Water—a vital part of a healthy diet
Water makes up about 75% of our bodies and helps flush our systems of waste products and toxins. Yet many people go through life dehydrated—causing tiredness, low energy and headaches.
Caffeinated beverages, in particular, actually cause the body to lose water. Fresh fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, contain plenty of water and can help with hydration, especially when you are looking for an alternative to your eighth glass of water for the day.
Healthy eating tip 5: Eat more healthy carbs and whole grains
Choose healthy carbohydrates and fiber sources, especially whole grains, for long lasting energy. In addition to being delicious and satisfying, whole grains are rich in phytochemicals and antioxidants, which help to protect against coronary heart disease, certain cancers, and diabetes. Studies have shown people who eat more whole grains tend to have a healthier heart
A quick definition of healthy carbs and unhealthy carbs
Healthy carbs (sometimes known as good carbs) include whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables. Healthy carbs are digested slowly helping you feel full longer and keeping blood sugar and insulin levels stable.
Unhealthy carbs (or bad carbs) are foods such as white flour, refined sugar and white rice that have been stripped of all bran, fiber and nutrients. Unhealthy carbs digest quickly and cause spikes in blood sugar levels and energy.
- Include a variety of whole grains in your healthy diet, including whole wheat, brown rice, millet, quinoa, and barley. Experiment with different grains to find your favorites.
- Make sure you're really getting whole grains. Be aware that the words stone-ground, multi-grain, 100% wheat, or bran, don’t necessarily mean that a product is whole grain. Look for the new Whole Grain Stamp. If there is no stamp look for the words “whole grain” or “100% whole wheat,” and check the ingredients.
- Try mixing grains as a first step to switching to whole grains. If whole grains, like brown rice and whole wheat pasta, don’t sound good at first, start by mixing what you normally use with the whole grains. You can gradually increase the whole grain to 100%.
Avoid: Refined grains such as breads, pastas, and breakfast cereals that are not whole grain.
Fiber—an essential component of a healthy diet
Dietary fiber, found in plant foods (fruit, vegetables and whole grains) is essential for maintaining a healthy digestive system. Fiber helps support a healthy diet by helping you feel full faster and for a longer amount of time, and keeping your blood sugar stable. A healthy diet contains approximately 20-30 grams of fiber a day, but most of us only get about half that amount.
The two types of fiber are soluble and insoluble.
- Soluble fiber can dissolve in water and can also help to lower blood fats and maintain blood sugar. Primary sources are beans, fruit and oat products.
- Insoluble fiber cannot dissolve in water, so it passes directly through the digestive system. It’s found in whole grain products and vegetables.
Healthy eating tip 6: Enjoy healthy fats & avoid unhealthy fats
Good sources of healthy fat are needed to nourish your brain, heart and cells, as well as your hair, skin, and nails. Foods rich in certain omega-3 fats called EPA and DHA are particularly important and can reduce cardiovascular disease, improve your mood and help prevent dementia.
Add to your healthy diet:
- Monounsaturated fats, from plant oils like canola oil, peanut oil, and olive oil, as well as avocados, nuts (like almonds, hazelnuts, and pecans) and seeds (such as pumpkin, sesame).
- Polyunsaturated fats, including Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, found in fatty fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and some cold water fish oil supplements. Other sources of polyunsaturated fats are unheated sunflower, corn, soybean, and flaxseed oils, and walnuts.
Reduce or eliminate from your diet:
- Saturated fats, found primarily in animal sources including red meat and whole milk dairy products.
- Trans fats, found in vegetable shortenings, some margarines, crackers, candies, cookies, snack foods, fried foods, baked goods, and other processed foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
Healthy eating tip 7: Put protein in perspective
Protein gives us the energy to get up and go—and keep going. Protein in food is broken down into the 20 amino acids that are the body’s basic building blocks for growth and energy, and essential for maintaining cells, tissues and organs. A lack of protein in our diet can slow growth, reduce muscle mass, lower immunity, and weaken the heart and respiratory system. Protein is particularly important for children, whose bodies are growing and changing daily.
Here are some guidelines for including protein in your healthy diet:
Try different types of protein. Whether or not you are a vegetarian, trying different protein sources—such as beans, nuts, seeds, peas, tofu and soy products—will open up new options for healthy mealtimes.
- Beans: Black beans, navy beans, garbanzos, and lentils are good options.
- Nuts: Almonds, walnuts, pistachios and pecans are great choices.
- Soy products: Try tofu, soy milk, tempeh and veggie burgers for a change.
- Avoid salted or sugary nuts and refried beans.
Downsize your portions of protein. Most people in the U.S. eat too much protein. Try to move away from protein being the center of your meal—focus on equal servings of protein, whole grains, and vegetables.
Focus on quality sources of protein, like fresh fish, chicken or turkey, tofu, eggs, beans or nuts. When you are having meat, chicken or turkey, buy meat that is free of hormones and antibiotics.
Complete, incomplete and complementary proteins
- A complete protein source—from animal proteins such as meat, poultry, fish, milk, cheese and eggs—provides all of the essential amino acids.
- An incomplete protein—from vegetable proteins like grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and beans—is low in one or more essential amino acids.
- Complementary proteins are two or more incomplete protein sources that together provide all of the essential amino acids your body needs. For example, rice and dry beans are each incomplete proteins, but together they provide all of the essential amino acids.
- Do complementary proteins need to be eaten in the same meal? Research shows that your body can combine complementary proteins that are eaten within the same day.
- Why are complete and complementary proteins important? Complete and complementary proteins that provide all of the essential amino acids will fill you up longer than carbohydrates because they break down more slowly in the digestive process.
Healthy eating tip 8: Add calcium & vitamin D for strong bones
Calcium and vitamin D are essential for strong, healthy bones—vitamin D is essential for optimum calcium absorption in the small intestine. Recommended calcium levels are 1000 mg per day, 1200 mg if you are over 50 years old. Take a vitamin D and calcium supplement if you don’t get enough of these nutrients from your diet.
Great sources of calcium include:
- Dairy products, which come already fortified with vitamin D.
- Dark green, leafy vegetables, such as kale and collard greens
- Dried beans and legumes
Healthy eating tip 9: Limit sugar, salt and refined grains
If you succeed in planning your diet around fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and good fats, you may find yourself naturally cutting back on foods that can get in the way of your healthy diet—sugar, salt and refined starches.
Sugar and refined starches
It is okay to enjoy sweets in moderation, but try to cut down on sugar. Sugar causes energy ups and downs and adds to health problems like arthritis, diabetes, osteoporosis, headaches, and depression.
- Give recipes a makeover. Often recipes taste just as good with less sugar.
- Avoid sugary drinks. One 12-oz soda has about 10 teaspoons of sugar in it! Try sparkling water with lemon or a splash of fruit juice.
- Eliminate processed foods. Processed foods and foods made with white flour and white sugar cause your blood sugar to go up and down leaving you tired and sapped of energy.
Salt itself is not bad, but most of us consume too much salt in our diets.
- Limit sodium to 2,300 mg per day – the equivalent to one teaspoon of salt. Most of us consume far more than one teaspoon of salt per day.
- Avoid processed, packaged, restaurant and fast food. Processed foods like canned soups or frozen meals contain hidden sodium that quickly surpasses the recommended teaspoon a day.
Healthy eating tip 10: Plan quick, healthy & easy meals ahead
Healthy eating starts with great planning. You will have won half the healthy diet battle if you have a well-stocked kitchen, a stash of quick and easy recipes, and plenty of healthy snacks.
Plan your meals by the week or even the month
One of the best ways to have a healthy diet is to prepare your own food and eat in regularly. Pick a few healthy recipes that you and your family like and build a meal schedule around them. If you have three or four meals planned per week and eat leftovers on the other nights, you will be much farther ahead than if you are eating out or having frozen dinners most nights.
Shop the perimeter of the grocery store
In general, healthy eating ingredients are found around the outer edges of most grocery stores—fresh fruits and vegetables, fish and poultry, whole grain breads and dairy products. The centers of many grocery stores are filled with overpriced, processed foods that aren’t good for you. Shop the perimeter of the store for most of your groceries (fresh items), add a few things from the freezer section (frozen fruits and vegetables), and the aisles with spices, oils, and whole grains (like rolled oats, brown rice, whole wheat pasta).
Cook when you can
Try to cook one or both weekend days or on a weekday evening and make extra to freeze or set aside for another night. Cooking ahead saves time and money, and it is gratifying to know that you have a home cooked meal waiting to be eaten.
Have an emergency dinner or two ready to go
Challenge yourself to come up with two or three dinners that can be put together without going to the store—utilizing things in your pantry, freezer and spice rack. A delicious dinner of whole grain pasta with a quick tomato sauce or a quick and easy black bean quesadilla on a whole wheat flour tortilla (among endless other recipes) could act as your go-to meal when you are just too busy to shop or cook.
Stock your kitchen to be meal ready
Try to keep your kitchen stocked with recipe basics:
Fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables:
- Garlic, onions, carrots and celery are great recipe and soup starters.
- Frozen corn, peas, carrots and berries for recipe additions and smoothies.
- Dark greens for salads and salad add-ins like dried fruit, nuts and seed
Fresh and dried herbs and spices
Fats and oils—liquid vegetable oils (olive, canola, sunflower, corn, and peanut) for cooking. Specialty oils like sesame oil, walnut or pistachio oil or truffle oil for adding flavor.
Unsalted nuts—like almonds, walnuts and pistachios for snacking
Vinegars—such as balsamic, red wine and rice vinegar for salads and veggies
Strong cheeses, like aged Parmesan or blue cheese for intense flavor in salads, pasta and soups.
Related links for healthy eating
Healthy eating: the basics on carbs, protein and fat
Good carbs guide the way – Describes the role of carbohydrates in a healthy diet, and which carbs are best for optimum health. (Harvard School of Public Health)
What is protein? – Information about what foods have protein and what happens when we eat more protein than we need. (Center for Disease Control)
Healthy Fats – Explains what types of fats and how much of them should be included in a healthy diet. Includes a chart listing typical serving sizes. (University of Michigan)
Face the Fats – (PDF) Describes the complicated relationship between good fats, bad fats, and various diseases. (Nutrition Action Healthletter)
Omega-3 Fats: An Essential Contribution - What Should You Eat ... – All about health benefits of the important omega-3 fatty acids, including the best food sources in which to find them. (Harvard School of Public Health)
Essential food groups in a healthy diet
Food Pyramids: What Should You Really Eat? – Article analyzes the USDA food pyramid and offers its own food pyramid along with information to help people make better choices about what to eat. (Harvard School of Public Health)
Strike a balance – Looks at the food groups, what they do for your body, and how much you should be getting each day. (BBC Health)
Living the MediterrAsian Way – People in Mediterranean and Asian cultures have long been known for their healthy diets and longevity. Here's how you can incorporate their dietary principles and lifestyle practices into your own life. (Mediterrasian.com)
The World’s Healthiest Foods - Using the theory of nutrient density - a measure of the amount of nutrients a food contains in comparison to the number of calories – this site lists the 129 most healthy foods. (The George Mateljan Foundation)
Vegetarian Food Pyramid – Alternative protein sources and a pyramid adapted for non-meat eaters. (Mayo Clinic)
Healing Foods Pyramid – Emphasizes foods known to have healing benefits or essential nutrients; plant-based choices; balance and variety of color, nutrients, and portion size; support of a healthful environment; and mindful eating. (University of Michigan)
Eating smart: a key step to healthy eating
10 Tips to Healthy Eating – Practical tips about healthy eating and the big picture of nutrition, exercise and good health. (International Food Information Council Foundation)
Mastering the mindful meal – Describes the importance of mindful eating, along with tips on how to eat more mindfully. (Brigham & Women’s Hospital)
Portion Size Plate – Pictures to illustrate what portion sizes should be for different foods; printable guide also available. (WebMD)
The role of sugar and salt in a healthy diet
Sodium Content of Your Food – How sodium affects your body and how to cut down on dietary sodium. Included tips on reading nutrition labels, and suggestions for cooking and shopping. (University of Maine – PDF)
Nutrition Care for You: Sodium – Lists high-sodium foods that should be avoided, as well as suggestions for lower-sodium alternatives. (University of Wisconsin)
Sugar Stacks – Photos showing the amount of sugar in different foods. (Sugar Stacks)
Other tips and strategies for a healthy eating plan
Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC) Diet – Includes a Virtual Grocery Store and Cyber Kitchen to help you discover how eating a low saturated fat, low cholesterol, healthy diet plus regular physical activity can improve your health. (National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute)
Make Healthy Food Choices – Detailed list of basic ways to make your diet healthier. (American Heart Association
Ten Tips Nutrition Education Series – A collection of tip sheets on healthy eating subjects like cutting back on sugar and salt, following a vegetarian diet and adding vegetables to your diet. (My Pyramid Nutrition Education Series)
Be a Healthy Role Model for Children – Ten tips for helping you and your children eat healthy. (My Pyramid Nutrition Education Series
Meal planning and stocking the kitchen
Stocking a Healthy Kitchen – The basics on stocking a healthy kitchen and cooking easy, delicious and nutritious meals. (Harvard School of Public Health Nutrition Source)
Local Harvest – Information about finding local growers, farmer’s markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) groups in your area.
A Well Stocked Kitchen – List of basics for a well stocked kitchen and sample meal plans focused on adding more vegetables and fruits to your diet. (Fruits and Veggies More Matters)
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