Written by: Claire Allen
In the modern day, we tend to associate the word diet with restriction and deprivation. However, the word diet originally came from an old Greek root that means “manner of living”, and the word eventually came to signify how we support our lives by what we eat and drink. Many of us know intuitively that our “manner of living”, or our choices of food and drink, has a direct impact on our health. A good diet generally leads to good health and a better quality of life. However, there are hundreds, even thousands of foods and food products available to the average American consumer, and not all foods are alike in their nutritional benefits. What, then, constitutes a good, healthy diet?
Everyone must eat and drink to live. Eating food gives the body energy in the form of calories (a measurement of energy), and nutrients. Calories fuel the body to live and breathe, and nutrients keep bodily systems functioning normally. A good diet is based on the giving the body all of the calories and nutrients it needs through the foods we eat.
Calorie requirements are different for different people and depend on age, gender, and level of activity. Generally, adults need between 2,000 and 3,000 calories per day. You can find your specific calorie needs on this tip sheet of calorie requirements broken down by gender and age: (CLICK HERE)
There are six general categories of nutrients that we get from food: carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and water. Your body needs all of these nutrients, and several of them are dependent on each other for proper absorption and use, so it is important that your diet includes balanced portions of all of them. Here are brief descriptions of each nutrient group and sources of each:
The body turns carbohydrates into a sugary fuel that it uses for energy. Although requirements vary by age and gender, generally 45%-65% of your diet should consist of carbohydrates.
There are both simple and complex carbohydrates in food. Simple carbohydrates are found in foods such as fruit, milk, and sweets (candy, soft drinks, etc). Complex carbohydrates are found in starchy vegetables like potatoes, whole grain products, and legumes. It is better to obtain most of your carbohydrates in complex rather than simple forms. Foods with complex carbohydrates usually have fiber, vitamins, and minerals, whereas many simple carbohydrate sources, especially sweets, are devoid of nutrition.
Whole grains are good way to get your carbohydrates. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion encourages consumption of whole grains to boost intake of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and to reduce risk of certain diseases. Whole grains include whole wheat, whole or rolled oats, brown rice, rye, barley, quinoa, millet, and products made from these grains. Refined grains, such as refined flours, are grains that have been milled to remove the bran and germ of the grain kernels. This process strips grains of many of their nutritional components, including fiber. As much as possible, replace refined grain products in your diet, such as white breads, white rice, and refined pastas, with whole grain alternatives.
Proteins are key structural components in the body and aid many bodily functions such as growth, digestion, and cell and tissue repair. Anywhere from 10% to 30% of your daily calories should come from protein.
Protein sources include lean meats, seafood, chicken, eggs, nuts, and legumes. Legumes, such as beans and lentils, are especially smart choices of protein because they nutrient-dense, high in fiber, and lower is fat than meat.
Most Americans already get enough protein in their diets, but if you need help identifying good protein choices, check out this Protein Foods Gallery
There are several types of fats, some bad and some good. Excessive consumption of bad fats, including saturated and trans fats, raise levels of bad cholesterol and are linked to the development of cardiovascular diseases. These bad fats are present in items such as fried foods, high-fat cuts of meat, whole milk, cheese, ice cream, processed and packaged snack foods, and commercial baked goods like cookies, cakes, and doughnuts. Good fats, such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, actually tend to lower the risk of heart disease. They also promote normal growth and brain function, reduce inflammation in the body, and keep the skin supple. These good fats are found in vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, and fish.
It is best, of course, to replace bad fats in your diet with good fats. If you are not sure how much fat you consume regularly,there are many online tools recommended by the USDA as good ways to find a starting point. This will help you discover whether your fat intake is at, above, or below the recommended allowance of 30% of your daily calories.
The body needs vitamins for many of its normal functions. There are several different types of vitamins, and each one provides different benefits. For example, vitamin B12 aids in the production of new red blood cells and nerve cells, vitamin A promotes clear eyesight, and vitamin K helps the blood to clot.
Some vitamins are antioxidants, substances that protect the body from molecules called free radicals. Free radicals are molecules that damage cells and come from sources such as solar radiation and tobacco smoke. Some studies have indicated that antioxidants may also prevent cancer.
Like vitamins, minerals are needed by the body to maintain and regulate its normal processes. Minerals keep bones strong, help the nervous system function smoothly, and ensure that oxygen is distributed throughout the body.
Vitamins and minerals are present in various quantities in many types of food, but they are especially plentiful in fruits and vegetables. Different fruits and vegetables contain different levels and types of vitamins and minerals, so make sure you consume a variety. Fortunately, there is a broad, colorful array from which to choose! In fact, a variety of fruits and vegetables will infuse your diet with portions of all the other nutrients as well, including carbohydrates, fats, protein, and water. So aim to make fruits and vegetables at least half of your diet.
Water is absolutely vital to life and to the operation of all bodily functions. Actually, much of the human body is composed of water. However, we lose water everyday through evaporation, elimination of waste, sweating, and the like, so we must replace it by drinking more water. If you feel lethargic or “clogged”, drink extra water–it will facilitate the digestion of food, the distribution of nutrients and the flushing of toxins from the body.
Try to get your hydration primarily from water and not from soft drinks or other sweet drinks. These may be alright in moderation, but they are full of sugars and chemicals that your body does not need.
A Note about Dairy
The USDA recommends consuming limited amounts of fat-free or low-fat dairy products such as milk and cheese in order to get calcium. Some researchers are beginning to question the health benefits of dairy, but there is no broad consensus. If you have doubts about the value of your dairy consumption, or are lactose intolerant, just remember that you can derive calcium from other food sources too, including several types of dark leafy green vegetables.
If you are interested in further reading, a useful overall guide to a good, balanced diet is the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010.
If you would like some assistance is assessing and tracking your diet to ensure that you are getting all of the nutrients you need, try these free online tools:
- National Institutes of Health Interactive Menu Planner
- Calories Count
- Food and Drug Administration “Make Your Calories Count”