Healthy Options Diversity of Food Choices Is One of the Keys to a Healthy Diet

Are you concerned about obesity? Have you ever thought of using that energy to do something about good nutrition? Perhaps if you did, the weight would simply take care of itself.

Good nutrition is not about starving yourself or pleasure-free dieting, but about balance, and wholesome eating that includes all food groups.

“Research clearly shows that a variety of foods is the key to getting all the necessary nutrients,” said Washington, D.C.-based registered dietitian Katherin Tallmadge, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association (ADA).

It seems good nutrition works like a good investment: a diversified portfolio is the key, and that means “a diet rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, fish, nuts, and vegetables oils, and that includes low-fat dairy and lean poultry and meat,” said Tallmadge, also author of the book Diet Simple.

March is National Nutrition Month, a nutrition-education and information campaign sponsored annually by the ADA, that calls attention to the importance of making informed food choices and developing sound eating and physical activity habits.

“Obesity is caused by taking in too many calories, or overnutrition,” explained Tallmadge, “so, if people learn a healthy way of eating, they’ll control their weight.”

According to Tallmadge, research shows that the overweight problem in the U.S. is caused by only a 13-calorie-per-day imbalance, on average. This extra 13 calories a day causes a weight gain of about a pound a year.

“We know that if people add more vegetables to a meal, they’ll be eating 100 fewer calories; if you add that to lunch and diner, you are cutting 200 calories per day. That alone will lead you to weight loss of 20 pounds in a year,” said Tallmadge .

If physical activity is added to the mix, the obesity epidemic could become a thing of the past. “Just walking an extra 2,000 steps per day would amount to losing 10 pounds in a year,” she said. “We believe in people making small, healthy changes they can stick to, instead of a total overhaul in diet, only to gain back all those pounds, and then some.”

Racial and ethnic minorities have a higher risk of almost all diet-related diseases compared to whites, including heart disease, high blood pressure, type II diabetes, obesity, and cancer. However, the good news is that it can be controlled.

Eating a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables as part of an active lifestyle can help lower the risk for all these diseases. Yet, African-Americans have the lowest fruit and vegetable consumption among all ethnic groups.

Eating six or more servings of whole-grain foods like brown rice or whole-wheat toast every week was associated with slower buildup of artery-narrowing plaque in women already diagnosed with certain heart conditions, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture study.

The government’s dietary guidelines recommend eating at least three servings of whole-grain foods every day, but most of us eat less than a single daily serving. Good sources of whole grains include breakfast cereals made with these grains. Other options are oatmeal, barley, popcorn, whole-grain bread, and bran muffins.

Meanwhile, have you heard about ‘good fats’? Recent news about low-fat diets seem to be conflicting. The results of a Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) study that involved nearly 50,000 postmenopausal women across the U.S. indicated that eating less fat may lower breast-cancer risk, but have little impact on colon-cancer and heart-disease risk.

“This study shows that just reducing total fat intake does not go far enough to have an impact on heart-disease risk,” said Dr. Jacques Rossouw, WHI project officer. “While the participants’ overall change in LDL — ‘bad’ cholesterol — was small, we saw trends toward greater reductions in cholesterol and heart-disease risk in women eating less saturated and trans fat.”

The key words there? Saturated and trans fat. “This was not a particularly revolutionary study,” said Tallmadge. “We have known for a very long time that low-fat doesn’t mean much.”

Again, she said, the importance of any element of the diet has to be considered in the context of the whole picture. “Some women who were eating a low-fat diet were not actually having good overall nutrition, and they might even have eliminated the good fats which are essential.”

Good fats come from vegetables oils, nuts, and fatty fish. The unhealthy fats are typically animal fats, and you can avoid them by consuming non-fat or low-fat dairy products and lean meat and poultry.

U.S. dietary guidelines recommend that adults keep total fat intake between 20{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} and 35{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of calories, and saturated fats less than 10{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of calories, with most fats coming from sources of polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats, such as fish, nuts, and vegetable oils. For people with heart disease or at high risk for heart disease, targets for saturated fats may be further lowered.

Meanwhile, “I always recommend people to eat a big breakfast,” said Tallmadge. “And eat it at home, so you can pick healthier things. When you eat a big breakfast, it will save you from the temptation to grab one of those doughnuts at the staff meeting.

“Try to get an oat-based cereal, because it’s important to diversify your grains,” she added. “I eat an oat-based cereal, some fruits, nuts, milk, and orange juice. So I’ve got my whole grains, protein, healthy fats, fiber, and protein.”

By choosing the most nutritionally rich foods as they can from each food group each day — those packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients — Americans can get the most nutrition out of their calories.

Isabel Estrada Portales is director of communications for the Office of Minority Health at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

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