Healthy Eating 101

There is some truth to the adage that you are what you eat. When you eat nutritious foods, you give your body the fuel it needs to stay healthy, fight disease, and have energy for your daily activities. But if you fill up on fatty, sugary, or salty processed foods, you could end up missing out on key nutrients and setting yourself up to gain weight and feel sluggish. Over time, you put yourself at risk for diseases that are related to poor diet, like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and even some types of cancer.

But making sense of information about nutrition often seems like a hopeless cause. One doctor tells you to avoid eggs, but another says it’s okay to eat two a day. One article says that high-protein diets are good for losing weight, while another says they may increase your risk for cancer. Your nurse says whole grains are good for you, but a news report says whole wheat is bad.

Who’s right? When experts can’t agree on what “healthy eating” is, how are you supposed to know?

Current Guidelines

As far as good nutrition goes, certain guidelines are universal, and most nutritionally sound diets are pretty similar. Whether you follow the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet, or one from your doctor to manage diabetes or heart disease, you’ll probably be following an eating plan that recommends:

  • 45 to 60 percent of daily calories from complex carbohydrates
  • 20 to 30 percent from lean protein
  • 20 to 35 percent from good-for-you fats
  • 25 to 35 mg fiber per day
  • limiting saturated fats and added sugars to less than 10 percent of calories
  • avoiding trans fats entirely

It may recommend limiting dietary cholesterol to a maximum of 300 milligrams and sodium to 2,300 milligrams.

But how do you put this into practice?

Eat a variety of foods.

Essentially, these guidelines translate into a diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains. No single food contains all the nutrients your body needs, so be sure to choose a variety of foods from within each food group: When it comes to fruits and vegetables, for example, eat as many colors as you can. Phytochemicals, the compounds that give fruits and vegetables their colors, also provide nutritional benefits: The yellow pigments in corn have been shown to protect against certain eye diseases, while purple and blue pigments found in some berries, red and black grapes, red cabbage, red onions, and beets protect against some types of cancer. Eating a wide variety of different foods increases the number of nutrients you consume and it reduces your exposure to any harmful chemicals used to produce foods.

Eat a “balanced” diet.

The four food groups may be a thing of the past, but if the food pyramid leaves you puzzled, here’s an easy way to balance the amount of protein, carbs, and fat you eat: When you fill your plate, cover about half of it with fruits or vegetables (or both), about one-fourth with whole grains or starches like corn, pasta, potatoes, or rice, and the remaining fourth with lean protein. If half your plate is covered with a pork chop and the other half with egg noodles or white rice, you may not be getting enough fiber, which is found in foods from plants—whole grains (like brown rice), vegetables, and fruits.

Eat the right amount.

As you fill your plate, keep a close eye on your portion sizes. Research shows that the more you’re served, the more you’re likely to eat in one sitting. That’s why it’s smart to learn what a proper serving should look like. Some handy rules of thumb to keep in mind:

Proper Portion Size Equivalents

  • 1 cup of cereal or 1 baked potato = the size of a clenched fist
  • 1 cup of cooked rice or pasta = the size of a baseball
  • 1 medium fruit or 1 cup of berries, chopped fruit, or salad greens = the size of a tennis ball
  • 1½-ounce serving of cheese = the size of four stacked dice
  • 3 ounces of meat or poultry = the size of a deck of cards
  • 3 ounces of grilled or baked fish = the size of a checkbook
  • 2 tablespoons of salad dressing or peanut butter = the size of a ping pong ball
  • 1 teaspoon of butter or margarine = the size of one die
  • ½ cup ice cream = the size of ½ baseball

And if you clean your plate, here’s an important tip: Use smaller plates! If your dinner plates are 12 to 14 inches across, a meal with the above portions might look pretty skimpy. Put the same servings on an 8- to 10-inch plate and they look much more generous.

Eat mindfully.

Imagine you go to a movie. You’ve got a bucket of popcorn and there’s about half left when the really exciting part comes. After that scene, you reach your hand into the bucket and think, “Wait, where did it all go?”

Mindfulness is simply being aware of what you’re doing. You don’t need to count every chew, but it’s easy to lose track of how much you’re eating when you snack while watching TV or reading. Measure out a serving rather than eat from the container.

Eat in moderation.

Moderation means “don’t go overboard”—and this is good advice for your overall diet and for individual foods. Too many carrots, for example, can turn skin orange! A single 100-calorie packet of a treat is a moderate amount, but three or four is a different story, and doesn’t provide the vitamins and minerals your body needs.

Related Content

Nutrition and Older Adults

Nutrition and Older Adults

Appetite can decrease with age, which means older adults may miss out on these important nutrients. Read More
Stronger Bones for Better Health

Stronger Bones for Better Health

Keeping your bones strong and healthy is an important factor in maintaining health, avoiding falls, and preventing osteoporosis. Read More
10 Easy and Healthy Cooking Tips for Caregivers

10 Easy and Healthy Cooking Tips for Caregivers

Use these ideas to plan meals that promote healing, prevent illness, and save time. Read More