Imagine you’re at the grocery store. You pick up an item and flip it over. What does all of that information on the label mean? Is that even an ingredient?
How do you know what to look for? Nutrition is often talked about but rarely understood. In this article, you’ll find the basics of nutrition required to live a healthy life.
The Major Food Groups
The food we eat is divided into five main groups.
You can buy vegetables fresh, frozen, or canned.
Common healthy vegetables include:
- Brussels sprouts
- Green beans
- Leafy Greens
- Sweet potatoes
Why should you eat vegetables?
Vegetables hold a lot of nutritional value.
Each vegetable contains different amounts of nutrients, like potassium, fiber, and essential vitamins. To get the most benefit of vegetables, eat different types of vegetables with every meal. Combine vegetables, if possible, in meals like salads.
Vegetables can be used as substitutes in recipes. Examples include using eggplant instead of noodles in lasagna or using cauliflower instead of rice.
Always check the labels when buying canned vegetables. Many canned vegetables include extra sodium or sugar.
You can buy fruits fresh, frozen, canned, or in juice form.
Some common fruits include:
Why should you eat fruits? Fruits are a great source of vitamin C, fiber and potassium.
Be careful when buying canned fruit or fruit juice. Check the nutritional label for added sugar.
Grains come in many different forms. Grains can be a single product, like rice or popcorn. Other foods have grain as an ingredient, like bread. Whole grains are more nutritious because they contain the entire grain. Refined grains have less nutritional value.
Common grains include:
Why should you eat grains?
Grains are rich in fiber, which are beneficial for digestion and make you feel full faster so they help with weight management.
Whole grains contain fiber and iron. Refined grains have less fiber. Choose whole grains whenever possible. Your healthcare provider or nutritionist can tell you if you can safely remove grains from your diet.
Dairy products come from the milk of animals like cows or goats. Milk can be made from soy and nuts (almond, coconut, rice, etc.)
Common dairy examples:
Why should you have dairy?
Animal dairy and soymilk contain calcium, vitamin A and protein. Nut-based dairy products can have added calcium. Dairy products often include fat, sugar, and sodium. Choose low fat or fat- free dairy whenever possible.
Protein comes from animals, plants, and beans.
Common sources of protein:
Why should you eat protein?
Protein is an important energy source. Each protein source has different nutritional values. Animal sources of protein also contain fat. Try “leaner” protein or protein with less fat.
How much should you be eating? How do you choose what to eat? MyPlate recommendations are an easy way to begin eating healthier. These recommendations come from the USDA and are published every five years. MyPlate recommends that each plate of food include:
- ¼ of a variety of vegetables
- ¼ of fruits
- ¼ grains- whole grains as much as possible
- 1 serving of low fat or fat- free dairy
- 1 serving of lean protein
Nutrition labels in the United States are standardized. The National Institute of Health recommends dietary intakes of food. The label is designed to give customers basic information about what nutrient levels the food meets.
Learn to read nutrition labels and ingredients on your food. You shouldn’t rely on the packaging alone for nutritional information.
A balanced diet should daily include:
- 1,000mg calcium
- 150ug iodine
- 8mg iron
- 11mg zinc
- 3,400mg potassium
- 1,500mg sodium
- 800ug Vitamin A
- 80mg Vitamin C
- 15mg Vitamin D
- 400ug Folate
- 3 liters water
- 130g carbohydrates
- 25-38g fiber
- 46-56g protein
Generally, the ingredients listed first are what the food item has the most of. Compare multiple brands to help you make a healthier selection. There are many applications for smartphones that can scan the bar code of food items for you. These are helpful when grocery shopping.
Your main goal for eating healthier shouldn’t be just weight loss; it should be to live a healthier lifestyle overall.
Pay attention to how your body feels when you eat better. This will motivate you to continue making healthy choices.
Fad diets or eliminating some foods completely are hard to sustain over time. Be wary of diets that promise results that seem too good to be true.
Eat better as often as possible, but don’t be afraid to indulge in a small portion of your favorite foods.
Some health conditions need very specific diets, like kidney or cardiac disease. Ask your healthcare provider if they recommend any changes to your diet.
Do not start new diets without informing your healthcare provider. They will help make sure that you get all the nutrients you need. Exercise and supplements will work better when used with proper nutrition.
Many people feel like they can’t afford to eat healthier foods. It takes more effort to find affordable, nutritious food, but it is possible.
Eating seasonally is the best way to have affordable fresh foods. Eating seasonally means eating foods that grow naturally during different times of the year.
Your local farmer’s market or gardening stores can help you determine what is available in your area. Learn to store fresh foods properly. Freeze or can fresh ingredients when you can to extend their life.
Making better food choices is easier than you might think. Here are some practical ways to start eating healthier:
- Drink less alcohol.
- Focus on eating nutrient-dense foods — foods that contain protein or vitamins. Non-fresh food items (commonly called junk food) are high in calories but low in nutrients.
- Limit how much sodium, fat (saturated and trans), and added sugars you eat/drink.
- Vary your sources. Try to eat from all the food groups.
- Add color to your plate with fruits and vegetables.
- Stay hydrated by drinking lots of water.
- Make healthy snack choices easier to access by leaving them on your table or desk.
- Plan your meals ahead of time and make a shopping list before going to the grocery store.
- Enjoy your favorite foods in small portions or find healthier substitutes.
- Many grocery stores and hospitals offer free nutrition classes.
Making changes and forming new habits to improve your nutrition can be a challenge. However, it gets easier as time goes on after you’ve made a consistent effort at it.
Having a knowledge of what foods are healthy and eating reasonable portions (i.e. not over-eating) is a much healthier lifestyle choice than hopping on the bandwagon of whatever new popular fad diet pops up.
These basic principles of nutrition can help you live a healthier life and have a better relationship with food.