So, you want to eat healthy, don’t you? I guess we all do. Well, at least we certainly all want the benefits of being healthy. But where do you start? What does a healthy diet look like? It’s surprising to see what some people eat and think they are eating healthy. That’s another story.

If you are just getting started on a journey towards better health through healthier eating, here are some basic principles that you should follow.

Balance: Eat a balanced diet. This does not mean getting equal shares of all nutrients, since some nutrients are needed in higher amounts than others. It means getting the right amount of each food group such as proteins, carbs and lipids.

Variety: Eat different foods. Yes, we all have our favorites but mixing things up will ensure that we get all the different nutrients that we need. No one food has all the nutrients, so never limit yourself to a small range of food options.

Adequacy: Eat enough food. Eating too little will not provide you with the number of Calories you need to sustain health and prevent disease. Eating too much spells problems. Don’t overdo it, which is the next point.

Moderation: Eat in moderation. Do not over-indulge even with the good stuff. Too much of anything can be harmful.

Nutrient Density: Look for foods that are packed with nutrients such as fruits, nuts, vegetables and whole grains

Energy Density: Reduce intake of foods that are high energy with low nutrients. These foods are what we call “empty calorie” foods. If given the choice between the donut and the apple, go for the apple.

Now let’s look at specific tools that you have in your toolbox to help you choose a healthy diet.

Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI)

DRI’s are reference nutrient intake values that informs you on how much nutrients you need to take in daily to maintain optimal health and prevent chronic disease. This is assuming of course that you are among the healthy population. DRI’s do not apply to the sick or nutrient deficient since they will have their unique set of needs. DRI values are used by government and professionals as a basis for developing food nutrition labels, creating dietary guidelines, educating the public on nutritional needs, and assessing the nutritional health of individuals. DRI’s include the following set of reference intakes:

Estimated average requirement (EAR) – The daily amount of nutrients needed to meet the needs of 50% of a given healthy population. This value is used to determine the RDA

Recommended dietary allowance (RDA) – The daily amount of nutrients needed to meet the needs of up to 98% of a given healthy population.

Adequate intake (AI) – The average amount of nutrients consumed daily by a healthy population that is considered adequate to meet their needs. It is used when the RDA is unknown

Tolerable upper intake level (UL) – The maximum amount of nutrients that will pose no health risk to almost everyone in the general population

Estimated energy requirement (EER) – The average energy intake (Calories) that a healthy adult needs in order to maintain good health. The value is based on weight, height, age, gender, and level of physical activity.

Acceptable macronutrient distribution range (AMDR) – The recommended range of nutrient intake from proteins, lipids and carbohydrates required to maintain good health. It is expressed as a percentage of the calories that you consume daily

Dietary Guidelines for Americans

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans was developed by the US government and is published every five years by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The purpose of the guidelines is to promote public health through healthy food choices. The guidelines can be summarized as follows:

Follow a healthy eating pattern across the lifespan: This encourages a pattern of healthy choices. In other words, let healthy choices become a habit in your life at every single stage of life from infancy to adulthood. Don’t forget, habits make us what we are. Don’t underestimate their power.

Focus on variety, nutrient density, and amount: In other words, eat a variety of foods, look for the ones that are packed with nutrients, and get adequate amounts of them to meet your daily needs.

Limit calories from added sugar, saturated fats, and reduce sodium: This is a reminder that not everything that taste good is good for you. Some things must be limited. Sugar, harmful fats, and sodium are among these.

Shift to healthier food and beverage choices: If your diet is far from where it should be, it might be difficult to make the shift. However, our goal should be to strive to make the change to eating better.

Support healthy eating patterns: It can be a real struggle to make the right food choices and do so consistently. Therefore, we should strive to create the right environment to encourage and support healthy eating. Consider what you can do at home for example. You should certainly be sharing what you have learned about nutrition with others at home. You can also learn new healthy recipes and share it with your family. What about making better food selections for your family when you go grocery shopping?

MyPlate

MyPlate is a visual representation of a balanced diet. It was developed by the United States Department of Agriculture and introduced in 2011. It includes a dinnerplate divided into four sections showing how much of each food group we should be eating, i.e., fruits, vegetables, grains, and protein. A circle beside the plate represents dairy products suggesting that as part of a healthy diet, dairy items like milk, yogurt, and cheese should be added. The presence of dairy has come under some debate as to whether it was placed there based on the influence of dairy lobby groups. It is important to know that while dairy products provide important nutrients such as protein and calcium, they are not the only and primary source of these nutrients. There are plant-based alternatives. Consumers, especially those with dairy allergies should look to these as alternatives to dairy.

Food Labels

Consumers can use food labels to help them make the right food choices. The primary function of food labels, apart from marketing, it to inform consumers. The food label has two main components, the principal display panel and the information panel.

Principal display panel (PDP): This is the part of the label that faces the consumer. It’s usually attractive so that the consumer will be drawn to the product. If there are health claims, these are generally stated on the PDP. Nevertheless, only two pieces of information are key on the PDP. That is, the statement of identity (name of the product), and the net quantity of contents which should be in both metric and imperial measures.

Information Panel: This is typically found to the right of the PDP and has the following information – nutrition information, ingredients, allergen declaration (if it the product has allergens), and the name of the manufacturer, packer, or distributor.

Nutrition Information: This includes information on serving size, number of serving per pack, total Calories, and amount of specific nutrients expressed as percentage daily value (DV). How should you understand %DV? A percentage DV of 20% for fiber, for example, means that if you ate one serving of the product, it would provide you with 20% of your entire day’s needs for fiber. In general, a percentage DV of 5% is considered low and 20% and over, high. You want to see certain nutrients on the low side such as cholesterol, saturated fats, trans fats, added sugar, sodium, and sugar. On the other hand, you would like to see nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fiber on the high side, closer to 20%. That would mean that the product is a good source of these nutrients. Keep in mind that the food label is based on a 2000 Calorie diet which is an average for everyone. Your needs might be more or less depending on your gender, age, height, weight, and level of activity.

Ingredients: Knowing what ingredients are present in a food item can be used to help us determine if we want to buy or use the product. This could be for health reasons such as avoiding allergens, or for religious reasons such as avoiding certain “unclean” ingredients.

Ingredients on a food label are written in descending order based on FDA requirements. That means the ingredient list can give you a fair idea of the proportion of ingredients in the product. So, if sugar is the first ingredient, the product contains mostly sugar.

Included in the ingredient section; in parenthesis or below the list, are shown a list of the allergens in the product. The eight big allergens, by the way, are: peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, soy, milk, and eggs. Since some ingredients may have names that the general public are not familiar with, the FDA requires that they are stated plainly. For example, whey and casein are derived from milk and so they should be listed, for example, as “casein (milk)”. Another example is albumin, another name for egg white. This ingredient would be listed as “albumin (egg)”.

Claims on Labels

Food manufacturers often make claims in order to stand out of the pack and encourage consumers to buy their products. Three types of claims that you may find on food labels are, structure-function claims, health claims, and nutrient-content claims.

Structure-function claim: Claims that the product helps to improve the structure and function of the body. No reference to any disease or disease condition is mentioned in this claim. For example, using phrases like “boosts energy”, “strengthens the immune system”, or “improves digestive health”.

Health claim: A claim that the product will improve health, with reference to a disease or disease condition, e.g., “reduces cholesterol”, “controls high blood pressure”, or “fat burner”.

Nutrient-content claim: An indication that the content of a nutrient is high or low. Various terms can be used to characterize nutrient content. For example: “high”, “low”, “reduced”, “lite”, “free”, “high”, “good source of”, and “excellent source of”. These terms are regulated by the FDA so manufacturers making these claims must demonstrate that the product meets the prescribed standard.

Wrapping Up

If you want to live a long, healthy life full of energy and vigor, a healthy diet is absolutely necessary. Healthy eating is characterized by balance, variety and moderation. The best diets are those that incorporate adequate amounts of nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, nut, grains, and healthy fats.

Author

  • Courtney Simons

    Dr. Courtney Simons has served as a food science researcher and educator for over a decade. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Food Science and a Ph.D. in Cereal Science from North Dakota State University.