Following a well-balanced diet is essential to good health. Since no single food provides all the calories and nutrients we need to be healthy it’s important to consume a varied diet. Nutrients are substances needed for growth, metabolism, and other body functions and can be divided into two categories:
Macronutrients provide calories or energy that our bodies need to grow and repair itself.
Carbohydrate is easily converted into glucose and serves as the primary energy source for the body. Carbohydrate contains four calories per gram and the USDA recommends that 45-65% of an individual’s total calorie consumption should come from carbohydrate daily. Carbohydrate is needed for the central nervous system, kidneys and muscles to function properly. It’s found primarily in breads, cereals, starchy vegetables, fruits, juices and dairy products.
Protein is considered the building blocks of the body. It is used for growth and development, to repair tissue and preserve lean muscle mass. In the absence of carbohydrate protein is used as a primary energy source. Protein is also needed to make essential hormones and enzymes. Protein contains four calories per gram and the USDA recommends that between 10 and 35% of an individual’s daily caloric intake should come from protein. Protein is found in meat, fish, poultry, nuts, beans, cheese and milk. It is found in smaller quantities in starchy foods and vegetables.
Fat is a necessary component of a healthy diet. Fat is needed for the body to properly absorb vitamins A, D, E and K. It is needed for proper growth and development and the maintenance of cell membranes. Fat is more concentrated in calories than carbohydrate or protein and contains nine calories per gram. The USDA recommends that between 20 and no more than 35% of an individual’s total daily calories should come from fat. An individual’s fat intake should come primarily from mono and polyunsaturated sources. Canola and olive oil, nuts, fatty fish and avocados all contain heart healthy mono and polyunsaturated fats. Saturated and trans fats can negatively impact blood cholesterol levels and increase disease risk. Saturated fats are found in animal products like fatty cuts of meat, cheese, butter and full fat dairy products. Trans fats are often found in commercially prepared desserts, fried foods and stick margarines. It is important to limit these sources of harmful fats.
Vitamins and minerals are classified as micronutrients. Micronutrients are needed in small amounts. They do not provide our bodies with energy but assist in metabolic processes and are needed for proper growth and development. For more information about the role of vitamins and minerals in health and disease prevention please view the NIH, Vitamin and Mineral Supplement Fact Sheets.
A healthy diet has the following characteristics:
- Is rich in fruits and vegetables. Consuming a diet rich in fruits and vegetable may protect against mouth, stomach and colon-rectum cancer. It has also been associated with a decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke. A healthy diet includes five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables per day. A serving is defined as 1/2 cup of cooked vegetables or 1 cup of raw vegetables or one small piece of whole fruit.
- Includes whole grain sources and is high in fiber. Whole grain sources independent of their fiber content have been shown to improve blood cholesterol levels. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that individuals consume at least three servings of whole grains per day. A serving is defined as 16 grams of whole grain or is equivalent to one slice of whole grain bread, 1/2 cup of brown rice or 1/2 cup of whole grain pasta. Adequate fiber consumption is important for disease prevention and may help with blood sugar control. A high fiber diet has also been associated with increased feelings of satiety. Fiber rich foods include high fiber cereals, fruits, vegetables and legumes. The current fiber recommendation is 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories consumed. An individual following a 2,000 calorie diet should consume 28 grams of fiber daily.
- Is low in sodium. Sodium is often used as an inexpensive way to add flavor and preserve food. But a diet high in sodium can raise blood pressure and cause fluid retention. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommend that Americans reduce their sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg or 1,500 mg per day depending on age and other characteristics. African Americans, individuals 51 and older and individuals with hypertension, diabetes or chronic kidney disease should consume less than 1,500 mg of sodium per day while adults 50 and under without the above mentioned characteristics should aim for less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. Limiting restaurant foods, frozen entrees and other highly processed foods can help reduce sodium intake. Using sodium free herbs or seasoning blends like Mrs. Dash can add flavor without adding salt.
- Limits added sugars. Choose and prepare foods and beverages with little added sugar. Sweetened foods and drinks are often referred to as empty calories because they contain little nutritional value in relationship to their calorie or energy content. Consuming foods that are energy dense and not nutrient dense makes it difficult to meet vitamin and mineral requirements while staying within calorie needs. Use sweets in moderation and choose naturally sweet foods like whole fruits more often.
- Is varied and incorporates proper portion sizes. To obtain all of the nutrients your body needs a varied diet is recommended. Portion control or calorie control is also essential. If you exceed your calorie needs, weight gain can occur. Being overweight or obese puts individuals at greater risk for developing chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke.