A balanced diet is the cornerstone of good health. Eating a varied diet that includes the major food groups ensures you get the spectrum of macronutrients and micronutrients crucial for preventing disease. To make the food groups and the nutritional value of food items easier to understand, the United States Department of Agriculture developed the MyPlate food reference, which replaces the old food pyramid. Using this as a guide makes it easier to choose healthy things to eat at every meal.
Nutritional Value of Protein Foods
Protein is typically the centerpiece of a meal. A filet of fish, a chicken breast or an egg can be the main event, while vegetables and grains serve as accompaniments. There's a good reason for that: Proteins and their constituent amino acids are the building blocks of the body, forming the tissue that makes up bones, muscles, skin, organs and hair. Protein is also crucial for healthy immune function.
Protein foods — which include beans, nuts and seeds in addition to fish, meat and eggs — are rich in certain vitamins and minerals, including:
- B vitamins: Aid metabolism and energy production.
- Vitamin E: A powerful antioxidant that fights free radicals that contribute to disease formation.
- Iron: Helps provide your muscles with oxygen and supports metabolism.
- Magnesium: Plays a role in protein synthesis, muscle and nerve control, and blood sugar regulation.
- Zinc: Supports healthy immune function and wound healing.
Healthy Whole Grains
Each meal should include some foods from the grains group, such as rice, bread or cereal. Grains provide carbohydrates — the energy your body relies on to get through the day. Grains are also good sources of B vitamins and selenium, a mineral that plays important roles in reproduction and protects against oxidative damage and infection.
Grains are a good source of dietary fiber as well. This type of carbohydrate isn't digested and contributes few calories. Instead, it travels through the digestive system and adds bulk to stool, making it easier to pass. Fiber also helps lower cholesterol because it prevents some cholesterol from being absorbed into the bloodstream.
The most important thing to know about the grains group is that not all grains are created equal. When grains are processed, their germ and bran are removed, leaving only the starchy endosperm behind. However, the bran and germ contain most of the nutrients and fiber. Whole grains, on the other hand, have not been stripped of nutrients. They are a much richer source of vitamins and minerals, and their fiber content is significantly higher. The USDA recommends that at least half of your daily grains come from whole grains — but more is better.
Fruit and Vegetable Benefits
Fruits and vegetables are nutrient powerhouses — full of vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants that fight disease. Filling the majority of your plate with fruits and vegetables at every meal will dramatically improve your health, because they're rich sources of several crucial nutrients:
- Vitamin C: A potent antioxidant that fights free radicals and is essential for the synthesis of collagen, which makes up connective tissue and aids wound healing.
- Vitamin A: The vision vitamin, which also supports immune function, reproduction and cell communication.
- Potassium: A mineral that balances sodium in the blood and aids in nerve and muscle function.
- Folate: An important vitamin for growth and development and prevention of birth defects.
Some of the best superfoods belong to the fruit and vegetable group. Superfoods are especially rich sources of nutrients and include foods such as blueberries, kale and acai berries. Try to include some of these foods in your daily meal plan.
The USDA recommends that adults get 1 1/2 to 2 cups of fruits each day and 2 to 3 cups of vegetables each day. It's important to eat fruits and veggies of all different colors, because their colors are indicative of the type of phytochemicals they contain. Each phytochemical plays an important role in fighting disease.
Healthy Dairy and Oils
Not all fats are bad, and some are essential to the optimal functioning of your heart and brain. As opposed to saturated and trans fats, found in fatty meats and junk food, the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in oils, such as olive and canola, help lower bad LDL cholesterol and raise healthy HDL cholesterol. Healthy fats are also found in nuts, seeds and fatty fish.
Dairy foods are rich sources of calcium, which you need for strong bones, and a source of vitamin D that works with calcium to build bone health. Fermented dairy products, such as yogurt and kefir, are good sources of probiotics that improve gut health. Dairy is also high in fat and saturated fat, so it's recommended that you choose low-fat and nonfat versions of milk and yogurt and limit your intake of cheese, sour cream and other high-fat dairy foods.
- ChooseMyPlate.gov: What Is My Plate?
- Weston A. Price Foundation: Protein: Building Blocks of the Body
- National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements: Vitamin E
- National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements: Iron
- National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements: Magnesium
- MedlinePlus: B Vitamins
- ChooseMyPlate.gov: Why Is it Important to Eat Grains, Especially Whole Grains?
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: Fiber
- ChooseMyPlate.gov: All About the Grains Group
- National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements: Vitamin C
- National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements: Vitamin A
- MedlinePlus: Potassium
- National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements: Folate
- ChooseMyPlate.gov: What Foods Are in the Vegetable Group?
- ChooseMyPlate.gov: What Foods Are in the Fruit Group?
- National Heart Foundation of Australia: Healthy Fat Choices
- ChooseMyPlate.gov: What Foods Are Included in the Dairy Group?
- Dairy Nutrition: Probiotic Milk Products and Digestive Health
- National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements: Zinc