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Healthy Eating: 101

You know that you should eat right in order to stay healthy. But with all of the fad diets like gluten-free, ketogenic, paleo, raw foods, etc., it is hard to know what is actually considered healthy. It seems as if the term “healthy eating” is always changing.

Here are some guidelines to follow that will never go out of style:

Know your food groups

Knowing and understanding the different food groups will help you get the nutritious foods your body needs. Always remember…a healthy diet will never fully eliminate an entire food group. Check out Choose MyPlate for more information on each food group and to determine where your favorite foods fall.

  • Grains. Foods made from wheat, rye, rice, oats, cornmeal, or barley. These foods don’t only include bread and pasta, but also cereal, rice, grits, tortillas, and popcorn. Often times, people eat more grains than they need. When looking for grain foods, choose those whose first ingredient says “whole grains.” This means the grain has not been processed.
  • Vegetables. Veggies come in a wide variety of colors and flavors, and are packed full of nutrients. They are also naturally low in calories. Starchy vegetables such as corn and potatoes may be higher in carbohydrates and therefore higher in calories than other vegetables. This does not mean that you have to stay away from starchy vegetables though. They provide a good source of energy and nutrients.
  • Fruits. Fruit is another food that comes in many different colors and flavors, making them high in nutrients. Fruit is full of fiber, helping to promote digestive regularity. Fruit is a great sweet and low-calorie treat that can replace a candy bar or dessert as a more nutritious option.
  • Protein. Similar to grains, people often eat more protein than they need. This may result in higher caloric intake. Rather than cutting calories out of other food groups, such as fruits and vegetables that are high in nutrients, try eating more lean meats such as chicken or turkey, and swap seafood, such as shrimp or salmon, for meat at least a couple of times per week.
  • Dairy. Many adults are not getting as much dairy as they should. In order to keep your heart healthy, aim for low-fat or fat-free dairy choices. Choosing fat-fee or low-fat yogurt and milk rather than cheese can give you added vitamins and minerals and less fat and sodium.
  • Oils. This food group is higher in calories, but still has many health benefits due to the nutrients and vitamin E found in oils. Choose oils over solid fats, such as butter, when cooking. Some healthy sources of oils include avocados, olives, and peanut butter. Remember: a little goes a long way. Try to limit your intake of oils.
  • Solid Fats and Added Sugars. Also known as SoFAS. Added sugars are just added calories without more nutrients. Choosing foods throughout the day that are low in fat and without added sugar could leave you with some extra calories left over each day.

Portion size versus serving size

A “serving” is the amount of food recommended to eat. A “portion” is the amount of food you choose to eat at any one time – which may be more or less than a serving. Here’s a quick guide to food portion sizes using everyday objects.

Small Stamp = 1 teaspoon
9-Volt Battery = 1 tablespoon
Golf Ball = 2 tablespoons
Deck of Cards = 3 ounces
Computer Mouse = 1/2 cup
Baseball = 1 cup

To see how much you are actually eating, pour your cereal into a regular bowl and then into a measuring cup. Do the same with you glasses, cups and plates. Portion size matters!

Know your macronutrients

These are substances required in large amount by the body in order to function properly.

Proteins. Proteins are the body’s building blocks since they repair your tissues, fight off infection, and extra protein can be used for energy. Proteins are made up on amino acids. Essential amino acids are the type of amino acids that the body cannot make itself and therefore must be regularly consumed in food. Protein can be found in many foods ranging from lean meat, seafood, and eggs, to beans, peas, soy, and even dairy products. Protein that comes from plant-based sources tends to be lower in fat and cholesterol and higher in fiber and nutrients.

Carbohydrates. Carbohydrates or carbs are the body’s main source of energy. They can be categorized into simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates are found in fruits, veggies, dairy products, and sweeteners such as sugar, honey, and syrup. Complex carbohydrates are found in breads, cereals, pasta, rice, beans, peas, and starchy vegetables such as potatoes and corn. Complex carbs tend to be higher in fiber as well which can prevent stomach and intestinal problems. Fiber is a type of carbohydrate the body cannot digest. It is found it fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, seeds, and nuts. Most fiber we eat is insoluble and cannot be digested—this is the type of fiber that promotes healthy digestive environments and elimination of waste. It can also make us feel fuller. Soluble fiber is the type of fiber that can help regulate blood sugar and lower cholesterol.

Fats. Fats are another source of energy and have the ability to make you feel satisfied after eating. Some oils include butter, shortening, and margarine. Foods such as mayonnaise, salad dressing, and sour cream are also high in fats. Seeds, nuts, avocado, and coconut are plant-based sources of fats. There are different categories of fats. As a general rule, try to get more of your fats from unsaturated fat like mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fats. These types of fats are liquid at room temperature and are more heart-healthy compared to saturated fats and trans fats which are solid at room temperature. Omega fatty acids are the only type of fats that the body cannot make on its own. Humans need Omega 3 and Omega 6 to make cell membranes and produce many hormones. They can also be capable of reducing chronic inflammation and preventing heart disease. They are added to some foods but occur naturally in many oils—especially fish oils.

Learn more at Important Nutrients to Know: Protein, Carbohydrates, and Fat

Know your micronutrients

These are substances required in smaller amounts but are still equally important.

Vitamins. Vitamins are molecules that our bodies cannot make, but need for growth and maintenance. Vitamins are larger molecules than minerals. They are either fat-soluble (D, E, A, and K) or water-soluble (B Vitamins, and C). Fat-soluble vitamins require fat for them to be properly used by the body and can be stored for later use. Water-soluble vitamins do not require additional nutrients to function and will not be stored in the body. If you eat or drink more Vitamin C than your body needs, it will be excreted in your urine. Vitamins are most present in fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts; but some are also found in meats and dairy. It is not healthy to have too little or too much. Keep that in mind if you are taking dietary supplements including multi-vitamins. Dietary supplements also have the potential to interfere with certain medications.

Minerals. Minerals are small molecules that usually enter the body in combination with another atom and assist in many bodily functions. Examples include sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, phosphate, sulfate, magnesium, and iron. The body cannot make its own minerals but they can be found in foods such as dairy, meat, nuts, fruit, and vegetables. Not all foods have the same types and amounts of minerals. Just like vitamins, it is not healthy to have too little or too many minerals.

Learn more at Important Nutrients to Know: Vitamins and Minerals

Think about what you drink

Your three best options for healthy drinks are water, low-fat or fat-free milk, and 100% juice. Milk and 100% fruit or vegetable juice only contain natural sugar, no added sugar and should contribute to the recommended daily intake of fruit, vegetables, and dairy as noted previously. Water is a daily staple. Drink water every day! But believe it or not, there is not an exact recommendation for the amount of water you should drink in a day. Instead, let your thirst guide you. There are general recommendations for water intake from both food and drinks. Women should get approximately 2.7 liters (91 ounces) each day, and men approximately 3.7 liters (125 ounces) of total water daily. About 80% of your total water intake comes from drinking water and other beverages — including caffeinated beverages — and the other 20% is derived from food. Learn more about water at Important Nutrients to Know: Water.

Cut back on drinks with added sugar. Added sugar can be found in juice that is not 100%, regular pop/soda, sports drinks, energy drinks, and thousands of other beverages that are on the market today. Sports drinks can be appropriate for athletes engaged in moderate- to high-intensity exercise that lasts an hour or longer to replace electrolytes, but they still contain a large amount of added sugar.

Alcohol should always be in moderation. One drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men, and only for adults of legal drinking age.

Health benefits of eating a balanced diet

Eating a balanced diet can help you physically and emotionally. A well-balanced diet can help you lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. Consuming foods with lots of fiber such as nuts, legumes, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables can help your heart work efficiently, reducing your risk of heart disease. Furthermore, eating a balanced diet will help to protect you from diabetes, especially the foods that are high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats like avocados, olive oil, and nuts and seeds. Eating foods rich in B vitamins can reduce homocysteine levels which may reduce risk of developing dementia. Other brain functions that can be increased from eating foods high in omega 3’s include increased memory and mood as well as reduced risk of depression, schizophrenia, and mood disorders. Consuming fruits and vegetables that are high in antioxidants can help to reduce risk of certain cancers. Eating healthy foods at regular intervals can also help to boost and maintain energy levels.

There are so many benefits of healthy eating. Don’t wait, start today!

Sources: National Institute on Aging, Choose MyPlate, Michigan State University Extension, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Hydrate Right