If you've ever grabbed a food that was "made with wholesome whole grains" but had little more than sugar and calories listed on the nutrition label, you know that healthy eating is not simple. Even though research consistently reveals links between diet and health, an overload of food, information and opinions on the subject of nutrition can muddle your ability to make healthy food choices. Knowing the simple facts about healthy eating helps you make informed food decisions.
Read the Package
It might take a little extra time, but finding out what is in your food by reading the nutrition labels is fundamental to healthy eating. When scanning the nutrition information and product ingredients, consider serving size, calories, saturated fat, sodium, fiber and added sugar. Juggling the numbers to find foods high in nutrients and low in empty calories from sugar and saturated fat yields the healthiest formula.
Fiber helps with digestion, and may reduce your risk of coronary artery disease. Fiber-rich foods help keep you full, which prevents overeating. Foods naturally rich in fiber include whole grains, fruits, vegetables and nuts. Adults should eat 20 g to 30 g of fiber per day.
Fruits and Vegetables
Eating the right amount of fresh produce each day seems to be one of the keys to preventing chronic disease. The USDA's 2005 Dietary Guidelines recommends eating 2.5 to 6.5 cups of fruits and vegetables each day. Fruits and vegetables contain a powerhouse of vitamins, minerals and fiber and are low in calories.
Regular Meals Keep You Steady
Skipping meals is not healthy. Eating at regular intervals gives your body a constant source of fuel and prevents you from getting so hungry that you overeat or abandon your goal of eating healthy foods.
Foods Work Together
Consuming healthy foods provides little benefit if your body fails to absorb the nutrients in those foods. Eating a variety of foods throughout the day can improve nutrient absorption because foods work together in a process known as food synergy to unlock nutrients, making them easier to absorb.
Portion Size Matters
Eating even healthy foods can become unhealthy if you overeat. If you eat more calories than you expend in a day, you are likely to experience unhealthy weight gain. Weighing and measuring food and checking serving sizes enables you to estimate how many calories and nutrients are in your portions. Keeping an eye on portion size means you can indulge in your favorite dessert or savory food without eating too much.
Don't Eliminate Food Groups
Perhaps you have considered completely eliminating fats, carbohydrates and/or sodium from your diet. Because foods in each group contain different nutrients that work together to keep you healthy, eliminating an entire group is not beneficial. Not only could you miss something you need, putting a large group of foods off limits is likely to make you feel deprived and could lead to overeating.
Less Sodium is Best
While some sodium is important to your health, most Americans consume far too much, putting them at risk for high blood pressure. USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend less than 2,300 mg of salt per day. Processed foods account for 77 percent of the sodium in the US food supply, which means you can cut out a significant amount of sodium from your diet by choosing whole, unprocessed foods when possible.
Fat is Not All Bad
The healthiest fats come from fish, nuts and plant oils, and should account for 20 to 35 percent of your daily calories. Skimping on these healthy fats could make it difficult to absorb some nutrients. Meat and poultry and unskimmed dairy products contain high amounts of saturated fats. Consuming too much saturated fat could put you at risk for coronary heart disease. Trans fats found in processed foods should be avoided when possible. (REF 1 Chapter 6)
Keep Sweet Tooth In Check
Because sugar contains few if any nutrients, consuming foods high in sugar can have you struggling to meet your nutrient needs and eating too many calories. Choosing nutritious foods that are naturally sweet over foods with added sugar is the best way to meet nutrient needs while keeping calories -- and your sweet tooth -- in check.
- United States Department of Agriculture: Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005
- United States Department of Agriculture: Food Synergy: Not Missing The Forest For The Trees
- Harvard School of Public Health: The Nutrition Source Fiber Start Roughing It
- Weight-Control Information Network: Young at Heart Tips for Older Adults Healthy Eating
- Weight-Control Information Network: Just Enough For You About Food Portions