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When combined with exercise, a healthy diet can help you lose weight, lower your cholesterol level and improve the way your body functions on a daily basis.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Guide divides food into 5 basic food groups, consisting of 1) grains, 2) fruits, 3) vegetables, 4) protein, and 5) dairy.
The following are some ways to make healthier food choices and to get the recommended amounts of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, protein and dairy.
Any food made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley or another cereal grain is a grain product. Bread, pasta, oatmeal, breakfast cereals, tortillas, and grits are examples of grain products.
Grains are divided into 2 subgroups, Whole Grains and Refined Grains.
Whole grains contain the entire grain kernel ? the bran, germ, and endosperm.
Grains are important sources of many nutrients, including dietary fiber, several B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate), and minerals (iron, magnesium, and selenium).
- Consuming whole grains as part of a healthy diet may reduce the risk of heart disease.
- Consuming foods containing fiber, such as whole grains, as part of a healthy diet, may reduce constipation.
- Eating whole grains may help with weight management.
- Eating grain products fortified with folate before and during pregnancy helps prevent neural tube defects during fetal development.
Fruits and Vegetables
Most fruits and vegetables are naturally low in fat, sodium, and calories. None have cholesterol.
Fruits and vegetables are sources of many essential nutrients that are underconsumed, including potassium, dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, and folate (folic acid).
- Eating a diet rich in vegetables and fruits as part of an overall healthy diet may reduce risk for heart disease, including heart attack and stroke.
- Eating a diet rich in some vegetables and fruits as part of an overall healthy diet may protect against certain types of cancers.
- Diets rich in foods containing fiber, such as some vegetables and fruits, may reduce the risk of heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.
- Eating vegetables and fruits rich in potassium as part of an overall healthy diet may lower blood pressure, and may also reduce the risk of developing kidney stones and help to decrease bone loss.
- Eating foods such as fruits that are lower in calories per cup instead of some other higher-calorie food may be useful in helping to lower calorie intake.
All foods made from meat, poultry, seafood, beans and peas, eggs, processed soy products, nuts, and seeds are considered part of the Protein Foods Group. Beans and peas are also part of the Vegetable Group.
Select a variety of protein foods to improve nutrient intake and health benefits, including at least 8 ounces of cooked seafood per week.
- Meat, poultry, fish, dry beans and peas, eggs, nuts, and seeds supply many nutrients. These include protein, B vitamins (niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, and B6), vitamin E, iron, zinc, and magnesium.
- Proteins function as building blocks for bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood. They are also building blocks for enzymes, hormones, and vitamins. Proteins are one of three nutrients that provide calories (the others are fat and carbohydrates).
- B vitamins found in this food group serve a variety of functions in the body. They help the body release energy, play a vital role in the function of the nervous system, aid in the formation of red blood cells, and help build tissues.
- Iron is used to carry oxygen in the blood. Many teenage girls and women in their child-bearing years have iron-deficiency anemia. They should eat foods high in heme-iron (meats) or eat other non-heme iron containing foods along with a food rich in vitamin C, which can improve absorption of non-heme iron.
- Magnesium is used in building bones and in releasing energy from muscles.
- Zinc is necessary for biochemical reactions and helps the immune system function properly.
- EPA and DHA are omega-3 fatty acids found in varying amounts in seafood. Eating 8 ounces per week of seafood may help reduce the risk for heart disease.
Calcium is used for building bones and teeth and in maintaining bone mass. Dairy products are the primary source of calcium in American diets. Diets that provide 3 cups or the equivalent of dairy products per day can improve bone mass.
- Intake of dairy products is linked to improved bone health, and may reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
- The intake of dairy products is especially important to bone health during childhood and adolescence, when bone mass is being built.
- Intake of dairy products is also associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, and with lower blood pressure in adults.
Different groups of people have different daily calorie needs.
The following terms are used in the chart below and are defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture:
- Sedentary - a lifestyle that includes activity that is only associated with day-to-day life.
- Moderately active - a lifestyle that includes physical activity equal to walking between 1.5 and 3 miles per day.
- Active - a lifestyle that includes physical activity equal to walking more than 3 miles per day.
The following chart will help you determine the appropriate calorie need for your age, gender and activity level.
Choose Nutrient Rich Food
A nutrient-rich food contains many vitamins and minerals (also called micronutrients) but not very many calories. Vitamins and minerals nourish your body and help to keep you healthy and reduce your risk for chronic diseases. You can get these micronutrients through a variety of healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, low-fat and fat-free dairy products, and lean meats and fish. Getting vitamins and minerals through food ensures that your body is able to absorb them properly.
A well balanced diet should contain a variety of nutrient rich food sources. Consult your physician regarding specific dietary needs.
Last Updated May 9, 2012.
Reference: AAFP & USDA