| Red meat
|Rice cereal, Oatmeal hotcakes,
|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.
Here is a quick view of the recommended
servings from each food group, based on a 1,500 calorie diet:
|Foods in this Group
|Recommended Servings Per Day
|Breads, cereals, pasta, rice
|Whole vegetables, vegetable juices
|Whole fruits, fruit juices
|Milk, yogurt, cheese
| Meat / Protein
|Meat, poultry, fish, dry beans,
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
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
- 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
- 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
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
- 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
- Raises metabolic rate
- Helps control appetite
- Increases ability to lose weight
- Helps maintain optimal body
- Increases endurance
- Enhances your ability to stay
active and healthy when older
- Improves muscle strength and bone
density and bone strength
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.
Generals report noted the following:
Choose a Diet with Plenty of Grain Products, Vegetables, and Fruits
- On average, 60% of Americans are
not regularly active.
- 25% of the adult population is not
active at all.
- Nearly half of children 1221
years old are not regularly active; adolescence is a time of dramatic falloff
in sports and recreation participation.
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. Whats 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 2535 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 1020%. 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.
Moderation...A Good Dietary Principle
- 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
- 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 Generals 1988 Report on Nutrition and Health notes that excessive
saturated fat consumption is the major dietary contributor to high
- 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 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 doesnt
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 bodys 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
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.
Guidelines for Americans, 4th ed. (Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of
Agriculture, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1995)
Spontaneous Healing. New York: Alfred A. Knoph. 1995.
M. Good Food: The Comprehensive Food and Nutrition Resources. Freedom,
CA: The Crossing Press. 1995.
Copyright © 2002
Healthnotes, Inc. All rights reserved. www.healthnotes.com
presented in Foodnotes is for informational purposes only and was
created by a team of U.S. registered dietitians and food experts. Consult your
doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using
any supplements, making dietary changes, or before making any changes in
prescribed medications. Information expires December 2003.