Designing a healthy diet is easy. It’s following it that’s the hard part. You probably can’t count the number of times you started the year with a resolution to get healthier, just to fall back to your old habits. In this course I will teach you the facts, but it will be up to you to follow them.

A healthy diet may mean different things to different people, depending on where you live, your culture and your ethnicity. However, in general, a healthy diet is one that is adequate, moderate, balanced and varied. By adequate, I mean that it should supply you with all of your daily nutrients and energy. Moderate, means that you should not over-indulge, not even in eating healthy foods. Balanced, means that your meals should be proportional, not having too much or too little of anything. Varied, means that you should eat different types of foods. For example, it would be unhealthy to just eat carrots as your only vegetable. Even though carrots are healthy, it won’t provide you will all the micronutrients you need.

The USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services has published a healthy eating guide known as the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans”. It essentially has 23 guidelines that can be summarized into four big ideas for eating healthy.

  1. You must eat enough calories to maintain a healthy weight. The best way to do this is to eat nutrient-dense foods. These are foods that provide the most nutrients relative to calories. For example, it would be more nutrient-efficient to eat an apple than to drink a can of soda. The soda will give you a lot of calories but little nutrients. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, pulses and grains are examples of high-density foods. You want to eat more of these foods, and reduce items like sodas, donuts, candies and alcoholic beverages that are full of just empty calories.
  2. Eat less sodium, fats, sugars and alcohol. Sodium increases the risk for high blood pressure and can lead to calcium-loss from the bone. This in turn will predispose you to bone disease and bone fracture. To reduce salt, eat as much fresh fruits and vegetables as possible, and reduce the amount of salt you cook with. You can also minimize your consumption of fast-foods, and shop for foods labeled “low-sodium”. Not all fats are bad. In fact, fats are an essential part of the diet. However you should reduce intake of fats that are high in saturated fatty acids. These are fats that are found mainly in meat products. Saturated fats are associate with heart disease, overweight and obesity. You should reduce the amount of added sugars in your diet. If you consume too much sugar, then your body will store the excess as fat, leading to obesity. Sugars are also known to cause dental decay. As it relates to alcohol, remember that alcohol is not a nutrient. Only bad things can happen when you drink alcohol, including damage to the nervous system, liver and body cells. Many practitioners and your textbook will encourage drinking in moderation, my view is to remove it from your diet all together.
  3. Consume more healthy foods and nutrients. This means eating more fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains, and also reducing or eliminating meat from your diet. If you have to eat meat, eat meats that are lean. That means, only those that have very little fat.
  4. Follow healthy eating patterns. This USDA suggest following MyPlate as the recommended eating pattern of choice.

MyPlate is a recommendation on the food groups to include in your diet and how to distribute them. Five groups are included. These are fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy. Essentially, half of your plate should consist of fruits and vegetables and half of grains and protein. Furthermore, the USDA suggests that half of the grains in your meal should be whole grains, and your proteins should be lean proteins.

There is some controversy and criticism of MyPlate. For example, the USDA indicates that half of the grains in our diet should be whole grains. Are they then suggesting that the rest should be processed and refined? Wouldn’t this be against evidence that whole grains are healthier?

Secondly, why is dairy recommended? Clearly, any nutrient that we can get from dairy, including protein, calcium and vitamin B12, can be obtained from one or more of the other food groups. So, how can you explain it being on MyPlate? Is it the work of dairy lobby groups influencing the dietary guideline? Wouldn’t it be better to just add water instead of milk? Why is water not a part of MyPlate anyway? Isn’t water essential for good health?

Finally, shouldn’t the graphic include a symbol for exercise as a complement to a healthy diet? We all know that diet is not enough. We need to combine diet and exercise to be healthy. These are all questions that are yet to be answered. So, any thoughts? Share in the comments box.

Reference: Thompson, J. L., Manore, M. M.  & Vaughan, L. A. (2017). The Science of Nutrition (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pearson Education.

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Courtney Simons
Courtney Simons
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Courtney Simons is a food science professor. He holds a BS degree in food science and a Ph.D. in cereal science from North Dakota State University.