Eating healthy can be challenging at times, especially with commercials on television and social media, tempting taste buds with high-calorie foods and drinks. Many Americans, both young and old, exceed their calorie limits by eating and drinking extra amounts, or they are not physically active enough. Taking in too many calories can lead to weight gain and over time this can affect our health.
There are 6 nutrients the body requires: water, protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins and minerals. Most foods and drinks provide some or all of these, but in various amounts, which is why focusing on variety in our foods and sources is important.
Here are some ways to add variety from the five food groups, Fruits, Vegetables, Grains, Protein, and Dairy, to ensure a well-balanced, healthy diet.
All forms of fruits count as a servings, but try focusing on eating whole fruits when you can. Fresh fruits are great when they are in season, but during other times of the year, frozen, canned, dried, and even 100% fruit juices are all good options to meet the suggested 1 to 2 cup servings per day. Some foods, like fruit and yogurt have naturally occurring sugars, while others have sugars added to them. Even foods that we think are healthy, like yogurt and cereals, for example, may have added sugars.
- Sweeten plain low-fat yogurt with different types of fruits
- This combination makes for a tasty treat, and if you portion it out in advance, then it becomes a convenient breakfast on-the-go or a healthy snack.
- You can also make smoothies with fruit and fat-free milk or yogurt on other days.
- Add fruit to salads, cereals or desserts
It’s also important to keep in mind that all forms of vegetables are encouraged. Most people think only fresh vegetables matter, but the truth is canned, frozen, and 100% vegetable juice also count as servings, cooked or raw. How the vegetables are prepared is equally important. They all start out healthy. However, adding ingredients like sauces or seasonings can add extra calories, salt, and saturated fat. Frozen and canned varieties might also have added sugars or salt. Look for words on the label that indicate “No Salt Added”, “Low Sodium”, or “Reduced in Sodium”.
- Plan meals to include different colored vegetables throughout the week to obtain vitamins and nutrients required for a healthy body
- Remember to choose vegetables from each of those subgroups (i.e., dark greens for Vitamin K, C, & folic acid; red and orange for Vitamin A, C, & potassium; beans and peas for iron, Vitamin K, C, copper, manganese, zinc, & phosphorus)
- Experiment with different vegetables when preparing healthy soups and salads.
- Make a point to buy different vegetables, depending on what is in season. Chances are they will be more affordable, too.
Most of us meet the recommended daily amount of grains. However, the recommendation to make half our grains whole grains is a goal many of us are not meeting.
There are 2 types of grains: whole grains and refined ones. Whole grains are foods like whole wheat bread, brown rice, and oatmeal. Some types that may be new to you include whole wheat pasta, millet and quinoa.
There are many health benefits associated with eating whole grains. For example, they happen to be higher in dietary fiber, which helps keep us regular and may reduce the risk of heart disease. Whole grains also provide other important nutrients, like the B-vitamins and some minerals. Refined grains are enriched with certain vitamins and minerals, but they lack dietary fiber. That’s why it’s so important that we include whole grains on a daily basis.
- Experiment with unfamiliar grains, like wild rice or quinoa.
- Switch to a whole grain bread or wraps for sandwiches, just be sure to look for a whole grain flour of some type listed as the first ingredient (as opposed to an enriched one).
- Another option is to look for ready-to-eat cereals, and even snacks, that are made with whole grain flours.
- You can also add whole grain flour to muffins, quick breads, and batters to make pancakes or waffles. (Up to half of the amount of flour that is called for in a recipe can be substituted with a whole grain flour. The amount of leavening may need to be adjusted, though.)
Just like the other food groups, we should vary our protein sources. Lean sources of protein are recommended, which include fish and seafood, beans and peas, eggs, soy products, nuts, nut butters, seeds, and lean meats, like top sirloin, pork tenderloin and skinless poultry, which includes turkey and chicken. Other foods and drinks, like grains and dairy products, also provide protein in our diet, but they are included in their own food groups.
Many Americans get enough protein on a regular basis. Although, some people like older adults may not. Vegetarian and vegan diets can provide adequate amounts of protein if they are well planned and include a variety of foods.
There are some reasons when higher amounts of protein are needed, such as during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. Athletes may also have higher protein needs, but this will depend on their type of exercise and eating habits.
Protein from food sources is best, and eating a variety of lean protein foods will help provide the nutrients our bodies need to build and maintain healthy muscles and bones.
One way to vary your protein routine is to:
- Substitute plant-based proteins in recipes, such as a mixture of beans in chili.
- You can make the recipes without any meat or substitute some of the beans in place of some of the meat, if you’d like.
- Another option is to try meatless dishes when you eat out.
- Many different cuisines offer foods made with beans and lentils.
- Experiment with seafood by grilling or baking fish in place of some other protein food for dinner two times per week.
Dairy is the final food group, includes milk, yogurt, and cheese, all good sources of the mineral calcium, needed for strong bones and teeth.
The dairy group also includes “non-dairy calcium alternatives”, such as soymilk, almond milk, and rice milk, for people who are lactose intolerant or choose to follow vegetarian or vegan diets. If you choose to drink these products instead of milk, make sure they are fortified with calcium. It’s also important to look for added sugars, since milk, yogurt, and non-dairy calcium alternatives are available in a variety of flavors.
Ways to add dairy and calcium into your intake:
- Use cheese as a garnish by sprinkling a small amount on top of dishes, like soups, stews, and casseroles.
- Look for lower fat and reduced fat options when possible, such as part-skim mozzarella.
- For recipes that call for higher fat cheeses, try using a smaller amount. For example, extra sharp Cheddar has a stronger flavor, so you don’t need to use as much.
- Try making or buying dips that use low-fat yogurt or ricotta or cottage cheeses. It’s a great way to eat more veggies and makes for a tasty, healthy snack.