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A Quick Guide To Healthy Eating

Raise your hand if you ate the government-recommended four and a half cups of fruits and vegetables yesterday.

You’re not alone if you didn’t pass that test: Only one in 10 Americans does, according to a 2007 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Most people ought to eat twice as many fruits and vegetables as they do, says the CDC.

And what about fats, protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals – not to mention calories? How can you know what to eat when each bestselling diet book touts low carbs, no carbs, the Mediterranean diet, the fiber diet, and every other plan you can think of?

The good news is that once you understand the basics – recommendations based on research, not hype – good nutrition gets a whole lot simpler.

Here’s your quick guide to eating healthy, even when you’re on the go.

Nutrition Affects Your Health
Americans have the most abundant food supply in history. But as a group, we’re getting too many calories and too little of the fiber, vitamins, minerals and natural plant compounds that can help prevent disease.

The latest USDA dietary guidelines prescribe the cure: plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and a lot less fat, sugar and sodium. Following the plan reduces the risk of:

  • Stroke

  • Heart disease

  • High blood pressure

  • Osteoporosis

  • Type 2 diabetes

  • Certain cancers

  • Obesity

Eating well has a more immediate payoff too – like increasing your energy level.

Plant-based foods are especially important. They’re key sources of vitamins and minerals you need for metabolism, helping the body release the energy from the protein, fat and carb calories you consume.

The Role Of Nutrition In Managing Chronic Diseases
According to testimony presented in 2003 to the Senate Special Committee on Aging, fully 90 percent of people who have chronic disease could benefit from nutritional intervention.

In her testimony, researcher Jane White, Ph.D., director of nutrition education for the University of Tennessee’s Graduate School of Medicine, noted that in many cases, good nutrition “can reduce or eliminate the need for medication,” saving millions of dollars for those who have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes.

If you have a chronic disease, talk to your doctor or a registered dietician about whether dietary changes could help.

Nutritional Needs Change With Age
Everyone needs carbs, protein, fats, vitamins and minerals, but the amounts change dramatically according to your stage of life. The USDA’s MyPyramid Web site offers interactive features that make it easy to calculate the nutritional needs of children, adolescents and adults.

Following are some age-related nutritional concerns:
  • Calcium: Children and adolescents need plenty because their bones are growing. Those ages 2 to 8 need two cups per day of fat-free or low-fat milk (or equivalent calcium sources); children 9 and older need three cups, as do most adults.

  • Fats: Total fat intake should be higher for children ages 2 to 3 (30 percent to 35 percent of daily calories) and ages 4 to 18 (25 percent to 35 percent). Most fats should be polyunsaturated or monosaturated – from fish, nuts and vegetable oils – according to the Department of Health and Human Services’ 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Adults should keep fat intake at 20 percent to 35 percent of calories.

  • Calories: Growing children need more calories per pound than adults, and men generally need more than women (because men are larger and have more muscle mass). Athletes and other active people need more than those who are sedentary. As adults age, their recommended caloric intake goes down.

For instance, sedentary women between ages 31 and 50 can maintain body weight at around 1,800 calories a day. After age 50 the figure drops to 1,600 per day. Comparable daily figures for sedentary men age 31 to 50 are 2,200 calories and 2,000 after age 50.

People at various life stages have other requirements as well. Older adults, for example, may need extra vitamin D and vitamin B12, available from fortified foods or supplements.

Women of childbearing age may need additional iron and folic acid.

Those who are battling cancer or other chronic diseases sometimes need more calories to maintain weight.

If you have concerns, talk to your health professional.

Figure Out What’s Good For You
The goal is a food plan that’s nutritious and balanced overall – with room for the occasional splurge.

Let’s start with the guidelines of the USDA’s revamped food pyramid, using as an example the recommendations for someone who needs 2,000 calories a day. (Use the interactive features at to determine your needs.)

Shoot for the following amounts of nutrient-dense foods:
  • 3 ounces of whole-grains from cereal, bread, pasta, rice or crackers (a slice of bread or a half-cup of cereal or rice equals 1 ounce)

  • Two and a half cups of vegetables, emphasizing those that are dark green (broccoli, spinach) and orange (carrots, sweet potatoes). Also include dry beans and peas such as kidney beans, split peas and lentils.

  • Two cups of fruits (fresh, frozen, canned or dried)

  • Three cups of fat-free or low-fat milk or yogurt

  • 5.5 ounces of lean meat, poultry or fish, preferably broiled, grilled, steamed or baked. Vegetarian sources of protein include beans, nuts, tofu and seeds.

Limit your intake of:
  • Fats, especially solid fats such as butter and shortening, which contain saturated and trans fats

  • Salt, usually abundant in processed and prepared foods and restaurant cooking

  • Sugar, a source of calories but not nutrients

The USDA says 50 percent of your daily grains should be whole. Think whole-grain bread or crackers, brown rice, and pasta made with all or part whole wheat. Whole grains are rich in vitamins and minerals. Their fiber may reduce blood cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease.

Go for the widest variety of vegetables and fruits. Each one offers different vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other compounds that can help prevent disease, says the CDC. The more intense their color, the better.

When you buy prepared foods, read labels. Avoid added sugars (high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, honey, etc.), which contribute calories but not much else. Beware of added fats, especially partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. The trans fats they contain increase the risk of heart disease.

Good Food For People On The Go
When you’re in a rush, it’s tempting to skip meals or visit the nearest fast-food drive-through. Here are five suggestions for eating healthy in a hurry.
  1. Keep fresh fruit available or reach for individual cups of fruit packed in juice. Add protein with individually wrapped portions of reduced-fat cheese, skim milk or low-fat yogurt.

  2. Keep a supply of vegetables such as cherry tomatoes, baby carrots, broccoli or cauliflower. They taste great with low-fat ranch dressing.

  3. No time to cook dinner? Serve bagged salad greens and low-fat dressing, pre-cooked chicken strips and whole-grain rolls.

    Make sandwiches with deli turkey, reduced-fat mayo, dark-green lettuce and tomato slices, with fruit on the side. Or open a can of chicken and vegetable or bean soup to go with salad and bread.

    When you have the luxury of preparing more leisurely meals, make twice as much and freeze half for another day.

  4. Frozen dinners aren’t a bad choice either, if you read labels and select those that are low in calories, fat and sodium.

  5. When you do eat fast food, cut calories and fat by ordering smaller portions. Choose grilled chicken instead of fried chicken or burgers, and skip add-ons like bacon and cheese. Substitute a side salad for fries. Drink water, diet soda or low-fat milk.

Eat Healthy In The Workplace
Your good example can promote healthy choices in the office.

Give your employees access to a refrigerator so they can bring a healthy lunch from home. And if you provide snacks at the office, consider these:
  • A fruit bowl

  • Cut-up vegetables

  • Baked chips, fat-free popcorn, rice cakes or whole-grain crackers

  • Low-fat yogurt

Avoid fatty doughnuts, oversized muffins and sweet rolls during morning meetings. Substitute fresh fruit and yogurt or whole-grain bagels cut in half, with fat-free cream cheese.

If you order in lunch for staff, choose soup and salad; turkey sandwiches on whole-wheat; or veggie pizza with half the cheese, on whole-wheat crust.

Make Good Choices When Dining Out
Don’t be shy about asking how a meal is prepared – or requesting that your meat and vegetables be cooked without added butter, oil or cream.

Start the meal with a broth-based soup or a large salad, and avoid loading it with fat from cheese, nuts or bacon. Ask for dressing on the side.

Choose an entrée that’s grilled, steamed, baked, broiled or lightly sautéed rather than deep-fried. Skip those with greasy sauces and fillings. Or order an appetizer or side dish as an entrée.

Split an entrée with a companion – or shortly after being served, ask for a to-go container and put half your dinner in it.

If you crave something sweet, share dessert with your companion, eat only part, or have fresh fruit.

For More Information
Get more nutritional information at these government-sponsored Web sites.

CDC’s nutrition topics page:

The FDA’s personalized guide to healthy eating and activity:

Everything you need to know about fruits and vegetables:

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