To have a healthy, balanced diet, you need to eat a wide variety of foods that are rich in nutrients.
Your best bet is to choose the most nutrient-dense foods you can from each food group each day — those packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients, and also low in refined carbohydrates such as sugar and white flour. Pick foods like vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and lean meat and fish. You may want to choose organic sources of foods. (Organic means that no man-made pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics were applied to the crop while it was being grown or to feed that was given to animals that provided the food, or were given to the animals.)
You’ll probably find that fresh foods offer more nutrients and less sugar than processed foods.
Do you need to count calories?
Many people believe that if you eat fewer calories than you burn each day, you’ll lose weight, and if you eat the same number of calories that you’ll burn, you’ll maintain a healthy weight. This plan works for many people, but not all.
If you’re counting calories, it’s important to think about what you’re eating. Say Jane eats 1,200 calories a day of cake, cookies and white bread. She’s probably not going to lose any weight. Betty eats 1,200 calories a day of fresh vegetables and fruit and lean protein. She’s probably going to lose some weight and get a lot more nutrients from her food. Counting calories is only part of the weight loss equation.
And counting calories is only one way to lose weight. Because the hormone insulin plays a major role in how your body uses and stores fat, some research suggests that eating foods that keep insulin levels steady throughout the day — lean meat and fish, poultry, vegetables, and fruit — rather than foods like sugar, candy, white bread and crackers — can help you maintain a healthy weight.
You may want to talk to a registered dietitian about how to create a healthy diet plan that is right for you. If you live in the United States, you can get a list of dietitians in your ZIP code at the American Dietetic Association website.
Analyze your diet
You may want to do more to design a diet that meets your individual goals. If you're unable to work directly with a registered dietitian, you have some other options. Computer programs and online tools can help you further analyze what you eat. They go beyond whether or not you're getting enough of a specific nutrient. Some of them might even make recommendations about how much of specific foods you should eat per day and track your eating and nutrient patterns over time.
The United States Department of Agriculture 2015-20 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend:
- getting less than 10% of calories per day from added sugars
- getting less than 10% of calories per day from saturated fats
- eating less than 2,300 mg per day of salt
- teenage boys and men should reduce the overall amount of protein they eat by consuming less meat, poultry, and eggs
The guidelines also recommend eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods across all food groups, including:
- a variety of vegetables from all of the subgroups: dark green, red and orange, beans and peas, starchy, and others
- fruits, especially whole fruits
- grains, at least half of which are whole grains
- fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese, and/or fortified soy beverages
- a variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, beans and peas, nuts, seeds, and soy products