It’s National Nutrition Month® and we’ve asked our registered dietitian, Jennifer McCune, RDN, LD, what we need to eat to get the nutrients and calories we need to stay healthy.
There are many things to consider when determining a balanced diet. Since we are all unique in that we come from different cultural backgrounds, have different food preferences, and different health, wellness, and fitness goals, a healthy eating plan should be customized to meet your specific needs. As a registered dietitian, the first and probably most important message I like to emphasize to people is that developing healthy eating habits does not have to require extreme lifestyle changes. Many people become overwhelmed just of the thought of doing a huge “diet makeover” – and it really doesn’t have to be that difficult to eat nutritiously. In fact, the best approach to long-term success is doing what is sustainable. By ditching the crazed and trendy fad diets and understanding what each of the five food groups has to offer and that they complement each other, you’ll be better equipped to manage your health for the long haul and not run out of steam.
So, what’s with the food groups, what do they have to offer, and why is it important to get variety? Nutrients! The food groups provide essential macro and micro-nutrients our bodies need to perform at their best. Protein, carbohydrates, and fat are the three macronutrients that provide calories which is the energy our body uses to function. Just like a car can’t function on an empty fuel tank, neither can we. Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals (which do not provide energy (calories)) and are essential for the body to develop properly, maintain health, and aid in disease prevention. [source]
Proteins are important to include on our plates because they are vital building blocks for many bodily functions, such as our blood, skin, muscles, and cartilage; plus, they are needed for the production of enzymes, hormones, and many vitamins. All protein foods are not created equal in the nutrients they provide. By varying your protein at meals and snacks you will obtain a much broader range of nutrients to help keep you healthy. These foods include meat, poultry, fish, eggs, soy products, nuts, seeds, beans*, peas*, and lentils*. *These foods are unique in that they are also part of the vegetable food group. [source]
Fruits and Vegetables
There’s a reason our parents always told us to eat our fruit and veggies! While they are separate food groups, they both provide important sources of vitamins and minerals, such as vitamins A and C, potassium, dietary fiber, and folate (folic acid). Plus, they are naturally low in fat and calories, and have no cholesterol. These fibrous foods help provide a feeling of fullness, so snacking on these between meals can help keep those sticky fingers out of the chip bag and candy bowl. Eating a diet rich in some fruits and vegetables as part of an overall healthy diet may reduce risk for heart disease, including heart attack and stroke, and protect against certain types of cancers. [source]
You may be thinking, “Well, I don’t like vegetables.” But have you tried all of them? I get it, broccoli is just not your thing. So why force yourself to eat it when there are a variety of other vegetables to choose from? Keep in mind though, the way we prepare food can significantly change and enhance the taste and texture and make it more palatable. Perform a taste test to see how you prefer different vegetables between grilling, roasting, blanching, sautéing, or steaming. Have you discovered that you love scrambled eggs, or how about an omelet with vegetables and cheese added, but you don’t like them over easy? It’s still an egg! So, while the thought of raw broccoli florets may not be mouthwatering, you may just discover that you love steamed vegetables, like broccoli, with melted gooey cheese on top instead. Bonus there! Adding cheese is, well, delicious, and is a good source of calcium, protein, and phosphorus – three nutrients particularly important to help build and maintain healthy bones. Don’t like cheese? (Coming from a cheese lover, is that even possible?), don’t fret because there are literally hundreds of cheese varieties available and you’re bound to find one or two that you enjoy [source]. So, try a plant + dairy for the perfect dynamic duo. This brings me to dive a little more into the next food group – dairy.
Milk is a good source of nine essential nutrients such as calcium, vitamin D, phosphorus, protein, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, vitamin B12, and vitamin A. The human body can’t make essential nutrients in sufficient amounts, so we need to get them through our diet – and milk is an excellent combination of nutrients that is not found in many other food sources.
Lactose intolerant? No problem. The great news is that you can still enjoy dairy foods! There are a variety of lactose-free milk options on the market which is real cow’s milk with the lactose (naturally occurring milk sugars) already broken down, making it easier to digest. You can use it in any recipe where you use cow’s milk! Natural hard cheeses like Swiss, parmesan, and cheddar are all very low in lactose, so they are a great option for those with lactose intolerance. Let’s not forget about yogurt! Greek yogurt contains twice the amount of protein compared to regular yogurt, contains less lactose, and is rich in probiotics which are live and active cultures that can be beneficial for health. [source]
Here’s a tip—try using Greek yogurt in a parfait, a fruit and veggie smoothie, or in a veggie dip recipe. It can be enjoyed as a sweet or savory treat. These are tried and true solutions to get kids who are picky eaters to eat their vegetables. Another idea is to have them assist in preparing the meals and they are more likely to eat them.
What foods count? Foods from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley, and other cereal grains are the ones to grab in the grocery aisle. Don’t ditch these carbs! Grains are important sources of many nutrients. For instance, B vitamins like thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate. These play a vital role in metabolism because they help the body use energy from protein, fat, and carbohydrates and support a healthy nervous system. Grains also contain important minerals like iron, magnesium, and selenium.
Including whole grains as part of a healthy diet may actually help with weight management, since it also includes fiber which promotes that feeling of satiety (aka fullness), can support healthy digestion and reduce the risk of heart disease. [source]
If trying to control your weight, avoiding a particular food group is not the answer. You will feel deprived and hungry, and you are essentially starving your body of important nutrients. When we don’t consume a nutritiously balanced diet that is often where cravings for less nutrient-dense foods creep up. Plus, when we fuel our bodies adequately, it can help us manage stress better. Remember all foods do not provide the same nutrition profile, so if you leave off a food group, you may be missing out on some key nutrients and that can lead to malnutrition. Instead, when grabbing for warm tortillas, fresh-baked bread, or a pasta dish just be sure to select the whole grain variety since they are more nutrient-rich than the refined options, and consume the appropriate serving size. A lot of our favorite desserts and snacks can still be delicious and nutritious.
To sum it up, just remember that all food and beverage choices matter! For optimal health benefits, focus on variety, the amount consumed, and the overall nutrition profile of each food. The recommended amount of foods to eat daily depends on your age, sex, level of physical activity, and goals. Simply planning ahead, trying new foods, and preparing them in a variety of ways, the options are limitless as to the tasty and healthy meals you can have at your fingertips. To lose or maintain a healthy weight while still getting in all the food groups, swap higher fat varieties for lean, reduced-fat, or low-fat options. This is an easy way to enjoy the dishes you love with fewer calories, all while benefiting from the nutrients they provide.
To learn more about the different food groups and how much you and your family should consume, visit MyPlate.gov. A registered dietitian nutritionist in your area can also help you incorporate the foods you enjoy into your life.
Jennifer McCune, RDN, LD
Jen is a Registered Dietitian and Nutrition Consultant, the Nutrition Communications Manager at Dairy Council of Nevada, and Co-Founder of Allied Performance, LLC. Jen’s focus is on providing accurate information and well-developed nutritional programs to increase nutrient absorption for a healthy diet and lifestyle. Jen received her Bachelor of Science in Nutrition Sciences, Nutrition and Dietetics Concentration from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.